Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have a long list of successes. Shows like “Glee” (2009–2015), “American Horror Story” (2011–present), “Scream Queens” (2015–2016) and “Pose” (2018–present) are undoubtedly cultural touchstones. There’s variety in the duo’s work, but there’s no denying when something just feels like a Murphy/Falchuk production. Regardless if the show features Idina Menzel or a ghost who wears a latex bondage suit, the creative duo manage to make it fit it into their larger television universe.
Their first Netflix show, “The Politician” (2019–present) is no exception. The first season follows Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), supported by his girlfriend Alice Charles (Julia Schlaepfer) and his mother Georgina Hobart (Gwyneth Paltrow), as he runs for student body president at Saint Sebastian High School in Santa Barbara, Calif.. The show is full of outrageously campy comedy, over-the-top performances and gorgeous production design and costumes. “The Politician” has everything that Murphy/Falchuk fans could hope for, but what’s different about this show is its honesty, approach and timeliness.
This past Thursday, Platt and Schlaepfer sat down at the Boston Athenaeum to discuss everything about “The Politician,” from working with legendary actors to really digging into their wealthy and cutthroat high school characters.
“I knew it was going to be something special,” Schlaepfer said, discussing what originally attracted her to the show. She commented that seeing Murphy, Falchuk and Ian Brennan’s name attached to the production was especially exciting, after she had grown up watching “Glee.” “The characters are smart, you have all of these young people who want to be politically active and are ambitious without apology, and it was unlike anything I had ever read,” she said.
As for Platt, Murphy pitched the role on “The Politician” during Platt’s run as Evan Hansen in the Broadway production of “Dear Evan Hansen” (2015–). “He [Murphy] led very much with that he had created the character to be something that I could diverge from Evan with, and do something that was very different energetically and that was much more assertive and energetic and confident and sociopathic, even,” Platt said.
He noted that Murphy made sure that he could still find humanity and vulnerability in his character. “He [Murphy] is just really smart about giving an actor the right amount of challenge but letting them use their strengths,” Platt said.
For Platt, this also meant some music, including fantastic renditions of Joni Mitchell’s “River” (1971) and Billy Joel’s “Vienna” (1977). They’re gorgeously sung covers, no doubt another tool for Platt to access his character and dig into who Hobart really is.
It’s the balance between exploration and comfort that explains why Murphy and Falchuk have such a long list of actors who make regular appearances in their shows. One of the duo’s regulars, Jessica Lange, plays the immediately iconic character Dusty Jackson. She is the grandmother to Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), who becomes Hobart’s running mate and who falsely believes she has cancer.
“She’s wonderful,” Platt said, explaining that Lange is certainly a fantastic dramatic actress, but also a stellar comedic one, too. “Jessica makes you comfortable immediately because she makes you laugh,” he added.
Platt said that Lange was elegant but nonetheless incredibly approachable on set.. “As a fellow actor, I always felt like an equal, and like she wanted nothing more than to just connect with me and make it a great performance,” he said.
Lange has some of the best moments in “The Politician,” stealing the show with one particular scene in the first episode when she uses her granddaughter’s cancer to nab a table at a fully-booked Olive Garden.
Other fantastic actors Platt and Schlaepfer worked with for the show include Paltrow, who, like Platt, also executive produced. “She was incredibly protective and maternal towards me and made me feel loved and well taken care of,” Platt said. Their relationship is, according to Platt, “the gooey center of the show.”
Beyond the legendary stars, Platt and Schlaepfer make “The Politician” an exciting watch because of their character work. “For me, in terms of grounding her [Charles],” Schlaepfer said, “it was all about leading with love and her motivation throughout the whole show is love and her love for Payton.” Schlaepfer noted that the center of her character is being “a 17-year-old girl who loves her boyfriend.”
While Charles has an icy exterior, it was important for Schlaepfer that she feel warm and genuine inside. “One of the things that I think that our show is really looking at is this idea of everyone, in today’s world of social media, needing to put up a façade of some sort,” Schlaepfer said.
Schlaepfer noted that the best moments came when playing with that image, adding that “studying those cracks in our characters when that façade would break away was really fascinating.” The cracks in that mask come in personal struggles for the characters of “The Politician,” particularly with mental health and relationships. She explained that the script described Charles as a “young Hillary Clinton” and that she drew inspiration from her. Schalepfer was especially fascinated by the former secretary of state’s commitment to her marriage. As for Platt, inspiration comes from a variety of sources, including his “own ambition as a kid to be a performer” and, as Hobart says in the show, Ronald Reagan and the idea of the television president.
Platt’s performance as Hobart balances between grounded and off-the-handle. The first episode shows Hobart as an explosive character who is desperate to get what he wants. Platt makes Hobart, who could be cold and isolating, incredibly palpable for the viewer: “The Politician” allows Hobart to feel three-dimensional and honest. The vulnerability in Hobart is important. “When those [moments] feel like they’re earned enough and big enough and honest enough, then when you’re doing the stuff that’s the colder, meaner, ambition-driven ruthlessness, you can go a lot farther because you don’t have to be afraid of driving the audience away,” Platt said.
One aspect of any Murphy/Falchuk show are the iconic costumes, and “The Politician” delivers a multitude of fantastic looks. It’s an exciting topic for Schlaepfer and Platt. “There are just racks and racks of designer clothes that are just perfect for you and really create your character,” the two said, interrupting one another. For Platt, the costumes made his character feel much more tangible. “It was so fun,” Schlaepfer said, “you just go in for an hour or two and play dress up.”
The two noted that “The Politician” works so well because of the closeness of the cast, led by Platt. “The second that we all learned that we were cast together, he sent out a group message on Instagram,” Schlaepfer said. The cast’s bonding activities included a beach day, a Disneyland trip and Platt and Schlaepfer getting meals together. Schlaepfer adds “he [Platt] really took charge and made sure we were all comfortable with each other because he knew that it was going to be a very intense experience.”
“The Politician” is currently available to stream on Netflix.