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The Politician: Interview with Theo Germaine and Laura Dreyfuss

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Politics have dominated the news cycle ever since the 2016 US Presidential election, and scarcely a day goes by without a new series of headlines revealing the latest scandal and drama. American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy aims to capitalize on our current political fixation with his first Netflix-exclusive project, The Politician. The series follows the aspirations of Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), a student at prestigious Saint Sebastian High School charting a path toward the White House.

That path begins with being elected Student Body President, and to navigate the perils of high school politics, Payton relies on his longtime best friend James Sullivan (Theo Germaine), who manages the campaign alongside McAfee Westbrook (Laura Dreyfuss). During a recent press tour, we had a chance to sit down with Theo, Laura and a few other online publications to chat about the making of The Politician and the relevance of its themes in today's climate.

James and McAfee are extremely loyal to Payton and his candidacy. Were they friends first, or did they gravitate to Payton because of his presidential ambitions?

Theo Germaine:  James and Payton have been friends since the second grade, and I'm assuming when they got to high school, they probably started to take stuff more seriously. Maybe they began working together, and it just got more and more intense, but it did start off as a friendship, a long time ago. 

Laura Dreyfuss:  I think McAfee maybe came in a little later, but it’s still also a friendship. They're so young, so I think when they met they were kids, but they had a very common goal and shared that interest.

Theo Germaine: I feel like they probably all found each other because of this similar drive they have, this sense of: “We’re going to move mountains.”

While it never comes right out and says it, I think the show makes a pretty good argument for Payton being a sociopath. What is it about him that inspires such loyalty from James and McAfee, despite all of his obvious character flaws?

Theo Germaine: I think when he applies himself and he's focused, he's the best at getting stuff done, and I think that gets a little bit lost along the way because of all the chaotic stuff that happens. But [James and McAfee] have seen him say he's going to do something, and it happens -- maybe he's not the most popular kid, but he's the one to get stuff done.

Laura Dreyfuss: Yeah, McAfee has a line where she says "I don't know what makes him tick, but he wakes up every morning and wants to make the world a better place."

There’s a recurring theme throughout the show where a handful of characters question if they are authentic people, or if they are solely defined by their actions. A number of times the answer is:  Does it matter?  So, my question is… does it matter?

Laura Dreyfuss: I always equate it to volunteer work. If you're gonna do volunteer work but you're doing it for a self-serving purpose -- because it makes you feel good -- does it really matter? You're still making a difference, you're still doing something, you're still helping. Just because the intention feels a little false to you, it doesn’t negate the work.

Theo Germaine: It feels like that question itself is one of the themes of the show, and I hope when people watch it, they will constantly have that question in their heads.

Laura Dreyfuss: And I think, more importantly, it applies to when we're electing leaders: what are we looking for? What qualities are we looking for? Are we electing them because we think they are good people, or are we electing them because we think they can get the right things done? 

Theo Germaine: Or are people electing someone because he was on TV?

I loved the fifth episode, “The Voter,” because it's such a departure from everything we had seen up until that point. Do you think that episode was a reflection on the American voter? Are there any lessons learned? 

Laura Dreyfuss:  I think it’s such an interesting comment on apathy.

Theo Germaine:  In that episode, both candidates are doing whatever they can to get the undecided people to pick a side. [I think about] how politicians do that, and how that's not a good thing, because you see this side of them where they're doing something for personal gain. 

Laura Dreyfuss: You see the ugly in both sides. What I took away from it is every vote does count. It’s easy to feel that your vote doesn’t matter, but it really does in the end.

Theo Germaine: It’s important to not be apathetic. If you’re apathetic and then you get pushed, you still are not going to care. So you have to figure out -- even if it's hard and you don’t want to be invested, I think we can’t afford to not be invested.

Laura Dreyfuss: It’s also very funny, because it kind of zooms out of the world that is so tightly created in the first couple episodes, and so you almost get a chance to see how ridiculous these kids are. 

Theo Germaine: They're all sociopaths, basically.

Laura Dreyfuss: That’s what makes it so funny to me, because you get to really laugh at these children, who are so hyper-focused on this one goal. 

One of the recurring themes that I really appreciated is scandal. With most political TV shows or movies, there’s always a scandal of some kind, but in this show, there’s literally a scandal in every layer of the cake, and almost every character is involved in some kind of scandal at some point. Do you think that's an accurate reflection of our current political climate, or is “The Politician” heightening scandal for dramatic effect?

Laura Dreyfuss: Very early on, we learn that Payton reads the biographies of all the presidents, and he starts with Ronald Reagan, because he believes that he created the modern presidency. He did that by the use of television and making it entertaining. So, we now ask ourselves this question, when we are invested in politics: how much has become entertainment, and how much is real?

Theo Germaine: The Romans killed people and had gladiator battles for fun -- that was their entertainment. We’re not doing that obviously, but politics can be entertainment, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

Laura Dreyfuss: I think it’s an interesting reflection on how [political] scandals have become like a TV show.

Theo Germaine: Humans love scandal, and what does that make us not pay attention to because we're just getting excited about the televised scandal?

Despite being a dark comedy, The Politician comes with a trigger warning before the first episode. Do you feel it's responsible filmmaking to put these sort of warnings before a movie or TV show? And if so, where do we draw that line?

Laura Dreyfuss: I think we need to listen to the current climate and pay attention. I think we're constantly going to be changing as a society, and so as we're changing our art needs to be very responsible along with those changes. We're entering a time where we're taking mental health more seriously than we ever have in the past, and we should. I think we're recognizing that mental health is just as important as our physical health, and we have a long way to go, but I think being very responsible and careful with how we represent certain things is important and I think trigger warning are necessary.

Theo Germaine: Has anyone seen the movie Midsommar? There was not a trigger warning before Midsommar, and I almost had to leave the theater because I was totally blindsided by the stuff that happened in the first ten minutes. I know not everyone would have that reaction, but I think it's better to err on the side of safety.

The Politician is now streaming on Netflix. Read our review here.

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