Ben Platt Unleashes His Inner Egomaniac in ‘The Politician’

After two years as the poster child for teen angst in “Dear Evan Hansen,” Ben Platt was over the accolades and ready to move on.

He’d sobbed-sung his way into a Tony, Grammy and Emmy, and become the youngest winner of the Drama League’s Distinguished Performance Award, bestowed once in a career. He’d ranked among the Time 100 list of the world’s most influential people when he was only 23.

But gradually, disconcertingly, people started to assume that Platt was Evan, replete with the character’s social anxiety and nervous tics.

Ryan Murphy, however, wasn’t one of them. After watching Platt onstage, Murphy was convinced that he’d found the star of his new Netflix series, “The Politician,” which arrives Friday.

“You just played someone that’s very anxious and nervous and mild-mannered,” Platt recalled Murphy pitching him. “And I want you to turn that on its head and play someone who’s more egomaniacal and confident and self-serving, and has a bit more sex to him.”

“Obviously, being the very smart person that he was, he was speaking exactly the language of what I was hoping to move into,” Platt added. “It was a no-brainer.”

As Payton Hobart, Platt is a Gucci-clad, ultraprivileged Santa Barbara high schooler running for student body president in laser-focused pursuit of Harvard and, eventually, the White House. It’s a darkly comic skewering of the one percent with rabid baby politicos, badly behaved parental figures (among them, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Lange) and even a wink at the college cheating scandal.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Platt — one of five showtune-obsessed siblings whose father, the producer Marc Platt, cranked up cast albums in the car — admits that his own ambitions were honed young. A theater nerd at the Harvard-Westlake School alongside the scions of other entertainment families, he added the roles of Benji Applebaum in “Pitch Perfect” and Elder Cunningham in the Chicago production of “The Book of Mormon” (later moving to Broadway) to his resume not long after graduation.

“The level of ambition I certainly could relate to,” Platt said of his own high school experience. “We took ourselves very seriously in the arts and really wanted to make something of ourselves, and a lot of us are now.”

His latest project, Richard Linklater’s movie adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” to be filmed in real time across nearly 20 years, unites him with his childhood bestie Beanie Feldstein. And on Sept. 29 at Radio City Music Hall (and in a Netflix concert special to follow), he’ll perform tunes from “Sing to Me Instead,” his debut album released in March, viewed by some fans as a public coming out, even though at 12 Platt told his parents he was gay.

At a TriBeCa photo studio recently, Platt, who turns 26 this month, riffed softly to Maggie Rogers tunes in the aching falsetto that moved “Evan Hansen” audiences to tears, before heading to a rooftop garden to talk about the convergence of art and life.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Let’s begin with your desire to move on from “Dear Evan Hansen.”

I think it’s like 99 blessings and one curse, that experience. Because it opened every possible door, and it was my absolute to-the-T dream come true, as far as all I ever wanted to do was originate a role in a musical, and the Tonys of it all, and the fact that it was [the songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul]. It kept topping itself.

But the one underhanded thing when something goes so well and fits like a glove is that people have a hard time divorcing you from that character. And I started to feel a little bit like I was having to present as him and amplify my nervousness and my anxiety and my sheepishness. I wanted to remind myself that I can transform into a lot of different kinds of people and not just into that type of kid. And so I felt like something markedly different, that still used the right tools, would be the right next move.

So what should we expect from Payton and “The Politician?”

Payton is a young kid who’s hellbent on being president of the United States, and it’s one of the most natural things to him to strive for that power and that significance. And I think he has a lot of instincts to do good. But he’s also incredibly self-serving and somewhat egomaniacal, and his main goal is to make something of himself for not necessarily the right reasons. The show is sort of a microcosm of American politics, and it certainly deals with the buzzwords of elections and debates and gun control and sexual and gender fluidity — headline things. But in an overarching way, it’s also about a lot more human conversations like authenticity and what’s it like to curate yourself. How do you share who you are? And how do you feel for other people?

You perform Joni Mitchell’s “River” in the pilot and the onscreen audience weeps. Was Ryan nodding to all the people who cried along with you in “Evan Hansen?”

I’m sure there’s some sort of inspiration from him coming in to see me and this story hatching in his mind. But Payton is so shut off and unable to feel the way that everyone else is feeling. So I think the main idea of that whole sequence is everyone else can connect to what he’s doing except for him.

And yet there’s perhaps more kindness in him than he gives himself credit for.

I think it’s up for debate, and I don’t think anyone should make a hard-core decision about him. That’s sort of the fascinating thing on the show — finding yourself loving what he’s doing and rooting for him and then questioning what he’s doing. But I certainly think there’s kindness in him somewhere. And a lot of it comes from Gwyneth, his mother, the warmth of that relationship.

What was it like working with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Lange?

Very overwhelming at first, because they were both larger than life people in my mind’s eye before I met them. But wonderful in totally different ways. Gwyneth is super quietly elegant and really maternal and warm, and made me feel very intimately familiar right away. And Jessica — you expect this brilliant dramatic actress, which she is, but also she’s so funny. To work with her and try to keep a straight face was not the challenge I thought I’d be having.

How is it being stuck in onscreen teendom in your mid-20s?

Well, it’s only just this season that that is the case, so I’m very excited to grow up with the character and start playing my own age.

You’ve committed the next 20 years to “Merrily We Roll Along” alongside your best friend, Beanie. Was that a tough decision?

I was like, “Are you punking me?” Sondheim is my idol and any Sondheim musical is like a dream. To be in an immortal version of that with my best friend since I was 14, in a show we both love and we’ve sung in the car together, it feels very sort of like the universe intervened.

How daunting is that prospect, production-wise?

It’s crazy. It’s technically 18 [years] in shooting, because it’s nine sequences and they’re trying to stick as close to the reality of the timeline as possible. I mean, it makes you take your health seriously. [Richard Linklater] will be, like, pushing 80 when we finish.

He really needs to …

… keep in shape.

How do you plan for such a long-term commitment?

It’s sort of a one-at-a-time situation. About a year out from the next increment, we’ll be like, “Let’s all get together and figure out our common few weeks that we can set aside and where we can make this happen monetarily, and what new characters we need to add for this sequence.” Just taking it short film by short film.

You’ve already shot the first segment. What was that like?

Just dreamy and wonderful and heady. It was like doing a little theater camp in Texas and spending a week living in that one sequence and with that great song, “Our Time” — taking pictures and thinking how we’re going to look back on this for the next two decades and keep checking in with ourselves. It made everybody feel very lofty and misty and existential.

Is Sondheim involved?

He gave his blessing; he loves the idea. I think he recognizes, like all of us, that the concept and the piece are a really perfect marriage. I’m told we’re going to have a meal with him at some point, which would be a wonderful thing. It’s definitely on my bucket list to sit across from him and tell him that he’s made my life infinitely better by existing and writing, so I hope that happens.

So by the time you’re in your 40s, you might finally win that Oscar to complete your EGOT?

I’m in no rush. It’s all happened plenty quick up to this point. I’m happy for it to slow down a little bit.

Your father has secured the film rights to “Dear Evan Hansen.” After all is said and done, is there any way you’d reprise that role?

It’s unclear at this point. It’s being developed and certainly if it comes together in the next year or so, when everyone can forgive me for still playing a teenager, then yeah, I would love to do it.

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