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After her breakout role in the 2018 hit teen comedy Blockers, Geraldine Viswanathan went back to high school in a very different way via Cory Finley’s Bad Education. Based on true events, Viswanathan plays an intrepid student journalist named Rachel Bhargava, who exposes the corruption at the center of the Roslyn school district in Long Island, New York. Led by superintendent Dr. Frank Tossone (Hugh Jackman) and assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), Viswanathan’s character went toe-to-toe with the veteran actors’ characters in several standout scenes.
Despite such contentious scenes together, Viswanathan had a glowing experience on-set with each celebrated actor.
“Between setups, [Jackman] would tap dance, and one day he taught me how to play backgammon, as he and his wife play every day. So, he’s a pro,” Viswanathan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He got me a beautiful book of poetry about New York, because I was about to move there, and he lives there. He also took the time out to take plenty of selfies with my mum which, obviously, I get a gazillion daughter points for facilitating.”
Feeling overwhelmed at first, Viswanathan was immediately disarmed by Janney and her fellow New York theater actors that made up the supporting cast.
“I did all my scenes with Allison in one day, so the lead-up to my ‘Allison Day’ was extremely daunting and nerve-racking,” Viswanathan explains. “During one take, Cory told her, privately, to really yell at me when she tells me to ‘stop it’ in response to my prying. … It was a real thrill to get yelled at by Allison Janney.”
In a conversation with THR, Viswanathan elaborates on her many showdowns with Jackman and Janney’s characters, meeting her Bad Education character’s real-life counterpart and the impact that Blockers had on her life and career.
How are you holding up right now?
Good! I feel very fortunate. I’m in upstate New York with my boyfriend, and it’s raining right now. It just feels like a school holiday. It’s an insane time, but I’m just watching a bunch of movies and doing those things I’ve been putting off. I’m alright.
I’m already noticing that your Australian accent isn’t as strong as most. Do you have any theories as to why that is?
I think my accent started to change now that I’ve been in America for almost three years now. I was just watching videos from 2017, and my accent sounded much stronger. So, I think I’ve been adapting to the accent here and just spending a lot of time doing the American accent. It’s just starting to go away. As soon as I go home and I’m with my family and friends, I feel like it’ll come back.
So, were you familiar with Cory Finley’s first movie, Thoroughbreds, going into this, or did you check it out after getting cast?
I watched it after I auditioned for Bad Education, and I just loved that movie. Cory’s particular style is really cool to me. I love how he uses sound and music and how pace and timing is really essential in his work. I was like, “Oh, yeah. I need to work with him.” He’s so cool.
He threads the needle between dark comedy and drama with such ease.
Yeah, totally. It’s dark humor and heightened reality but still really gritty and grounded. It feels pretty seamless. He makes it look so easy, but it’s a very tricky thing that he’s doing.
I like to guess actors’ audition scenes, and I’d wager that the “Yeah, it’s journalism” scene was yours. Is that correct?
(Laughs.) I think my audition scene was the first scene — when Rachel is looking for Pam (Janney) and I end up speaking to Frank (Jackman). Actually, it might’ve been that scene as the second scene. Good guess! I think you just reminded me.
Did you read with Jackman before your casting became official?
I didn’t! I guess they just took a chance on me. I didn’t do any kind of screen test or chemistry read. The first time I met Hugh was at the table read. That was fun, but I was very nervous. He just instantly got rid of that. He was like, “Hi!” We’re both Australian; he’s got teenage girls. It just felt very comfortable very quickly. So, that was nice to be put at ease like that.
There are certain people in this business who somehow exceed the lofty expectations we’ve placed on them, and Jackman is definitely one of those actors. Was there a particular moment on set where he proved to you that he’s as great as advertised?
There were plenty of moments! His attitude and energy in general was always so warm and fun. Between setups, he would tap dance, and one day he taught me how to play backgammon, as he and his wife play every day. So, he’s a pro. He got me a beautiful book of poetry about New York, because I was about to move there, and he lives there. It was so thoughtful and it meant so much to me. He also took the time out to take plenty of selfies with my mum which, obviously, I get a gazillion daughter points for facilitating.
Since Bad Education is based on a true story, how deep did you dive into the actual case and your character’s real-life counterparts? I’m fairly certain your character is a composite of several characters.
I definitely did a lot of research on the whole scandal and that time period. The writer, Mike Makowsky, and I took a little road trip to Long Island, and he showed me around because he’s from Roslyn. He also went to that school, so he has a very close relationship with that event. It was really helpful, actually, because obviously I’m not from New York or Long Island. It was really fun to get an idea of the kind of community, lifestyle and people there. I did actually meet up with the woman my character was loosely based on; she was a part of the student newspaper. Rachel, you’re right, is an amalgamation or composite of the whole student newspaper. But, I did meet with the girl who inspired Rachel’s traits, and that was super interesting. She did double in journalism for a while after that, and it ended up being really good for her. But, now, she’s pivoted into something else, and she’s very successful in a different way.
When you went toe-to-toe with Janney’s character over the pizza oven and purchase orders, I imagine that it’s an intimidating position to be in as a young actor. Did you need a take or two to calm your nerves, or did Janney find a way to disarm you ahead of time?
I did all my scenes with Allison in one day, so the lead-up to my “Allison Day” was extremely daunting and nerve-racking. But lo and behold, she’s the nicest, coolest person ever and made me feel welcome and supported. I remember being in awe of her dark and sharp sense of humor. She’s also such a veteran, and a lot of the other actors in the movie were New York theater actors that she’s known for years. So, it felt really friendly and familiar between everyone that day. During one take, Cory told her, privately, to really yell at me when she tells me to “stop it” in response to my prying about the purchase orders. It was a real thrill to get yelled at by Allison Janney.
When Rachel tells her father that he’s “overqualified” to work in development at the school, was she really trying to prevent him from settling? Or, given his past association with insider trading, was she protecting him from yet another organization that she sensed was also breaking the law?
That could go either way, but I think it was more that she feels he was overqualified and that she wouldn’t want him to settle or take a step down in any way, especially after his own scandal that he went through. Maybe it’s a mixture of both, or maybe she just doesn’t want him at her school. (Laughs.) But, I think it’s a mixture of feeling sorry for him but also acknowledging how much she respects him.
Most juniors in high school lack Rachel’s level of resolve. What do you think drove her to go to such extreme lengths to uncover the truth?
In Rachel’s circumstance, she had nothing to lose in her pursuit. She was already on the outside and had been taken down by this personal event involving her father. It’s probably a mixture of boredom and curiosity, plus an element of “fuck it.” (Laughs.) She’s quietly intuitive and curious. She wanted to see where this would take her, and it kept pulling her along even more. She’s also interested in numbers while I am someone who is very, very challenged in the world of math and science. So, it was interesting for me to wrap my head around how someone could get lost in looking at budgets and counting the numbers. That’s why Rachel was the one to be enticed by it. She’s just very intelligent and inclined in that way.
One of the highlights of the film is the bench scene between you and Jackman as his character issues a thinly veiled threat. Given the complexities of the scene, did it take quite a bit of time to nail down?
It’s another one of those fine-line scenes where he’s kind of threatening her from that position of authority and warning her of the consequences. It never felt overly intellectualized. We just got in there and felt it out. Part of the tension of that scene that was really fun was that I was holding the article the whole time. We did a couple different versions because that is a very important point, especially for Rachel. It actually changed a little bit. There was an element that was cut out of the movie. Originally, there was an anonymous letter that Rachel received that tipped her to publish the article, and that was actually in the true story. People still don’t know who was responsible for that.
That’s an interesting deviation, but I think the right choice was made by having Rachel’s father push her over the top.
Since your mother, Anja Raith, is also an actor, did she encourage you to try it out as a child, or did you gravitate in that direction on your own?
I think I was subtly influenced by my mum when I was younger. She had done local theater when I was very young, and I remember seeing that and thinking it would be really fun. Throughout my childhood, she wasn’t necessarily working so we would be creative at home. We would make short films, and she would help me with monologues because I went to a performing arts school and I did drama throughout school. Because my mom wasn’t a working actor, I didn’t really feel like that was something I had to rebel against. I think it definitely had a subtle impact on what I ended up wanting to do with my life.
So, you weren’t given a steady diet of David Mamet’s work when you were younger?
(Laughs.) Oh, absolutely not. I don’t think she would know who David Mamet is. It was very pure. To her, it’s more about acting than the acting industry. She just really loves reading acting books, taking classes and the philosophy of acting. The business aspect of it is something that I’ve discovered on my own, but she would show me Charlie Chaplin and help me find monologues if I had to do one for school. That was the way we collabed.
Looking back at Blockers, what sticks with you from the experience?
Blockers changed my life in so many ways, and it’s always going to have an incredibly special place in my heart. It was an absolute dream introduction to the American industry. It’s a comedy with heart and a refreshing perspective. I think that’s exactly the type of movie I feel we need; it’s also the type of thing that I love and would love to watch, myself. So, I think that’ll continue to inspire and inform what I do and love. It was such a charmed experience, and Kay Cannon is incredible. I’ve gone on to work with mostly female directors now, and it’s really special every time. I owe a lot to that film.
I read that you weren’t the biggest fan of the Harry Potter movies growing up. Since you’ve worked with Daniel Radcliffe a lot, was he oddly delighted by this fact?
I think he’s most delighted that I do not make Harry Potter jokes at him. A lot of people do that, and he always very politely chuckles. But, then, when I asked him if that gets old, he said, “I’ve just heard every single one; there’s no way that someone will surprise me with a new Harry Potter joke.” One time, we were playing a game as a cast during an interview, and there was a Harry Potter question that I had to answer. The answer was something really easy like “expelliarmus” or something, and I had to pass because I didn’t know. That was pretty embarrassing. It’s my quest this quarantine to watch all the Harry Potter movies.
Bad Education is now available on HBO.
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