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SXSW: “A Teacher” Confronts the Inappropriate Student-Teacher Relationship

Will Brittain stars in this new film, set in Austin, about a high school teacher's relationship with one of her students.

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Returning to Austin was something of a homecoming for Will Brittain. After A Teacher debuted to positive reviews at Sundance, Hannah Fidell’s debut film made its way to SXSW. Brittain, a 22-year-old native of Atlanta, Texas, is a former UT student. His performance in A Teacher, which was called “appealingly loose and unselfconscious onscreen” by the Hollywood Reporter, is even more noteworthy in that he only had a college student film to his resume.

Throughout the film, Brittain’s character, a high school senior, is involved in a relationship with his teacher, played by Lindsay Burdge. With the number of inappropriate teacher-student relationships making headlines in Texas and throughout the U.S., Texas Monthly sat down with Brittain last week to discuss the film’s central message on the subject and what he learned about why teachers and students still get involved in inappropriate sexual relationships. (Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.)

Timothy Bella: How do you prep for this kind of role? This seems like a tough one to get into, especially going back to a high school setting. 

Will Brittain: I kind of went back to how I was in high school and thinking about the whole mentality of high school. There was such a huge growth in maturity, at least for myself, between 18 years old and 19 years old and 19 to 20. I was thinking about that sort of carefree energy of the world is mine and all is good, and how things will work themselves out. Bringing that energy to the character was important for me and Hannah both, and also just the fact that this guy has got to have the most confidence of anybody in the world. The fact that he’s sleeping with this gorgeous teacher, it’s like every guy’s dream. And how that confidence manifests itself into this almost controlling way he has of controlling her and her lack of self-control.

TB: Was it scary to transform into this guy who has so much physical, emotional, and mental power over his teacher?

WB: It wasn’t really that scary because you can’t really play it that way. That comes out through the story. For me, my character mindset was, “I really care about you [the teacher], I’m pretty into this relationship, and now you’re acting crazy and causing all the problems.” I guess I came at it with the point of view of she was the one who was acting up and making it complicated, and it wasn’t my character’s fault.

TB: Much of the film was shot in natural light, so many of the sex scenes are left up to the imagination. How much does it add to a viewer’s watching experience when you understand there’s something uncomfortable and inappropriate going on?

WB: I think it adds a whole other level to it. The first time I watched it was the premiere at Sundance and I just got this nasty feeling in my stomach. I started getting this uncomfortable feeling watching it. It comes together and it works beautifully.

TB: Did you ever get a sense of why teachers in real life would engage in an inappropriate relationship like this?

WB: I think people do it for the thrill, the rush and the chance you could get caught. There’s a scene in Breaking Bad where Walter White starts doing the meth and he’s having sex with his wife in the car outside of the school. She asks why it felt so good, and he said it was because it’s illegal. I think that could also be applied to the human nature of the teacher-student relationship. 

TB: Obviously, the topic in the film is part of a bigger problem in Texas and across the U.S. In prepping for the role, with everything that has gone on in Texas concerning inappropriate student-teacher relationships, what did you learn about this problem? 

WB: Going into the project, I didn’t want to do too much. For me, realizing that in a lot of these cases, the people really care about each other, but I recognize that it’s still really creepy. I think what makes our film more interesting is that we focus on the caring factor, not the creepy. The teacher is a 26-year-old woman and the guy is 17 or 18, so the age gap isn’t that extreme. While the maturity level is a huge difference, the age isn’t, and the idea that if she met this guy one month later and he was a freshman in college and she was a high school teacher, it isn’t some type of thing. But that pretty significant detail is what complicates things.

Obviously the cases of women sleeping with boys that are 13 or 14, that’s really, really bad and extremely inappropriate. Still I don’t think it’s fair to judge them because you don’t know all the circumstances. I think A Teacher alludes to psychological problems, but it never gets  really specific, which I think is good. I think a lot of factors go into it that makes those things complicated and easy to judge, but it’s best to try to avoid that.

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