There is something innately fascinating about watching a character, apparently normal, go completely to pieces. Such is the case for Lindsay Burdge’s portrayal of a troubled high-school teacher embroiled in an affair with one of her students in Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher. What makes Burdge’s performance so fresh is both the novelty of the provocation––the inverse of Lolita––and the tenuous composure she brings to her role. Her steeliness is all the more disturbing for what it hides, which we only glimpse in the uninhibited sex-scenes between student and teacher––themselves generating a certain amount of discussion at this year’s Sundance and South By Southwest festivals. Here, the twenty-eight year old actress talks about how she was able to connect with her character, the broader difficulties of modern womanhood, and why guys only grow up in their thirties.
Your role in A Teacher clearly demanded a lot of courage and complexity. What prepared you for it? It’s a very impressive performance.
When I was younger I studied acting and I always intended to be an actor. But I never pursued the business side of things. Only in the past few years have I been really going for it. I’d worked with Hannah [Fidell] before. When she came back to Brooklyn from Austin, she got in touch and told me about this idea she had for a film. She wrote the part for me. It was tailor made for me in that sense.
Do you see yourself in the part?
Definitely. There was a lot that was exciting about playing Diana. The hook for me was her obsession. I’m a very obsessive person. On any given day I’m obsessing about something. It’s always something. And also how she completely loses perspective. I can totally lose perspective too. It’s a nuanced situation that she’s in. I related to every––well not every––but many parts of her situation.
Including the attraction to younger men?
I happen not to be attracted to younger men.
Um. I’m more likely to be attracted to older men than younger men. But not in a way that’s taboo. Not in a way that it’s like, “Whoa!” Although when Bored to Death was on TV I did regularly have dreams that Ted Danson and I were an aging couple. I think that’s fair! [Laughs]
Do you think your character in A Teacher represents something unique to our generation?
Something I love about Hannah is that she’s specifically addressing the situation of women today, which is complex. Not all women certainly. But many are working on their careers and they end up pushing off getting married or having children until later. Meanwhile men their age seem to be––well there’s that scene in the film where she meets two guys at a party. And they come across like overgrown children. They’re boys. Okay so they have chest hair but that’s the only difference.
That’s been a recurring theme in guy movies. It’s often romanticized. They don’t want to leave their teenage years behind. They can’t grow up, man up.
This is a huge generalization obviously. But in the world that Hannah and I are in, a dude doesn’t want to settle down… A dude doesn’t even know what the hell is going on until he’s thirty-five. It’s like suddenly everyone hits thirty and they’re like “I’m not what I’m meant to be! I was supposed to amount to something!” And especially in cities, in New York, LA. You come here because you want to accomplish something, you want to become something. And my character is very sensitive––like very, very sensitive––and very lonely. She doesn’t know how to live, how to connect. She doesn’t have the coping skills.
Also if her work is her life, it makes sense she’d find a partner in that setting.
And maybe it would be better if it were a teacher! [Laughs] But I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met as a result of this film, women in their thirties, a lot of them working in magazines, who are like “Yeah I’m going on a date with a twenty-five year old tonight.” I think it is a very complex situation. And then there’s the gray area that happens when you cross a line. How you deal with that.
Especially the red line of student-teacher relations. A Teacher is coming out at a time when every institution is ramping up awareness and pressure over sexual misconduct.
When I was in LA there was a case of a woman in Riverside who had an affair with four of her students and had been impregnated by one of them. It was everywhere. People were fascinated by it. It seems like you’re hearing about cases like that more and more. You wonder if it was always happening and people didn’t talk about it. But if you look online there are so many cases of it.
How have audiences judged your character?
It’s mixed. On the one hand she’s a predator. There’s no question she crosses an ethical line. As a teacher you can’t do that. But it happens so much now that to point a finger at one case is difficult. It’s not so black and white. There’s clearly something deeper going on with the person in question. That’s what the film is about.
What are your own thoughts about balancing family and a career?
I cannot figure it out. I think it’s something––I can only speak for myself. But I feel like I have two different people inside of me. At least two. One wants to move to the country, live on a farm, have a husband and babies, grow vegetables and read books. Just meditate and never think about skyscrapers or cranes or the internet ever again.
And the other person?
The other side of me wants to be a part of––well, progress, for lack of a more progressive term. I guess I feel I can’t undo what was done to me. I was raised in Los Angeles by lawyers. I grew up driving around in cars. I’ve kept myself pretty insulated from the internet and pop culture, but you can’t avoid it. And I can even get excited about it. There are cool things going on. There are people using the technology to move things forward. I think. I’d like to hope so. What’s clear is that the goal is balance. But I’m not sure any of us knows how to achieve that yet.