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Ben Platt on Netflix's The Politician: The setting is really a backdrop for more human conversations

Ben Platt returns to education as the star of Netflix's latest comedy drama, The Politician. But with Ryan Murphy at the helm, it's about much more than just a high school election, he tells Gemma Dunn

Big ambitions: Gwyneth Paltrow as Georgina Hobart and Ben Platt as Payton Hobart in The Politician
Big ambitions: Gwyneth Paltrow as Georgina Hobart and Ben Platt as Payton Hobart in The Politician

Ben Platt tackles a voice he's never played before in Netflix drama The Politician. The dark comedy series, created by Glee dream team Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, sees the Pitch Perfect star take the lead as Payton Hobart, a wealthy, egotistical student with big ambitions to one day be the president of the United States.

But in his campaign for the White House, Hobart must first navigate Saint Sebastian High School, a political landscape brimming with ruthless rivals, sordid scandals, backstabbing and betrayal.

Quite the training ground for a career in affairs of the state, you could argue. And an environment that's entirely alien to Tony Award winner Platt (26).

"I was immediately the good kind of scared, the scared I chase as an actor," he says of receiving the scripts, which see Hobart ruthless in his pursuit to be elected head of the Student Body.

"It's the little stomach flip where it's something you've never done before and you feel like you're going to be stretched.

"But the voice of Payton was incredibly clear; somebody aggressive and assertive who walks into a room and wants to be seen and take up space.

"Someone with so much confidence, who's somewhat self-serving and borderline sociopathic."

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Yet as well as snark and satire, there's also deep-felt empathy, Platt maintains.

"It's such a Ryan Murphy trait of being able to ride that line and make you feel for characters you didn't think you were ever going to feel for," he says of the piece, which also features big names Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Lange.

"He's the perfect person to be setting a show in this particular world because when you look at the grand scheme of his work, he's zeroed in on a lot of different types of communities, perspectives and human beings.

"He's earned the right to focus in this very affluent, entitled community. He's done a beautiful job of simultaneously seeing them as valid human beings with emotions and problems. And also cutting them down mercilessly for their privilege."

What about the subject matter in this somewhat politically-fatigued climate?

"I think the title is misleading in the sense that it is of course, on a surface level, about political discourse and high school as a microcosm for American politics," he explains.

"But it's largely about the ways in which all of us are forced to be politicians; the ways we choose to filter ourselves in order to forward our own star.

"So it's a very universal thing," he declares. "Hopefully when you start diving in, it becomes pretty clear that the literal setting of a political election is really just a backdrop for these kinds of more human conversations."

That's not to say it won't spark a debate, however.

Ben Platt as Payton Hobart in The Politician
Ben Platt as Payton Hobart in The Politician

"Right now, people are really eager to find something they don't like about any given piece of art or a person or anything, so I don't love to feed into that," Platt says. "But to be a part of something that will start conversations is the only reason we really do this."

Humour is a key too, he says: "To discuss things that can sometimes feel like lecture fodder or a bit tedious - and make them funny, biting, satirical, entertaining and relatable for young people.

"There's a lot of overwhelming, dark things happening in our country and also everywhere at the moment, so the only real way to move forward is to take any kind of spin that will allow you to laugh."

Platt knows what he's talking about. For while he might be new to this role, he's certainly not new to the industry.

Born in LA to mother Julie and renowned film, TV and theatre producer father, Marc Platt, he first showed off his performing prowess at just nine years old, when he appeared in the Hollywood Bowl leg of The Music Man.

It was a taste of stardom that would later culminate in a standout casting as Elder Cunningham in the Chicago production of The Book of Mormon; a role he would later reprise on Broadway, and one that would lead to his ground-breaking turn as the title character in hit musical, Dear Evan Hansen.

Can he relate to Payton's determination to succeed then?

"Yes, although I think I have a much harder time compartmentalising my emotions," he says.

"Payton is very much able to, like many politicians, put a lid on those things in order to achieve what he needs to achieve.

"For me, as an actor, we spend so much time trying to exploit our emotions and connect with them, so I don't have that muscle, but I do definitely relate to the one-track mind because I've been working since I was eight or nine years old.

"I've always only wanted to do this and, similar to Payton, I was born with this inexplicable innate understanding that that's what I was supposed to do without ever having to make a real conscious decision."

And his next move may see him return to high school once again, if the rumours of a Dear Evan Hansen film adaptation ring true.

"It will hopefully come together soon," he teases, his father already having secured the film rights, alongside Universal Pictures.

"But that would be the farewell to that time in life I think and I hope people would forgive me for returning to it one last time for that particular character."

Next Platt will shoot Richard Linklater's big screen adaptation of the classic Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, alongside Blake Jenner and long-time friend Beanie Feldstein.

The coming-of-age drama will top the director's 12-year span on Boyhood.

"It's very surreal," Platt says of his part in the project, which will be filmed over the course of 20 years.

"When Richard pitched the idea to me and also led with the fact that he wanted Beanie and I in it together, playing roles that we'd always dreamt of, it seemed like a joke.

"It's a dream come true to work with my best friend in a show that meant so much to us in our childhoods."

The Politician launches on Netflix this Friday

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