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It’s hard to imagine ‘Dear Evan Hansen‘, both the theatrical musical and the film adaptation that arrives this weekend in Spanish cinemas, without the presence of Ben platt (Los Angeles, 1993). The actor and singer has been attached to this story since his beginnings on stage seven years ago, and now he closes a circle by making his voice and the songs of Ben Pasek and Justin Paul sound on the big screen. The decision to play a 28-year-old teenager generated some controversy and a handful of memes on Twitter, but no one can deny Platt that Evan Hansen is entirely his..
Based on the libretto by Steven Levenson, ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ follows a high school student who suffers from social anxiety disorder and, on the recommendation of his psychologist, writes letters to himself trying to dispel his inner demons. However, one day, while printing one of those letters at the institute, the also asocial Connor Murphy reads it and ends up taking it with him. Hours later, the young man commits suicide with the letter in his pocket, making his family believe that Evan was his only friend. Unable to tell the truth to parents devastated by the loss of their son, he decides to build a whole lie that will get bigger and bigger.
We spoke to Ben Platt about his experience leading the cast of this story, but also about how it has been to shoot the film in times of COVID, how social networks are a double-edged sword, working with Kaitlyn Dever and what is her favorite musical of all time.
You’ve been with this musical from the beginning, what has it been like to see its move from the stage to the big screen?
It has been wonderful, challenging in the best of ways, and surreal that we have come to this moment. The theatrical version was a great chapter in my life, and it had its own dramatic arc with many ups and downs, productions, Workshops, script readings… It was like his own event, and at a certain point I put that behind me, said goodbye. In the last two years I have reopened to this character and his story. It is the first time that I have seen myself in the position of transferring a character from the stage to the big screen, and it is also the first character that I have been able to create by myself both in one place and in the other, so I feel that it is a very personal bet. Although I am very happy that the film is finally released and the beautiful result it has had, I am also very relieved that it is done and that I can say goodbye, because it is emotionally very complex material.
What do you think has been the key to the success of this musical and how do you think that key will be transferred to the film?
First, the success comes from a beautiful soundtrack, very good songs composed by Pasek & Paul, many of them are in the movie and still have more precious details. So I think on the surface that’s what a lot of people love about the musical. But songs also do what great songs in musicals are supposed to do: they take the character forward, are the engine of their story, and keep the action moving rather than stopping the story entirely to sing a song. It really continues with the character development. I also think the story resonates with everyone, because we can see ourselves in Evan in some way. He is a character with whom we can identify, he is very human and makes many mistakes, he is very vulnerable and sensitive. All of us at some point in our lives have felt alone or marginalized, feeling that we want to be inside something but cannot find the entrance door. It is what is so universal and appeals to so many generations and ages.
Precisely, if you think about your years as a teenager, do you see yourself identified with the character of Evan Hansen?
Definitely, although we had a very different growth. I was very lucky because I went to a high school where there were many like me, many nerds of the theater, artists and creative people. So I was able to find a good group of friends that I loved and identified with. That’s something Evan Hansen has never had. But I do see myself in him in relation to anxiety, which is something that I have suffered all my life. Unable to get out of his own head, he spends a lot of time worrying about the past and the future instead of concentrating on the present. I also have problems in that sense. I definitely see parts of me in character.
Social networks have an important role in the story. Do you think they have made adolescence easier or the other way around?
Both. Perhaps lately with a tendency to make it more difficult. It is a lot to ask, it is a very difficult challenge, for people who are still forming their personality and becoming who they are, having to be able to represent yourself in front of the world, express yourself and label yourself in a way suitable for consumption, and become in texts and images and so on, even when you haven’t figured out who you really are yet. So I think that can be a very damaging thing, because you can start to see validation and self-worth through the way people respond to that representation online, rather than how they respond to you. But it does have very good things: it fosters all kinds of connections and communities, people who meet, people who feel seen by their peers. That could not happen without social networks, especially if we are talking about people who live in remote situations, both physically and emotionally remote, those who feel that no one in their life understands them … There is a whole online world of people who see you. It is dangerous, but also wonderful.
The impact of social networks, bullying, suicide … There are very hard themes in this story. Do you think music helps to talk about them?
Absolutely. On the one hand, music makes things more palpable, you can talk about more difficult and painful things when there is a beautiful melody and an orchestra that goes with them. And on the other hand, I think these are characters that you feel you want to know emotionally, that you want to understand. When a character sings in a musical, you can see his soul in a way that you cannot in a normal piece. You can hear how their emotions sound and what their humanity sounds like in a very special way. And that’s why I’ve always liked musicals, because I feel like you can get to know the characters in a very deep way. So, to deal with such difficult matters, you want to know where these characters come from, and singing we really see it.
As an actor and also a singer, do you feel that music helps you heal?
Absolutely. I always say that music is the best medicine. It can change your mood drastically. In every part of my life I find space for music, not just acting. When I was working on the movie, I had a play list songs that helped me get to a very specific emotional place, were more introspective songs that helped me change my mood. Or if I feel nervous I can turn to songs that are calm and calm. If I need energy, I look for songs that make me dance and jump.
There is nothing that music cannot achieve if you are willing to download everything, to let yourself be carried away by it. The ultimate version of all of this is, of course, writing my own music, and being able to channel and process my personal experiences and feelings through that and then let them go through the song. I can’t imagine being without music.
It’s funny, because this year we have a lot of musicals on the big screen, from ‘West Side Story’ to ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ or ‘In a neighborhood in New York’. Do you think it is a perfect genre to get out of the pandemic?
Completely. On the one hand, with the examples of ‘In a New York neighborhood’ and ‘West Side Story’, people want joy, great musical productions and that kind of show. We are hungry for this type of proposal, because we have been locked up for a long time and I understand that everyone wants that now. But with ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ it is a different feeling: music gives you permission to have an emotional experience, it takes you on an escape that is different from a show that has no music, because these kinds of experiences surround you and catch you and that’s what people want right now: to have a cathartic experience, and for that musicals are the best.
What musical do you always go back to?
How difficult! If I had to choose one, it would surely be ‘Smiles and tears’, because, as a film, it is beautiful, each shot is like a pictorial painting. And above all, the performances are beautiful, the music is beautiful, the story is beautiful. It does everything right. And it has depth, it is happy and sad, it covers the entire spectrum of emotions.
How was the experience of filming ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ during the pandemic?
Quite a challenge, definitely. The good thing is that the story of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is very nervous, isolated and emotional, and we had to live in that space anyway. So luckily it coincided with the feelings that we were already experiencing, and I think it made the film something very special. But it was quite a challenge to have all these added concerns in addition to the concerns that already come from shooting such a complicated musical film, which we had to adapt on the fly in relation to the protocols, the masks, the tests, not touching, not seeing no one, not go out on the street … I hope the situation progresses until we don’t have to live like this, but it forced us to keep in mind all the time how important it was to be making that movie, how important the story was and how it had to all that worth going through. We never lost sight of what we were doing.
Even with the masks, was the shoot as emotional as the movie?
Yes, a lot. Particularly the scenes from ‘Words Fails’, ‘For Forever’ and ‘So Big So Small’, the most cathartic moments in the film. Not just for my performance, but also seeing Kaitlyn Dever, Julianne Moore and the rest of the cast giving it their all take after take. You can’t help but get excited. It was a catharsis that we all needed after months of pandemic. We were very hungry to channel all those emotions into something like this.
What was it like working with Kaitlyn Dever?
It was wonderful. We lived together all the time, she was my only friend I could spend time with because of the COVID issue. We came home, ate dinner, watched TV … It was like having a real family. She is very talented and humble, and lets the truth speak for itself. I want people to hear her sing, because she has a beautiful voice, and she has that ability to be human and authentic. I would love to work with her again.
At the heart of the film is this letter that Evan Hansen writes to himself. If you could write that letter, what would you say?
I’d say: Dear Ben Platt, stop worrying about everything, stop waiting for something bad to happen. Try to enjoy today, the present, little by little. Try to be present wherever you are, appreciate what you have, don’t waste so much time worrying about things that have happened and over which you have no control. Stop worrying about what will happen and that you will not be able to control either. And enjoy.