From his groundbreaking stories to the always fabulous A-list casts, working on a Ryan Murphy project is an intimidating prospect for anyone, even if you're an Emmy-Grammy-Tony winner like Ben Platt. The 26-year-old actor and musician of Dear Evan Hansen fame admits he felt a bit of pressure working on Murphy's latest television series, Netflix's The Politician, but he also felt empowered and inspired as an artist.
"He's such a proven expert and he delivers on all aspects of his vision," says Platt. "You feel supported by the writing, supported by the clothes, supported by the location, supported by the schedule. It really feels like you've given every opportunity to do your best work."
"He's this larger than life figure and he's very intimidating in the best possible way," he adds. "He's an inspiring person to work for. You want to show up and do your best work, and you have no choice but to rise to the occasion."
Platt stars in The Politician as Payton Hobart, an extremely ambitious high school student from Santa Barbara who plans to one day become the President of the United States. First he has to win the race for student body president against his arch-rival Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton), and Payton will do everything in his power to make that happen.
Featuring a star-studded cast that includes Gwyneth Paltrow, January Jones, as well as frequent Murphy collaborators Jessica Lange and Dylan McDermott, The Politician is a bit of an amalgam of Murphy's other beloved series. There's a stylishly dark humor to it reminiscent of Scream Queens or less macabre episodes of American Horror Story. The familial drama between Lange's Nana Dusty and Zoey Deutch's Infinity Jackson could've very well been the basis of an American Crime Story season if they were real people. There's even a pinch of musical pizazz that should delight any fan of Glee.
"He loves the weirdness and the strangeness and the creativity," Platt says of working with Murphy. "I think that's why he gets all these actors that come back that work with him again, again and again because you don't always get that in a creative environment, particularly on a set. He really gives us room to try bold stuff."
At its core, though, The Politician is about the power of ambition and the lengths people will go to achieve success. Platt can relate to Payton's relentlessness to fufill his dreams, as he's worked tirelessly since childhood to become a performer and an actor.
"I think [ambition] is often a dirty word and I don't think it needs to be," says Platt. "Like anything else in life, it should be in moderation and has to be balanced with empathy and context and things like that."
"Particularly when people are young like they are in the show, and they don't have families depending on them, this is the time to be selfish and ambitious," he adds. "This is the time to get what you want."
Payton isn't the only one with ambition on the show, as seemingly every character has an agenda. A prime example is Payton's girlfriend Alice Charles, played by Julia Schlaepfer. Alice shares Payton's dream of one day walking into the White House as the President and First Lady, although she has her own secrets and desires.
"For women, a lot of the time it’s [seen as] selfish to be ambitious," says Schlaepfer. "I think it’s an awesome thing. Why not think we can do great things? As long as it’s driven by kindness and the desire to do good and bring good into the world, then I think it can be a great thing."
Schaepfer drew up several notable women in politics as inspiration for Alice, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and, even more so, Hillary Clinton.
"Hillary Clinton is so brilliant and my character was described as a young Hillary Clinton when I got the script," says Schlaepfer. "The way in which she stood by Bill throughout the presidency and all the scandal, and there's certainly a lot of scandal between these two on the show, and her undying support and love for him."
"She also has her own political aspirations, which I believe Alice loves the politics behind all of it," she adds. "I watched a lot of young Hillary interviews with Bill and just how she supported him and tried to peek into her drive behind all of that."
As expected from a show involving politics, The Politician touches on a multitude of topical issues, including, gun violence, gender and sexual identity, even the college admission scandal (several scenes are set in Harvard and Cambridge, although Brooklyn served as a stand-in). Mental health, however, gets the most attention, particularly in the wake of a gruesome suicide scene in the first episode. While Platt and Schlaepfer felt pressure in authentically portraying this larger, important issues, that had complete faith in Murphy to get it right.
"Right off the bat he was very sensitive about that stuff," says Schlaepfer.
"We really trust Ryan and he was really, really careful about what he was willing to show," says Platt. "I think that no one is in a perfect state of wellness and happiness, which I think is really a good thing for young people to see that it's not just the strange, usual social pariah type kids that are dealing with these things, it's the beautiful quarterback thats the one that's having the most trouble."
Having received a two season order by Netflix, the series is set to return next year, right in the thick of the 2020 presidential campaign. The Politician has its own big political showdown in store as Platt's character is set to go head-to-head with a New York state senator played by Judith Light and her chief of staff played by Bette Midler. Platt is excited for that campaign in The Politician season 2, as well as the emotional growth of Payton.
"I'm excited to see him in this more nuanced place," says Platt. "How can he be continuing to be driven and pushing himself forward without completely falling back into him being a terror? That will be fun."
The Politician is now on Netflix.
Photography by: Photos courtesy of Netflix