As a child growing up, the multifaceted Hugh Jackman always had a love and passion for acting since it always felt like home to him.
“I enjoyed the camaraderie and the family of it,” Jackman said of his first years as an actor. “It was like my tribe. You know when you’re just with those people you feel like you can just be yourself? We used to put on plays outside of school and put on a play every semester because I absolutely loved it. Later, I realized I’m someone who is fascinated by humanity, their motivations, why we do things and what the world is about. I was always fascinated by history, too. I graduated as a journalism major from college, which is around storytelling, understanding human nature and trying to get to the truth. So I think all those things contributed to becoming an actor.”
That love and passion has led Jackman to catapult into superstardom, where he’s starred in dozens of films, including the X-Men series as Wolverine, Les Misérables and The Greatest Showman, among other timeless and countless movies. Now, Jackman is tackling his latest role as disgraced Roslyn School District Superintendent Frank Tassone in HBO’s newest film Bad Education, which was filmed on Long Island.
Inspired by true events of a rather painful time that the Roslyn School District faced in the early 2000s, Bad Education, which is written by Roslyn native Mike Makowsky and directed by Cory Finley, follows the story of Tassone and his right-hand woman Pam Gluckin, who is portrayed by actress Allison Janney, who both reigned over the Roslyn School District as it was on the verge of the nation’s top spot, spurring record-setting college admissions and soaring property values. However, when a multi-million dollar embezzlement scheme surfaces that threatens to destroy all that they’ve built, Tassone is forced to maintain order and secrecy by whatever means necessary. The darkly comical film highlights the deficiencies of the public education system in the U.S. while examining the broader forces that foster greed, corruption and lack of accountability in our institutions.
Unaware of the prior events that unfolded in Roslyn, Jackman was drawn to the script just by its shocking and surprising story.
“I read the script and I said, ‘Oh, this is an amazing story,’” Jackman said. “I had no idea this happened. The script itself, I couldn’t work out from reading it what genre or tone it was whether it had a Coen brothers feel or if it was more of a thriller. It felt like it straddled different worlds and sometimes, I felt that it was difficult to pull off. My agent sent me Cory Finley’s first film, Thoroughbreds, and I was 20 minutes into watching it and I was like, ‘I’m doing this movie’ because that is exactly what he achieved in Thoroughbreds. So it was a mixture of the story, the character and then ultimately I think Corey as a director [that drew me to the film].”
Once signing on to do the film, Jackman said he did mountains of research to learn all he could about Tasssone and the scandal that rocked Roslyn to its core.
“I didn’t speak to Frank himself, but I hired a researcher and there’s a lot on the public record,” Jackman said. “There was lots of video and the writer Mike Makowsky is also from the school. So we had a lot of information and a lot to go on. I did loads and loads of research and then, basically from there, I had a dialect coach. We did a lot of work on costumes and fat suits. We rehearsed quite a lot, which is great and went from there.”
So how would Jackman describe Tassone, who led quite a surprising double life outside of school?
“Teachers have to know who they’re teaching, know how to get stuff across and how to get their students’ trust and confidence,” Jackman said. “So he started as a teacher and he genuinely had that altruistic wonderful sense of teaching to begin with of making education better for kids all over the country. He had a doctorate from Columbia and was a very smart man. He understood the system and he managed to get Roslyn to number four in the country. I think he was the highest paid superintendent in the country and he was highly sought after. He started many programs, which are now standard across the country.
“He was a gifted educator. I don’t think he ever saw himself as a Machiavellian master manipulator trying to get out of what he wanted. He really thought of himself as the best. That was what fascinates me about this story is that he gradually made himself believe it was OK for him to do the things he did. When he was sentenced they said he stole $2.2 million. He very defensively said, ‘I did not. I stole $1.1 million.’ He thought that was vindication. The other million he was spending on teachers and valuing them. He justified everything. What the movie did is show how that was possible. How do ‘good people’ and upstanding public servants go this far off track? It all started with a Greek salad and a soda with a colleague at a local restaurant. That’s what fascinated me.”
Realizing that the film will drudge up difficult feelings once again for the people of Roslyn who experienced the scandal firsthand, Jackman said it is still an important story to tell.
“I feel like a sense of responsibility for every character that I play,” Jackman said. “It’s a painful period in Roslyn’s history. I think it’s a cautionary tale. I still think it’s worth telling, but I know that it’s going to be painful for people who went through it to have this all brought back up again and have their school name brought up again 15 years later when things have been forgotten. I understand for certain people and that’s why I do mountains of research to make sure that what we’re doing is accurate and then also why we’re doing it is important. It’s not just to titillate, entertain or throw mud at certain people. It’s about understanding human nature and making sure this stuff doesn’t happen again.”
Also starring in the film alongside Jackman and Janney is actor and comedian Ray Romano, who portrays school board president Bob Spicer.
“Both of them I love and they’re so down to earth,” Jackman said. “I remember sitting outside our trailer that I shared with Ray, and we were sitting on the step and we’re in a parking lot in Levittown and across the parking lot, which was deserted, was a gas station and a comedy place in the most random position in the middle of nowhere. Ray is like, ‘I used to play there every week.’ Allison and I both came from theater, so we kind of have that in common and the camaraderie amongst all people in the theater.”
Jackman said there is an important story to be told within this film that dives deeper into truth and understanding.
“The character that was played by Geraldine [Viswanathan], Rachel Bhargava, showed that corruption or lack of truth can actually be spotted by anyone,” Jackman explained. “It takes a lot of courage for a young person to take on those authority figures like teachers, superintendents and a school board. She instinctively knew that there was something wrong. None of us are actually above slipping from the truth. We’re not all going to end up stealing $12 million, but all of us on some level can find ourselves pretending that things will be OK because it suits us personally. That’s what this cautionary tale is about.”
Jackman is also quite charitable, being involved in numerous types of nonprofit organizations that help people around the world.
“We have the Laughing Man Foundation, which is part of the coffee company that we have as a family,” Jackman said. “We give all our profits back to the farmers. We do a lot of work with the Actor’s Fund, my wife has two organizations Adopt Change and Hopeland, which is basically centered around kids. I’m an ambassador for World Vision and the Fight Cancer Foundation, so I’m lucky enough to work with a number of organizations.”
So what else does Jackman have planned for the rest of the year?
“The only thing that I have planned is The Music Man [on Broadway],” he said. “We are currently due to start rehearsals on June 29. The first previews are September 15, but of course we’ll have to see how things shake out. I’m not doing anything before then, so I’ll be back on Broadway when everyone is ready.”
Bad Education premieres on Saturday, April 25, at 8 p.m. ET on HBO. The film will also be available on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW, HBO GO and partners’ streaming platforms.