TV

Nick Robinson On Breaking Down Maid

Netflix’s new hit series Maid is a show about a lot of things. All of them significant. The 10-part series delivers eye-opening and resonant commentary on the subjects of abuse, privilege, poverty, and the dog-trying-to-catch-his-own-tail loop of a broken system. It’s about the way that toxic people, even the ones we love—especially the ones we love—will drag us down with them time and time again. It’s about the things we take for granted (7 Thanksgiving pies, anyone?). And it’s about the invisible people that make up the village of those more fortunate. It manages to weave all this and more through nuanced, illustrative storytelling and authentic, gut-punch performances that feel simultaneously weighty and feather light, worn like a second skin.

Based on Stephanie Land’s real life account and novel Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, one of the great feats of the series is that it never buckles under the weight of its own subject matter. It manages to feel thrillingly tense, bound to keep you up late nights, unable to look away, while desperately rooting for its heroine. Its world, heart wrenching and fascinating, will linger with you long past the credits. And without ever feeling like it’s trying to teach you anything, or reprimand you, it will change the way you see things. It might make you feel… illuminated.

The beating heart of the story is Alex, played stunningly by Margaret Qualley, a single mom and domestic violence survivor trying to get back on her feet by working as a maid. Qualley is surrounded by an exquisitely convincing supporting cast, not least of all Nick Robinson’s Sean as Alex’s emotionally abusive ex and father to two-year-old Maddy.

As the antagonist of Alex’s (and often his own) world—Sean is a thoroughly layered, intricate portrayal of addiction and a study in contradictions. Robinson embodies him in such slow-burning, manifold manner as to have you questioning both your hate and affection for him. Is he a villain? Or just another victim of abuse—possibly worth saving, almost rooting for, even? That just might be writer and showrunner Molly Smith Metzler’s greatest hat trick: a viewer’s reaction to Sean might actually say more about the viewer than about the character.

It’s rare for a show that feels this poignant to be as equally watchable, and yes, binge-worthy. We pleaded with Nick Robinson to nerd-out with us, breaking down every nook & cranny of this nuanced series. Below, the Seattle native talks system failures, accessing Sean’s humanity through fatherhood, and being quarantined on an island for nine months, immersed in such heavy matter, with home just an unreachable stone’s throw away.

Major Spoilers Ahead.

LEO: Let’s talk about Maid, because it’s all we’ve been discussing around the office.

NICK ROBINSON: The fact that you’re thinking about it as much as you are is great news for us. I think it means that we did something right.

Sean is a pretty tough character because he’s both the antagonist and villain of the story, but he’s also someone that you root for in a way. As the audience, you want to see him pull through. Why do you think Molly [Metzler, Maid’s show runner] chose you to embody him?

I auditioned, it wasn’t just offered to me. So I think in the audition they saw something they liked. One thing that Molly did mention was part of the reason they liked me for this is that it made Sean a little bit more ambiguous in terms of whether or not he’s a good guy. They had said that they’d read some people for Sean where it was much scarier, and it was very clear that this person was capable of violence.

Right, they came off as more evidently “the bad guy.”

Yeah. They saw something in my read that was a little bit more opaque, I guess, or just less black and white. I’d say it was a great choice [laughs]. But I think that their instincts to lean into that direction made the show more interesting.

“If the audience sees something in Sean, they can understand why Alex might too…”

Having him be charming at times and more likeable helps the audience somewhat understand why Alex [played by Margaret Qualley] would be with him in the first place.

Totally. I think that the audience goes on the journey with Alex of doubting her choice, but then seeing her side of it. So often in abusive relationships, you just don’t really know what’s going on behind closed doors; people can present themselves in one way, and be completely different when they’re alone with someone. In the case of Sean, I think it was important for people to empathize with Alex on this. If the audience sees something in Sean, they can understand why Alex might too. Instead of it being like, “Run away. What are you doing, Dummy?” You can feel the push-pull a little bit, which I think is more realistic.

We better comprehend why it might be hard for someone to just not go back.

There’s a true statistic that for most women, when they’re leaving an abusive partner, it takes them seven tries to actually leave. Also, they have a kid together, which just complicates everything.

My mother used to always say, “Be really careful who you have children with.”

No shit, for sure. It bonds you to that person for the rest of your life on some level. And there’s also legal repercussions. The show goes through some of that with the family court, and how the laws don’t account for a whole lot of nuance in a relationship. It’s pretty black and white in terms of shared custody, and even what constitutes abuse in the eyes of the law. They only really count physical abuse as abuse.

Right, which is what the show gets into, this nuance—possibly the most important part of the story.

Exactly.

On a show like this, wherein folks really want to get in there with you and break it down and discuss where the character ended up—is that something you even wonder about, or that haunts you at all, or is it more like you’ve moved on to thinking about the next character by now, and here you are having to break it down and analyze this thing that people are expecting you to analyze, but you’re like, “I haven’t really thought about it as hard as this.”

Well, [laughs] sometimes that’s the case. With this, I wouldn’t say it haunts me, but I would say that I truly wish the best for Sean. At the end of the series, you can see that he, hopefully, is going to try to get the help that he needs, and that’s what I hope for him—that he is able to heal a little bit and become an active part in [his daughter] Maddy’s life, because that’s really the main thing. Him and Alex are through, but I would hope that Sean could heal himself enough to then be a father to Maddy because she deserves that.

nick robinson on LEO edit
Maid, Courtesy of Netflix

Definitely.

For what it’s worth, the character that Sean is very, very, loosely based around, is [now] an active part in his daughter’s life, and they have a good relationship, from what I understand.

I feel like fans of the show or the book would be happy to hear that.

Yes, that is my understanding. I haven’t talked to Stephanie [Land] directly about this, but from conversations with John [Wells] and Molly, they told me that Maddy’s father—in real life her name is not Maddy but, yeah—that he’s an active part of her life, they have a good relationship, and they get along. And they share custody. So, if this is actually telling the true story of that, then that’s what happens.

Sean isn’t featured in the book nearly as much as in the show; how do you research a character like this? How do you figure out the way that Sean’s ups and downs reflect themselves in his behavior?

The fact that Sean—I think he’s called Jamie in the book—is not featured prominently, in a lot of ways I think that was actually good for us because we didn’t have any kind of real life events or circumstance that we had to fit in. Sean is basically a fictional character. There’s a ton of literature out there and research on both alcoholism and abusive partners; you almost didn’t have to have the real guy, you understood the patterns of behavior that would lead to Alex and Sean’s relationship and the dysfunction of that. All of the credit really goes to Molly and her husband Colin [McKenna] as the writers.

What’s great about the show is that it’s never preachy. As an example, the term ‘gaslighting’ is such an overused and abused term, basically a social media term these days, but watching the show—I felt that I understood the concept in a bigger way. And yet, it never once uses the actual term ‘gaslighting’. It’s not lecturing the audience.

Yeah, they really are just showing and not telling, which is the hallmark of good storytelling. It falls into, from what I understand, a lot of patterns of abuse, where it’s about control. Sean is telling Alex: what you see is not what you see and what you hear is not what you hear, and you’re crazy, and your mom is crazy, and you’re gonna be like your mom, and all these different things in order to gaslight her and control her and make her second guess herself and what she’s seeing, feeling, and hearing.

So that she won’t leave him. It’s classic abuse. It’s an interesting cycle to witness.

It’s definitely a real thing. I’ve seen reactions of people watching this relationship [in the show] play out, and a lot of them have gone through this at some point in their life.

“It’s painful because in Alex’s case it’s the father of her child, and her mother, and a lot of these people that she loves dearly, but are ultimately toxic.”

Watching the story unfold is very eye opening and affirming in a sense because of the nuance between emotional abuse versus physical. When you were shooting, did you have a sense of how important these topics would be, or do you realize it more now as you’re hearing people’s reactions to the show? 

It all felt very relevant and timely as we were shooting it, because the show is dealing with so much—not just poverty and the very backwards social safety net programs in this country, but also generational trauma and emotional abuse and gaslighting, and the way that trauma can be passed down through generations. It can create this very vicious cycle of poverty and abuse, and people just not really having any options.

Right, Alex has no support because she’s not getting actually beaten. It shows how the system isn’t equipped to deal with gray areas. They only know how to look at things in black and white. Like in the court scene.

It shows you how easy it is to be misinterpreted if you don’t have resources to defend yourself. She can’t afford a lawyer, and so she’s trying to represent herself, but she doesn’t understand all the legal jargon. And then to see how quickly the tables turn where suddenly, even though she’s a victim, she is painted as kind of the villain or the problem and loses custody of her kid. It just shows how slanted the system is towards people with less resources. Whomever has the most resources wins, basically.

It’s a devastating scene to watch.

People have singled out that courtroom scene specifically in a lot of reviews and in some of the stuff I’ve seen online. It’s one of the best examples in the show of basically what we’re talking about, where she’s at the mercy of the system and does not understand what’s going on—nor should she, she’s not a lawyer—and just the whole jargon of “legal, legal, legal.”

All of a sudden, she’s a bad mother, and that’s not actually the case at all. And circling back to the welfare programs, the book goes into even more detail than the show does, but it just shows how these programs, which are supposed to be helping people, are designed to be confusing and discouraging.

It’s almost like they want people to give up.

And it’s not like it’s a design flaw, I think that they were designed to be that way after many different administrations, mainly Republican, have made a concerted effort to gut these programs. What I hope the show can draw some attention to is how broken these systems are, and hopefully be able to dispel some myths around poverty. Like, ‘the welfare queen who is living off of these fat government checks because she has some kids’—that’s not really how it works.

Most of the folks that are on welfare have to work really, really hard just to even get the little meager benefits that they do get. And sometimes, in the case of the show and also in the book, there are thresholds in place, so if you earn over a certain amount, your benefits get cut. It’s this really weird tight rope that people have to walk in order to receive aid that is barely enough to get by, and as soon as they start to earn a little bit more, it’s cut and then the bottom falls out from underneath them. It just shows how hard it is to work your way out of poverty. This whole myth of pulling yourself up by your boot straps—it’s a very American ideal, but in reality, it doesn’t really work like that.

The show is also about the effects of allowing toxic people to be in your life. You can only help these people so much, until they take you down with them. Sean is a very toxic character. The best example in the show of that is when Alex is finally able to get this amazing house and put her kid in her dream day care, and then Sean manages to ruin all of it for her in just one night.

Yeah, that scene is tough to watch.

It’s tough to watch.

Margaret’s performance in that is definitely a gut punch. You really, really feel for her in that moment; she’s worked so hard to make this all work, and then for it to all just come crumbling down because of the people in her life.

nick robinson on LEO edit
Maid, Courtesy of Netflix

Yes, and not just Sean, also her mom [played by Qualley’s real life mom, Andie MacDowell] as well. She’s incredible in it too.

Margaret fought really hard for her mom to be cast.

But yeah, every character in the show is damaged and has trauma, and it’s that if you allow yourself to fall into that cycle, you’ll never get out of it. It takes a lot of work to try to want to even recognize that and then take steps to try to distance yourself. It’s painful because, in Alex’s case, it’s the father of her child and her mother, and a lot of these people that she loves dearly, but are ultimately toxic or bad.

The scene I’ve heard brought up a lot as well is the reaction her father [played by Billy Burke] has at the end when Alex finally asks for his help. That was shocking. You really think he’s gonna come through for her. It’s like a glimpse of who Sean will become. It’s so interesting that she ended up with someone who is like her dad, but perhaps can’t see it until later.

The show does a really good job of illustrating these cycles of abuse and trauma that are multi-generational and can be passed down, and it’s just like this fucked up inheritance that Alex and Sean get. It’s Alex’s show, but they do touch briefly on Sean’s background, and he came from a similar thing of a broken family and addicts and abuse.

In some ways, he is a victim of abuse himself.

Sure, and I think that that’s part of the reason why Alex and Sean maybe bonded originally. There’s a real thing of trauma bonding, and it can bring people together, but if you’re not addressing that trauma…

The drinking brought that out in him as well.

There is so much about Sean that I do empathize with. Just his arc in the show… When we first meet him, it’s a low point for both of them. Then over the course of the season, he’s trying to make himself better, be a better father, get sober, find a job that’s not bartending. And then at a certain point, right when you maybe think he’s kind of better, he finds out that Alex is gonna leave, and it just it sets him off, and he goes all the way back down to the bottom again. I think that’s very true to life in terms of addiction.

It’s a story about motherhood, but there is this whole layer about fatherhood that I think is really important. As someone who is not a dad, did you have to find a way into that aspect of the character?

For me, it was a combination of things. I grew up with a lot of younger siblings—so I was never exactly a father figure, but I do know the chaos of growing up with kids and what that’s like. That definitely informed the character a little bit in terms of fatherhood. With Sean, one of the ways into the character, or one of the things that I kept coming back to was the fact that he really does love his daughter. He does all this terrible shit and is really damaged and messed up, but in my mind, the thing that made me empathize with him the most was that he does really love his daughter, and he’s trying his best to make her life different from his, and the best that it possibly can be given the circumstances. He fails a lot at that, but that love is a motivating force behind his drive to get sober.

“This whole myth of pulling yourself up by your boot straps—it’s a very American ideal, but in reality, it doesn’t really work like that.”

And ultimately, he makes that tough choice at the end. For a parent, the biggest sacrifice can be removing yourself from the equation, if that’s what’s best for your child.

Yeah, and I think it’s antithetical to the way that Sean was raised. Going back to what we talked about before, about family—and in certain cases, toxic family—I think Sean very much buys into the idea that family is family no matter what, and you stick with family and it’s your tribe, and that’s that. It’s very black and white. So I think that for him to recognize that… when he says, “I don’t want to be like my mom”—where for her, the substance abuse came first, alcohol came first. He recognizes that in himself. He is abusive and toxic towards Alex, but then he has that final act of love, to let go and to allow her to go with Maddy to make a better life for both of them.

I mean, to be honest, when I first read it… I almost wanted him to not be redeemed. But ultimately, I’m glad that that’s how it all worked out.

A powerful aspect of the story is that it allows the audience to understand Sean’s journey as well. It doesn’t mean that you say, “Oh then that’s ok that you’re terrible.” But being able to better understand another human, even one doing bad things, is a powerful thing. It teaches you not sympathy, but empathy. The show does that by not allowing anything to be only one way or another. There’s so much gray area when it comes to being human.

Totally. Yea, I think the show didn’t wanna give any easy answers, and that goes back to the writing and it goes back to Molly.

The other fascinating facet of the show is the Regina character [played by Anika Noni Rose]. The privilege smacks you in the face. I think for a lot of people with the means to have any kind of help, like a maid, it’s so easy to go about their busy lives and not stop to think, “Well, hello, there is this other human in my house, with possibly their own issues.” And not always stop to consider that or engage.

In the book, Stephanie talks about how as a maid, as a cleaning woman, she was invisible, and would come into these homes and clean and no one would talk to her. And then there would be some occasional home owners who were very kind and asked questions about her life and would get to know her and buy her food and whatever.

What’s interesting about Regina, again, is that she’s not just good or bad. She’s infuriatingly unaware of her own privilege, and so awful at times—but in a relatable way. But then she really comes through. When the time comes to help, she does.

Right. And even then, there are limits. When Alex asks Regina to be her live-in maid and nanny, which would kind of solve all of her problems, Regina balks at that and says, “Well, no, I’m not comfortable with it.” It’s tough, every time Alex thinks she may have found someone who can save her or help her, it kinda blows up.

But then I love that Alex later says, “I shouldn’t have asked. That was inappropriate,” and takes some accountability. The show just hits all of these different layers.

Yeah. It is incredible. Molly’s an incredible writer, and the care she put into all of the different scripts and the story, it’s remarkable. That was really the first thing that drew me to it—reading the scripts and going, “Wow, this is really… these are really great.”

“With Sean, one of the ways into the character… was the fact that he really does love his daughter.”

You guys were shooting on an island, for a nine-month shoot, and you were in quarantine, how do you live with such heavy material for that long?

It was heavy material. We would find areas of lightness, but especially as the show went on… It’s the longest thing I’d ever been a part of, and compounded by the fact that we couldn’t leave, because if we left, we would have to quarantine for two weeks, and there was no way to schedule that in.

In Margaret’s case, she worked every single day, all day, from dawn to dusk. It was a serious undertaking. In my case, I had a lot of downtime, which was great at first, but then as the time went on, we were shooting in this small town, and I had gone to every restaurant, had walked down every street, had stopped at every bar. I was going a little stir crazy by the end.

I bought a bike and I had a kayak with me, so I started getting into the outdoors. I would go on bike rides. There was a channel in Victoria Harbour that you can kayak in, so I would go kayak that. It’s a couple of miles, and it would take you up to this lake, which was nice. I would just try to do outdoorsy things to counteract some of the heavier stuff we were shooting.

Nine months is a long shoot.

Normally, if something is that long, under normal circumstances, you could leave. We were shooting on Vancouver Island, so we could see Washington State from the island, my home state. There was a two-hour freight from Victoria Harbour, but I couldn’t go because the border was closed. So, under normal circumstances, it really would have been incredible. I could have had my family up. I could have gone home all the time. It’s not that it wasn’t incredible, but nobody could come visit, I couldn’t have family or my girlfriend come visit, so you just got lonely after a while.

Maybe that lent itself to strong performances.

Totally, in Margaret’s case especially.

She was living it.

Yeah, basically. She kind of went method with it. She was spending all her time with the kid, and she was working everyday. There were no days off.

You definitely feel her affection for the kid. I remember thinking, “Oh, she must have spent a lot of time with that child.”

She did.

That’s a long shoot for a kid.

Yea, and she was growing as we were shooting, so she was just getting progressively bigger and bigger.

Out of the work you have done, is there one that you feel is most impactful or culturally moves the needle in the conversation? 

I don’t know, it’s sort of weird to think of it in that sense, but in terms of a cultural impact, I think that Maid is definitely up there.

Also Love, Simon.

Yeah, and Love, Simon, for sure.

Are you looking for that when you’re choosing these roles? 

Not necessarily. For me, it’s just trying to find good scripts, and a lot of times those scripts, more often than not, they do have something to say, or they’re good because the writer was trying to get something off their chest or to tell a story that was true to life. I think that that’s just a by-product of good writing.

I think that’s what I’ve tried to draw myself to. It’s not so much, “Oh, what’s gonna have the biggest cultural impact?” Because you can never tell; there’s no way to know. But good writing is good writing. That’s kind of the benchmark that I’m striving towards, in any kind of projects, just finding something that is well written, and then all the other components to making something. It’s a cliché to say, but it’s sort of a miracle when something turns out good, because there are so many variables. So whenever I’m choosing something, it really is just an educated guess, where you go, “Okay, the writing is good, and there are people involved whose work I like, so let’s see what happens.” And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s just really hard to have any kind of certainty of, “Oh, this is going to do something.”

Well this definitely did something.

I’m so happy to hear that. I think it means that we did something right. That’s what you can only really hope for when you make something, is that people connect with it and take it seriously and it brings up conversations. That’s the dream.

CHECK OUT NICK

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As Sean in Netflix’s Maid

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