A dangerous lesson

David Dastmalchian on Teacher, bullying and going to dark places

by Jennie Kermode

David Dastmalchian in Teacher
David Dastmalchian in Teacher

Were you bullied at school? It’s a difficult thing to deal with and it can leave lasting scars, changing the way we deal with stressful situations as adults. In Adam Dick’s Teacher, David Dastmalchian plays James, an English teacher going through a stressful divorce who is reminded of his own past traumas when he sees the way that two of the young people in his class are mistreated by their peers. In seeking to find a solution, however, James ends up going to some very dark places. As David doesn’t take on a lot of leading roles, I ask him what it was that attracted him to this one.

“When Adam, who is the writer/director, reached out to me, he wrote a really beautiful email explaining why he had written the film and what it meant to him personally and why he believed that I could bring his character, James, to life in a way that would fulfil his vision for the film,” he says. “So then I read the script, and I feel like we’re dealing with a crisis in not only the United States but globally right not where a lot of people in power are abusing that power and are being celebrated for their behaviour even though their behaviour can be incredibly bullying and incredibly destructive, and so looking at this story from a microcosmic level like a classroom, a teacher – and for me as a person in society right now who feels very helpless when I see the way that people who are helpless are being bullied and are being mistreated, I feel filled wit a lot of frustration and anger – so this script, even though the way that my character handles his feelings is wrong, is horrifying and it touched on a lot of feelings that I feel currently, in my life.”

It was Adam’s first feature as a director. Did that change the way they worked together?

“I did see his short before,” David explains. “And it was really lovely. He was very open to the collaborative process. He definitely had a strong personal vision for this film, it came from a very personal place, but he was also so receptive to any thoughts or ideas that myself or the other actors wanted to bring to the table. He was always asking me, you know, ‘Is there anything else that you’d like James to say here? Is there anything that you think James might do differently?’ He has no ego. He’s a really warm and kind human and I had a great time being on set with him.”

In response to the stresses in his life, James has developed something of a drinking problem. Last time we talked, David reflected on his own past struggles with alcohol. Was it difficult for him to go back into such dark territory or did that experience enable him to add something to the character?

“I like to think that I was able to add something to the character... I felt like I was in a really safe environment. Sometimes film sets, stage sets, television sets, they can all feel like laboratories, so I felt like I was in a lab where I was given free rein to experiment but also it was very safe. The circumstances are controlled so obviously you’re just pretending and you’re drinking ginger ale and are trying to do things with your face, your body, your voice that communicate the desperation that that character is feeling in that moment.

Teacher poster
Teacher poster

“I kind of like it, you know? One of the fun things about acting is trying to embody or replicate emotional and physical states of being that are really challenging and specific and to do it in a way that you can do it over and over again. Sometimes it’s one in the morning and you’re at the end of a very long day and your director needs the shot and your crew is tired and hopefully you have the skill to just keep doing it till you get it right.”

it was a small production working with a low budget. Did that add to the pressure on set? Quite the contrary, he suggests.

“It was nice because the case are all these wonderful Chicago actors and then you’ve got Kevin Pollak who’s an amazing legend, and he cast and crew that Adam put together were all wonderful, easy-going people. Even though he had a small budget and a very short amount of time to shoot in, it always felt like a supportive and safe atmosphere.”

I’ve always been curious about films in which two or more actors play the same person. Here, young Bryce Dannenberg plays James as a child. Did the two of them get the chance to work on the character together?

“We didn’t get a chance to do that but Adam shaped both if us in our scenes in a way that helped connect the two characters. That was lucky because, here’s the thing, remember, I was shooting Ant Man And The Wasp at the time that we made this movie so I believe I shot all the way up to the Thursday or Friday night, I had to fly from Atlanta to Chicago, I was doing a performance on stage at the Goodman theatre with Collaboraction Theatre Company whom I had a history with for probably, gosh, 10, 12 years and then in the morning we started principal photography for Teacher, so I literally hit the ground running. Luckily Adam and I had been able to have meetings before to really go over things, talk about things and prepare, but once I got to Chicago it was like go time. And we had a short amount of time to film in because I had to get back to Atlanta to continue filming Ant Man And The Wasp.”

James is a difficult character because he goes through such a big shift in character that it must have been a challenge to keep people interested early on and then keep them on side – at least a bit – in the film’s closing stages. How did David approach that?

“That’s always the challenge, isn’t it? You want to make sure that people will come along for the ride with you, that people will be engaged in the story and care about what you’re doing, and at the same time, when you’re doing something this dark I mean, my goodness! Look at the of the horrible things that my character ends up choosing to do, that he thinks will solve the problem. So I think I’m just trying to follow the steps and the map that was laid out by the script, and trying to bring as much lightness, humour and humanity as I could to the first act, maybe the first two acts, of James’ journey.

“Helen [Joo Lee] who plays the teacher that goes on a date with me, we had to try and make there be something likeable about James that makes her want to go out with him, and she did such a great job! And also one of my best friends in the world who is also, I think, one of the finest actors working right now, John Hoogenakker, played the baseball coach and my fellow teacher. Getting to do those scenes with him really helped round James and show the likeable side of who James is. That was a real treat.”

He’s also likeable because he wants to help the young people who are being bullied, isn’t he?

“Yeah. Hopefully people can see at the beginning of the film that James really does care about these kids, especially this poor young man and young woman who are facing a nightmare. I think it’s really important to establish that James has a passion for teaching. I don’t know if you know this or not but Adam spent a big chunk of time as a teacher in a school, working with high school kids. He really cared about his students and wanted to help them.”

It’s an interesting performance because, whilst a lot of actors would probably have put more obvious anger the role from the start, David keeps his intensity muted for much of the film’s running time. Why did he choose to approach it that way?

“As this film is a thriller as well and there’s horrific, scary moments, I think that it’s always more fun not to show your hand until the monster really unleashes himself,” he says. “So I really like that idea of slow burn, individual steps so that the breaking point was coming, was coming, was coming and you didn’t know when it was going to explode. That contributed to the tension that the audience could experience when they were watching.”

And finally, what are his hopes for the film now?

“You know, I hope that a lot of people see it, I hope that Adam gets more opportunities to make and tell stories, and I hope that, even though this is a thriller and it’s a scary film, you know, a shocking thrill ride, I hope it also conveys a really important message about the fact that we have to figure out how we’re going to deal with bullying and bullies, and what we as a society are going to choose to tolerate, and how we’re going to come together and stand up to toxic, unchecked privilege and how that contributes to this culture of fanning the flames of abusive behaviour... We can’t beat up the bad guys. We have to figure out a way to actually communicate with the bad guys or rally around them so that they don’t feel safe or comfortable bullying people. And that’s hard to do when even the president of your country gets to do it on a daily basis.”

Teacher opens in Los Angeles this Friday and will be available on DVD, on VoD and on demand from 13 August.

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