28/09/2019 07:00 BST | Updated 28/09/2019 07:00 BST

Ben Platt Breaks Down Why The Politician Is A Huge Step For Queerness On Screen

The actor talks working with Gwyneth Paltrow, meeting Ryan Murphy and why the Netflix show avoided mentioning Donald Trump.

Ben as Payton Hobart in Netflix's The Politician

If you had to sum up actor Ben Platt in one word, “impressive” would do the job perfectly.

Already a Tony Award and Grammy winner – both wins being for his leading role in the much-celebrated Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen – he is now starring as the lead in Netflix’s new show The Politician (he turned 26 just three days before its debut), which he’s described as his most daunting project to date.

The Politician is no ordinary Netflix series, though. The eight-part show marks the streaming platform’s first collaboration in their much-hyped deal with TV’s reigning King Midas, Ryan Murphy, the man whose shows have made stars of Sarah Paulson, Billy Porter, Evan Peters and, oh yeah, the entire cast of Glee.

“Just because it’s Netflix, the scale is so much larger than anything I’ve ever done,” Ben tells us, shortly before The Politician’s launch. “The amount of people that will theoretically be seeing this show, regardless of how it’s even received, is going to be instantly much larger than anyone who’s seen anything I’ve done, or all of the people who sat through Dear Evan Hansen combined. So that’s very daunting.

“We’ve tried for as long as we can not think about it, but now we walk out of our doors and there are, like, six billboards for the show. So we’re relying a lot on each other, we’re just trying to really process it together.” 

Adding to this is the fact that The Politician’s debut has come at a time while Ben is still promoting his debut solo album, Sing To Me Instead, with a looming concert at New York’s Radio City Music Hall also set to be filmed for Netflix.

Fortunately, he learned a thing or two about multi-tasking from his on-screen mother and The Politician co-star Gwyneth Paltrow.

On set with Gwyneth Paltrow

He explains: “This is the first time that I’m experiencing having to juggle multiple projects at once – nowhere near the level of running her empire – but watching Gwyneth be present with me in a scene, go and make important decisions with her team for Goop on the side in between, and then come back and be in the moment again, was very inspiring.

“It was surreal, because she’d be on the phone and you’d know it’s some huge thing that’s going to send ripples through society… but she’d be very calm about it and very nonchalant.”

Ben counted himself as a Gwyneth fan (“like everyone”, he jokes) before he started working closely with her, and was interested to see how she compared to his expectations.

“To me, she is this very elegant, larger-than-life identity, and I didn’t really know what to expect in reality,” he says. ”But she immediately took me under her wing and was very protective of me, and very maternal and kind and warm.”

With regards to his A-list co-star’s reputation and Hollywood persona, Ben adds: “Similar to a good politician, the seeds are honest and authentic, there are pieces of that in her, and she has that elegance and that confidence and that sort of unknowable beauty that we all associate with her. But then of course, there’s much more real grounded, down-to-earth humanity in her.

“Like anyone, when you strip away the phony persona, you’ll get to know who they are. But [her A-list persona] is very much based in the reality of who she is.”

Ben says his relationship he shares with Gwyneth is similar to their on-screen counterparts'

The Politician centres around Ben’s character, Payton Hobart, a highly-ambitious high school student who is set on becoming US president one day.

Ryan Murphy has said he envisages the show spanning multiple series, each one focusing on a key election in Payton’s career, the first of which is the race to be named his class president.

The character was created specifically by Ryan Murphy for Ben, having been impressed after watching him in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway.

“Ryan came backstage afterwards, in a beautiful fur – of course, as you would hope,” Ben recalls. “And he was very effusive and complimentary. He said, ‘I would love to find something to do together’. And I thought that was an incredibly lovely thing to say, but I didn’t really want or expect anything – I mean, he’s Ryan Murphy, he’s got a million things going on.

“Shortly after that, he reached out to me, and said ‘I have an idea’, and I was like, ‘oh cool, maybe he’ll put me on one of his shows, put me on American Horror Story or something’. And then we had lunch and he basically said, ‘I’ve created this character for you, and it’s something that I think would be very special for you’. And he laid out everything about it – he knew he wanted Gwyneth, he knew what he wanted the look to be, the tone to be, the people writing it, the directors, when he wanted to shoot it, where he wanted to shoot it… he had a very, very clear vision, and made it very hard to say no.”

And for anyone who already finds watching the news fatiguing enough, without voluntarily tuning into a show called The Politician, Ben is insistent that the series is more in keeping with Ryan’s existing hit shows than the likes of House Of Cards or The West Wing. 

The first season of The Politician sees Payton vying for the spot of class president

“There’s a political theme to the show and, yes, it’s about a literal election,” he explains. “But it’s more about the way that all of us have to be politicians in our lives.

“We’re all trying to figure out how authentic to be and what version of ourselves to put forward. And this is much more delicious and satirical and biting and funny and entertaining and exciting than a show that just takes place on the senate floor. It’s a little more soapy and dramatic than that.”

In fact, Ben says that producers made a deliberate choice not to mention the current president by name at any point, despite referencing several other former US leaders.

“In true Ryan Murphy fashion, The Politician is an escape,” Ben says. “It’s a fantasy world, it’s aspirational. It’s not meant to be time spent in reality. We wanted people to stay inside the world and enjoy living in the story… so I think anything that’s too much a reminder of our specific reality, we very much wanted to avoid.”

However, Ben does say that the current climate means it’s the right time for a show like The Politician, pointing out: “I feel like people who up until this point – including myself – have not been very politically-minded or involved, are feeling there’s no choice now but to start joining the conversation because it’s become a little bit of a dire situation.

“It’s becoming more about larger questions of human rights and free speech, and these things are hard to ignore. So I feel like now is the time that, particularly young people, need to be listening up.”

One aspect of the show that has already received a lot of praise is the way sexuality is represented on screen, with more than one character – including Ben’s – being shown having romantic relationships with people of different genders. 

Ben with co-star David Corenswet, who plays River

This is an area the actor credits as being one of Ryan Murphy’s biggest successes, saying: “I think it’s part of this world that Ryan creates that’s a really positive subliminal messaging situation.

“I hope that it’s going to be more prevalent in queer stories, where everybody’s queerness is kind of just an assumed part of their identity. And any given character could fall anywhere on the scale, and there doesn’t need to be any sort of comment on ‘what’s the difference between a relationship with a man or a woman?’ or ‘does [Payton] struggle with his sexuality?’. It’s not even about that, it’s more just part of who he is, and that’s part of the relationships that he’s made. The fact that one is a man and one is a woman is almost entirely irrelevant.”

He adds: “[Ryan] represents so many queer perspectives in all of his work, and has taken so many steps in Glee and in Pose, to get to this point, and now it gets to just be an assumed part of the universe, and doesn’t have to be the subject matter of the piece. And that’s the ultimate gift.”

As a gay actor, Ben also says it’s “fantastic” to have been given the opportunity to play a character who isn’t exclusively gay, an idea he hopes can help diversify the roles that he and his peers are offered in the future.

Julia Schlaepfer
Payton dreams of having his girlfriend Alice, played by Julia Schlaepfer, as his first lady

“Hopefully we’re heading towards a time where there are enough equal opportunities in the process of getting roles, and we’re seeing all different kinds of actors, so that we can just truly pick who is the right person for the role, and whose talents match with the role the best, regardless of what their personal preference might be,” he says.

As teased in the final episode, a second series is already in the works, which Ben says they’ll be working on “as soon as we’re done promoting season one, towards the end of October”.

He hasn’t read a script, and knows nothing about the show, other than the two legendary actresses featured in the finale will be “at the centre” of the second series (we’ll not spoil it for you, but Ben has teased “a gay gasp felt around the world” when their characters are first introduced).

The second season also seems to be setting Payton up to take a bigger step towards his presidency dream, but is it something Ben thinks would actually be good for his character? 

Ben on the set of The Politician

“I love him, and I know he wants it more than anything, and so I want it for him,” he says. “But is it good for anyone to have that kind of omnipotence? At the end of the day, is it a good thing for a person to experience that amount of power? It’s hard to say.

“I mean, I don’t know if he’ll be entirely happy either way, as I don’t think anyone’s ever entirely happy, regardless of what they achieve. I’ve had dreams that I’ve achieved and there’s been beautiful moments and then I still have down moments, there’s no final moment of ‘I’ve achieved everything, the end’.

“Sometimes the goal isn’t what you think it is, and it isn’t the end. The be all and end all doesn’t really exist, there’s no black or white, no one is entirely a villain or entirely a victor. Everyone’s something in the middle.”

The Politician is streaming now on Netflix.