An Actor UnpacksOLIVER PLATT’S CHILDHOOD ON THE ROAD
When it came time to play White House counsel Oliver Babish on The West Wing, Oliver Platt, A83, didn’t have to do as much research as most actors would have. He could draw on his memories of the officials who used to associate with his father, Nicholas Platt, a career diplomat who worked for the National Security Council, served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Zambia, and the Philippines, and in 1972 accompanied President Richard Nixon to Beijing on the mission that reopened relations with China. “Though I never hung out in Hong Kong with the White House counsel, I watched with interest many high-level bureaucrats and observed their diplomatic functions,” the actor says.
Platt’s Babish worked, earning him an Emmy nomination for outstanding guest actor in a drama series. But that’s hardly the only time his talent has been recognized. The Screen Actors Guild nominated him for best actor in a miniseries or TV movie for his turn as the longtime New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in ESPN’s The Bronx is Burning. And in the HBO series Bored to Death, he delighted audiences as the arrogant magazine-owner-cum-restaurateur Richard Antrem, a character he insists was not modeled on his brother, Adam Platt, a New York magazine restaurant critic.
Platt believes his childhood in a family headed by an itinerant diplomat helps his craft even when he’s not playing government bigwigs. He explains that it has to do with being a “third-culture kid,” a term coined by an American sociologist in the early fifties to describe children of nomadic parents. (Other notable third-culture kids are the actors Gillian Anderson and Viggo Mortensen, the authors Isabel Allende and Pico Iyer, and President Barack Obama.) “We’re army brats, diplomatic brats, and any kids who don’t grow up in the culture they’re born in,” he says. “Always being the new kid in school is constantly exhausting, so we create our own culture, and when we grow up, we tend to gravitate toward outwardly focused endeavors like art, acting, and communication.” Why those occupations? “Because we are, by nature, forced to become more observant and communicative. Those are the skills you need when assimilating into new social surroundings is the top priority.”
Born in 1960 in Windsor, Ontario, Platt was three months old when his family returned to Washington, D.C. Then, for the next twelve years, the Platts lived in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Middle East, with frequent trips back to Washington. Over that time, young Oliver attended twelve different schools around the world. Finally, when his father was named chief of the political section at the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, he and his two brothers returned to Washington for good, to finish their schooling. It was an odd kind of homecoming. “Coming back to America was a huge culture shock,” Platt remembers. “Huge. It took me a while to realize, ‘This is home. This is the country where all my relatives are, and from which my passport is issued.’ ”
Throughout Platt’s wandering youth, he found himself joining drama clubs and acting in school plays. By the time he was in college, he was well on his way to becoming an accomplished actor, putting his own stamp on any role. Laurence Senelick, the Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory at Tufts, recalls directing him in The Merchant of Venice. “Everyone came to the audition with a serious Shakespearean monologue,” Senelick says, “and Oliver came with a speech from the porter in ‘the Scottish play’ ”—as actors superstitiously refer to Macbeth. “In the course of his monologue, Oliver wrung out the fly of his trousers as if he’d pissed himself. What a wonderful bit of business! I wanted a dangerous Shylock, and Oliver brought a wonderful solemn, truculent quality to the part.”After college, Platt worked in Boston theaters and traveled with the acclaimed Shakespeare & Company. But these days he concentrates on film and television, so that even though he jets to several locations in a year, he can maintain a solid home base and give his three kids the “normal” childhood he never had. “Don’t get me wrong—I had an extraordinary upbringing in a very loving family,” he says, taking a break from filming a movie due out in 2014—Frank and Cindy, a comedy about family relationships based on a documentary that aired on cable TV’s This American Life. “But the impact of moving us around so much was tough to get adjusted to. I knew I didn’t want to put my kids through that.” This fall you can catch him in Gods Behaving Badly, playing Apollo. “He’s a real flawed character,” Platt remarks with a laugh. His costars include Christopher Walken (Zeus) and John Turturro (Hades). “Basically, we’re Greek gods who have lost their way, and they’re living in a townhouse on the East Side of New York City like Russian aristocracy in exile.”
And as he considers future work, he’ll keep an eye out for other challenging parts—opportunities to put the skills he honed as a third-culture kid to good use. “The more difficult the role, the more I’m interested,” he says. “I want you to be interested watching me.”
Benjamin Gleisser is an award-winning journalist who lives in Toronto.