Interview: Andrew Polk Goes Back to School in New Film Armageddon Time

Polk co-stars with Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway in the new film from director James Gray.

The best kind of research for an actor is first-hand, though in the world of biopics, that experience is not often easy to come by. Yet during the filming of James Gray's new film Armageddon Time, Andrew Polk (of Broadway's The Band's Visit) realized he had more than one connection to his character.

Armageddon Time is a 1980s coming-of-age story inspired by writer and director Gray's teenage years in New York City, and Polk plays his sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Turkeltaub. Mr. Turkeltaub, of course, was very much real, though now long gone. But through a series of unexpected connections, Polk found himself face-to-face with people in his life who happened to have been his students. Here, Polk tells us how that transpired.

Andrew Polk as Mr. Turkeltaub in James Gray's film Armageddon Time
Andrew Polk as Mr. Turkeltaub in James Gray's film Armageddon Time
(© Anne Joyce/Focus Features)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Tell me about your connections to the real Mr. Turkeltaub.
I've come across several people who not only went to P.S. 173 but had Mr. Turkeltaub as their teacher. Amy Ryan was one of them. Amy is a very good friend of mine and has been for many years. I knew she grew up in Queens, near Flushing, so I just called her as I read the script and asked if she, by any chance, happened to go to P.S. 173. And she said, "Yeah, that was my school." I went "OK, I'm gonna ask you a really crazy question, but did you happen to have a teacher named Mr. Turkeltaub?" And she said, "Yep, that was my teacher." Then she texted me a picture of her class with Mr. Turkeltaub looking really like he's gonna explode, just standing next to 40-something kids. He's since passed away. Died of a heart attack.

I learned he was sort of a quiet guy, pretty self-contained. The greatest resource I had, of course, was James Gray, who was right there the whole time. When something weird would happen in the script, I would turn to him and he would say, "This is real. This happened to me."

In the film, he's portrayed as a man who's doing his best to control his class, but it comes out in racist ways — he spends most of his scenes singling out a Black student who gets on his nerves. How do you view him?
I felt honor-bound to make him honest. I leave it up to others to decide what he is, but I didn't see him as a racist and I didn't see him as a bad guy. I saw him as a person sort of sitting on his last nerve, about to retire, being asked to do the best job he could under the circumstances, which were teaching 42 sixth graders by himself, without an assistant, every subject, including gym. I see this guy as just trying to do his best. I do think he was trying to teach them something, but he was really at the end of his rope. Ultimately, though, it's up to the choices James Gray made in terms of how the character is presented, and I get that and how it unfolds.

The movie feels immersive in certain ways – there are points where you feel like you're just in it.
James Gray is an incredible filmmaker. He's not only amazing with actors, but he's masterful behind the camera, too. Something I thought was so brilliant about the style of it — I actually had conversations with him and the costume designers, and he said that when you see something that's set in 1980, not everyone has furniture from 1980, right? It's probably five to 10 years old, or a collection of all of the above. He really understands that. You know, Mr. Turketaub is a teacher. He probably doesn't have the kind of money for new clothes. He probably has a sweater that he wears that's eight years old. It's not from 1980; it's probably from 1973. So the look of the movie isn't cute; it's more like, this is what it would really look like. It was a very rich thought.

What was it like to watch for the first time?
Well, I've seen it twice, and the first time was at the Cannes Film Festival. I don't feel like I really saw it at Cannes, because I was like, "There's my big face on the screen at Cannes." But then we premiered it at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, which is when I really saw it for the first time and I was super moved. The reactions were different. Cannes is a very exciting place but a weird place to see a movie. In New York, they had the reaction I expected they would have, which is where you need a few seconds to recover after it's over.