Evan Peters (‘American Horror Story: Cult’): ‘The seductive side, the crazy side, the manic side, the evil side’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Evan Peters just received the first major awards nomination of his career. His latest role working for Ryan Murphy brought him a bid at the Critics’ Choice Awards as Best Movie/Miniseries Actor. Peters has been part of each season of the FX anthology “American Horror Story,” and recently played the lead character of cult leader Kai Anderson in “American Horror Story: Cult” this past fall.

Gold Derby senior editor Marcus Dixon and contributor Zach Laws recently chatted with Peters before he received this awards nomination, for which he will also be eligible for the 2018 Emmy Awards ballot next summer. Watch the video above or read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby (Marcus Dixon): Okay, Evan Peters, you played cult leader Kai Anderson on “American Horror Story: Cult” and I just have to know, when Ryan Murphy came to you and said they’re gonna give you the biggest baddest character you’ve ever had to play, what was your reaction? Were you nervous at all?

Evan Peters: Yeah, absolutely. He said we’re gonna make you a cult leader, like a [Charles] Manson-esque cult leader and I was like, “Oh, that sounds incredible,” ‘cause it’s such a complex character. There’s the seductive side and then the crazy side and the manic side and the evil side. So it was a lot, definitely, thinking about taking that all on.

Gold Derby (Zach Laws): Added into that is the story about the election, possibly the greatest horror story ever conceived. When that was first announced that it was going to center in part on the 2016 election, what were your expectations like?

EP: Oh my god, I knew it would be big. I knew they would go the extremes, ‘cause that’s what “Horror Story” does. I didn’t know where they were gonna take it. I knew from the first episode that he was gonna run for city council but I didn’t know it was gonna go to the whole senate area, and then tackling some of the alt-right stuff was very current. We got that script right after what happened in Charlottesville, so that was really pretty intense, shooting all that. But it felt good to have that sort of embarrassing moment with the milk all over my face, so that was cool. I didn’t really know where it was gonna go in terms of the election and how much they were gonna say about [Donald] Trump or Hillary [Clinton] or any of that stuff. It kind of got touched on a little bit further in the season with some flashback stuff, and then obviously at the very end when I was telling Ally that women can’t lead and women can’t win and all these things and then she blows my brains out, which was very satisfying. It was definitely going into the unknown, as it always is with Ryan [Murphy] and Brad [Falchuk].

GD (Marcus): This character of Kai Anderson did some truly horrific things and he had crazy moments throughout the season. How challenging is it for you as an actor to try to ground him in reality? Because it’s so much scarier knowing that this could be happening down the street. This guy could be living next door to me.

EP: I know, and that was one of the things I thought was very scary about this season is that it was already grounded in reality. Normally… I’d played FrankenKyle, where it was like, I was all these different pieces mended together and I was like, “Well, what is that? That’s very abstract, I don’t know what that is.” But then, if somebody like Kai, who you can see in news clips, who you can see all over the internet and all over the media… it was intense and it was hard and it was pretty exhausting having to stretch myself like that to go to those places all the time. So it was a hell of a challenge. It was the hardest role I’ve ever had to do. Not to mention all the other roles I had to play, which were also real people, so that was a challenge in and of itself, playing Kai but then going onto the other cult leaders was even more. So yeah, it was pretty exhausting.

GD (Zach): Did you do any kind of research into cult leaders? Obviously there’s Manson, who’s been in the news again lately, but did you look into any other kinds of prominent cult leaders to get a sense of their psychology and things like that?

EP: I did, I read a couple books. I read “Combating Cult Mind Control” and then I read “Seductive Poison,” which was a story about the Jonestown survivor story, which was fascinating to hear her story ‘cause she lived through all of it and was indoctrinated and then was being sleep-deprived and being isolated and fed false information and, “I’m right, everyone else in the world is wrong.” It was all under the guise of, or creating this community, this community where everyone can be welcome, people of all races and ages and it was in theory, a great thing, but then obviously underneath there was so much violence and horribleness that was going on. So yeah it was a lot of research into that and I watched a lot of documentaries. I watched “Holy Hell,” which is on Netflix, I don’t know if you guys have seen that.

GD (Zach): I have seen that, yeah.

EP: It’s pretty extraordinary and to see that, to see the leader go from initially you kind of buy it. You’re like, “Yeah, he’s gonna take them up there and he’s gonna touch them with God and it’s gonna be incredible,” but then he just gets crazier and crazier and crazier and his ego gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and that’s exactly what happened with Kai. There’s a ton of movies that I watched. “Deprogrammed,” “Children of God”… it wasn’t “Children of God”… “Jesus Camp.” If you go on ranker.com they have a whole list of all the cult movies and you can pick your favorite off of there. So yeah, basically just went off all that and did all that research, which was intense. When it came to playing the roles, I did a lot of YouTube research. I was listening to the Jonestown death suicide tape, the mass suicide tape. It’s recorded, his last speech to them, getting them to drink the poison and you have a survivor, Christine, trying to fight for everyone’s lives and saying, “We can go to the Russians,” and he’s saying, “The Russians aren’t gonna take us. The Russians aren’t gonna take us.” And then you hear children crying in the background, screaming. It’s horrific, basically, and it was really soul-crushing for me, but that’s what we were shooting. We were shooting that mass suicide. So I felt like I had to listen to it to get the tone of his voice. He was just losing his mind. So it was really sad and really, really intense.

I watched a great Waco documentary as well, which was interesting. What we shot was nothing like what was in the documentary, but yeah, I just tried to immerse myself as much as I could into all those characters because they were real people and I felt like it was important, even though it was Kai’s insanity and him telling this story and him living it through his own eyes, I still thought it would be the best thing to do to make it as real as possible, so that it could be affecting and so that people could learn these horrible traps that you can get in with cults. And then you just believe everything that they’re saying and what they’re doing, to the point to where you’re willing to kill yourself, which is just awful to think about. Yeah. I actually forgot the original question.

GD (Zach): You went through it beautifully (laughs).

GD (Marcus): Another character you played, Charles Manson, he actually passed away five days after the finale aired on FX. I’m just curious, what went through your mind when he passed away, ‘cause you had just inhabited this role for two or three episodes?

EP: I have to say, I was a little weirded out. Emma [Roberts] told me and I go, “What? Are you serious? He died? What does that mean? Did he watch the finale?” (Laughs.) I don’t know what happened. I don’t know. Maybe it was something in the ether. Ryan’s always somehow ahead of the curve, or has his finger on the pulse of everything. I don’t know why that happened, but it’s very odd. It was very weird.

GD (Zach): The show has always had a great campy quality to it. There’s lots of scares but there’s also a lot of humor in it. Dealing in subject material like this that is so intense and so prescient in the world we live in today, was it difficult to have that kind of “American Horror Story” camp spin to it?

EP: It was. It was hard. It was very serious. A lot of the stuff with Kai’s family was very serious. But there were also moments, especially with the Proud Boys, because it was so satirical, or sort of making fun of a lot of those guys and how they behave and what they do and what they believe in, and their military obedience to this crazy person. So that was fun to play around with. The scene with the threesome where you’re gonna make a messiah baby, that scene, to me, read very funny. I read that and I go, “Oh my god. I cannot believe we’re gonna shoot that and I cannot believe that Kai believes that.” That’s really out there. That’s gone completely off the deep end when you start believing that stuff. You’re taking massive amounts of drugs and your chemical imbalance is all off. It was hard because I wanted to play the truth of it and the reality of it so that you believe that Kai believed that because he does believe that. At the same time, when you’re putting on “I Swear” on an iPod and then saying that this is a holy song now, that’s hilarious. That’s Ryan Murphy and Tim Minear and all the writing staff. They’re so funny and know how to make fun of the villains of the season, to have you laugh at them a little bit because they are so crazy and insane. So it was a weird balance that we tried to be careful about, but yeah, it was hard.

GD (Marcus): Last year in “Roanoke,” you and Sarah played lovers and this year you’re playing arch enemies. You’re the only two, is that right, that have been in all seven seasons, you and Sarah Paulson?

EP: Yeah, I think so.

GD (Marcus): Do you guys get sick of each other? Be honest. Are you sick and tired of working with her?

EP: (Laughs.) No. No we don’t. Honestly, we didn’t work together as much as I wanted to this year. I wanted to work with her a lot more. We had some fun scenes and some batting of the heads scenes, which were really fun to shoot. But no, Sarah’s amazing. She’s hilarious and an incredible actress and very giving and I would love to work with her as a director. I think that would be incredible. I think she’s very talented and a very sweet person and thoughtful. We don’t really get on each other’s nerves at all, I don’t think. Maybe I get on her nerves, but she doesn’t get on my nerves (laughs).

GD (Zach): Good to hear. Speaking of which, you are one of the few people who’s been with the show since the very beginning. So I wonder, each iteration is new and unique but how has the show evolved, in your mind, since that very first season?

EP: Well, the first season to me has always been my favorite one. Tate was such a crazy, polar opposite character, both ends of the spectrum. I loved playing that character and that season was very contained. And then “Asylum” was a little darker but then in went into this comedy area with “Coven” and that became more sparkling. I think “Asylum” was really, really dark. It’s hard to describe but “Murder House” was this all-encompassing gem and then it got really dark and then it got really light and then it turned into this massive undertaking with “Freak Show,” which sort of spilled into “Hotel.” “Hotel” was this kind of champagne hotel, over-the-top thing and it just got bigger and bigger and more over-the-top and more insane and crazier and bloodier and sexier, and then “Roanoke” happened and “Roanoke” was very small and contained. The second half was shot documentary-style, which I thought was one of the coolest decisions that they’ve ever made. It just turned everything upside down on its head, which I loved. And then this season, to me, was the most grounded in reality, which I always find to be the scariest things, when it can actually be outside your door, when they can actually come inside and get you. The fantastical stuff is scary in your imagination but I think when it really hits home and it’s really in the world out there, then that’s when it becomes really terrifying and I think it’s the scariest season yet. So I love the direction that it’s heading. I like the first two seasons ‘cause they were scarier and darker so I like it to be more in that area, for me.

GD (Marcus): You’ve played villains like Kai Anderson and you’ve also played heroes like Jimmy from “Freak Show.” Do you have a preference of what type of character you play or are you just down to play it no matter what Ryan writes for you?

EP: I’m pretty down to play no matter what he writes for me. I originally wanted to play only villains, because the good guys were the ones in the show who got hurt or tortured or were crying, or this horrific stuff was happening to them, and with the villains, you got to be the one doing all the stuff to everybody. You got to be enjoying it. You had all this power. You were strong and almighty and it was kind of a great feeling (laughs). But after playing Kai, I don’t think that’s the case anymore, ‘cause either way, whether you play the villain or the good guy, you’re tortured in some way, and it is a horror show in that respect. Yeah, it’s not easy to play either one, but having gone to the darker places of Kai and Mr. March and Tate and these guys, I think I’m kind of done doing the darker guys, ‘cause it takes too much out of you. It takes too much anger and aggression and hate. Kai was an awful person, so it was like, you’d have to go to work and do these awful things and you’re like, “Man I just want to do something good. I wanna do something where I can maybe be myself or be happy.” (Laughs.) So yeah, I think now I’m leaning a little bit more towards a good guy, but again, it’s always a challenge with them. The characters are always so rich and have both good sides and bad sides, and that’s true for everybody in the world, so it’s cool to play that as an actor.

GD (Zach): Working with Ryan Murphy, what does he do right that leads to things like this and “[The People v. O.J. Simpson]’” and “Feud?” What is that magic touch that he has?

EP: I’m working with him now on “Pose” and I ask myself that a lot. I’m trying to watch him and trying to take him in and trying to figure out what it is that he has that makes him so good at directing, at writing, at everything that he does, and I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I think it’s just that he has the mind and the imagination and knows what he wants. And he’s open to ideas, so it’s a very collaborative experience, but he also knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like, so it’s a matter of taste and when you have that taste that Ryan has, then people gravitate towards that, because it’s good taste, and you can’t not appreciate it. Like he always says, “I always try to do something that scares me,” and he’s constantly saying, “That interests me. I like that. That’s interesting to me.” And I think that’s what it is. I think when you grasp onto something that’s interesting to you or that you like or you think is worth telling, then people will like it. And I think he’s always been true to that, and I think he also does something where he pushes the envelope of the business and what’s going on out there and is trying to change it for the better and trying to open your mind and blow your mind a little bit and say, “You missed this.” That was the thing about “OJ,” is that it was things that people thought they knew, but then, “Oh my god, I didn’t know that. I didn’t see it that way,” or, “That’s not how I remember it.” So that’s what was so awesome about that and I think he just keeps doing that and I think he’s smart that way. I’m gonna try to steal that (laughs).

GD (Marcus): There was some new cast members this year, Billy Eichner, Billie Lourd, Alison Pill. What was it like working with some of these new people?

EP: It was great. I loved working with all of them. They were all incredible actors and dove right in and had such a great time and committed to the insanity of everything that was going on and were gung-ho with the long hours and the massive amounts of dialogue and everything about it. It was a great experience to work with some new actors, ‘cause I’m constantly learning. I’m constantly keeping my open to what other people are doing and how they’re doing it. Yeah, it was a really eye-opening experience to work with them, to get some new actors to work with. So I had a great time working with them.

GD (Zach): You mentioned “Pose” and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that show, what we can expect.

EP: I can’t say much because that’s just the way that it is with Ryan Murphy, he always wants things very secretive. It’s gonna be a great show, guys. It’s so good for the transgender community and it’s such a great story and it’s very complex and it’s New York City 1987 with the ballroom culture. “Paris Is Burning,” if you guys have seen that documentary, it’s pretty much that. So it’s just gonna be amazing, and it’s gonna have that Ryan Murphy flair to it and it’s gonna be visually stunning to watch and I think emotionally it’s gonna be heart-wrenching and I think it’s gonna grab onto people and it’s gonna really affect them and move them and open their eyes to the transgender community and hopefully see them in a different light, in a more welcoming, open light. So that’s the whole goal of that show and I think that’s what’s gonna happen. I’m very proud to be working on that show.

GD (Marcus): Well thanks for talking to us again, Evan. It’s always a highlight talking to you every year. Golden Globe and SAG nominations come out soon so voters, please don’t forget this performance, this Kai Anderson character was so iconic and you did a great job portraying him.

EP: Thank you, I appreciate that.

GD (Zach): Thank you very much, Evan, pleasure talking to you.

EP: Thanks guys, I’ll see you later.

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