‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Star Ben Platt on Anxiety and Agist Critics

Ben Platt will cry tonight. This is not a prediction or a guesstimation, but rather a statement of inevitable fact, and it is in keeping with what one may have come to expect from Ben Platt. If there is an actor who has made a career of an impressive command of waterworks, it is he. Take the image of the two rivulets gliding down his cheeks that indelibly capped off one of the final scenes of The Politician, the 2019 Netflix series that followed his sociopathic character’s rise from student government to the White House. The show was good. But those rivulets? Perfection.

Then there was his star turn in Dear Evan Hansen, a Broadway show about teen isolation and suicide for which Platt not only won a Tony but also (not coincidentally) so thoroughly wrung himself out on stage eight times a week that the New York Times had cause to ponder if the show might be doing him emotional harm. Much was made of his uncanny ability to sing soaringly through tears, to deftly manage all that snot in front of an audience of a thousand, many of whom were blubbering right along with him. If there was a dry eye in the house, then they were probably in the wrong house. “As far as making art, it’s just very visceral for a lot of young people,” says Platt, the personification of all that catharsis. When meeting fans, he continues, “I get a lot of tears.”

Today, however, Platt seems placid enough, sipping a ginger ale on the sidewalk patio of a New York bistro not far from both Theater Row and the apartment he’s lived in since he was playing Evan. He wears baggy shorts, a hippyish beard, and sandals that show off toenails painted a navy hue. He attended the Met Ball last night, which he says was “actually really fun. The first time I went in 2017, I didn’t really know anybody, so I walked around the cocktail hour and left. I was too nervous. This time, I made it through the actual event.” The nerves, he says, are one of the things he shares with Evan. “But,” he adds, “I’m doing a pretty good job of pretending I’m not worried about everything.”

On September 24th — Platt’s 28th birthday, as it were — Dear Evan Hansen hit the big screen in a movie adaptation starring not just Platt but Amy Adams and Julianne Moore. Reviews have made much of Platt’s “advanced” age (as if people in their twenties aren’t usually cast to play high-schoolers) and of the questionable moral choices by his character (as if lonely, anxiety-ridden high schoolers are meant to have it all figured out). This lack of generosity has a number of people in Platt’s orbit on high alert, notably a studio publicist who hovers fretfully nearby as Platt fixes his eyes on the white tablecloth and says, “Fame and people talking about me and people having opinions about me that don’t know me makes me so anxious. You can say, ‘That’s not what matters, the in-person things are what matters.’ Of course that’s true, but it’s hard to not take in stuff.”

And it’s hard not to see the irony in a media frenzy bullying the lead actor in a movie about, in part, the dangers of social media frenzies. If Platt is maintaining his magnanimity, it’s because he is reminding himself that Dear Evan Hansen is not for the jaded or the snarky. It’s for lonely, anxiety-ridden kids and those who once were. It’s for the person who, one night after a show, pressed a note into his palm that read, “I just want to tell you, because of you, I didn’t let go.” Platt taped the message to the mirror in his dressing room. Now, he hopes a film version will be able to reach even more of those kids. And it probably will. Which, come to think of it, is enough to make you cry.

Platt could have been the recipient of a profoundly unhappy childhood. As an anxious, gay kid growing up obsessed with musical theater, his could have been a pretty rough ride. Luckily, it wasn’t. His dad, Marc Platt, produced Wicked on Broadway, as well as the movies Into the Woods and La La Land, which means that Platt grew up (quite sumptuously, in fact) on musicals, in an L.A. family that was more than equipped to nurture a kid who was “a little bit removed, a little in my head, sort of walking around on the side and doing my own kind of make-believe thing.” When he came out to his parents at age 13, he says his mom did most of the work for him. “I was on an eighth grade trip to Israel,” he tells me. “I got on the phone and said I wanted to talk about something. She just knew what it was and helped to lead me there.”

The fourth of five theatrical kids, he grew up going to see his brothers and sisters in shows, biding his time until he could be in them as well. At age six, he played the prince in a drama school rendition of Cinderella, wearing a sequined vest and getting rave reviews. Three years later, by the time he landed his first professional job — playing Winthrop alongside Kristin Chenoweth in The Music Man at Hollywood Bowl — he had come to realize that “when I was doing theater, that’s the space where I fully came alive. There were people that liked me. I felt free to go nuts.”

High school could have been another minefield, but while his private school of Harvard-Westlake comprised a “whole athlete half of the grade that I barely knew,” Platt fell in easily with the artsy clique — including Beanie Feldstein, who is still a close friend to this day — that “took [themselves] very seriously and were just as theater-obsessed as I was and nerdy in the same ways.” And not even that nerdy. Platt says the worst trouble he ever got in in high school involved a “one-two punch” of a weekend in which, firstly, he wanted to smoke weed at a cast party for Our Town (he and Feldstein were Doc and Mrs. Gibbs) but “didn’t have a pipe because I was a nascent weed smoker. I asked my older brother, ‘Do you have an extra pipe I can borrow?’ We were at Shabbat dinner on Friday night at my parents’ house, and just, in front of my parents, he’s like, ‘Oh, here, you wanted to borrow this,’ and hands it to me.”

So Platt was already in hot water when, the very next day, he managed to sideswipe a car that turned out to belong to none other than his former driving teacher. “Straight up, he walks out of this house, and he was like, ‘I see you got your license.’” And yet: “I was never punished or grounded or things like that.” He didn’t even feel the need to course correct. “I still [smoked] weed at the cast party,” Platt says with a laugh. “I found a way.”

Which means that playing Evan Hansen gave Platt his first personal, long-standing taste of exactly how shitty high school can be. “It’s just a very taxing thing to do,” he explains. “Physically, of course, but also just living in that space mentally and emotionally, and playing somebody who’s even more anxious than I am — and I’m already a very anxious person who deals with a lot of self-hatred. It’s not the funnest mind-space to be in. I felt like I had to put my own emotional life or well-being, my own evolution as a person, kind of on the back burner.” He performed the role on Broadway for a year to the day and left just before he says he “would have had to army-crawl out.” He describes the time right after as a sort of “Rumspringa,” when he was able to shirk the monastic existence the role had required and have “a nice return to myself.”

With the success of the play (it won six Tonys, including Best Musical), a film adaptation was inevitable. But Platt, who originated the role on Broadway at 23, wasn’t sure the movie would be made before he aged out. And, after a number of years out of Evan’s skin, he had reservations about taking the part back up again. “I feel grateful that they didn’t want to replace me,” he says. “But part of me was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to re-enter that space.’ I kind of laid myself bare for a long time. And it was a beautiful legacy of a stage performance, so it is a scary thing to reopen that in a different medium.”

“If you watch what Ben Platt does and you walk away and say, ‘He’s old’, then you were never going to get this movie. It’s not for you.” —Dear Evan Hansen director Stephen Chbosky

To prepare, he lost around 18 pounds, grew out the hair on his head and shaved the hair on his face — something that he would need to do multiple times a day once filming started. He also tried not to overthink the stage-to-film translation. “I was already coming in with a lot of instincts and preconceived things about physicalization and the character, and how he already kind of exists in me,” says Platt. “So anything that could feel new or happenstance, I wanted to let feel that way.” Working with experienced film actors in close quarters helped him try to modulate the performance by default, though singing about heartbreak and loss and loneliness in the intimacy of a living room meant that that cast was often a bit weepy. “It was like, ‘Roll! Roll! Everyone’s crying! Roll!’” he says now.

In fact, the film’s bald emotionality — one of the aspects on which critics have greatly enjoyed harping — now has its collaborators rallying around Platt. “It would’ve been very easy for him to say, ‘You know what, no. I did it on stage. I can’t go back there,’” says director Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote and directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower. “He could have said that, but he didn’t. He twisted himself into knots, in some cases literally, to play this character with all the authenticity he had in him. It was remarkable to watch him do it. And to be willing to take shit for it is an incredibly brave act by an artist. If you watch what Ben Platt does and you walk away and say, ‘He’s old’, then you were never going to get this movie. It’s not for you. For the rest of us, what we see is a generational performance by a generational talent.”

The last scene Platt shot was one that hadn’t been in the play, which allowed him to say goodbye to all the individual parts of the original show before saying a final goodbye to Evan.

“And afterwards,” says Platt, “I hugged everybody, I went home and took a little nap, and then I shaved my head and pierced my ear, because I needed some kind of ritualistic ‘I’m not him anymore’ — just really letting that go and reclaiming myself and my body. I had done everything I could dream of to do in this part. I felt so ready for it to be over.”

Los angeles, california - september 22: (l-r) noah galvin and ben platt attend the los angeles premiere of 'dear evan hansen' at walt disney concert hall on september 22, 2021 in los angeles, california. (photo by emma mcintyre/wireimage)

Platt, right, with boyfriend Noah Galvin at the L.A. premiere of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ on September 21st.

Emma McIntyre/WireImage

These days, Platt often cries about happy things, of which, lately, there have been plenty. This morning, for instance, before singing along to Lorde’s “Mood Ring” in the shower, he had woken up with his boyfriend Noah Galvin beside him. His happiness about that fact was maybe even made sweeter by how long he and Galvin had skirted each other for reasons Platt now finds outlandish, like not wanting to date a good friend or a fellow actor (Galvin had replaced Platt as Evan on Broadway and now appears on The Good Doctor). They got together in early 2020 — ”I stopped being an idiot,” Platt says — and spent a good deal of the pandemic living together in Platt’s childhood bedroom in his parents’ house, complete with the giant 3-D playbill of Wicked that was a centerpiece at his bar mitzvah. “In some cases or relationships, it would be considered an embarrassing thing,” he says of the monstrous proof of his childhood obsessions. “But Noah loves Wicked too. That’s the best thing about the relationship: We don’t have to pretend that we’re not nerds.”

Developing a stable, adult relationship while thrown into the setting of his youth turned out to be a creative boon for Platt, who spent much of the time Galvin was there working on his second album, Reverie. “I was kind of caught between my younger, teenaged, nostalgic self and then also this more evolved-ish version of myself in a way that made for good music,” Platt tells me. The last time he and Galvin had to say goodbye (Galvin shoots The Good Doctor in Vancouver) was the last time Platt can remember having a decent come-apart. “When he left, I just kind of let everything go. But in a nice way, in a way like, ‘I’m just going to let it come.’”

Platt is now trying to keep that same perspective about his future. Three days after the Dear Evan Hansen movie opened, he headed to London to start filming an adaption of the novel People We Hate at the Wedding. “I don’t have to cry or sing, I get to be gay in it, and I get to play my own age,” he says about the part. “I’m excited for the joy of that.” He’s also developing Theater Camp, a pandemic short he and Galvin made, into a feature. He’s planning a tour early in 2022. And, of course, “I’d love to find something to come back to Broadway for. I’m really hankering to do that, for sure.”

In other words, his luck is holding, negative reviews be damned. And even if his psychology won’t quite let him revel in how good he’s had it, Platt is trying to get better at taking it all in. “There’s this feeling of imposter syndrome, like something has got to give, something has got to go more deeply wrong, sort of awaiting that shoe dropping,” he admits. “Noah has been a really beautiful help in that, because he’s can really shut off the voices in his mind to enjoy something that’s happening.”

Which is what Platt plans to do tonight. It’s the reopening of Broadway, and he’s headed to see the first performance of Wicked since the pandemic started. He’ll sit in the darkened house with Galvin and his family at his side, and allow himself to be emotionally transported in the way he knows Evan transported so many over the years. Which brings us back to those tears. “I’m looking forward to a happy cry,” he says. “I can’t wait.”

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