If you thought high school in the UK was tough, then just be glad you didn’t share a class with Payton Hobart.
That’s who Ben Platt (who you may recognise from the first two Pitch Perfect movies) plays in new Netflix show, The Politician.
It’s a big role for the 26-year-old actor and his first lead in a major TV show.
In this dark teen comedy, Payton strives to become high school president, convinced that one day he will be doing Donald Trump’s job.
In the US, most high schools hold elections for the role of student body president. It’s considered a prestigious post which can help people get into a top university – at least that is what’s behind Payton’s ruthless campaign.
People watching the show might feel relieved that British schools don’t have the same system.
Especially after hearing that characters like Payton – who’s willing to trample over his girlfriend and exploit a terminally ill classmate in his quest for success – are not just parodies.
“Payton is blindly ambitious, self-serving and aggressive,” Ben tells Radio 1 Newsbeat. “It’s rooted in reality for sure. There were a lot of kids who had a lot of ambition, particularly in the arts – myself included – who knew what they wanted to do from a young age.
“They were interested in investing in that and were willing to sacrifice social life.”
‘The pursuit of perfection’
The Politician’s main characters all seem to be white, privileged and – on the surface – mostly awful human beings. Most of them also seem to live in big houses and come from wealthy (and equally awful) families.
And Ben thinks show creator Ryan Murphy – the man who made Glee, American Horror Story and Pose – handles the topic expertly.
The Politician echoes Ryan’s other work, in the sense that it mixes socially relevant storylines with his signature flamboyant style.
This series is the television producer’s first for Netflix since he signed a record-breaking deal worth $300m (£243m) with the streaming giant, and although it’s had mixed reviews there is still a lot of hype around it.
“I think Ryan is the perfect person to tell a story about this particular society, because it fits within the grander scale of all the work he’s done,” says Ben. “He’s looking at this particular community with exactly the lens that it should be looked at. We can’t look at entitlement or at privilege without being as ruthless as possible.”
“The Politician shows that all people from all walks of life struggle with the same issues of identity, authenticity and proving themselves.”
He says that The Politician is “poking fun at that community”, but at the same time “sheds light on the pursuit of perfection that many young people are obsessed with.”
Mental health is a key theme of the show.
“Every character is grappling with something that, on the surface, they don’t seem to be,” says Ben.
Working with Hollywood A-listers
Most of the cast of The Politician are playing teenagers – with the exception of two notable actors that Ben shares scenes with. Gwyneth Paltrow, for instance, who you might know from starring as Pepper Potts in Marvel’s Avengers and Iron Man movies (among other things), plays his on-screen mum.
“She’s been very maternal and protective of me. She really took me under her wing,” says Ben.
And then, there’s the matter of Jessica Lange who, as viewers of American Horror Story will know, tends to steal every scene she appears in. Oscar-winner Jessica plays Dusty, the manipulative grandmother of Payton’s terminally ill classmate, Infinity Jackson, who becomes his running mate.
“It was lucky for me that Dusty was forceful and somewhat frightening to Peyton’s character,” says Ben. “So I didn’t really have to pretend to be anything other than in awe of her, which is exactly how I felt in real life.
“But Jessica makes you feel immediately at ease because she’s so hilariously funny. And when you’re laughing, it’s hard to feel intimidated or scared.”
The Politician is streaming on Netflix now.