Directed by Cory Finley and inspired by a wild real-life story, the darkly comic HBO Films original production Bad Education tells the unbelievable tale of the largest embezzlement scheme in American public school history. When charismatic superintendent Frank Tassone (superbly brought to life by Hugh Jackman), part passionate educator and part expert manipulator, is discovered to have stolen millions from the Roslyn school district in New York in 2004, his secret life is brought to light, exposing a level of greed, corruption and lack of accountability that would be hard to believe, if it weren’t all true.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Aussie actor Hugh Jackman talked about what a delicious role this was to play, the biggest challenges in embodying this character, the many layers of Frank Tassone, the joy of working with this cast (including Allison Janney, Ray Romano and Geraldine Viswanathan), his approach for playing real-life people, and why he believes doing your homework and putting in the work is important. He also talked about why he wanted to be a part of the sci-fi romantic thriller Reminiscence from writer/director Lisa Joy (Westworld), the genre he’d love to do, whether he’s thought about directing, what he thinks it will take to get folks back in theaters, and rehearsing at home for The Music Man.
Collider: This is a wild story, and you’re just so damn good in this movie.
JACKMAN: Aw, thank you so much. I appreciate that.
How much fun was this role to play? It seems like one of those characters that’s just so delicious to play, as an actor.
JACKMAN: So delicious because it hits so many layers and facets. He’s a really smart, slick guy, who is under the biggest pressure of his life. With that feeling of everything is slipping away, he’s desperately trying to be calm on the surface. As an actor, it just had so much to play with, and so many things that I’ve never really had the opportunity to play with. He’s seemingly very charming, but also just a viper. When he’s up against the wall, he’ll go for the jugular. Those things, I just found really exciting to play. And of course, with a great cast, it was just a joy.
It’s a story with a flashy headline because it’s the largest embezzlement scandal in American public school history, and yet when I watched this, I hadn’t known anything about it, but at the same time, I couldn’t stop watching it, to see where it was all going.
JACKMAN: I’m so glad. I’m from Australia, so I had no idea about it, either. I also didn’t really understand how the school system works, which seems really amazing to me, from an outsider’s point of view, with the whole passing budgets every year, and all of that stuff. It was fascinating to me. When I was reading it, I was like, “I’m not sure what the tone is here. At times, it’s like a Coen brothers film. At times, it’s like a thriller. It’s this true life crime story of waste. Where is this going?” And then, when I watched Cory Finley’s movie Thoroughbreds, I was like, “Oh, yeah, he can handle more than one or one genre, at a time.” What’s astonishing to me is that, at the center of this story, is a 15-year-old girl who, in truth, is an amalgamation of two people, in real life, but it was all true that the school newspaper broke the story. That just made it even more astonishing.
I love that this is presented as a dark comedy. As we learn about the story, it just gets more and more insane, so it seems like there would be no other way to tell the story. How do you think the tone of the film and the telling of this story really works to its advantage, in that way?
JACKMAN: Well, Cory just has a wonderful way, as he worked on the script and also in the making the film, to keep you entertained. In the same way that the true-life story just slipped into being the greatest theft of all time, and all of these really nice people who had dedicated their life just gradually slipped, you start this story feeling that this is quite fun and entertaining and interesting. And then, it starts to slide, and the comedy starts to get blacker and blacker, and they go deeper and deeper and deeper. In a way, the tone of the movie allows you to slip into the enormity of the story along with it, rather than it being a too heavy a tone, up top.
Because there are so many layers to a character like this, that’s the fun of playing a character like this, but it also seems like the tremendous challenge of playing a character like this. What were the biggest challenges, for you?
JACKMAN: I think the biggest challenges were being able to watch him in real time, manipulate events in his favor. When everything seemingly is crashing, he used his charm and smarts to win. I think that, as well as regulating between his genuine desire to help people, but when push comes to shove, he will destroy anyone who gets in his way, and why that happens and how that happens was the biggest challenge. Of course, there were many, many fun layers. The things he’s hiding, as the film goes on, get bigger and bigger, and as an actor, you want nothing more than for something to be going on, on the surface, and something completely different underneath. That kind of conflict is really what you look for, as an actor, and Frank head it in spades.
Do you feel like he just thought he would charm his way out, no matter what? Do you think that he really thought he would just keep getting away with this?
JACKMAN: Yes, I think he thought he was gonna get away with it. What’s even more interesting to me is that, as the years went by, he justified that he was still doing the right thing because he was getting 70 pats on the back. He was, by this point, the highest paid superintendent in the country, I believe. He wrote an editorial for the newspaper, every second week. He was getting the rotary’s Man of the Year. I think he felt like he deserved it, and rationalized that everything he was taking was a pittance of what he would get, if he went into the private sector. So, what starts with a Greek salad and a soda at lunch with a couple of other teachers, gradually, over time, became okay somehow. That’s what fascinates me. How people can pretend that things are okay because it suits them. It’s that slipperiness of truth before, all of a sudden, you’re in jail for six years because you’ve taken $10 million.
He seems like a guy that you could just endlessly study because there’s just so much there.
JACKMAN: I agree with you. It’s a cautionary tale. The amount of people who have that power and position, and then go on to steal, is very few. But all of us human beings have a tendency that we have to guard against, of just looking out for ourselves or our family. The college bribery scandal happened while we were filming. Surely, people must feel it’s okay because they love their kid and they’re doing it for their kid. And then, later, they go, “What was I thinking?!” People generally think they’re good, that they’re doing the right thing, and they’re doing their best. Life has a funny way of standing up and slapping you around.
Along with being a role that is great fun for you to play, it also seems like it must have been great fun to work with these actors.
JACKMAN: Oh, it was just such a joy. There was so many. Obviously, there was Allison Janney and Ray Romano. There were so many great actors that everyone knows, but that cast, right down to every character in that cast, are people I’ve known from the Broadway world and theater world. They’re great New York actors, and Cory is a playwright. He’s young. He’s 31, and Thoroughbreds was actually a play that he wrote, that got picked up to film. He knew all of these actors for years, and you could just tell how much fun he was having, working with them all. The whole thing was very easy. It’s nice, after having half of my life and most of my career on big films, which I’m really happy to have, just be in a really small, nimble drama, with great scripts and great actors. It felt easy. I think we shot the film in 10 or 11 weeks, all on location. It was great.
How he was perceived and judged by people seems to be something that was so important to Frank Tassone, and your performance is so measured because of that. How did you gauge that? Was that something that just became instinctual, as you played him?
JACKMAN: I always felt that he had to feel really calm and collected, like a great superintendent and leader. He was like, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.” He had to feel that he had everything handled. So, I want to always have that calm exterior, even more so when things go down, because he needed to project to the board and to the school that he’s got everything covered. There were always seven things going on at once, inside of his head. He had a 30-year relationship with a man that nobody knew about, and behind his back he had a relationship with a young man who used to go to the school that he taught at in Vegas, and he was buying a house. There were just so many things happening, at once. I always filled, particularly in the first half the movie, that you had to like him and feel that he was a really great educator because that was the truth, and no one saw this coming. Everybody liked him. It’s interesting, I’ve read a lot of interviews where, after, people would say, “There was always something a bit off about him. I couldn’t work out what it was. He suits were too good, and he had plastic surgery.” But I’m telling you, not one person, prior to the events, said anything. There’s nothing on the record, where anyone said anything other than great things about him. So, I always thought it was really important that people feel comfortable around him, that kids really like him, and that he encourages them, so that there was that charm, as well as, underneath, that feeling that he’s working 18 different angles.
From P.T. Barnum to Gary Hart to Frank Tassone, you’ve played some really interesting real-life men, in the last few years. Is there a different feeling or approach for you, at all, when you play real-life people? Do you research them differently?
JACKMAN: Yeah, I do a lot more research, for sure. I do quite a lot of research. For me, I just like to know the world that I’m operating in. It anchors me, as an actor, to feel that I’m doing something that could really be happening. But when you play someone real, particularly Frank, who’s alive and a tutor. He’s online right now. You can hire him for 50 bucks an hour. He’s up in the Bronx. Well, at the time of filming, he was. I’m not sure about right now. But he’s alive, and all of those people who were at the Roslyn school are still around. I hired a researcher, and we did loads and loads of research. We looked at lots of archival video types and interviews. Thankfully, there’s a huge amount on public record. But I do feel, not just for the characters, but for the audience, this is a true story and, for a lot of people, it’s all the more amazing that it’s a true story. And it’s not just the amount of money that was taken and how they did it and how things went wrong, but how the school board thought it was a good idea to not report $250,000 of stolen public money. All of those things were incredible to me, but even more incredible, to be honest, was that it was all uncovered by the school newspaper. I hope every kid in school watches this and goes, “Oh, yeah, I’m 15.” Twenty six people ended up being charged with this thing, all because of, in reality, two people, but in our story, just one.
I was fortunate enough to be in New York when you were in The Boy From Oz and I got to see you in that, and you were fantastic, which you can tell really comes from the amount of homework and preparation that you do. The way that you could improvise on the fly with the crowd, at any given time, is something that you can only do, if you really know your character.
JACKMAN: I couldn’t agree more. Up and coming actors ask me, all the time, if there’s a secret to it, and I say, “Just do the work. You’ve gotta do the work.” The people who make it look the easiest have just worked harder. You don’t wanna show the work up on the stage or on the screen, but for me, it’s part of the privilege of working. I didn’t get my first job until I was 26 or 27, so I understand what a privilege it is to have a part, so I always feel that desire to work. For me, personally, to quieten any doubt in my mind, I never want my brain to be going, “You’re winging this. You really should have done more work.” That, to me, is a killer. I’m not always gonna be great and I’m not always gonna give the best performance, but I can’t go to sleep at night, if I know that’s because I really just didn’t do the work.
What’s the status of Reminiscence?
JACKMAN: We finished filming, and they’re editing now. I don’t know exactly what they’re doing, but I guess (writer/director) Lisa [Joy] is probably editing at home. We finished filming, at the end of January. I’m really excited for that film. I loved doing it. I think Lisa is an incredible talent. I said yes to the movie, in my head. I didn’t say this to her because, you’ve gotta be cool, but she pitched me the movie. She said, “I’m gonna pitch it before you’ve read the script because I want you to understand the world of the film.” As she’s pitching, I’m like, “I’m doing this movie.” And then, I was reading the script, and 20 minutes into the script, I was like, “Honestly, I don’t even need to read this. I’m doing it.” It was that good and that exciting and that original, and I think audiences are really craving that. I’ve been part of a movie franchise, where I played the same character nine times. It’s important that I do some original content.
It sounds like a really cool sci-fi thriller, and to know that it’s original, what most impressed you about what Lisa Joy was able to create on set and about working with her?
JACKMAN: She’s like a savant, in the way that she prepares. She knows every cut and every angle. When she walks on the set, she has this preparation that you’ve never seen before, and a knowledge of how things are gonna go down, and because of that, which goes back to what you were saying about preparation, she has the ability to take on active suggestions. It feels like you’re really creating and flowing, but you have this foundation where you know you’re gonna make your day and you know you’re gonna create some things that have never been done before. And we were doing things in camera that have never been done before, but she had prepped it all. It was super exciting to be part of that. She’s just got an incredible brain. She never loses her temper. She always is laughing and having a good time. This was a really big film, and I was just proud to be part of it.
Does it also feel like a very different kind of character for you?
JACKMAN: Yeah, it does, and a different genre character than anything I’ve done. This puts me more in the Bogart world. It’s very much a film noir romance. Coming off of doing Frank, Gary Hart and The Greatest Showman, it’s been a really interesting time for me, and I’m really loving having the variety of characters that I’ve been offered and am lucky enough to do, but this does feel very different. And I got to work with Rebecca Ferguson again, who I think is ridiculously talented and amazing, and I love her. I had never met Thandie Newton before, but I now am equally as impressed with her.
Is there another genre that you would want to do, that you’ve never been offered?
JACKMAN: Yeah, I wouldn’t mind doing a [Quentin] Tarantino film. Is that a genre?
It’s probably safe to say that Quentin Tarantino is his own genre.
JACKMAN: I’d like to do a Tarantino genre.
Have you thought about directing, at all?
JACKMAN: Not really, no. It comes to mind, occasionally. Obviously, I’ve learned a lot about film, over the years, and Lisa Joy was trying to tell me to do it. I think maybe just because I feel really busy, as I am, and I watch how much busier directors are, and I’m like, “I just don’t think I have the time for that.” They’re not that young anymore, but I have a 19 and 14-year-old. There will come a time, in four or five years, where I might think differently, when they really don’t need me as much and they’ll be off living their life. Finding that balance, for me, has been really hard. For all actors who are lucky enough, like me, to be working, it’s a really difficult thing to know if you’re doing the right thing. So, I find acting hard enough, as it is. The idea of spending 18 months, seven days a week, 14 hours a day, I’m just like, “I don’t think I can do it.” I also like the freedom of playing. I don’t know if I always know what the best road to take is. The best collaborations I have are when I’m free to go left, right, stand upside down, and do it any which way, knowing that I trust the director to have the best taste to pick the right thing. I’m not sure that I have that. I’m quite an indecisive person. I’m not sure I’d be a great director.
With everything that we’re experiencing now, being stuck at home, what do you think it’ll take to get people back into theaters, both movie theaters and for stage productions?
JACKMAN: I think people need to feel safe to be around others, that’s for sure, whether it’s a vaccine or proper testing, or whatever that is. I think there’s a natural desire for humans to be together, to do whatever, but no one’s gonna do it. No one’s gonna stand by the campfire, if they know the campfire’s gonna get out of control and burn them. They have to feel it’s safe and communal and fun. And for an audience to sit there, particularly in the theater, which actually thrives on the intimacy and having people crowded in together, and that’s where it works best, people need to feel safe first.
Have you had conversations about what to do with The Music Man?
JACKMAN: For sure. Yeah, we’re talking about it, all the time. Obviously, safety and what is best for people’s health is number one. It’s a bit about my pay grade to really make the decisions of when. We are due to start rehearsals on June 29, so it’s a little up in the air ‘cause we’re not actually seeing an audience until September and opening in October. So, we don’t know what’s gonna happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if it just pushes back a little, but hopefully not too long.
JACKMAN: Yeah. I’ve been FaceTiming with my musical director and singing with him quite a lot. I’ve also been FaceTiming with my choreographer. Just before we closed, we did a workshop, Sutton [Foster] and myself, and learned a lot of the dances. I have time and I have space here, luckily enough, to do some dancing, so I’ve been doing quite a bit of that.
I saw you on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon recently, and you were partaking in the bread-making that everyone seems to be doing while they’re stuck at home.
JACKMAN: I’ve been making bread for a while because I love it, and maybe it’s because I spent 17 years playing Wolverine, where carbs and bread were like holy water for Dracula. There’s just something about that smell of fresh, cooked bread. It was actually really great doing Jimmy Fallon because I’ve been sent six really great recipes for bread, which I’m gonna try it out.
I’d try making bread myself, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin and I feel like it would just be a disaster.
JACKMAN: Get a bread machine. That’s my tip. It’s the greatest thing, ever, because like with a coffee maker that you put on so you wake up to the smell of coffee, it’s not nearly as good as waking up to the smell of fresh bread that’s warm and sitting there ready. It just wafts through the house, and it’s the greatest way to wake up. Bread machines are the simplest thing in the world, and it’s really good. You put all of the ingredients in at night and you set the timer, and then it turns on at four o’clock in the morning and starts kneading and letting the bread rise. And then, at 7am, you’ve got a fresh loaf of bread. The kids love it.
Bad Education premieres on HBO on Saturday, April 25th.