There’s a moment early on in The Politician where Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) rushes over to Infinity Jackson’s (Zoey Deutch) house in the middle of the night, waking up her and her grandmother as he hammers on their front door. Infinity is his running mate in the student-body election, and a videotape of her using an offensive homophobic slur has leaked online. Payton is in crisis management mode, demanding to know what Infinity had said. Turns out she called a reporter a “buttmuncher”, and the video was being shared by Payton’s opponents as a tactical move.
This handling of cancel culture is one of the many moments in Netflix’s latest show that touches on real life issues. The fallout to these comments is eerily familiar, and we see Payton and his team try to distance himself from Infinity. Meanwhile, other students are outraged by the comments and change their voting preferences, and Infinity’s Nana Dusty, played immaculately by Jessica Lange, is totally bemused by the whole thing, exclaiming “I don’t understand why calling that gay man a buttmuncher was such a scandal: that’s what gays do! Munch butts and celebrate Halloween!”
The Politician is the first Netflix picture that showrunner Ryan Murphy has brought his Midas touch to. It’s part of the American Horror Story and Glee creator’s mammoth, $300millon dollar deal with the streaming giant, and his fingerprints are all over the show. Created with his long-time collaborators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, it’s incredibly theatrical, with occasionally preposterous plot lines and a kitsch Wes Anderson score. In classic Murphy style, though, behind the sometimes fantastical story he slips in intelligent takes on hot button issues that hold a mirror up to current society. This time, under the guise of a bunch of privileged teenagers running in their high school elections, the satire tackles gun control, mental health and sexuality, played out by a brilliantly diverse cast of characters.
Laura Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Murphy on Glee and plays McAfee, a high schooler-cum-political strategist, said it was obvious the show was something different from day one. “The first day we arrived on set, we were just aware that this was something incredibly unique,” she tells NME in a plush Soho hotel room. “I think [the show] challenges us to examine where we are right now in the world, and what we want to see, and the changes that we want to see, and it brings up issues that are very prevalent.”
Throughout, the characters are brilliantly written. Ben Platt, best known for his roles in Broadway musicals like Dear Evan Hansen and the Pitch Perfect films, plays the lead Peyton Hobart, a spoilt high-schooler who has his entire life meticulously planned out, all leading up to the moment he becomes president. This means he has to go to Harvard (the University home of no less than seven US presidents throughout history) and has to become student-body president, else his route to the White House may be ruined.
Platt was drawn to Peyton as it was such a different character to those he’s played before. “I’d never really played somebody so aggressive and assertive before,” he reflects. “Someone who walked into a room and wanted to be seen and take up space. Someone who had such confidence and was somewhat self serving and borderline sociopathic and maniacal.”
The cast were aware that the writing felt different to other projects that they’d worked on. “Every line I would just be like “that’s a meme”!” says Zoey Deutch, who plays Infinity. “And not just a comment on like, ‘Oh, that’ll be cool on social media’. It was more of a comment of ‘Oh, that’ll resonate with so many people that it will go everywhere’”
Alongside the young actors playing high school students are a handful of big names. One of them is Gwyneth Paltrow, who stars as Payton’s glamorous adoptive mother Georgina Hobart.
“I think before we started, she [Paltrow] to me was this larger than life personality and character in my mind – and through meeting her that feeling just gets quelled the longer that I’ve spent with her,” Platt says of scenes with his onscreen mum. “She just immediately made me feel like I was taken under her wing. She was very protective, maternal and just very sweet light energy toward me, which I think really translates in the relationship of Peyton and his mother, all while running Goop from the other room between takes!”
She was actually running Goop on set?
“For sure. She always had a little private space regardless of the location where she had like two or three people with her, and while they were changing camera setup she would go make you know, Earth-shaking decisions and then just come back and be my mum.”
Deutch speaks similarly about acting legend Jessica Lange, who plays her onscreen grandmother: “It’s like acting with the fastest, most incredible racecar of an actor that you would imagine!”
Whilst working on the show, the cast didn’t fully know what the finished product would be like. “Our storylines are all running very parallel, so we had a lot of very separate days,” says Lucy Boynton, who plays mean girl Astrid Sloan (Payton’s opposition in the elections). “But I guess it’s also what makes the show so fun to watch for us as well, as you’re so very aware of your storyline and world within it, but then we weren’t seeing anything else.”
“We didn’t know we were shooting a comedy,” Deutch adds. “Jessica [Lange] and I had no idea!”
But luckily, they were all fans of the final product, although Murphy was worried for a moment. They watched the first episode as a cast with the trio of showrunners, and Boynton revealed that after watching it “everyone was so shellshocked” and that Murphy wondered if they even liked it.
Dreyfuss adds: “I think Ryan was a bit concerned that we didn’t like it because our mouths were just open! But I think it was that realisation that we’re part of something that’s so much bigger than us. And that was really special to be in a room watching.” They later all went to Ryan’s house where they watched all eight episodes back-to-back “in the way it was meant to be seen.”
Looking to the future, the series was bought for two seasons, so the cast don’t have to worry about the show being renewed. If, like Murphy’s other shows, The Politician runs for seasons and seasons (Glee ran for six seasons, and American Horror Story is midway through season nine) the cast have no problem being tied into the project. “I think the exciting thing about working with such brilliant people is that time doesn’t mean anything,” says Dreyfuss, “it’s the luxury of getting to create art with people who are so smart and have such a clear vision that it would only be exciting to continue to work on this for as long as we can.”
The plan is for each season to follow Payton through a different political election, the first being the student-body race of season one, and the end potentially being the run for president of the United States. Right now the White House seems like a long way from student elections, but if anybody can take the series there, it’s Ryan Murphy. He’s got our vote.
The Politician is on Netflix now.