One night on Broadway a few years ago, after acting, singing, and sobbing his heart out in “Dear Evan Hansen,” Ben Platt was visited backstage by a man in a fur coat.
It was Ryan Murphy, the art-pop agitator behind “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” who’d been touched by the musical and was eager to heap praise upon its young star (who’s since won a Tony, Grammy, and Emmy). At the time, Platt didn’t expect anything to come of the encounter, but a month later he found himself across the dinner table from Murphy in Los Angeles.
By meal’s end, he’d been convinced to star in the showrunner’s audacious next project: “The Politician” (now streaming), a super-stylized satire that marks Murphy’s inaugural series for Netflix, where he’s under a five-year deal valued at $300 million.
“He sold me, first and foremost, on the ways it would divert from ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’” recalls Platt, 26, sitting next to co-star Julia Schlaepfer during a recent visit to Boston.
Fearful of getting typecast after playing the same role for almost four years, Platt says he leapt at the chance to surprise fans and challenge himself. In “The Politician,” Platt plays the ruthlessly ambitious, impeccably coifed Payton Hobart, out to win a high-school election he sees as just one stop on his path to the White House. Though some similarities exist between Payton and Evan — among them social anxieties, serious vocal chops, and a hopelessly tangled relationship with a deceased classmate — Platt savored their differences.
Payton is “more assertive, aggressive, confident, even maniacal and sociopathic at times,” explains the actor.
While running for office, Payton faces threats to his carefully cultivated image — and reveals a darker side while dealing with them. “I think he wants to be known for doing good things,” says Platt. “But the show is all about: Does it really matter why he wants to do them if the changes he wants to make are positive?”
Murphy wrote the role for Platt, also enlisting him to executive-produce. Schlaepfer, who plays Payton’s assiduous girlfriend Alice, had to try out; the relative newcomer left her audition convinced she’d blown it. “It went weirdly,” she recalls. “I went in and spent 10 minutes ranting about cults.”
Platt shoots her a smile. “But that’s perfect!”
She laughs. “Looking back, Ryan was probably like, ‘She’s weird,’” says the actress. “‘[But then again,] Alice is weird, so it works.’”
In truth, the Murphy-verse has always been animated by its embrace of all things baroque and bizarre. Button-pushing, visually chic, and often deranged, his series — like “Nip/Tuck,” “American Crime Story,” “Feud,” “Pose” — swing from comedy to horror, but they share his hallmarks: starry-eyed underdogs, musical interludes, tart political commentary, and a maximalist’s tendency to turn everything up to 11.
“The Politician,” in that sense, is a typical Murphy joint, a frothy and brightly colored, dessert-before-dinner kind of show. His right-hand men Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan co-created, and actors from his troupe of regulars — Jessica Lange and Dylan McDermott — balance out new arrivals to the Murphy-verse, like Bette Midler, Zoey Deutch, and Gwyneth Paltrow (who’s married to Falchuk, a Newton native).
Platt and Schlaepfer say they felt quickly that they were in good hands. “Ryan’s a very inspiring person to work for,” says Schlaepfer. “He has a belief in you before you even have it in yourself.”
To play their characters, Platt poured over debates and speeches, while Schlaepfer drew inspiration from “the young, brilliant” Hillary Clinton, whom her character was in part based on. “Alice really loves Payton and believes in him,” she says. “They’re political equals, and both so brilliant, but addicted to this game. This show’s all about the race to power and, once you get there, what you do with it.”
One aspect of “The Politician” Platt didn’t require much prep for was its musical streak. In the pilot, Payton sings Joni Mitchell’s 1971 hit “River,” and a late-in-the-season twist finds him staging Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 play “Assassins” in the school’s auditorium (he plays John Hinckley Jr., of course, with Deutch’s character playing Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme).
“If I could have Sondheim be a part of every project I ever do,” says Platt, “I’d live a happy life.” (Not coincidentally, he and “Booksmart” actress Beanie Feldstein are shooting “Merrily We Roll Along,” a Sondheim adaptation directed by “Boyhood” filmmaker Richard Linklater, in sections across the next 20 years.)
But for “The Politician,” Platt says he and Murphy exercised restraint in their music choices. “He’s no dummy,” says the actor. “Ryan wanted to use all the tools I have in my belt. But we needed them to remain special, heightened moments.”
Still, with a second season in the works, both actors hope their characters will get more opportunities to serenade audiences. Platt even has his next duet partner picked out, of whom Schlaepfer approves: “I want to sing with Bette Midler.”