Interview: Ben Platt and Julia Schlaepfer dish on Netflix’s ‘The Politician’

Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix’s original content has been pushing the limits of the silver screen for a while now, but this season, the streaming service took on an especially unique challenge: Making a genuinely likable protagonist out of a (hopeful) career politician. So before 2020 rolls around, there’s a new candidate on the scene that we need to talk about.

Centering around born-to-lead, born-to-succeed teenager Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), Netflix’s new series The Politician aims a magnifying glass at the jungle that is high school politics and dials in extreme wealth to set the entire situation ablaze. True to style for co-creator Ryan Murphy, stunning visuals, flagrant scandals, and Jessica Lange are all involved, and albeit being rather hyperbolic as a whole, The Politician revels in its extravagance while simultaneously critiquing it.

Last week, Vanyaland met up with Platt (of Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway and Pitch Perfect fame), as well as Julia Schlaepfer, who plays Payton’s brilliant girlfriend/confidant/co-overachiever Alice Charles. Huddled in the scholarly setting of the Boston Athenæum, the pair shared their thoughts on depicting modern teenage issues, effecting political change in real life, and what it was like to bask in the “effervescent ray of light” that is co-star Gwyneth Paltrow.

Victoria Wasylak: “Politician” is kind of a dirty word, right? People don’t like politicians, and I think the show was really interesting in trying to make one specific politician likable. How did you make Payton likable?

Ben Platt: I think that the joy of the show and the journey of the show is you making that decision for yourself and kind of going back and forth on that. I think he’s a complicated guy and that’s part of the excitement of the show is figuring out, you know, can you see yourself in him or not? And for me ,obviously because I’m playing him, I’ve learned to really love him, and I can certainly relate to his ambition and his one-track-mindedness and his real drive to do exactly what he wants to do and effect change and put good things in motion. Obviously the motives are questionable and things he’s willing to do to put those things in action are very questionable, but I think ultimately he’s just trying to fulfill what he thinks is his purpose.

Julia Schlaepfer: I think with Alice in terms of Payton, it was all about leading with love and her love for him, and that had to be, I think for me, the driving force behind everything that she did. Of course there’s political aspirations as well, but in order to find human qualities inside of both of them, I think it was all about her love for him and lifting him up for that reason.

Do you think viewers are supposed to wonder which side of the election they’re on?

Platt: Yeah, I mean I think neither [candidate] is a “home run” in the best way. I think that’s what keeps it interesting, and there’s no angels and there’s no devils in the show, everyone is somewhere in the middle. And that applies to people’s personalities and humanity, people’s queerness, people’s gender identity. I think everything is up in the air and that’s part of what makes it a really forward-thinking piece. But I think you’re supposed to flip flop. I mean people can love Astrid, that’s fine with me. We won’t spoil anything, but if you make it all the way [to the end of the series], it certainly doesn’t work out any way that you think it will.

It’s interesting that you bring up the queerness aspect because LGBTQ issues flow throughout the show without it being the focus of the show – obviously the focus is the election. How do you think that Netflix worked that into the story without tokenizing it?

Platt: Well it’s very much Ryan Murphy and Brad [Falchuck] and Ian [Brennan], and that’s true to the form that they’re always kind of one step ahead. And I think with Glee, they made this amazing stride forward with having characters that have really queer-centric storylines and introducing these kinds of tropes to all of us when we were in high school, and now I think we’re even one step beyond, where we’re depicting people who are all over the spectrum of sexuality and all over the spectrum of queerness, and it colors their relationships and it colors the characters.

And it makes it more interesting, but there’s no trauma, there’s no discussion of it, there’s no plot points about it. It’s just Payton has one relationship with someone who he really is like, and who has the same mind as him and who has a similar tactic to life ,and they connect. And then he also has a connection with someone who’s the opposite of him, who’s an empath and who has things he doesn’t have. And one’s a woman, one’s a man, and that just makes it more interesting.

Schlaepfer: I think it was really important for all of us to connect with young people on that. I think one thing that Ryan said to us from the beginning is that, I mean that’s how young people are thinking. That’s the way that I think young people want to live and experience life, is to be able to figure out who they are and who they love without having to say it or be judged or labeled for it. I think we wanted to show the world where you don’t have to explain yourself or explain your choices. You just can be whoever you want to be, and that was really important to us.

Without being spoiler-y, Payton has a fall from grace in show. Why do you think it was important for that to happen instead of smooth sailing?

Platt: I think because we’re following Payton’s story primarily, it would be a really uninteresting show if [he] just got everything he wanted. And I also think that it’s a hero that we’re asking people to get on board with for multiple seasons, hopefully. I mean certainly two, which we’re going to make, but hopefully more. In order to want to follow him and stay by his side through multiple moments in his life, I think you have to see him in his down places and in his vulnerabilities and in his humanity. I think if he was all tough and all kind of perfect and all showman, then I think he would get really tiring. I think it’s important, especially with the intensity of the first few episodes and the way he behaves, to show the other side of that.

Schlaepfer: I 100 percent agree. I think that those falls are the things that people really relate to. You know, the down times. Because everybody has them and everybody feels them, and I think it just brings more life to Payton.

[To Ben] With the singing in the show, was that already a part of the show when they recruited you, or was it that they saw you as a good fit for Payton and then they work it in from there?

Platt: Ryan came to see Dear Evan Hansen, the show that I was doing in New York, and very much crafted the character around me, with me in mind. Part of that was to find a way for me to incorporate singing that was organic and felt like it was important to the story and important to Payton and didn’t feel elbowed in so that I’d have an excused to sing. So, yeah, I’m very much inspired, I think, by the fact that it was going to be me specifically. And I think we did a great job of being really judicious only having two major musical moments — one, sort of smaller fun one, but keeping them like really special in the beginning and the end.


[To Julia] For your character, Alice, I read that you looked at Hillary Clinton and Jackie O, and you kind of modeled after them, but what would you say that Alice as a character — or you being Alice’s character — brings to the table when it comes to being a strong woman? I know you’re not the one running for office, but you’re still involved very closely [with Payton’s campaign], so you’re still in politics.

Schlaepfer: I mean, I think that Alice in so many ways is his support and a backbone a little bit. I think she’s so brilliant and she’s kind of a guiding light in a lot of ways. I think, when he gets stuck and he doesn’t know what to do, she’s there. She’s on top of it. She’s two steps ahead. And [for] a lot of season one, a lot of what Alice did was for Payton, she put her own needs aside to boost him up. And I don’t want to spoil too much about the season, but I’m really excited to explore how she uses her brilliance and her mind in season two, not just for other people, but for herself. Because I think that that’s a big journey of self-discovery that she goes through in season one, is realizing that she has a mind of her own outside of this lovely man.

I think she’s just so smart, and I think she’s a genius. Much like Hillary Clinton supporting her husband throughout all of the scandal and throughout his presidency, she’s there for him, and I think there’s a special kind of a brilliance to that.

For the campaign that Payton runs, I would think that most high schools do not have such intense, serious elections, like [analyzing] the predictions and the margin of error. It was very specific and meticulous, much like real life and real elections. Are you hoping that the timing of this will snowball into the actual election? I think outside of the show, those things seem boring, but the show made those statistics and those elements of what makes a campaign really exciting.

Platt: Yeah, I mean I think a huge part of the show and what was really smart by Ryan and Brad and Ian is that they made things that can feel kind of lecture-y or heavy feel digestible and funny and biting and satirical and entertaining and bright. I think that it’s no coincidence that it’s all happening right now, and that the next season, which if you watch the end, [you’ll see] another, even more real-to-life election is happening while young people are hopefully going to be very involved. I think thankfully it’s now very “trendy” to be politically involved, which is a great trend. I’m happy that’s trendy. So if anything, hopefully it’ll just fan the flames and be like, “look at how seriously we take all of these young people and how much they have to say. So you do, too.”

When I look at the show as a whole, I think it’s very exaggerated, which is very true to form for Ryan Murphy. The wealth of the characters, all the illegal stuff that’s happened — and, just as we said, high school elections are not like that. It’s very exaggerated, very over the top, but what else do you think he brought to the show? What was it like working with him in general?

Platt: I think what he brought is just incredible sharpness and clarity of vision. I think he knew exactly the world he was going to create, down to how symmetrical Julia’s pearls were in any given shot. All the way as broad a things as what is Payton’s art going to be, and how are we going to discuss gun control? And he really delivers on every level of his vision, which is why I think the world that he created in this show is so particular and specific. And so you feel really safe as an actor because you know that you’re in a really particular context and you feel very protected by the excellent camera crew, the aesthetics, the locations, the costumes. And so, you can then do big, bold work and make big, bold choices and feel like you’re supported.

Schlaepfer: There was one scene scene where my pearls kept getting caught on the lip of my shirt and we would stop the take, like five times, and we had to pin them back perfect. I mean that’s just who Ryan is, and Ian and Brad as well. There’s specificity of detail and that’s why, for me, working with him as far as that goes, it’s a completely dream come true because, I grew up watching Glee like Ben mentioned. And that show, it felt so special to me because they were able to talk about things that people weren’t talking about, and do them in such a dynamic, specific way. And it’s all because his vision, like you said, it’s so clear. It’s like he knows what he wants to portray and he’ll do it down to every last detail.

What do you make of the show featuring such rich characters? It’s fun to watch, but it’s definitely harder to relate to because not a lot of us went to a school like that. Why do you think that was the setting? That’s definitely not normal.

Platt: Right. I think for a few reasons. I think, you know the opulence and the aesthetically  pleasing symmetry and ostentatiousness of it is part of what Ryan loves, is that delicious aspirational, visual quality. But specifically, I think he really wanted to send up this community and look at them with a really bleak black comic eye and make fun of the absurdity of their problems, and how over the top their needs and wants are. And at the same time, show the humanity in them and show that even in the most ridiculous situations of privilege, no one is just truly blanket happy or blanket good. I think he’s exactly the person to do that because he has so many different works that are piloting so many different communities at the same time. As you know, he got something like Pose on the air at the same time, which couldn’t be a more different demographic.

So, to get to zoom in on all these different communities, I think it’s something that Ryan really had the privilege to do because it gets to be in the greater context of all of his work. I think if the only show you’re making is just the show about only this white privileged rich community, it becomes problematic. But because it’s in the scope of this show, [which] has so many other perspectives, like queer perspectives, and gender identity perspectives, and able bodied and disabled people. I think he really is smart about putting it in a greater context, and also really throwing them under the rug in the best way.

Do you think it would have worked in a more “normal” setting? The whole plot?

Schlaepfer: It would’ve been a very different show and I think the whole point was to take a magnifying glass to this specific world and kind of flip it on its head a little bit.

Platt: We’ll sort of see in season two, what it would look like in a bit more – and not to give anything away — in a slightly less heightened ostentatious world. Certainly the tone will be the same, and it’ll be visually still very particular.

Talking about season two, what can you tell us?

Platt: We truly know so little. We’ve been making jokes about how Marvel people are always like, “well, all we can tell you is there’s an orange square.” And everyone goes online, it’s like, “what does that mean? What does that mean?” We truly have no information. All we know is when you watch episode eight, you’ll see very particularly what’s the next political situation we’re going to be focusing on, and where they all will be and who’s going to be involved, and who Payton will be up against. And that all becomes very clear if you make it to the end.

Schlaepfer: Otherwise we have not gotten any information, no scripts.

Platt: Except that we’ll be on this coast, which is fun.

Schlaepfer: We’re going to be in New York, but that’s all.

Do you know the timeframe?

Platt: We start shooting in three weeks, October 29. 

I think it’s really interesting that somehow all the characters pretty much ended up on the East coast in New York by the end of the show. Why do you think Payton’s friends stand by him even in the final episode? Because there’s definitely a point when they’re kind of sick of the bullshit.

Platt: I mean, I think he’s just really galvanizing and I think that everybody realizes at different points throughout the season that he has this drive and this particular, just really focused energy that a lot of young people don’t have. And I think a lot of them, when they don’t have them in their lives, [they] missed that very directional focus.

Schlaepfer: Yeah, there’s a line that Alice says in the last episode. She says, “we’ve all been feeling like there’s something missing in our lives.” And what they’re missing is something we can believe in. And I think with Payton, they have this direction. They have this political focus. They knew where their lives were headed. It’s like they built their whole lives around this and they were so excited about it. And they had someone they can believe in.

Platt: It’s intoxicating.

Schlaepfer: It’s intoxicating, it’s kind of addicting. And again, like I don’t want to give too much away, but somebody had mentioned that it’s like Payton is addicting, his energy is addicting. They need that, they need something driving them. And I think it’s also really reflective of young people today. You know, I think young people today. they want to be heard, they want to be listened to, they want to be active, they want to be politically active, and that’s what these kids are doing. They’re out there, they’re 23 by the end of this series and they’re ready to go. They believe in themselves, which I think is really cool.

Platt: And I think they recognize that Payton is the one to be the face and lead it and, for better or for worse, has the ability to compartmentalize and do things that they can’t do. And sacrifice parts of his humanity that they can’t sacrifice, and so they’re willing to get behind [him].

[To Julia] How do you feel about Alice’s altruistic choices, and her big choice at the end of the show? She kind of takes a hit for Payton’s campaign. I mean, her choices very giving and forgiving.

Schlaepfer: Right, 100 percent. And that’s why I love Alice, because part of me sometimes one wants to be like, “stand up for yourself! You don’t need to take all of this on.” But I think she genuinely wants to, because again, she loves him. And I think that’s what she believes part of being a first lady is, that there’s sacrifice and there’s sacrifice in love. It’s tricky. I think in season one she was still really finding herself and she was still had that young 17-year-old-girl who let herself be walked on a little bit and let herself be used a little bit, and she hadn’t really discovered her strength yet.

I think at the end [of the show] I think she’s actually made the strong choice because I think it would’ve been easy. I think it would’ve been easier for her to make the other choice because she would’ve been happy, and it would’ve been great from her. But I think she made the hard choice in that case because she might get bruised and beaten up going forward and it might be harder for her. But she chose what she believes in and I think in that moment she chose herself. She chose not taking the path that her parents left. She has ambition. I think that’s really brave of her.

A lot of people call this show a comedy, but it’s also very serious at times. Do you think it’s a comedy?

Platt: I think it’s more than one thing. I think that’s anything I watch. I don’t want to necessarily fit into one box and this in particular can kind of flip-flop you from cackling and laughing and being very detached from everything, and then suddenly you’re very invested emotionally in the characters. And I think it’s that combo that makes it so Ryan, Brad, and Ian, which is that it’s simultaneously birds-eye and watching these people and making fun of these people, but also suddenly you’re feeling very invested in them.

Schlaepfer: Yeah. And I think it’s that that flip-flop that makes it so much more relatable because that’s what life is like, right? Like you can be laughing and then you get a piece of news and then you’re devastated. Or could be had going something really serious going on inside, but you put on a face. There’s something very Shakespearian about the whole thing, very Jacobean. It’s just how life is. It’s not one thing or the other.

[To Ben] Last question — what was it like having Gwyneth Paltrow as your mom?

Platt: It was wonderful. She’s [a] warm, effervescent ray of light and made me feel really protected and taken care of. And I think it comes across in relationship.

‘The Politician’ is now available to stream on Netflix.