There’s a scene early on in the first season of The Politician – the new Netflix series from Glee scribes Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan about a rich kid running in his high school election as part of his quest to one day become president of the United States – that stands out as an emotional highlight for the show.
As the aforementioned rich kid Payton, star Ben Platt (Pitch Perfect, Dear Evan Hansen) is singing Joni Mitchell’s “River” in tribute to his political opponent/lover who recently died by suicide. It’s a scene that leaves everyone, on-screen and probably off, in tears. But for actor Laura Dreyfuss, who also starred alongside Platt on Broadway in Dear Evan Hansen, filming the scene also stands out for another reason.
“It just really got me emotionally because I’m so proud of Ben as a friend. I’ve seen him sing so many times, and to watch him be his beautiful self [here] in that way was really special,” she tells us while in Toronto. “The minute I found out [I was cast in the show], I could not stop screaming. We would just text each other like, ‘Oh my god!’ over and over again. It was such a dream come true.”
In The Politician, Dreyfuss stars as McAfee Westbrook, right-hand woman and campaign advisor to Payton. It’s a star-making role (outside of Broadway) for Dreyfuss, who has previously worked with Murphy and his team during season six of Glee. We caught up with the New Jersey native to talk about the show, a possible season two and those incredible suits she gets to wear.
Why did you want to do The Politician?
Anything Ryan Murphy does is brilliant, so I was really excited from day one. And obviously, I’ve known Ben Platt for a really long time, so knowing he was doing the show…it was already kind of in my orbit. I was reading the script when I got the audition, and I was really excited because I’d been reading a lot of scripts during that season, and that was by far the most hilarious, interesting, intelligent script that I’d read. I was thrilled.
For a high school student, McAfee is quite confident and self-assured. Was that something you could relate to?
No. [Laughs] I’ve always been a little weird. and sort of marched to the beat of my own drum. I was a confident child, and then by the time I got to high school, I felt a little embarrassed about being who I am. I went to a school that was actually kind of similar to the one you see on The Politician. Everyone was geared to go to an Ivy League school, and I was the weird girl who did theatre. I didn’t really fall into the categories that were available for me. It was difficult to make a lot of close connections with people for that reason. I just found myself feeling a little embarrassed about who I was, and it was hard for me to feel seen in the way that I wanted and needed to. It took a couple of years, honestly, through finding theatre, to feel more comfortable in my own skin and not feel like I needed approval from anybody.
What do you hope people who had a similar experience as you in high school take away from seeing a character like McAfee?
I hope that it makes people realize there are no rules that they have to follow, and that they can be exactly who they are, whatever that is. And I hope that they see that being intelligent is cool and that they feel that they can be wherever they are on the spectrum of sexuality. There’s nothing that dictates a right or wrong way to be. It doesn’t have to be black or white, you can be whoever you are. I think that’s really an important message for people, especially for teenagers who are still discovering who they are.
So much of The Politician hinges on the fact that people really believe in Payton. Why do you think McAfee feels so strongly about him?
I think she sees his goodness and his desire to wake up every single day and want to make the world a better place. Even though he may do things that are morally questionable – they all do – I think that she truly believes that he’s completely capable of changing the world and possibly going to the White House. She sees him as the perfect candidate.
Towards the end of the season, Payton and McAfee get into this huge fight when he finds out she was in a secret relationship with his opponent turned running mate Skye…who also poisons him. But by the finale when the show jumps ahead a few years, they’re back in each other’s lives. What do you think happened off screen to get them there?
They grow apart because there’s not really a common reason for them to be in each other’s lives, because he’s no longer interested in politics. But I think she still believes in him and she does want to see him succeed. And she knows she can probably do her best work with him. She’s also disillusioned with the older generation of politicians. It’s a representation of the young people in our world who are now needing to pick up the slack because the older generation has failed us. We’re aware of that and young people are more galvanized than ever to make a change. McAfee realizes that Payton really does have what it takes and he has the drive to create that change.
Also in the finale, you share a scene with the iconic Bette Middler, a longtime chief-of-staff to a politician being set up to play Payton’s future rival. What went through your head as you were preparing for that?
Oh you know, I think I blacked out. [Laughs] I remember just sitting across from her and thinking that she is such a legend. I had like a complete out-of-body experience. The day she was [on set], everyone was kind of sitting up a little straighter, making eye contact with one another, just amazed at her incredible presence. I wanted to soak up every minuted.
Your outfits on the show are amazing. What did it feel like to wear those clothes?
It was really fun. I think costume designer Claire Parkinson describes McAfee’s style as a combination of a young Gloria Steinem, David Bowie and Diane Keaton. If I were to live in a world of perfect fashion, that’s probably where I’d exist. It felt really cool because this character is so brainy and she’s almost robotic with how she thinks. It changed my whole perspective of who this character was as soon as I put on these really cool suits. They added this almost this laid-back quality to her. I noticed I was sitting back in my chair a little bit more even though I was delivering something very direct. Physically, the suits changed what I did. They had this effect on my mannerisms.
Did you have a favourite?
Yeah. The mint green Rachel Comey suit. It was just so perfect. I had these Céline loafers and I just felt very powerful in it. It’s amazing what a suit can do for your confidence.
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In a possible season two, what do you hope to see for McAfee?
I don’t know, I’m curious! I’m excited to see what the years will do for her out of high school. She’s learned a lot and I’m curious to see how those experiences will shape who she is as a young adult rather than a teenager. And I’m really interested to see how the political landscape changes and what happens with this new election. It’ll be fun.
Ryan Murphy frequently works with the same actors. Who in that universe would you like to see on The Politician?
Billy Porter. He’s just incredible. I think also the theatre kid in me would be so thrilled. I would love to see him run against someone. That would be really cool. [Laughs] I’m putting it into the universe.
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