At first glance, Ben Platt and his fictional counterpart Payton Hobart have nothing in common. One is an accomplished performer, who, at 26, is just one Oscar away from an EGOT (a Hufflepuff); the other is an anxious high school overachiever who believes with every fiber of his being that he’s going to be the next President of the United States — but until then he’ll stop at nothing to win the coveted position of student-body president (a total Slytherin). But in talking to Platt and his Politician costars Zoey Deutch, Julia Schlaepfer, and Theo Germaine at a recent press day in New York, it becomes clear that maybe the two are more alike that previously thought.
In fact, maybe there’s a little bit of Payton’s obsessive drive and manic energy inside of everyone.
MTV News sat down with the cast of Netflix’s The Politician — a satirical take on high school political drama — to talk about inhabiting the surreal world of Ryan Murphy’s latest creation, whether it’s possible to want power and still be a good person, and their own obsessive ambitions. In doing so, this conversation is mildly derailed by Harry Potter because at the end of the day everything goes back to Harry Potter, doesn’t it?
MTV News: Ryan Murphy creates very specific, very surreal worlds. He has a very clear vision, which I’d assume impacts the way you see your characters and the ways in which they inhabit this world. So what was on your vision board for your individual characters?
Zoey Deutch: I had a hand-turkey, which ended up in the pilot. I’m drawing a hand-turkey in it. I had an octopus. You’d find a lot of octopi around Infinity — you didn’t know that, but I did. She has a keychain, an octopus keychain. We had some socks.
MTV News: Why octopi?
Deutch: We don’t have time.
Ben Platt: No, say it. It’s fascinating.
Deutch: No it’s not! It’s so pretentious. Please, you go.
Platt: Fine. I think it’s cool. She’s a very interesting actor. I had some images of Cameron Kasky, the incredible Parkland gun control spokesman, who I was very inspired by because he’s young and involved in the political conversation and very intelligent and eloquent at such a young age. Obviously, he’s far more compassionate and kind than Payton. I also had some late-night personalities because I feel like they’re very good at making you feel like you can trust them right away, which I think is something that Payton really cares very much about. There were some general speeches and debates from young, strapping politicians like the Kennedys and some early Reagan stuff — people who distilled their character into a digestible version of themselves for the public.
Julia Schlaepfer: I had a lot of pearls on mine. And young Hillary Clinton. I have a full album on my phone, always, of young Hillary. She was my background for a while. There was also a lot of argyle and Margot Tenenbaum from The Royal Tenenbaums. GP [Gwyneth Paltrow].
Schlaepfer: I was very inspired by her and a lot of Wes Anderson. My vision board was entirely pink.
Theo Germaine: This is silly, but Draco Malfoy was on my vision board. I kept thinking about the prefects and the houses and everything in Harry Potter. All of these little characters. Draco Malfoy is a very cunning, sometimes not-nice person, so that character was a huge inspiration. So was the Ravenclaw house. Draco is cunning, but James is a Ravenclaw. I probably had about 30 tie clips on my board, all arranged like a calendar, it’s like a tie clip of the day. There were volumes and volumes of textbooks. I lot of dark wood colors and penny loafers.
MTV News: I’m assuming that you really like Harry Potter.
Germaine: I do really like Harry Potter.
Platt: Thank god.
MTV News: Have you sorted everyone in your cast?
Platt: Hufflepuff, tried and true. I’ve been a Hufflepuff for my whole life.
Deutch: I wanted to say something quickly about Harry Potter.
Platt: Just that it’s amazing, or what?
Deutch: For the entirety of filming, every time I walked into [Ben’s] trailer, he was watching a Harry Potter movie. I didn’t know that there was a channel devoted just to Harry Potter.
Schlaepfer: Ryan’s never seen it.
MTV News: Is there a Harry Potter channel?
Platt: They’re always on! There’s always a Harry Potter to be watched. And it’s very calming.
MTV News: Has everyone else been sorted?
Schlaepfer: Alice is a Slytherin if we’re talking character. I’ve taken the quiz twice. I had to create two accounts to do it. Once I got Gryffindor and then I got Slytherin, so am I Harry Potter?
Germaine: Can you speak to snakes?
Germaine: James is a Ravenclaw. Theo is a Slytherin.
Platt: Hard core.
Deutch: Who I am?
Platt: I think you’re a Gryf.
Deutch: I want to be a Slytherin.
Platt: OK. Then be a Slytherin. As you find out by the end, the Sorting Hat takes your preferences into account.
MTV News: Ben, once again you’ve stepped into the shoes of an unsympathetic hero. First with Evan Hansen, now with Payton. What draws you to these types of characters?
Platt: I just think it’s really delicious as an actor to have that kind of challenge, to make people connect with someone who, on the page, doesn’t have a lot of empathy. That’s the most positive effect art can have, to help you connect with people you might not see common ground with, other than people you shouldn’t have common ground with — but I don’t think Payton is one of those people. If someone is so easily kind and loveable there’s very little room to grow and very little room to find nuances and layers. As a person, I’m a vulnerable, heart-on-my-sleeve kind of guy so to play someone who isn’t like that and to challenge people to then be able to see into him, I don’t know, it gives me the kind of scary, stomach-flip feeling — but in a good way, as far as something I haven’t done before.
MTV News: After living with him for so many months, did you start to see yourself in him?
Platt: Certainly. I think we share a lot of qualities, like our ambition and our very one track-minded drive. We’ve both known what it is we’ve wanted to do since we were really young. He wanted to be president since he was seven; I’ve wanted to perform since I was six or seven, too. So I can appeal to that struggle of what are you willing to sacrifice for that? How much of your social life and your well-being emotionally are you willing to say goodbye to, to really invest? I definitely have a harder time compartmentalizing my feelings than Payton does. I still feel them very deeply, and as actors we spend a lot of time learning how to lean into them instead of getting rid of them. So that’s where we depart.
MTV News: And how many Picassos did you have in your family home?
Platt: Zero. Though, I sang in a random living room in London for a nice man for his birthday, and he had a Picasso in his living room and I was really distracted by it the whole time. I was like, “That’s a Picasso.”
MTV News: Zoey, was there a challenge to playing Infinity, a character that could easily come off as a victim but really finds her voice throughout the season?
Deutch: It was fun to try and find ways to embed little nuances or mirror things that she learned from Dusty [Jessica Lange] once her truth started to unfold. That was fun for me as an actor to try and embed little pieces of Jessica’s performance. It justified my weird watching of her. Infinity has been infantilized since she was a kid, and her idea of an adult and her responses are so bizarre. She knows nothing else. So that was fun to explore.
MTV News: You both also had a nice musical moment this season. What was your reaction to reading the script for that particular scene?
Platt: I really wanted to make sure, and Ryan did too, that it was serving the story and that it felt organic to the character and that it was going to enhance the piece and not just feel like, here’s an elbowed-in reason for Ben to sing. So the most enjoyable surprise is when we got the script for Episode 6 and I learned that Zoey was going to sing, too. I didn’t even know that she sang — I don’t think many people know she sings, and they’re going to be incredibly surprised by her voice. Also, it’s a moment for Infinity and Payton to find real common ground and become friends. It’s very humanizing for Payton.
Deutch: I thought it was so brilliant to incorporate Assassins. For anyone who’s a theater geek, I think they’ll agree. It’s a really interesting choice, especially for Infinity and where she is in the story. Assassins feels more topical now than it ever did with violence being such a point of discussion and so prevalent in our country. It’s a very dark, political comedy. It’s very cohesive with The Politician.
MTV News: Ben, you touched on this a little bit, but Payton is blinded by ambition. Obviously, as actors, you’re all ambitious. But has something ever consumed you the way Payton is consumed in this story?
Germaine: I think that Payton’s trajectory and the battle that he has compartmentalizing feelings and the sacrifices that are being made in order to achieve this goal is something that I totally relate with. Experiencing the grind of going out on auditions… there’s so much social time that I chose to give up because I was like, I will stop at nothing to get what I want. That’s sometimes how you have to be when you’re starting off in the industry. There were times when I was working and doing shows and not seeing anybody. I forgot who I was. It’s really hard to find that balance when you want something so badly.
Schlaepfer: It’s definitely relatable to us as performers. It’s really hard to do this and to get jobs and to be here when so many people want it. I definitely understand putting a lot of other aspects of your life on hold. But to a point. It’s easy to get sucked in. For that reason, it was easy to tap into the ambition that Alice has.
MTV News: The question that this series grapples with is: Can someone want power and be a good person? This is especially important as we head towards an election year. What do you think?
Platt: I think so. There’s such a focus right now, particularly in America, on the person and the kind of person who’s in office. There are reasons why that’s important, particularly given who’s doing that job right now — maybe not for long, that’d be cool. There needs to be a floor of just empathy and general humanity and being a person who can stand and carry a conversation, which apparently is not a given as a president anymore. But I do think that the real focus has to be: What are the things that they want to accomplish? Obviously, their ability to accomplish these things and who they are as a person is also important but those things have got to be the biggest reason for your vote. At least that’s what I try and think about.