The first season of Ryan Murphy's new Netflix show The Politician involves a staged kidnapping, two assassination attempts, and plenty of blackmail all in the name of political strategy. That sounds par for the course for a political satire, but adding another level to the absurdity is the fact that the show follows a high school election, not a professional one. For The Politician cast, playing cutthroat, politically obsessed teenagers who will stop at absolutely nothing to win was both fun and freeing, but they also found that, beneath those cold exteriors, their characters were not that unlike themselves.
Skye, played by Rahne Jones, is involved in one of the most extreme schemes to thwart Payton Hobart's (Ben Platt) school presidential campaign: she poisons him. And yet, Jones tells Bustle at the New York press junket for the show, it's hard not to commend "[her] passion and willingness to fight for marginalized communities" — even if her approach is misguided.
That a character who tries to kill someone is also a strong-willed, intelligent activist sums up a lot about the show. "I think that's the good thing about [series creators] Ryan [Murphy], Brad [Falchuk], and Ian [Brennan] is that they'll always write both sides in some way," explains Lucy Boyton, who plays Payton's rival, Astrid. "There's always this challenging of the audience to question the immediate instinct and understanding of a person."
In the same vein, Laura Dreyfuss, who plays Payton's campaign manager McAfee, enjoyed portraying someone who could choose to be "a little bit evil" within this heightened setting where "you can't go too big." "Even though, yes, she is ruthless, at her core, I think she deeply cares about the world and she has a lot of empathy for it," the actor explains.
For Theo Germaine, who plays James, another one of Payton's confidants, it was the idea of Payton closing himself off from his emotions in order to better reach his goals that most resonated.
"Choosing to compartmentalize and choosing to not be human in order to achieve a goal is something that I feel is this huge metaphor for something that I've struggled with," Germaine says. "In a capitalist society we always feel like we have to work harder and work harder and not be human ... A lot of these high school students working on the campaign are these powerful machines who are just going and going." The actor adds, "I think, as someone who is chronically an over-worker, I can relate to that a lot."
Julia Schlaepfer, who portrays Payton's girlfriend Alice, found the character's self-consciousness to be what she connected with most. "In high school, for sure, I felt a fear of having to appear a certain way." She adds of Alice's ice cold exterior, "Underneath of it all she's just a scared high schooler who wants a boyfriend."
In some ways, the conniving students of Saint Sebastian are actually living in an idealistic world not unlike the one we seem to be working toward, albeit slowly. Many of the characters are exploring their sexual identity, but their orientations are never defined and their experiences never judged. They simply are in a way that society doesn't yet allow for.
"It's a bit utopian," Dreyfuss says. "I understand that labels are necessary right now and it makes people comfortable ... [but] there's something beautiful about living in a world where we can just be who we are and love who we want to love, and nobody has to question or ask about it."
The choice not to define the characters' sexualities took a little adjusting at first for Germaine, who identifies as trans non-binary. "I have always had this pressure of having to label myself, especially as someone who is queer and with gender identity stuff. But as soon as I let go of that, it was really freeing and exciting to be, like, oh yeah, everybody's fluid ... it's not even part of the conversation, like everybody just f*cks who they want to f*ck."
In that sense, the characters in The Politician can be looked up to, but in pretty much every other way, they are not people to emulate. Zoey Deutch, who plays a character named Infinity, is sure to point that out. "There's already such a negative connotation, especially with women, that ambition is a bad thing," she says. "This [show] is specifically about characters with blind ambition."
Still, there is something to learn from them. "It felt so good to feel that present and just unashamed of, 'Here is my opinion and I don't really care what you think,'" says Boyton. "I would take doses of [Astrid's] confidence. Doses. Of."