The most successful romantic pieces of literature often contend with themes of self-discovery and how characters can transform themselves to become better people. Chronicling that journey of going from endless hope to failure to redemption, told in a funny and endearing way, is the main driving force of conflict in the new comedy-drama, ‘The English Teacher,’ which was directed by Craig Zisk. The often relatable characters show courage as they struggle to follow their dreams, while also finding a way to embrace their fears. As the characters explore their flaws and desires, they find their unique value and purpose in life, as well as their strengths and greatest attributes.
‘The English Teacher’ follows Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore), a 40-year-old unmarried high school English teacher in the small town of Kingston, Pennsylvania. She lives alone in a small apartment with two Siamese cats and her vast collection of literature. She doesn’t have any close personal relationships, apart from those she has with her favorite authors and stories. She likes the fact that her own life is less complicated than the dramas she reads in her books.
Her life changes when she receives an unexpected visit from her former star student, Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano), who returns to Kingston after trying to make it as a playwright in New York. Now in his 20s, Jason is on the verge of abandoning his dream in the arts, as he’s pressured by his father, Dr. Tom Sherwood (Greg Kinnear), to face reality and go to law school. Linda doesn’t like the fact that Jason is ready to give up on his dream, so she decides to have this dark, angst-ridden thesis play be performed at the high school, with the support of drama teacher Carl Kapinas (Nathan Lane) directing.
With Linda out of her normal comfort zone, she takes risks in her professional and personal lives. With the play, her reputation and career on the line, Linda finds an unlikely ally in herself. Amidst the ruins of her formerly perfect life, and struggling to also contend with one of her current students, Halle Anderson (Lily Collins), who’s one of the leads in the play, targeting her reputations, Linda strives to see if she can find her own storybook ending.
Moore and Angarano generously took the time recently to sit down during a roundtable interview at a New York City hotel to talk about filming ‘The English Teacher.’ Among other things, the two actors discussed what it was like working with such a diverse cast, which includes Broadway and ‘Saturday Night Live’ veterans; how they had fun creating the building romantic interest between their two characters; and how they learn to balance a successful career while also maintaining a family.
Question (Q): There are so many Broadway vets in the cast, as well as some ‘Saturday Night Live’ alumni, such as Jim Breuer and John Hodgman. How was it working with such a versatile cast?
Julianne Moore (JM): It was a pretty extraordinary cast. They were really great people, Norbert Leo Butz, Jessica Hecht, Nathan Lane and Greg Kinnear. I had done ‘SNL’ with Jim Breuer a long time ago-my son was two months old, so that was 15 years ago. We had a great cast.
Michael Angarano (MA): It was amazing. I grew up watching them. My favorite movies are ‘Nine Months’ and ‘The Birdcage.’ They’re the kind of movies that you can watch with your family. The scenes I got to do with Julianne and Nathan were great. The scenes that we got to do with the whole ensemble really felt like a play, which was fun to think about. I don’t have play experience, so it was really fun.
Q: The thing about this film is that everyone does something they should apologize for but not everybody apologizes.
MA: It was kind of interesting because when we did a table read for it, I first read Jason out loud and he came across much angrier than I think he should have come across. I realized that there’s this real childishness about him that’s very annoying. Even his relationship with Lind in the movie, he thinks he’s this mature guy, and he’s kind of projected himself as that, but he’s really just a boy. In the end I don’t think he intentionally wants to hurt anybody, but he’s kind of manipulative in an annoying, childish way.
JM: I think one of the nicest things about the movie is that people don’t apologize. It’s kind of one of those cause and effect things where at the end of the day, a lot of people are very ashamed by their behavior but there’s a kind of forgiveness that they all offer one another. Maybe they weren’t their best selves in that moment, but they had the best intentions. There’s humanity to their recovery that’s very nice. It’s like when your mother used to tell you, “Just let time go by and it’ll be better.” It’s true; they all let a little time go by, and it all settles down again.
Q: Julianne, your character to be inherently sweet. Is that something that drew you to the character?
JM: I love Linda. I was like Linda. I was the kind of kid that read all the time, and went to the library, and won the summer reading contest. I ended up in the drama club after school because it was another extension of reading. It would have been very easy for me to be Linda if I didn’t have a high school English teacher that told me I could be an actor. (laughs) I found her incredibly relatable and I loved her and her innocence. She has this innocence and was endearing.
Q: During the film the two characters learn from life’s harsh lessons. Were there any life lessons that the two of you had to learn over the past few years?
MA: I think I’m learning something new every day!
Moore: Yeah! (laughs)
MA: It goes back to working with these actors. Not to talk bad about anyone in general, but there are some people that act a certain way and you look at them and are like, “You really don’t deserve to act like that.” Some of the most talented and the most successful people that I’ve had the experience of working with are the most humble and hard working. They will have the most humility, and I definitely saw that with Julie, Nathan and Greg. It was a really nice thing to be a part of. Nathan Lane walked into the makeup trailer and the first thing he said was, “Hello Michael.” He knew my name before I introduced myself to him. So obviously there’s a sense of camaraderie there.
Q: The love scene between your characters was funny. Can you talk about how you two worked on that?
JM: I’ve had a lot of experience with them. Michael was like, “Well, I guess we’ll do this, and this..” and I just kissed him because I wanted him to feel comfortable. I didn’t want him to feel afraid. You have to be comedic as well, so it’s off. You know you’re going to crash, and play with some Hollywood tropes, and throw some things around. I took my hair down and took my glasses off, all of those really silly things. It was funny to go from “Oh you poor kid, your dad is so bad to you,” to a love scene. It was fun.
MA: It was. Even though it’s an intimate moment, I always read it as her taking advantage of him in a weird way. Watching it, I thought he was taking advantage of her! He’s kind of a manipulative guy in a childish way.
Q: How much Pepto Bismol did you go through?
JM: What was that? I don’t even remember what it was!
MA: It was yogurt! Apparently the prop guy told Craig that I wanted to drink the real thing, which was so not the case!
Q: In the film they want to change the ending of your character’s play. Have you experienced that on set as an actor?
MA: I did this movie called ‘The Forbidden Kingdom’ and it was directed by Rob Minkoff. But the action unit was directed by Woo Ping. I was doing second unit a lot, and it was all action. The whole point of the movie is that my character has to travel to ancient China and kill the bad guy. Woo had someone else kill him and had a whole fight scene dedicated to the other guy killing him. Rob came to me and said, “We have to re-shoot that. You have to kill the monkey king.”
JM: They’re not supposed to. Most filmmakers won’t do that to you. I’ve had things happen, when they have to fix it later, but most of the time it’s usually with someone who’s not a very sure filmmaker.
Q: Julianne, has anyone ever come back to you years later to say, “You influenced me?”
JM: Not yet! (laughs) My high school drama teacher was the one that said to me, “You can be an actor.” I was in plays after school but I’ve never met an actor or seen a real play, and I didn’t know I could make a living doing it. I didn’t know anything about the theater. She said, “Here’s a copy of Dramatics magazine, and here are schools you can go to.” Have I hadn’t met her; I don’t think I would have done that. She changed my life, and she knows that. I met her years later when I was living in LA for a while, and she was living in Arizona. She altered the course of my life.
Q: Was there a certain production you did with her that was a turning point?
JM: She was super ambitious in terms of what she put on. The first production I did with her was ‘Tartuffe,’ and nobody does that. They usually do ‘Barefoot in The Park’ or something. I did ‘The Music Man,’ which is more traditional. I also played Medea for her. She was a real director.
Q: What would lure you back to Broadway?
JM: Nothing! (laughs) Nathan was like, “I have this play,” and he sent it to me, and it was something that he was going to direct. I said, “If you’re not going to be in it then I’m not going to do it!” Directors leave and stuff. Plays are really hard when you have children.
When I did ‘The Vertical Hour’ years ago, I didn’t think about how they wipe out your entire weekend, and there’s one day in the middle of the week where you’re not home. It’s not worth it for my family. It’s easier to do film because you come home at the end of the night and you’re on their school schedule.
Q: How do you juggle your career with your family life? It’s always a big issue for women with the question of, “Can you have it all?”
JM: Yeah. It’s that thing that everybody says, “Yeah, you can have it all, but you just can’t have it at the same time.” There’s going to be compromises somewhere. I don’t go to Australia to work, it’s too far away. If I shoot, I shoot here in town, or in the summer time when they can come with me. You figure it out.
Q: What were your personal challenges doing this film? What’s your most personal challenge as an actor?
MA: It’s just working in general and keeping very positive. There’s a ton of negative energy going towards acting. You stay positive and keep healthy, and not dwell on things. Having a family and creating something outside of your career is the really most important thing.
JM: This is an issue for everyone, not just actors. Freud says you need love and work. You want to have a relationship, a family and a personal life, and that’s a rich life that way, and then you want to have a creative life. Trying to have that for all of us is the balance that you want to create, but it’s great to have those options. We’re so lucky to have that.
Q: Will Linda have that?
JM: I think she does! That’s Linda’s story. She’s someone who’s only been in the book, and only been in the narrative and she’s stepped out of it. She’s kept her choices very restricted. She sort of blows it open by the end by making all of these mistakes and being present in the real world.
Written by: Karen Benardello