Student Buddies: Ben Platt (left photo) and Zoey Deutch (right photo) star in Ryan Murphy’s The Politician, the creator’s first show for Netflix.
The Politician: High stakes high school
EVERYTHING IS EMBARRASSING - Margarita Buenaventura (The Philippine Star) - September 21, 2019 - 12:00am

Exclusive photos: Ryan Murphy’s first-ever Netflix endeavor puts in the spotlight a young man vying for the highest position in the land. But first, he has to conquer high school.

There’s a moment in The Politician’s hour-long pilot where Payton (played by Ben Platt) commandeers his high school library as his campaign managers brief him on their latest crisis — another student running for class president. With a breakdown looming ahead, Payton walks away from their communal table and heads to the nearest leather chair, where two students are seated. He simply stands in front of them, waves a hand, and they scuttle away. The scene is impressive because of the little ticks that make this Payton character feel both human and alien-esque: the mercurial personality, the biting of nails, the confidence in his pose. In just a minute, Platt has managed to paint a vivid portrait of who Payton really is, and why the stakes are so high for a guy who just wants to win student council.

This is what The Politician is all about, in essence. The first Ryan Murphy show on Netflix makes a pretty bold move, telling the story of Payton, an incredibly intelligent and determined young person who turns high school into a political petri dish: he runs the student council elections like a national campaign, complete with polling, backdoor deals, and the occasional sabotage. (His eventual running mate is played by Zoey Deutch as Infinity Jackson, a classmate diagnosed with cancer, as a bid to humanize Payton.) But as the story progresses, Payton realizes that he’s just as much in the fray as his “constituents.” It gets dirty, and dark. And we could not stop watching.

Spoilers aside, it is perhaps one of the most exciting shows to come out on Netflix — especially one in which the subject matter is high school politics. At sneak preview of the show’s pilot in London this week, we got a chance to sit down with Platt and Deutch to talk about playing anti-heroes, the importance of positivity, and which one of them actually ran of student body president.

SUPREME: Did you guys ever run for student council in high school?

Ben Platt: Not in high school, but I ran in middle school, in eighth grade. For president, lost. Vice president, lost. And then they gave me treasurer as a consolation prize.

Were you a good treasurer?

Ben: Yes! I was very responsible.

Zoey Deutch: (Laughs, then, in exaggerated Southern accent): Yes, yes!

Ben: I handled the Friday Pizza very well. Every Friday, the student council would administer outside pizza. We always eat the food—

Zoey: (Laughs) The way you just said that! Administered pizza?

Ben: We would administer the Nagila Pizza, because we always eat only cafeteria food. I went to a Jewish school, we would only eat kosher food from within the school. Only on Fridays they let us bring pizza from outside. So we were allowed to pick up pizzas for everyone, and we would organize it, and then we decide on the prices, what does the money go towards…

Ah, so they have to buy it!

Yes, they buy the pizza. As a treasurer, I was dealing with the money and the pricing. And I think I did a good job. Even though they didn’t want me to be president.

Well, treasurer is pretty powerful as well, I think.

Yeah, right? You have the keys to the kingdom.

What about you, Zoey, did you ever run for student council?

Zoey: My high school didn’t have anything like that. I went to an arts high school, and they didn’t have that.

Anarchy. I like that.

Exactly.

What I love about the show is that it feels very current. Did you ever have to study how high school students behave before production started?

My character (Infinity) is isolated and kept away from her high school. So if anything, I needed to stay far from understanding how the Gen C — Gen C? What’s Gen C? We don’t know, we’re going to find out. It’s gonna be a long way away. (Laughs) Gen Z high school experience.

Ben: For me, I think the vernacular is already there in the writing. For Payton, it was more about treating him as an adult at the top of his intelligence, as opposed to trying to play young. ‘Cause I think the way they represent all the young people on the show, and the way they’ve written them, is as real, complicated interesting people who just happen to be high school students. I didn’t really think of it so much as high school, this is his insular community, and these are the stakes. This is the platform he has right, and eventually he has other platforms.

In your mind, do you think Payton doesn’t see his classmates as his peers?

I think it’s more of he sees them as constituents, as people to win over, less than peers. I think he sees his immediates as peers, like his campaign manager, the people that help him get what he wants, his girlfriend, and eventually his running mate. But everyone else to him is more of a demographic, rather than they are people.

Zoey: I think there’s a respect, though, for the generation rather than talking down to them. I think it’s really cool — just to piggyback on your comment — that he takes them very seriously. And the stakes are really high, as we all know. And it deals with it in a satirical, fun, bright and exciting way. But these are very smart people. It’s not like talking down to or belittling the high school experience in any way, which I love.

Ben: Most of these young people on the show think way more intelligently than I do.

Zoey: Well, you know that’s true with me. (Ben laughs) I can barely form one sentence out of my mouth. Uh, yeah. Like that. (Ben laughs again.)

You mentioned satire and the show does have some moments where it feels quite real. Were there any situations or moments on the show that you felt were too close to reality?

Ben: I think everything is handled with a lot of care. I think anything that gets very earnest or that it’s talking about something that is really dire, like a gun control conversation, or mental health, suicide, things like that. I think that the writing is handled incredibly gingerly and cautiously. To the point where I never felt personally uncomfortable talking about it. Certainly, there were character things and kooky sort of language, where I’m like, “How am I gonna make this work? This is crazy!” but of course, it ended up working because we have brilliant actors everywhere. But as far as being scared of the subject matter, I was always really trusting of the three creators (Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Ian Brennan) that they were handling it all really well. They took very seriously that they were going to be seen by millions of young people, and they want to only bring forward positive messages.

Zoey, your character’s story kind of reminds me of Gypsy Rose (Blanchard), the girl who supposedly had cancer but turned out to be abused by her mom because of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Was your performance inspired by that story?

Zoey: I think that there are more stories about it, that maybe show up in the news. Extraordinary as that case was, how I can comment on that is that, like all things on this show, they feel very current. There’s a lot of commentary on topical situations. But this is a fictional character in a fictional world. And I did not base my character on her. The voice was a result of feeling like she’s been infantilized her whole life, that her development has been stunted. It’s by no means put on or affected. It’s the way she speaks.

You both play such morally ambiguous characters, and yet as I watched the show I still found myself rooting for you both.

Anti-heroes!

Exactly. Was that what appealed to you as actors, that it was someone who wasn’t exactly a nice person?

Ben: Very much so. I think it’s very uninteresting to play someone who is very easily likable. The project that I came from before this is called Dear Evan Hansen, and that’s another character that’s making difficult choices and is choosing to lie to a family that’s grieving. He’s another anti-hero in that sense. But there’s a lot of luxury in that character because he’s very kind, and anxious, and sweet, and very easily lovable. So to play someone who’s now making similar choices morally, that are difficult to get behind, but the vehicle for them is sort of aggressive; (there’s) confidence, sometimes hubris and (it’s) self-serving. That was the next step in that challenge and one of the top things I was most excited about.

Zoey: I think life in general is so much more interesting and complicated than good or bad, or light and dark. It’s so much more interesting to look deeper and to not just skim the surface. And we all root for anti-heroes. The most current and most obvious example is Walter White, where he’d do horrible thing after horrible thing, but you understood where that was coming from. And anytime you can break down a human being, and see the humanity in why they’re doing something maybe awful — that’s rooted in empathy. And the more you can feel empathy and spread empathy in the world, even if it seems like you’re just watching someone doing something bad, it’s special. It’s one of the greatest gifts humans have. The gift of empathy.

Without getting into spoilers, why do you think it is that your characters are drawn to each other as friends?

(Ben and Zoey look at each other)

Ben: Huh! I think for Payton, he — again, we don’t wanna give too much away — but eventually he really wants to connect to something real, and to feel something that is free from tactic, or from artifice. And Infinity doesn’t really have that option, because she’s just having to respond to her surroundings, and like Zoey says (the character) is always a victim of her circumstance, and Payton recognizes that that’s something to admire, and he really wants to emulate. He really wants to connect with her and feel something like that.

Zoey: And I think regardless of how they came into the relationship — and I don’t wanna give anything away — I think she recognizes that… I think she’s starting to understand second chances, and how they can exist. And that this person maybe deserves this second chance.

Ben: Yeah, he does.

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The Politician premieres on Netflix this Sept. 27.

BEN PLATT NETFLIX THE POLITICIAN ZOEY DEUTCH
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