From creator Ryan Murphy and executive producers Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, the Netflix original series The Politician follows Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), a wealthy student from Santa Barbara, California whose drive to be the President of the United States has been his sole focus since the age of seven. Before he can get there, he’ll first have to get himself elected as the Student Body President at Saint Sebastian High School, in order to be able to check off securing a spot at Harvard on his path to success.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Laura Dreyfuss (Glee), who plays McAfee, the woman right by Payton’s side that’s helping him to achieve all of his goals, talked about why this was such a special project for her, reuniting with Ben Platt (they did Dear Evan Hansen together on Broadway), her audition experience for The Politician, finding the tone of the show, what she enjoys about playing McAfee, her unique fashion style, working with a legend like Bette Midler for Episode 8, what she’s learned about acting from collaborating with Ryan Murphy, looking forward to getting to explore things further in Season 2, and working on her music while she’s waiting to start shooting The Politician again.
Collider: You’ve worked with Ben Platt before, on Broadway in Dear Evan Hansen, and you’ve worked with Ryan Murphy and his creative team previously on Glee. How exciting was it to bring those two worlds together and team up with all of those folks again?
LAURA DREYFUSS: That was the coolest thing about the whole experience, getting the chance to work with people that I really love and respect. Knowing that they have such a respect for the art and the people around them that they work with was thrilling. I felt very taken care of, and it was also very calming to have one of my best friends there with me, every day, during filming. It’s a very intimidating project, so it’s nice to have that familiar face. I know exactly how Ben is, as an artist, and we’ve had such a great relationship over the last, gosh, five years now, which is really fun. I feel very fortunate to have that. And Ryan, obviously, is just a genius, so it’s really amazing to be a part of anything that he creates. And it was fun to reconnect with (executive producers) Brad [Falchuk] and Ian [Brennan], as well.
You’d worked with Ben Platt on stage before, but does the experience differ, when you’re working with somebody in this format?
DREYFUSS: The coolest thing about theater is that it’s unlike anything. You don’t really have a chance to grow and create a character, in the way that you do with TV, in terms of a character evolving and changing, and getting new scripts and having to keep doing different things. With theater, you get to grow and expand, in a different way, because we can deepen rather than actually change. So, it was really exciting to be able to work with Ben, and figure out who these characters were and where they were going, and to have to the freedom to change. That’s something that we had never really discovered. And the energy on a TV set versus in a theater, it’s just very different. It’s really cool to be able to explore what that feels like.
Does it also feel very different when you go in to audition for a show, where you’ve already worked with the creative team before, or is auditioning always nerve wracking, especially when it’s something like this, that you really want to do?
DREYFUSS: It’s nerve wracking because when you know the people, you don’t wanna let them down. I have such a respect for Ryan and Ian and Brad, so I definitely had a nervous feeling about the audition, just because I didn’t wanna be bad or disappoint them, in any way. I just think you put that pressure on yourself, when you know people. But as soon as I walked into the room, I immediately felt so happy. It was actually very comforting to see so many familiar faces. It ended up being a really great thing. I felt very comfortable in the room.
What was the audition experience like, for this? Did you do actual scenes from the show, or was it something else entirely?
DREYFUSS: I did. I had these two scenes, that were in the pilot and the second episode. The one in the second episode is this really long speech that I make, when I’m walking down through the library with friends and explaining this really intricate situation. It was just so many words, and the whole thing was rattled off really fast. That was my first scene that I had to do in the audition room, and it was nerve wracking just because there was so many words to get wrong and it was a big mouthful, but it ended up being really fun. It took a lot of preparation, but it was definitely worth it because it made my day on set a lot easier, since I already knew it.
Ryan Murphy is great at making shows that are over the top but somehow is still grounded in reality, and that are fun and funny but somehow still rooted in truth. Is that an easy balance to find while you’re shooting, or do you have a lot of conversations and do some tweaking of your performance, once you’re on set?
DREYFUSS: Yeah. The writing is so specific that it’s really easy to just go off of what’s on the page. We definitely had a lot of conversations discussing the world that these characters live in, and played with the grandeur of it all. That was really fun and gave us a lot of room because we could exist in a lot of places. And then, we had to figure out where their humanity was. It’s really fun because we all start with the truth – the truth of what they’re saying, where these people live, where their heart is, and what they want for the world. I think that’s what makes this show so interesting because everybody has this drive to change the world or make it a better place, and that’s what drives them to do these morally questionable things. And then, within that you have this elaborate setting and these are extremely privileged children. There’s a lot to play within that, and the comedy lives in that. It’s very specific to Ryan and the way his mind works, so we definitely had conversations about it, and figured out how to find the humanity within the chaos of it all.
What did you like about this character, from day one, and what do you feel that you grew to appreciate about her, the longer you played her and got to know more about her?
DREYFUSS: I think it’s really amazing to play a woman who is so brilliant. She is so strategic and she sees every single outcome, for every single possible situation. It’s amazing how really observant and always just constantly aware of her surroundings she is, and how they’re affecting the world. I really love how much space she takes up. As a woman, it’s really fun to be able to be expansive. I also love her humor. She has an incredible sense of humor. She’s very dry, and it’s so fun to play.
She also has quite the fashion style. What did you think of her fashion and style, and did you have a favorite outfit of hers, that you got to wear?
DREYFUSS: Oh, my gosh, every single suit, I want in my closet, so it’s hard to choose one. But I really love the lime green Rachel Comey pantsuit that I got to wear. I also love the pink baggy suit that I wore in the pilot, with the glasses. That was one of my first days on set. This character is very rhythmic, and she just seems very calculated and full of facts and figures. It’s really interesting because, as soon as I put on these really cool clothes, it gave her this laidback quality. And then, I remember doing a scene and instantly feeling like, “I wanna put my feet up on the table because that feels like what she would do, as someone who’s wearing this.” So, the fashion really dictated a lot of like her mannerisms, which was really interesting. I didn’t expect that. I’ve never experienced the effects of a costume, in that way. It’s very unique and fun. It’s like a young Gloria Steinem.
This series is very much about ambition and the sacrifices made, in order to succeed in those goals. So, when everything you do is driven by ambition, can you even enjoy the successes, as they come along? It seems like, for someone like her, it might even be hard to actually see the success because she’s so driven to make it happen.
DREYFUSS: Yeah, I think that’s something that these characters are all going to have to learn. Blind ambition can only give you so much, and you actually lose sight of everything else. You have to remember that these are all high school kids, so their perspective is so small. It’s really hard for them to see beyond the world that’s been created and that’s right in front of them. It’s like only what’s five feet in front of them. They’re having a hard time seeing the grand scheme of life, and how that actually gives us happiness and meaning. I’ll be really interested to see like how that actually affects all of these characters, especially someone like McAfee, who’s so driven. She has complete tunnel vision. It’ll be really interesting to see how that affects her throughout, hopefully, more seasons.
It’s so interesting the way the show is set up because the first seven episodes are the story for the first season, and then you get this eight episode that feels like it’s setting up what’s to come. Was it fun to also get to do that episode?
DREYFUSS: Oh, yeah. Seeing these kids grow up a little bit is really interesting, and it makes me really excited about Season 2. Also, introducing Bette Midler and Judith Light in Episode 8 was so fun. It’s really cool and unique, and I love how it just flips everything on its head.
What’s it like when you’re in it and doing a scene with a legend and icon like Bette Midler? Do you need to take a minute to remind yourself to stay in the scene?
DREYFUSS: Yeah, 100%. It was fun because everyone on set was freaking out. Everyone from the camera men to the hair and make-up ladies, we were all looking at each other because we couldn’t believe that she was there. She’s a legend. It’s really funny, you have to set that aside and do the work, so a lot of it was just realizing, “Okay, in this moment, she’s sitting there, but we’re both actors and we need to tell the story, so that’s what I’m going to do.” It’s amazing to just sit in front of her and do a scene. She has this intense power about her and this amazing twinkle behind her eyes. It’s just so fun to be in front of her.
Since we know that there will be a second season of this show, have you had conversations yet about what that could be and where things could go next? Do you have like your own personal wishlist of what you’d like to see or learn about your character?
DREYFUSS: It will be interesting. I mean, we have zero information, so I’ll be very interested to see where it goes. There’s a lot of room for these characters to evolve. I don’t want her to grow up too fast, but I’m very excited to see what happens. I think there’s a sense of hope that they all feel. They’ve been searching for this future that they’re so desperate to get, and they see so much potential and Payton, and that all comes crashing down in high school, but then they rediscover it. Now, everyone’s had those couple of years outside of school, so they’re able to experience it, in a different way, and find that inspiration, and figure out how they can actually make a difference. So, I’m excited to see how that plays out.
One of the things about Ryan Murphy is that he puts these incredible cast of actors together, and he seems to see things in actors that they don’t necessarily know that they’re capable of and is able to really bring those things out of them. What has working with him taught you about acting and about being an actor?
DREYFUSS: That trust is really huge. Especially with TV, there’s so little control that you have, as an actor, but you know that you can try anything on set and that he’s always going to make it look wonderful. He has such an incredible eye for everything. That safety is so important because then it just makes you feel uninhibited and able to make choices that might scare you. That’s probably why everyone wants to always continue working with him. They always feel that they’re taking care of. You just feel very safe in his world. And he invests in people and finds ways to teach you things about yourself that you might not have known. It’s pretty funny, seeing his work and meeting some of the people that he’s worked with. They have these amazing qualities that are undiscovered, and he finds a way to bring it out.
Do you have plans between seasons? Are you going to be working on anything while you’re waiting to get started on Season 2?
DREYFUSS: I think we start Season 2 pretty soon. I don’t know if I’ll have much time to do anything else, but I am working on my music. I have a music side project, so that’s where my focus is, creatively, other than The Politician.
Does it feel like music really stretches you in a way that you don’t get from acting?
DREYFUSS: Absolutely! Discovering your voice and what you want to say is really necessary to discovering who you are, and I think music gives such an opportunity for that. It’s really exciting to be able to create something that is just me. It’s my words, and I can sound how I want to sound. That’s why I was so drawn to music and creating music. While I love theater and I love acting, and that will always be my biggest passion, allowing myself a chance to discover what my voice is, is really special to me.
Well, McAfee really is such a fun character, and I hope she changes some fashion for some young people. It would be really cool to see more people dressing like her.
DREYFUSS: Yeah, I think the world would be a better place with more pantsuits. That would be thrilling.
The Politician is available to stream at Netflix on September 27th.