Nick Robinson describes his character as the greatest villain of Housemaid. Sean is an alcoholic. He is emotionally violent and vindictive towards his ex, Alex (Margaret Qualley). In many ways, he’s the reason Alex finds himself cleaning the toilets and navigating a Byzantine welfare system to support himself and their two-year-old daughter, Maddy.
Corn Housemaid, which is based on the memoir of Stephanie Land in 2019, is not a simplistic Lifetime-esque account of an aggrieved woman. The series is a nuanced, sometimes exhausting, examination of what it takes for the poor to get by in America. The real villain here is income inequality, and while the show never lets Sean out of the woods or excuses his reprehensible behavior, it makes room for him to be a complex, multi-dimensional character: an addict making doing his best to clean up his act; a father who loves his daughter; a working class guy who can’t break the cycle of poverty and abuse that shaped him.
With Housemaid Maintaining at No.2 in Netflix’s list of its 10 best shows, Robinson spoke with GRAZIA about the reaction to his difficult character and why he thinks the show is a visceral political work of art.
What was the reaction to the show and your character?
It has been mixed – for Sean in particular. He’s the biggest villain in Alex’s life. So the reactions I have heard from people have been very mixed. That’s a lot of “I love Sean. I hate Sean. I love Sean. I hate Sean. It’s great for me to hear it, because I was afraid people wouldn’t like it at all. I was afraid it was just hate. So the fact that people always root it at some level was great to hear. I’m not on Twitter, I only have Instagram. But I’ve had people send me screenshots of tweets and people’s reactions and they’ve been all over the place – some funny, some really heartfelt and poignant. I have had a few people who were deeply moved by the show, including a mom. And I feel like it hits a bit differently if you have kids. But overall the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and in some cases quite profound, just hearing people’s personal stories. They feel comfortable sharing their stories because of this show. It really exceeded my expectations.
When you read the description of the show, Sean is the abusive partner Alex is leaving. That’s the trigger for the series, and it kind of makes you expect Sean to be a villain. But it’s more complicated than that. How would you describe the role Sean plays in Alex’s story?
Sean is sort of the biggest obstacle – at least initially – for Alex. He somehow blocks her, time and time again, in her quest to improve Maddy’s life and change her situation. But I think Sean loves his daughter very much and his family means a lot to him. And I think a lot of his anger and alcohol issues are misplaced. He’s just out of control.
One of the things that [director and executive producer] John Wells told me that when we talk about Sean as a character he has taken care of others his whole life. The show doesn’t really fit in because it’s a show about Alex. But her mother was a drug addict, had drug addiction issues. He took care of his little brother until school, dropped out of high school to take care of him. And just as he started to live his life his terms, he gets Alex pregnant. And so there is just all this resentment and anger. And that’s not right at all. But it was something that made me feel compassion for him. He just seems unable to escape his circumstances, this vicious cycle of poverty and trauma from his parents and his upbringing, and not being able to ask for help and have no coping mechanism other than the alcohol ; to have this behavior like what was molded to him when he was a child. He’s a complicated character and there are no easy answers.
What does Sean want from Alex? What does that have to do with the way he treats her?
Yes, it is a strange thing. It’s as if he wanted her in his life, he would change his behavior. And I think he’s trying. But he falls back into those old habits and patterns. I felt like I grew up knowing people like that, and loyalty to family is a huge thing – even when that loyalty might not be the best for the person. Are you doing alright. The family is the family. I think that’s one thing: even though he’s unhappy in the relationship, they started a family, and his parents probably broke up, and he’s not going to do that.
I also think it’s a matter of control as well. For Sean, a lot of it is about being the man of the house and controlling what goes on with Alex’s situation so that she can’t give up on him. I think it has a lot to do with control.
We see a lot of flashbacks to violent Sean. Tell me about the filming of these scenes. How was it ? How do you get to this state?
It wasn’t my favorite thing. We would make sure Rylea wasn’t there. We would try to minimize its exposure to screaming and screaming as much as possible. I listened to a lot of Eminem and just did push-ups, and I had an elastic resistance band that I just pulled out. I am not naturally an angry person. It is not something that comes easily to me. It’s certainly not my first instinct when I’m upset. So I’m just trying to find ways to really get my blood flowing, so to speak. I probably sounded crazy, but I was just trying to channel some of that anger. It was a challenge, but rather welcome. In this perverse way, it was a little cathartic to scream. Not so much when I was screaming To [Margaret], but there were scenes in her POV where I was just screaming into the lens of a camera, and that sort of thing – I felt weird afterwards, but that outing was a little perversely cathartic.
How does it feel to watch these scenes?
It depends on the scene. I do not love look at me. I’m not running away from it, but it’s not something I’m really looking for. So looking at stuff I think to myself It doesn’t look like me, doesn’t look like me. Its good! Other times I watch it like, Oh my God! But that’s always the way it is.
Your scenes are mostly focused on Alex’s struggle first to get out of this relationship and then to deal with Sean’s instability. What did you take away from seeing the rest of the show – all of the scenes of Alex working and fighting all those other odds that are against her?
Yeah, that was one of the best parts, for me, of watching the show. There was so much that I wasn’t involved with, so I got to see much of the show for the first time as a viewer. Lots of stuff between Margaret and Andie [MacDowell] really struck it for me. Especially towards the end, I just feel like something special was happening between the two of them. So, it was fun for me because I hadn’t seen any of it.
And the show as a whole, I mean, I knew what it was about. I had read all the scripts and knew what to expect, but it was still a lot more emotional than I had even expected. Seeing, in every detail, Alex’s journey and all the obstacles that stood in his way, and his ability to overcome each of them and eventually break the cycle – it felt like a huge victory.
All of Alex’s scenes dealing with the welfare system, the hoops she has to go through, really elicit an emotional response. I found myself anxious and overwhelmed just by watching.
It’s asking a lot of people. It is asking something of the public. It’s visceral.
Obviously, the series is about the kinds of things workers have to do to survive in America. I’m curious what kind of conversations you’ve had on the set about income inequality.
I mean, there is irony in that a bunch of actors are coming together to make a story about working class people. It has not been lost on me. But we tried to make it as realistic as possible and to show the situations that Stéphanie really went through. Everything is explained in the book, the insane bureaucracy she had to deal with, all the forms and subforms. It’s a shame how incredibly difficult – and this is intentional – to navigate the welfare system. It’s intentionally making you work really, really, really hard for not much help. And I hope that the series can dispel some myths around poverty, like queens of well-being, for example; people who only live on a government check. It doesn’t really exist, because as soon as you reach a certain income threshold, your benefits disappear. It’s that weird catch-22 and that balancing act that Alex has to do, and that Stephanie wrote in more detail in her book, about the true cruelty of these systems which are designed to be difficult and cruel in some cases. Yes a things had turned out differently for Alex – a ferry missed or having even less resources available than she already had – she might not have been able to get out at all. It could have been a very different story. These are certainly things that we have talked about.
Do you consider this exhibition to be a political art?
I mean, I think it’s all political these days. All. So in that sense yes. I don’t think he’s trying to be political in the sense of right / left, red / blue, Democrat / Republican. I just think it’s uniquely political in the sense that it’s a spectacle that stands firmly on the side of the working class people, and tries to show what they’re going through. It’s the treatment of these issues that inevitably comes down to politics and why these circumstances exist in the first place, and it’s largely about the Republican dismantling of social safety net programs that, again, were designed to be difficult and confusing and cruel and not to provide much help because of this very American idea of getting out of the woods on your own and on your own. These are all great qualities to have, but the reality is when you’re in these situations most of the time it’s just not doable.