In “Bad Education,” which premieres on HBO on April 25, Hugh Jackman plays Frank Tassone, a Roslyn, N.Y., school district superintendent who was a brilliant educator — and also a vain, charming and larcenous criminal. It’s a different type of role for Jackman, one Variety’s chief film critic Peter Debruge described as “a star at the height of his powers leveraging his own appeal to remind that even our heroes are fallible” — and also “the best work he’s ever done.” After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, “Bad Education” sold to HBO for close to $20 million, making it Jackman’s first major role in a television production since becoming a movie star in 2000 with “X-Men” (if an inadvertent one).
Earlier this month, Jackman spoke to Variety about the making of “Bad Education,” which is based on true events. Jackman discussed creating the character of Frank and promoting a movie during a pandemic.
What drew you to this role?
I was sent the script and I really liked it, but I thought, “This is gonna be tricky.” Because I couldn’t quite work out the tone from reading the script — it felt like three genres in one. And I knew it was a second-time director, Cory Finley, and I was like, “Okay, let me have a look at his first film.” And 20 minutes into “Thoroughbreds,” I was like, “I’m doing this film.” It was three genres in one!
And the role itself was something different from what I’ve done. I liked the idea of someone who is super successful, very, very good at what he did, beloved by the community — and fell down this slippery path. How can someone go from being on a pedestal in a community to being sent to prison? That part I found fascinating.
As you say, Frank is complicated. He’s passionate about education and helping students. At the same time, he has seemingly no problem bilking school funds! Tell me about reconciling those two sides of him.
He was one of the best superintendents. He’d gotten Roslyn High School from nowhere to No. 4 in the country. And he started many programs that are now standard around America. I think he thought of himself as a really positive member of the community, doing really good things. And I have to believe that he was justifying what he was doing. Somehow, the lie built on itself — that’s fascinating to me. I don’t think people go around going, “I’m the villain of this life! I’m the bad guy!” They believe, and they justify — they find a way to justify their actions.
It was vital to him how he was perceived, from his looks — literally his appearance — to how he did his job, to how he was perceived in the press, which was glowing, by the way.
I interviewed Mike Makowsky, the screenwriter, and he said that you had a huge packet of research about Frank. What did you learn about him that you applied to your performance?
I work with Amy Stevens, who’s amazing. She’s a dramaturg researcher. I was referred to her by Anne Hathaway, who used her on “Les Mis.” We ended up using all of her research, and she was just invaluable. We looked into heaps and heaps of books about him, the school, the school system, lying, the psychology of lying, how that can take hold and how people can live with themselves day to day. I learned, obviously, a lot about his background and his history, and a lot about how he was viewed by the public. After he went to prison, people came out with their misgivings about it. But very few, if any, said anything before that.
But clearly there was something about him that people didn’t quite get, or know. And then later, they put it down to, “It was because he was really gay or because he was really stealing.” There was something about him removed from the public, his colleagues, the staff. Very few people really saw the real Frank.
I’m from New York City, and I have to say that your Long Island accent is perfection.
Thank you! I’ve worked with Jess Platt for 20 years, literally from the second movie I ever did. I’ve had several producers when we’re doing the deal and I’m more worried about my dialect coach than anything else being like, “Really? He’s done 30 movies, and he doesn’t know it yet?” I say, “I have Jess there so I can get the subtleties of it, and I don’t have to worry about it.” If I’m thinking about my accent, I’m clearly not acting, you know?
A lot of people get the Long Island accent wrong. How would you describe it?
Frank, of course, spent a lot of time there. But he had a doctorate from Columbia. So we just tried to take the edge off it a little bit, so it didn’t go into too much caricature. I think for Frank, it was important to be one of the people, but also show that he was very educated.
Frank’s personal vanity, as you mentioned, is so intense. What did you want the audience to see in those scenes when you’re readying yourself in the mirror?
It really mattered to him, how he appeared to everybody. And it fed on itself, and got worse and worse, with facelifts and all this stuff that happened. I think it was this pursuit of perfection as a man, an educator, a boss, a liaison to the public. I saw it as part of the mask, part of creating — literally creating — every morning this image of perfection.
You’ve played so many heroes over the course of your career. Even as you’re playing Frank, people want to root for you. It’s what we’re used to doing.
Well, thank you. And if I have any kind of objectivity about how people see me as a human being, I think they probably think I’m a nice guy, like a good guy generally, right? I thought that would be powerful for the story as well. You know, just to help audiences to go in and not necessarily see the ending, so to speak. A slipperiness of truth is there for every single person. People can do the craziest things, and it just starts to feel normal. And you justify it. And so I think both the roles I’ve played, and possibly my own image helped. I thought it was good to play against that.
You played Peter Allen in “The Boy From Oz” on stage, but unless I’m mistaken, you haven’t played a gay man on screen. What went into making that decision?
Nothing, really. It was another layer to his deception. You have to remember, and I’m not sure if audiences will get it — but 2003 was very different to 2020. I spoke with a lawyer who’s gay and he said, “I definitely didn’t come out in 2003.” So for someone in such a public, front-facing role in a conservative Long Island neighborhood, it was understandable.
But there was more to it than that for him. He’s hiding — and then he was hiding from his partner also. And it just adds to the layers of him creating a version of himself that he thought would be successful. Being a gay man was not part of that. And that’s what was interesting to me.
What did you think about Frank having sex with one of his former students as an adult and getting into a relationship with him?
There’s nothing really implied that he was sort of grooming him at all. We’re not trying to create that narrative because I don’t think that’s the truth. There was something exciting about it for him, I think, just about a young man. We’re not, in the end, trying to paint a picture of an evil human being. We’re more or less trying to find a picture of someone who thinks they’re good and loses their way.
“Bad Education” was the big acquisition title at TIFF this year. What did you think when it sold to HBO?
I was thrilled that it sold. I remember when we were at Toronto, there were a lot of conversations about what’s happening with the theatrical business, particularly for dramas like this. And, you know, I don’t see this as a “Little Miss Sunshine” — like, I didn’t know what the theatrical prospects for it were. And that had really nothing to do with my decision when I took the role, I just thought this is a really interesting, complex story about human nature with a great young filmmaker.
Of course, originally I was thinking this is going to be a theatrical release, and I have only done theatrical releases, thank goodness, since “X-Men.” Trust me, I did some TV before that in Australia. So I was a little taken aback at first. But then I was like, “Oh, I actually think a lot more people will see this in this format.” So in that way, I was excited about it.
Normally, there’d be a huge Emmys campaign around you and the movie, but because of coronavirus, everything is so crazy and awful right now.
It’s not the time to deal with it. It’s really not. There’s just so much more important stuff going on. It’s weird timing. Having said that, you know, I’m at home with my family, and we’re trying to watch really good material. I’m trying to read really good books and listen to good music, and in that way, it’s something I think as actors and artists we can contribute.
Were you working on something that had to shut down?
No, we had just finished. I was working on “Reminiscence” with Lisa Joy from “Westworld,” who is directing her first film. And it is fantastic. We finished January 24. It was an amazing experience with Rebecca Ferguson, Thandie Newton, Lisa and her husband Jonah Nolan, who produced it. That movie’s in the can, but who knows when it’s coming out?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.