Ben Platt's 'The Politician' Inspiration: 'Election,' a Parkland Survivor and Blind Ambition

The series tackles sexual identity, privilege, entitlement (with shades of the college admission scandal) — and there's musical theater, too.
Adam Rose/Netflix

Ryan Murphy's latest series, The Politician — his first series for a streamer (and among his last projects for his former home at 20th Century Fox — stars Tony winner Ben Platt as Payton Hobart, a ruthless high school senior running for class president. It's the first step in his master plan to eventually be elected president (with a stop at Harvard along the way).

Though the show has been described as a mix of Election, Heathers, Glee and House of Cards, Murphy's touchstones for his future leading man were Election, the dark comedy about a high school election starring Reese Witherspoon as an overachieving would-be class president, and Dangerous Liaisons, the famous tale of manipulation and corruption.

"In true Ryan fashion, he had it all very much fleshed out, and it has all come very much to fruition," Platt told The Hollywood Reporter during a press junket in sunny Santa Barbara, California, the town where the show's first season takes place. "The first references he gave me were definitely Election — he told me that I was going to be sort of a male Tracy Flick, in a sense — mixed with a bit of Dangerous Liaisons as well, as far as everybody having motives on their sleeves and a very kind of conniving and strategy-based character. So those are the two big references he gave me, and he told me that he wanted to treat all the characters, though they were going to start as high school characters, as very complicated adult, complex human beings with lots of inner life going on."

Lucy Boynton, the Bohemian Rhapsody breakout who plays Payton's rival for class president, his high-achieving rich classmate Astrid Sloan, said she didn't come from her first conversation with Murphy with any particular touchstones in mind.

"I didn't quite gauge exactly what it was and what it wanted to be until we got on the phone and he did one of his very spellbinding Ryan Murphy pitches. The fact that it had all of the elements of all the films that are listed there but all the things that you want — he said that he wanted it to be big and beautiful but important and say something important," Boynton said. "I felt like that was the most compelling argument — yes, we will make it fun and yes, we will make it beautiful and stylish and fashion-heavy and such, and theatrical and elevated, but at the core of it is this very important dialogue going on, these very important conversations. And I think to marry the two is kind of a dream."

Platt also drew on a real-life figure for inspiration: Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky, who has become an outspoken activist following his school's tragic mass shooting in 2018.

"He's just the only person who was that young, with that much poise and ambition and amount of eloquence that I was really inspired by when I was first creating the character," Platt said. "So there's a bit of that in there, but as far as like a Beto, Buttigieg, what have you, I mean, certainly in the sphere, but nothing personally taken."

Another real-life parallel is more of a coincidence: One storyline tackles the way Payton is admitted into Harvard — he's adamant that he make it in to the school on his own merits rather than thanks to his stepfather's massive wealth. At the time the show was filmed and written, the college cheating scandal that involved actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin hadn't broken yet.

"That wasn't even really a thing when we were making the show. Certainly not when it was written let alone when we were shooting it. So it was this strange sort of premonition, which Ryan tends to always have and just be very much ahead of the curve," Platt said. "I think what's very fascinating about that in regards to Payton is that it's a very noble thing to say that you want to get in based on your merits, you don't want your parents to buy your way in, but for him it's only a means to an end — which is just he knows down the line, when I'm running for president, people will go back and see that there's a building with my last name on it, and then create a story about how I got in. It's all about perception for him. It's all about how he's going to be perceived or is being perceived, and not actually about authentically how he would like to act and what actually means something to him. I think the way that he's viewed is the number one at the forefront of his mind. That's the only reason he really cares about the way he's getting into college, unlike some of the people that apparently don't really care how they get into college."

The themes at play tackle everything from privileged entitlement to sexual identity, but at its core Platt says it's "an examination of blind ambition and how far one will go. When does ambition become a bad thing, and when is it a catalyst? And also just setting up a universe where the assumed reality is one that we would very much like to be ours as far as the way the gender identity and sexual identity [is tackled]. That the whole microcosm of society that's portrayed in this high school is an assumed part of the show rather than the subject matter of the show, I think, is a very powerful subliminal message."

Payton has romantic affairs with male and female characters, and his sexuality is present but not addressed as any sort of life-changing plot point.

"That's sort of what I was saying about this, like, assumed landscape of fluidity and not needing to make any kind of declaration or make the subject matter be about grappling with who am I? Who do I love? And just assuming that the characters can land wherever they land on the spectrum — which is where we're all headed, hopefully, in general," Platt said. "What I loved about the way the character was written and also the way it was pitched to me by Ryan is that [Payton] really follows his instincts as far as A) who does he really feel things for and B) who does it behoove him to feel things for, and who does it help him to feel things for regardless if it's a woman or a man? Sexuality just becomes a piece of his tapestry rather than part of his grappling, which I really loved."

There's also an element of Glee involved in the series, not only because it follows an ultra-ambitious teen with a clear life plan, but also because it contains plenty of singing. There's no way Murphy would hire a Tony winner and not make him sing — which Platt does on multiple occasions. But it's not Glee, where characters would just break out into song. The situations are organic to the series.

"Ryan did a really good job of making them purely diegetic situations and having it feel very organic to the story," Platt said. "When he first pitched me the show, there was no music whatsoever. And so when we started to let it trickle in, we were both very much on the same page that we wanted it to feel like it needed to happen, and it needed to be part of the story, or we didn't want to tack it on anywhere. So they're very few and far between, but I think they're super exciting little moments."

The Politician premieres Friday, Sept. 27 on Netflix.