Culture

The First Ladies of The Politician

Lucy Boynton and Zoey Deutch - stars of Netflix's The Politician - discuss biting politics, high-school dramas and the importance of being funny

Francesca Babb | 18.09.2019

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WARNING: The following sentence is likely to make you feel both old and horrified about the passing of time. It is ten years since Glee first aired on television. That’s ten years since the name Ryan Murphy became, if not a household one, then the kind that’s excellent for whipping out to prove your cultural worth. Obama was President, Gordon Brown (Gordon Brown!) was prime minister and House of Cards, Netflix’s first piece of original content, was a mere twinkle in the streaming behemoth’s barely opened eyes. It’s safe to say that in that ten years everything has changed, in both the political and cultural landscape.

And it’s into this changed world of political hellscapes, college admission scandals and rich white men making and breaking the rules (well, that’s not new news, I suppose), that Murphy, television’s first $300-million-dollar writer/ producer, returns to high school with The Politician.

Lucy Boynton plays Astrid | SHUTTERSTOCK

The show, already commissioned for a second season, follows Payton Hobart – a student with the sort of ambition that would make Glee’s Rachel Berry wave the white flag before even entering the ring – on his campaign trail to be senior class president at Saint Sebastian High. The script is pithy and pitch perfect, the costumes and setting sublime (rich people in Santa Barbara really know how to landscape a garden), and the supporting cast of ridiculously overblown characters a huge part of what makes the show an absolute joy of a binge.

Lucy Boynton – last seen as Mary Austin in Bohemian Rhapsody and establishing a firm place on the good end of red-carpet fashion critique – plays Astrid, Payton’s nemesis in love and politics. Zoey Deutch (already a Netflix alumnus after last year’s Set It Up), is Payton’s running mate, Infinity, whose terminal cancer diagnosis does wonders for the lead candidate’s approval ratings.

The show is a huge moment for them both. Netflix has a reputation for catapulting its series regulars into A-list casting conversations, and such an inevitability seems obvious for this pair. I meet them in a London hotel as the show is gearing up to launch and Boynton is ebullient, friendly, excellent at filling silences. A Londoner, she’s on her home turf, so perhaps jetlag is not hitting her in the same way it seems to be LA-based Deutch who, like a lot of professionally funny people, is quieter in person, more thoughtful than her usual comedy roles show her to be.

“Gun control, voter fraud, sexuality – but it’s done in a satirical, biting and fun way.”

ZOEY DEUTCH

INFINITY AND PAYTON | SHUTTERSTOCK

ZOEY DEUTCH plays Infinity | gETTY

“The Politician is a show about things that are difficult to discuss,” opens Deutch, 24, who is pleasingly dressed in a cherry print dress with matching print cardigan, like a fashion-forward librarian. “Gun control, voter fraud, sexuality – but it’s done in a satirical, biting and fun way.” (It’s interesting that in a time where snowflake is the go-to insult aimed at anyone under 30 by anyone over 50 that a show centred on teens can approach these subjects with such humour.)

Gwyneth Paltrow as Georgina Hobart and Ben Platt as Payton Hobart | SHUTTERSTOCK

“[The satire] in the show is so articulate and astute, so it doesn’t feel cutting or mocking,” agrees 25-year-old Boynton, looking defiantly feminine in pink frilled Bora Aksu. “We’re all in on the joke, rather than mocking a type of person, which can be the easy way to go, and then you end up feeling toxic and poisonous. The script makes an important point, rather than just taking a group of people down, and identifies the uglier underbelly of the gleaming façade of what you see.”

While I’ve never spent time with the kind of people who are rich enough to buy a multi-million-pound commode, as Payton’s father does in one episode, the caricatures of rich-kid school life do echo wider truths. I wonder if the politics of school still sit with either Boynton or Deutch?

“I went to a public-arts high school,” says Deutch. “There were very distinct groups, very stereotypical [in that there were the] Fame-esque theatre kids who were crying in corners and the dancers who were eating one single piece of seaweed, and the visual artists where it was like, ‘I’m not sure if you’re on acid or not, but you seem like you’re on acid.’ But the best, most beautiful gift of my adolescent life was being surrounded by a bunch of kids with purposive behavior; people who had great ideas and believed in something bigger than themselves. Because that’s what art does; it gets you away from yourself for a second. It allows for space in between.”

“I’ve only ever been to all girls’ schools,” says Boynton. “Looking back, I’m incredibly lucky to have had the education that I did, but I wish it had been more of an education on how powerful it is to be a woman. We were educated in terms of men, assuming we would have male bosses, and the dress code was based on what would make the male teachers comfortable. I can’t imagine a younger generation of people accepting that, but at the time, you just took it. It’s disappointing to see that; you realise how much of a girl’s self-worth is absorbed not just by lessons, but by the way that you’re treated and looked at by teachers. I think it informs a lot more than they were aware of.” She pauses. “I’m trying to tread so carefully and not shit talk my old school…”

It feels remiss to speak to two actors in a show called The Politician without talking politics, even at a time when talking politics is pretty much a guaranteed to make any joy irrevocably leave the room. But needs must. And so, like a fun sponge, I ask them how they’re feeling about the current political climate on both sides of the pond.

zoey deutch in the politician 

“IN EVERY GENERATION, THERE MUST BE SOME VERSION OF THIS; WHERE IT HAS FELT LIKE, ‘THIS CANNOT BE RIGHT, THIS CAN’T BE THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT.’"

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“We both literally went, ‘ugh’,” laughs Deutch at their shared pained expressions. “I think our faces say it all,” agrees Boynton. “In every generation, there must be some version of this; where it has felt like, ‘This cannot be right, this can’t be the end of the world as we know it.’ It gives me hope that everything seems to be cyclical, although I don’t necessarily know how that’s going to go in terms of what we’re currently facing. Politics was such an abstract thing when I was too young to vote, whereas now you see people who are too young seeking a political education of their own. If you see that in young people, you think, ‘Well someone’s going to save us.’”

“There’s a reason why, when there’s massive political unrest, or it feels like the world is crumbling before our very eyes, we turn to comedians,” adds Deutch. “Not experts, or politicians or even scientists, sadly; we turn to comedians, because comedy is the great connecter and equaliser. It’s the most beautiful human survival mechanism that we have. It’s so, so powerful to be able to laugh about something together.”

I tell Deutch that I read an interview in which she was described as Lucille-Ball funny. It is, of course, a compliment, but it causes her to fall so far back into the sofa, I worry she’ll never come out. “Who said that?!” she says, from behind her hands. “Wait, I said that?” No. A journalist did. “I’m like, please dear God don’t tell me I said that! I’m literally just sinking into the couch.” Are you not comfortable with comedy? “I don’t know if it’s comfortable that I feel, it’s just been a part of my life in a way that’s hard to describe. My father [the director Howard Deutch] and I, our way of communicating with each other was to make each other laugh, and for better or worse, that’s how I found a lot of value or self-esteem. If I could make someone laugh, it made me feel really good, and it’s trickled into my adult life. I have a lot of gratitude that that was the thing I was encouraged with.

“I think about this a lot,” she continues. “We give little kids validation on things they have no control over. You’re so pretty, even you’re so talented, means nothing; it refers to some intangible thing. You can place self-worth in hard work, you can place self-worth in studying hard, in being smart, but you cannot place self-worth in you’re pretty or you’re talented. Those two things are confusing things to tell little kids. I don’t know if that’s an answer, I just know that there was a lot of value placed in comedy and humour and making someone else laugh in my household. I’m glad it was more that than, you’re pretty or whatever.”

In many ways, it’s quite a Saint-Sebastian-High point to end on. A dark comedy runs throughout the series, with drive and ambition the qualities that become the most valuable commodity of all. Glee it’s certainly not, but thrilling, topical and darkly comedic, The Politician is a show that feels about as 2019 as any out there.

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