Ben Platt on Making the 'Dear Evan Hansen' Film Adaptation as 'Powerful' as the Stage Musical

PS Ben Platt
Ben Platt of the film 'Run This Town' poses for a portrait at the 2019, SXSW Film Festival Portrait Studio on March 9, 2019 in Austin, Texas. Robby Klein/Contour/Getty

"There is always something that makes human beings feel on the outside or feel disconnected."

Adapting a beloved musical into film doesn't come without anxiety, and that's exactly what Ben Platt felt returning to his Tony-winning role for the movie version of Dear Evan Hansen (in theaters September 24). "I wanted to deliver a story that was as powerful and viscerally emotional as the stage piece." Ultimately the opportunity to share the story about teenage loss and depression with a wider audience presented Platt with a unique opportunity. "The intimacy of film allows you to get even more inside Evan's mind and heart." To Platt, the character is someone everyone can connect to. "There is always something that makes human beings feel on the outside or feel disconnected." But the anxiety wasn't just felt in the story; producing the film during the pandemic presented its own problems. "It was very early COVID, and there was a lot of fear." Eventually that stress created a close atmosphere. "We were all so grateful just to have even a tiny bubble of people to connect with." And in some ways, it helped the final product. "It gave every day a different kind of focus than I've ever felt on a film, and it was the driving energy."

Did you have any reservations doing a film adaptation of such a beloved Broadway show?

Of course. I was apprehensive about reopening that chapter on a personal level, because as wonderful and fulfilling as it was, it was also very challenging for me emotionally and physically, to live in that space for so long, I was able to really have a beautiful closure with it. So naturally, for selfish reasons, I was nervous and wanted to deliver a story that was as powerful and viscerally emotional as the stage piece, but I think that was all overridden by the excitement of how many people could get to see the story if it's a film, how much larger the audience gets to be. A huge pool of young people now have the opportunity to be moved and affected by it compared to if it were to only ever to live on stage. And I have a huge amount of gratitude that I get to be the one to finish that journey and be the one to translate Evan to film. That's not an opportunity that gets afforded to stage actors all the time, and I really appreciate that I got to do that.

What were some of the benefits of telling the story on film vs. on stage?

I think in a general sense, the intimacy of film allows you to get even more inside Evan's mind and heart. I think you can really get very close to his internal life, and I was able to communicate things in the performance in a more nuanced way that isn't possible when you're on stage. And it obviously requires a much smaller, more subdued performance. I think there was a bit more layering. That's possible when you have the camera right up your nose, if you will. In terms of the material, it gave the creative team, particularly Steven Levinson, who fantastically adapted the scripts, the opportunity to look for moments for further elaborating or updating. And additionally, I think the sort of third act of the film that concerns Evan's evolution, his healing and repentance and search for forgiveness, after their lie has come to the surface is really emotionally satisfying and kind of gives closure not only to the film but I think to fans who loved the musical as well, in the sense that they've we've never really gotten to see Evan go through that. We heard about it happening on stage before the last scene in the musical, but to really watch that process, I think is what makes the film for me almost more satisfying than the musical.

The cast is amazing, but two in particular, the two icons of red hair: Amy Adams and Julianne Moore. What was it like just being in their presence?

It was every bit as wonderful as you might think. They're obviously legends on the screen and their performances were so awesome, authentic and layered and all of the things we would expect from them, given that they're two of the greatest actors working. I was so excited to see because I got to experience them in person. They both still have such a joy to be working and to be doing something they love. Both of them truly could call it quits today and they would have done more than their share of iconic performances. So it was just inspiring to me as somebody who obviously really hopes to continue to make things for a long time to see people who have made so many fantastic things still respectful and grateful to be there, giving so much of themselves. I was very grateful that it was a piece that I had so much familiarity with and a character that I felt so comfortable with because, of course, I was so intimidated by their gifts. To come in with that foundation helped me to get over the hurdle of meeting them where they were and their authenticity and their kind of subtlety and very grounded performances.

How do you think the music helps facilitate these conversations around mental health and anxiety?

I think musicals, in general, have the ability to really shed light or discuss things that are really difficult or oppressive, upsetting or painful, and make them much more processable or palatable in terms of the beauty of the music and the warmth that a beautiful song can give you allows you to go to those places without it being too deeply triggering or harmful to your own mental health. Getting to discuss things like this, the whole creative team took very seriously how to responsibly discuss these things in a way that would affect positive change and would be uplifting and redemptive, and not the opposite. So I think with this story, in particular, the songs give you a much deeper view into the characters. The whole purpose of the song is to express some new information or a new layer of a character that hasn't been expressed in the scene. When you're discussing something like mental health and you want to really understand the specificity of a character like Evan, hearing them sing about what they're going through and what they're feeling really gives that a very specific name and a detailed kind of relatability that is very particular to musicals.

When the show first came out, some were surprised it wasn't queer-related, like a coming-out story. In many ways that speaks to how universal Dear Evan Hansen's message really is. With your years with the show, have you experienced that?

Totally. I think one of my favorite parts of the experience of doing the musical was getting that response, particularly from queer young people who feel so seen by it. As a queer person myself, telling a story that really indicates how universal otherness really is and how no matter how people may present or what their stats or demographics might be, there is always something that makes human beings feel on the outside or feel disconnected, not fitting into the right box. I feel like Evan is a character that kind of really exemplifies that. Of course, that is a huge part of the queer experience. I think that that's why so many people and so many different kinds of people see themselves in Evan.

With a subject matter so serious and so many scenes deeply intense, what was it like on set?

Obviously, it's quite painful material. It was also very early COVID and there was a lot of fear and anxiety around you having a production at the time. The set was very loving. I think everybody had a lot of empathy and care for each other and we all knew that what we were doing was very difficult on multiple levels. So, particularly when we were shooting those more difficult emotional or uncomfortable sequences, between shots there's just a lot of hugging and loving and asking how each other is feeling and just a lot of support. Particularly because of COVID, we were all so grateful just to have even a tiny bubble of people that we were able to connect with so intimately. So I think we all took a lot of pride in that and in really taking care of each other, mostly led by the energy and the compassion of our director Stephen Chbosky, who maintained such positivity and lightness throughout.

How did the pandemic impact the production?

A huge part of what is so exciting about going and making something is the experience of being on location and getting to spend time outside of the set and getting to know each other. While, of course, we had the ability to do that on a smaller scale, it was a much more isolated and a sort of anxiety-prone environment. It also forced us each and every day to remember why is it so important that we're here doing this. When you're making a piece of work in the before times, or in the non-COVID time, it can feel very easy to simply enjoy the experience for the experience, regardless of the subject matter of the pieces. But for this, I think it was so important that we realize at the end of the tunnel there was a real purpose and a reason why this was an important enough piece to kind of muscle through the difficulties of COVID to make. It gave every day a different kind of focus than I've ever felt on a film and it was the driving energy. There was a real efficiency and a real kind of laser focus.

What does your new album Reverie mean to you?

I was really excited to get to start evolving as an artist and start making music that sounds more like the person I feel I am today, as in love as I am with musical theater and where I come from and what my roots are. This was the first record where I really felt the freedom to start venturing into other worlds, sonically and into music that sounds like the things that I listen to and dance to and that are affecting me as a quote-unquote adult. And to me, it will always exemplify this pandemic and the experience of it. The two major themes of the album are the two things that I felt the most during the pandemic, first falling in love with my partner, Noah [Galvin], and what that meant to me and how that changed who I am. Then additionally, the experience of living back at home in my childhood bedroom with my family and remembering who I used to be and feeling nostalgia and regret and also gratitude for all the things that have happened and all the things that I used to feel and do. Mixing that with this kind of evolved mature version of myself that I've become and kind of being stuck in the middle of those two things. So yeah, that album will always feel like a snapshot of this particular time in my life, which hopefully, if I'm being as transparent and as authentic as I'm hoping to be, that's what I hope the album will feel like years from now.