Going back to high school was hard work for Ben Platt. The singer, Broadway wunderkind, and screen veteran was already 20 when he started workshopping Dear Evan Hansen in 2014. By the time the acclaimed musical was being turned into a film, he was 27. Playing a teenager would be a stretch.
“I was shaving, you know, three times a day,” says Platt over Zoom, now sporting a full beard, “which is funny because when I was in high school, there were five or six guys with beards, but what do I know?” He lost weight, too. “I was doing a kind of deprivation diet. And I would walk 14,000 steps a day and use the little Fitbit guy, and I lost about 20 pounds.”
It almost worked. When the first trailer for the film was unveiled in May, it kicked off a wave of social media chatter, mostly about Platt’s age. Some thought he was plainly too old to play a teenager.
When I bring up the criticism, Platt is typically graceful. “It’s a very pick-and-choose kind of culture at the moment,” he says. “There are about a hundred different examples of things that are cast in a similar way, where all of the high school students are early and mid-twenties actors. And sometimes people like to climb onto specific things just because. I have no control over that, and that's totally fine on my end.”
Platt is an efficient interviewee, voluble but reflective, analytical but still spontaneous. He is, simply put, a pro. His hair is tousled – he grew it out to play Hansen and kept it that way. When I ask what the writing on his T-shirt says, he gets up to show me: it’s the brand name Adidas, in vintage cursive.
While Platt’s well aware that there can be “no entitlement to anything” in a creative career, he knows how much he contributed to shaping the character of Evan Hansen. His performance as the anxiety-riddled teenager, whose personal life is upended after a classmate’s suicide, turned the musical into an international phenomenon and earned him a Tony Award in 2017. Platt workshopped and developed the role for years, long before the play made it onto Broadway. The result was a rare synergy between character and performer – the kind that makes it almost impossible to picture anyone else in Hansen’s shoes.
“I created the role and I workshopped it and I did readings of it and I did the out-of-town production and the off-Broadway production,” says Platt. “I really built it with the writers and a lot of me, my rhythms, my voice and who I am is embedded in the character. ...That’s the one character that I do feel has become mine.” Universal Pictures agreed. When the time came to produce the musical’s film adaptation, the distributor would only go ahead with the project if Platt were to reprise the role.
Doing so was an emotional journey as well as a physical one. Platt, like Hansen, has suffered from anxiety – playing him again meant revisiting a range of uncomfortable emotions. “As incredible an experience as [the role] was and the doors it opened for me and the power of the story, it’s a painful, difficult thing to live in all the time,” he says. Still, at least he didn’t have to revisit the entire panoply of emotions six nights a week. “We were only having to visit each spot in the story once,” says Platt. “If we were shooting [the uplifting duet] ‘Only Us’ the entire day, it was a very joyful day.”
While all this was unfolding, Platt was falling in love – with the man who once replaced him as Evan Hansen on Broadway. He and Noah Galvin have been gushing about their relationship for several months, in interviews and on social media.
The romance is the inspiration behind Platt’s new song, “Happy To Be Sad”, a bittersweet pop ballad released on Friday (16 July). Platt and Galvin spent the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic together before being forced into a long-distance setup when Galvin had to go and film a TV show in Vancouver, while Platt was due to shoot a movie in Georgia.
“The day that he left, I felt such a weird mix of [emotions] – a real pit in my stomach and a real sadness because I missed him being next to me,” Platt says. “But at the same time, I felt this excitement and euphoria and joy. I had never had that experience of finding someone who could make me feel that way And I was like, ‘How lucky is that, that that person now exists?’”
“Happy To Be Sad” is from Platt’s upcoming second studio album Reverie, which follows his 2019 debut Sing to Me Instead. Where his debut was full of power ballads that showcased Platt’s showtune-infused range, the new release builds on that DNA and gives it a retro, synthy bent. The album took shape in summer 2020, when Platt was quarantined with his parents in Los Angeles, working in his childhood bedroom.
“I was living in this bizarre limbo because of where I was,” he says. “I was feeling very connected to the past and who I used to be and where I came from and the comfort of that – mixed with the fact that the pandemic gave everybody a new perspective. And I was in an adult relationship, feeling very involved and very forward-moving. So I felt stuck in the middle of those two things.”
In hindsight, Platt’s childhood reads like a premonition of his career to come. The son of a film, TV, and theatre producer, he attended the Adderley School for Performing Arts in Los Angeles as a child (other alumni include Modern Family’s Sarah Highland, model Gigi Hadid, and It’s Jack Dylan Grazer). As a young adult, he enrolled at Columbia University in New York, dropping out after six weeks to play one of the lead roles in The Book of Mormon, first in Chicago and then on Broadway. In the meantime, Platt played Benji Applebaum in two Pitch Perfect films. Then, in 2015, came Dear Evan Hansen, the acclaimed musical that made Platt – as one New York Times headline put it – “the lying, sobbing, lovesick toast of Broadway”.
Platt has had continued success on TV (playing the lead character in two seasons of Ryan Murphy’s gleefully chaotic The Politician) and in film. He’s set to star in The People We Hate at the Wedding, a film adaptation of Grant Ginder’s novel of the same name, with Allison Janney and Annie Murphy. Platt’s character is gay, which, as he recently told NME, “isn’t something I’ve done very often” but is “something I really have wanted to do, just because I’m liking seeing more and more queer actors telling their own stories”.
“We should be able to play anything all over the map,” he says now. “There’s a joy and an excitement and a comfort in getting to play a queer character that I think people who aren't in that position may take for granted. Because there are elements of yourself and mannerisms and instincts and humour that you sometimes need to quiet or avoid when you're playing a character that isn't queer. I'm really excited to get to use all those things and lean into them and experience the freedom of that.”
Platt is also looking forward to returning to the stage – first to tour his album, then in theatre, his “happiest place”. He’s “dying to get back into that experience and that lifestyle”, whether that means starring in a Shakespeare play or doing another musical – “anything that feels new again”. Speaking of Broadway, Bruce Springsteen recently attracted a protest of anti-vaxxers outside his own Broadway venue for requiring that his audience be vaccinated against Covid-19. Does Platt agree with the policy?
“Absolutely,” he says. “I mean, it's up to each individual what they want to do, but when we're talking about live performers who are maskless and who are in the room with you, then I think it's perfectly fair to ask that if you want to come and share this experience and be in this room, then you should have something that is entirely free and accessible to everyone and has been proven scientifically to be very helpful.”
In an industry that is known to giveth about as much as it taketh away, there’s something almost supernatural in Platt’s determination to keep conquering new lands. He says it’s down to his “relentless drive”.
“I always had a very particular directive,” he adds. “I started working when I was nine years old and I knew that I wanted to be a performer all the way back then.” Still, the pandemic and his relationship with Galvin have given him renewed perspective: “I put a little less pressure and stress on myself, because I do have something that is so fulfilling. I'm very happy to be having that kind of shift. But I will always have a little fire under my butt. That’s just who I am.”
‘Reverie’ is out on 13 August with the single ‘Happy to be Sad’ out now