When the opening credits of a TV series feature Chicago by Sufjan Stevens, you can bet something good is coming up. Yet it’s not just the part-melancholy part-meaningful cheeky song that sets the tone and one’s expectation of the series; it’s also the little details—like the flashes of antidepressants and campaign badges of previous real-life American presidents—showing the literal expressions that go into the carefully curated construction of Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), who aspires to one day become America’s president.
The Politician is Netflix’s latest series, brought to life by Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy together with Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan. This dark comedy-drama isn’t just another aesthetically pleasing show that parodies the terrifying competitiveness in high school and politics in a nation; it also explores themes that are so prevalent to the times we’re living in now.
The series follows Payton, a wealthy Santa Barbarian, and his political career leading up to his running for president of the United States one day (the show depicts one political race per season). In the eight-part pilot season, he needs to win his high school election for class president. Platt says of his character, “Ambitious, galvanising for sure, confident, aggressive, assertive, really determined to make something for himself and prove himself. And very insecure as far as whether he’s able to feel intensely for anyone but himself. Well dressed.”
Of course, he would need advisors in the cut-throat world of politics, even politics in high school—these are James (Theo Germaine), McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss) and Payton’s girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer). Payton’s political rival is Astrid (Lucy Boynton), who is “the stereotype that we see in a lot of TV shows and movies, but she’s not that at all and you start to really reach into her life and understand why she is who she is. It’s pretty much because she’s cast herself as that character. She knows exactly how you see her because she’s orchestrating that, so it’s interesting finding the balance between ‘Astrid the aggressive’ and ‘Astrid the protector of herself ’,” says Boynton.
Other notable characters include Infinity (Zoey Deutch), a sick student living with her savage grandmother Dusty (Jessica Lange) who suffers from Munchausen syndrome by proxy. And rounding up the impressive cast is Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Payton’s adoptive mother. The narrative in The Politician wastes no time in getting fanatic—broken friendships, the increasing pressures of competition, even a murder (these all in the trailer alone), plus Payton’s “I will win at all costs” mindset result in an exciting ride. Now, this may all take a turn into American high school petty drama, but what sets the show apart is its take on real-life current issues. “It talks about things like gun control, voter fraud, gender and sexuality in a way that is digestible and satirical—not soap-boxy—which I find brilliant, and fun even, even though none of those topics are generally under the ‘fun’ section,” says Deutch. Dreyfuss adds, “I think the goal is to get young people excited about politics and if that’s what we can do then that would be a dream.” A second season has already been confirmed by Netflix. (Part of that is due to the streaming service’s acquisition of Ryan Murphy’s services with a USD300m deal over five years.)
Just before the premiere of the series, Esquire Malaysia had a chance to speak to the series lead, triple threat Ben Platt. You’ll most likely have seen him in Pitch Perfect, where he played Benji Applebaum, the nerdy roommate with a stellar voice. Platt does indeed have a stunning voice. He made his Broadway debut in The Book of Mormon and later went on to play the titular role in a musical called Dear Evan Hansen, which earned him a Tony, Grammy, and an Emmy. And that’s where Murphy found him. Platt says, “He pitched me the character [of Payton] as somebody very morally complicated, assertive, aggressive and confident—nothing that I’ve ever done before.” In fact, earlier this year, Platt released his first LP, Sing to Me Instead and is set to star in Merrily We Roll Along, a musical-turned-film directed by Richard Linklater which will be shot over the course of 20 years. (Very Linklater a feature filmed over an extended period of years.)
On his first time being a lead on a TV series
It was challenging, and a little bit scary—but in a positive way. It’s a different character than those I’ve played before, Payton is someone who’s a little more assertive and confident, a little more selfish. I get to be a little more biting and a little meaner—that was exciting. And to lead a cast with so many brilliant people in it, new people and veterans like Jessica Lange and Gwyneth Paltrow, it’s a big responsibility and a little scary. But it inspired me to want to rise to the occasion and do my best work.
On executive producing The Politician
Well luckily, it’s Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan. They very much know what they’re doing creatively, they certainly don’t need my help. Narratively with the show, they’re brilliant writers. The things I like to involve myself with as a producer was creating as much of a community as possible. Because there are so many storylines in the show, we weren’t able to do a lot of work where we’re all working together, so I try to organise as many opportunities as I can outside of work for us to spend time together and to bond, to create a family so that we can all feel like we’re part of one show we’re personally invested in. Also in the casting process, being able to throw my suggestions into the ring for people I admire like Zoey Deutch, to try to get them involved. It was really nice to have a say in the whole thing.
On picking up characteristics from Payton’s character when playing him
Probably just his not being ashamed of his ambition. Humility is obviously very important, and I never want to be overconfident or have a big head, but I think his belief in himself and his drive are qualities that I’ve also had since I was young. I’ve always wanted to be a performer, and this role has made me a little prouder of that. But other than that, I try to shake most of them off.
On what keeps Payton so motivated
I feel he’s just really determined to prove himself significant, that he deserves to be in this privilege, affluent family that he’s in because he was adopted into it. I think he has an innate desire to prove that he’s worthy.
On older audiences being able to relate to the show
Two things—one, the concept of the show is to follow Payton through different elections as he grows older and becomes an adult. We follow him through the different steps on his journey to become president. So the show isn’t always going to be in high school. By the end of [this] season, we’re already moving beyond that. And two, the show examines bigger questions than just life in school. It questions how we choose to be authentic in our lives, when it is appropriate to curate your image and to create a better view of yourself to get what you want, and when it is appropriate to be completely honest and fearless. I think no matter what age you are, we all struggle in figuring out how much of ourselves we want to show the world.
On the show’s themes that speak to audiences worldwide
Certainly, the authenticity. I think there’s a lot about participating politically and making sure that you are in the know and that you are informed, particularly young people and knowing that their voices matter; for young people to know that they should be treated like they are valid and complicated beings, which they are. There’s also the idea of finding where you belong that’s very much present. And identity. Payton is trying to figure out exactly who he is and become okay with that and accept his flaws. Everybody is just trying to accept their flaws.
On his favourite scenes to work on
I loved the scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow because they’re sort of the most tender scenes for Payton. Payton has to be very strong in a lot of the other relationships he has, and there’s a lot of pretending, posturing. But with his mother he’s always completely honest and he gets to be very human—those are very sweet scenes.
On his go-to karaoke song
Crazy by Gnarls Barkley. Usually that or anything Celine Dion.
The Politician is now streaming on Netflix.