Definitely no flash in the pan, but a permanent fixture in the glittering galaxy of stars, Ben Platt of Netflix’s The Politician proves why we should keep an eye out for him in more ways than one.
These days, it seems that everyone is especially hell bent on being able to be everything and do everything. It isn’t the least bit surprising, considering we live at a time where there is premium on multiple hats and hyphenates, being able to ideally and seamlessly juggle one act to the next with ease and a gleaming proof of life on social media. However, therein lies a danger of stretching one’s self too thin or risk running a quality to a not-so exceptional standard. We’ve seen it happen, on television, on Instagram, and even in real life: people will run themselves to the ground at some point, being everything other than who they are supposed to be—except that is for Ben Platt.
At 26 years old, Ben Platt is in the running to be one of, if not the youngest actor to be inducted to a highly select and most prestigious club of modern-day Renaissance figures as an EGOT (that means winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, aka the grand slam of Hollywood awards), one that includes the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Whoopi Goldberg, and most recently, John Legend. With just an Oscar missing (he won the Daytime Emmy for the cast performance of Dear Evan Hansen in 2017, a Grammy for the cast album of the same musical, for which he also a Tony for Best Actor), he is what we would classify as a rare breed. They certainly don’t make them like they used to, but he is proving quick why he is one to keep a close tabs on.
We will say it, Ben Platt is the most important actor of his generation today.
Look, it isn’t easy to parlay from one creative focus to the other, exhibiting of course the same gravitas between disciplines, but based on his track record and memorable outputs, he displays an exemplary precision to shine and stand out, all while being moored to a vulnerable emotion that many people are only so scared to confront these days. On the surface, it looks intimidating, for sure, but just as his character in the acclaimed Netflix hit, The Politician grows in the series, there reveals to be a most fascinating man behind the perceptions. Here we have a man who is not only willing to prove his worth, but he is just as willing to put in the work, no matter how long it takes.
MAKING THE POLITICIAN
In the first episode of The Politician, an eerie, too real incident rocks the typically unperturbed upper echelon educational realm of the fictional Saint Sebastian High School in Santa Barbara, California. Tackling a similar paradigm to that of the 1999 Reese Witherspoon starrer, Election, the show deals with more contemporary issues and modern day morsels of truth, all while rendered in a glossy, picture-perfect aesthetic. Following the death of his political rival and friend, River Barkley, Platt’s Payton Hobart, a scheming sociopath eagle-eyed into winning the presidency of his school’s student body, sheds all form of cunning and breaks down his impenetrable walls, which unravels a visibly wrought and emotionally overcome young man as he sings a cover of Joni Mitchell’s River during the memorial.
“I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” and so goes the song, which not only brings the entire student body to tears, including eventual opponent, Astrid Sloan, but the viewers as well—this writer included. Up until that point, we were being made to disagree with Payton Hobart, hate him even, what with his very extreme unapologetic politicizing for high-school level elections, one that saw nothing stand in his way, friendships and family included. “I mean, I think he has a lot of trouble feeling deeply for other people. I think he’s able to feel very deeply when he’s the one sort of on the receiving end, when it’s going to affect his life or his path, but he has trouble seeing outside of himself,” Ben Platt says of his character’s motivation and eventual development. “I think he has a lot of hubris, sometimes he has trouble accepting help. I think he really wants to believe he has all the answers and believes so much in himself, which is a good thing, but as sometimes he has as much trouble admitting his shortcomings, which by the end of the season, he does a better job of, but yeah, I think that’s something he struggles with.”
It is in this exact circumstance that we begin to see the real Payton, one replete of pomp and pretense, and instead, consumed by a confusing swirl of emotions. An early pivot for his character, this is when the real work begins in figuring out who he really is, and it is fascinating to watch, especially since there are many facets that the people can definitely relate to. Yes, even after multiple viewings of the episodes. “I think it’s for the audience to decide and ultimately will be a greater question through the whole course of the show. I certainly don’t think it’s cut and dry. I’m certainly not a bold-faced capitalist sociopath, and he certainly has the ability to feel in the right circumstance. I think it’s more about he has difficulty again, getting in touch with his emotions, if it’s outside of his feeling for him for himself,” he enlightens.
To prepare for his role, Ben Platt took a deep dive into the world of politics, in the same vein his alter ego has carefully and diligently mapped out a course of action to navigate from high school to his eventual dream of the US presidency. “I definitely watched some speeches and some debates of very galvanizing politicians that really mastered their sort of character version of themselves. But I didn’t really limit myself to being inspired only by liberal politicians. I think a lot of TV personalities and actors and particularly late night hosts and people that have to really create like a persona version of themselves that is very trustworthy and likable. And I think that was sort of an amalgam of all those things,” he says “I was also very inspired by a young gentleman named Cameron Kasky, who is one of the Parkland survivors of the shooting in Florida and in Los Angeles. Then he became a really important leader of the gun control movement and a voice in that conversation. He was the youngest person I’d ever seen in a political conversation be that intelligent and eloquent at 18 years old. So to see someone that young be that mature and that well-spoken was a really, really created a really helpful image.”
Beyond the penetrating, soul-baring gaze of the camera, Ben Platt further stretched his skill sets even more by standing as an Executive Producer of this endeavor. While he presumably had more scope to look over in production, he knew that he was in a company of great men, the incomparable Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan included. “I mean, the cinematography is not my M.O. Ryan is a brilliant aesthete, and visually he’s very genius. And he has an amazing camera team, who are very talented for me,” he says. “My role sort of took more involvement in like the casting process and sort of putting my hat in the ring as far as the actors that I was interested in getting, particularly my contemporaries of the people that were my own age and giving my two cents in that arena, as well as, as sort of a leader of the cast. I really tried to take it upon myself to create a community and create a family and make us all feel like we’re part of one project since we are all part of such different story lines. And we’re not getting opportunities to be all working all at the same time to create as many chances outside of work as possible for us to bond and feel like we’re part of one family, because I think that some people, I mean, that makes the experience far more enjoyable. And I think it makes you want to do your best work when you already personally invest invested yet.”
The result is a dazzling display of age-appropriate neuroses upended by camp, grace and restraint when necessary. And even months after its premiere, people are still talking about the show, making references to it beyond the hallowed halls of Saint Sebastian, clearly illustrating the indelible imprint it has on pop culture today.
HE GROWS UP
Ben Platt is not deluded into thinking that his character is the story’s end all and be all, assuming a carte blanche over the rest of the story lines. In fact, it is in the imperfection of Payton Hobart that keeps his gears going, continuously finding new spaces to create and make clear intentions, which he can derive a necessary catharsis for. “In the show, he chooses to stick his nose into something regarding Infinity, and then chooses not to divulge? I think that both of those are big mistakes. I think he should have let it be and mind his own business. But then once he made that mistake, choosing to then not act on it immediately and withhold it for his own gain is another huge mistake,” he says of his character’s questionable choices, that is on top of one narrative altering decision. “Oh, it gets me every gosh darn time,” he exasperates on not looking back. Watch the show and see why this was such a painful, heart-wringing moment. “I don’t really want to give away, but he is always is really mainly interested in the way that the story is going to be perceived, in the way that the plan is going to go, in the way that others are going to view him. And he doesn’t want to sacrifice that for anyone, especially not for other people, right? So he’s willing to hurt someone and put someone through pain if it’s going to maintain the safety of his story,” he says.
While it is excruciating to watch pan out, it is in those unbearable moments that he becomes human, that he becomes who he really truly is. Finally, he sheds every layer, every armor, and every insulation and ultimately grows up. Well, sort of.
In the hands of a lesser capable, less emotionally intelligent actor, the portrayal of Payton Hobart would be questionable caricature, one that will likely draw upon every conceivable cliché and stereotype known to man. But this is Ben Platt we are talking about, a man who cares so much for the character, even in moments that are questionable, eventually turning a perceived pain-in-the-ass to simply a man embroiled in so much hurt and pain, who really is each and everyone of us at that the end of day. Ruthless as he may have stood to be, he is also just as human as the next person, simply navigating through the throes of youth, the transition of adulthood, and of ultimately figuring out who he is in this polarizing world of expectations we live in today.
It may just seem to be a streaming series we binge watch when and where we want and can, but The Politician, as essayed by Ben Platt, has become less entertainment fodder and more an illuminating conversation of the human being and the choices we make. A stellar turn for what it’s worth, this could very well another glint and gleam on his sterling curriculum vitae, one that will set him apart as no flash in the pan, but a permanent fixture in the glittering galaxy of stars that everyone will always keep an eye out for.