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NEW YORK — Irish actor Andrew Simpson clearly has the looks to be a screen star, with piercing blue eyes, a rosebud pout and Peter Gallagher-worthy brows. But the self-effacing teenager almost skipped the audition for the role of Cate Blanchett’s

15-year-old seducer in “Notes on a Scandal.”

“I think it’s sort of a trait of the Irish, especially the Northern Irish, not to have too much confidence in yourself … I basically thought I had no hope in hell,” he says. “But my dad told me I should go, and from that I learned that you should back yourself a little more.”

In the film, which opened this week, Simpson plays Steven Connolly, a student who enters into a furtive affair with his married art instructor, Sheba (Blanchett). Judi Dench is an older teacher, Barbara, who takes a near-pathological interest in her younger colleague. When Barbara stumbles upon the lovers, she uses her knowledge as leverage to control and ultimately ruin Sheba, revealing her own closet skeletons in the process.

For Simpson, who was 16 at the time of filming, the story line of a student-teacher relationship was not a huge mental stretch.

“Personally, I think it happens a lot more than we hear about and it goes under the radar … School is such a sexually charged environment — it’s away from everything else. So I could see how it could happen easily,” he says. “I think every teenager has a crush. My friends flirt with teachers. But there’s such a fine line to flirting with them and then making the move.”

Indeed, as the movie shows, a few lustful glances and ambiguous displays of affection can spiral rather speedily into a full-fledged affair, particularly when the instigator is a hormonally charged high school boy.

“It’s wrong for Sheba, and what she does is completely unforgivable because she has a family and she’s an adult as well, and she’s been entrusted with this child. But I think it’s unfair that when the media gives it attention, they haven’t observed the manipulative powers of a 16-year-old boy, and he’s suddenly the victim,” explains Simpson of the journalistic maelstrom that accompanies the affair’s disclosure. “What also struck me as interesting was the differences in perceptions of a female teacher with a male student and a male teacher with a female student … [With a boy] I would always think, ‘Oh, lucky kid.’ And if it was a girl and a male teacher I would think, ‘What a dirty man.'”

This story first appeared in the December 29, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Simpson’s own academic future is at a crossroads right now. The 17-year-old, who grew up in a small village in Northern Ireland, has applied to both drama and law schools in Britain (he wore the same suit to his Cambridge interview and to his film’s premiere). And while he’s leaning toward acting, the latter holds a certain, similar appeal.

“It seems like a sort of theater in the courtroom, to be like a barrister,” he observes.

As for his almost-bygone days of schoolboy crushes (Simpson turns 18 on Monday), it seems, unlike Steven, he has escaped its potential pitfalls.

“I’ve had a crush on a teacher before in my school. But she’s left the school,” says Simpson, before adding hastily, “Not because of me!”

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