Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, Evan Peters favored comedy and mischief: his role model was Jim Carrey circa Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) and he was an avid fan of Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). He enjoyed playing Fagin—his first acting role —in a middle school production of Oliver because, “he was kind of the leader and taught all the kids how to steal stuff.”
Today, the 28-year-old actor’s outlook is a little more serious, with Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal replacing Carrey. Peters is not, he says, a perfectionist, but he is a worrier. It doesn’t take him long to get out of character, but getting into character is a different matter.
Peters is most famous as one of the three leading players of Ryan Murphy‘s anthology drama American Horror Story alongside Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange (or “the Langster,” as Peters jokes). Over the course of four seasons, he’s played a murderous high school student, a suspected serial killer, a frat bro, and a 1950s carnie nicknamed “Lobster Boy.” A fan favorite, he’s been the good guy, the bad guy, and a few more ambiguous things in between. Peters is already confirmed for the fifth series, which will co-star Lady Gaga.
There’s much more to Peters’ career than just AHS, however. Two weeks after wrapping the show’s fourth series, he was back on set filming Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon with Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon. Last Friday The Lazarus Effect, Peters’ horror film with Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, and Donald Glover, opened across the U.S. Later this year Peters will begin work on X-Men: Apocalypse, his second film in the monolithic franchise.
EMMA BROWN: The Lazarus Effect takes place over a very short space of time in a very specific context: four young doctors trying to develop a serum to resuscitate the dead. Did you invent a backstory for your character, Clay?
EVAN PETERS: There’s definitely a backstory to Clay, and a reason why he’s there. I think everybody tried to make that for their character; we each wanted to figure out why we were there, what we were doing there, and also what kind of person we are. Clay, to me, was always the Good Will Hunting of the group; he doesn’t have to think about being smart, he just is smart. He wants to develop a serum to make money—obviously to save lives, but I think Clay is a little bit more selfish and excited about making millions of dollars so that he can sit at home and play video games all day. There’s a lot of fun things to do with Clay, he’s a pretty crazy dude.
BROWN: I know you worked with Olivia Wilde, who plays one of the other doctors, on one episode of House. Did you bring that up and reminisce?
EVAN PETERS: No, not really. I don’t know if we ever really talked about that. I was just a day player, and sometimes it can get pretty crazy. I was one of six hostages in an episode—I think it was even more than six—so I highly doubt that she would remember me. I didn’t want to say, “Hey, remember me?” And have her be like, “No.”
BROWN: When you’re thinking about joining a horror-thriller like The Lazarus Effect, is the first thing you want to know, “How am I going to die?”
PETERS: [laughs] No. But I was excited to die. I do enjoy a good death on screen, and that was pretty fun. I was excited to not be the killer, to be the one who’s like, “Hey guys, this is bad. We need to get out of here.” He’s kind of the voice of reason.
BROWN: When you start a new season of American Horror Story, do you know the arc of your character?
PETERS: No. It’s kind of amazing; I don’t know anything. It’s an interesting way to work where you’re living in the moment and making decisions for your character in the moment. You have to go with your gut on everything—try not to over-think things. That tends to make me doubt what I did, but then that’s always the case. I’m a worrier. I have to accept that and just be a worrier.
BROWN: Does it give you an advantage to only know as much your character knows?
PETERS: I think it does both; it has its advantages and it has its disadvantages. You can’t plan your character arc—you have a vague idea, maybe, but I’m constantly surprised. Sometimes actors in films will play the ending of the movie, or even the middle, and you know where it’s going—as an audience member you can read the actor. But if you don’t know where you’re going…the perfect example is [in Season One,] I didn’t know that [my character] Tate was Rubber Man until episode seven or so when the audience found out. I wasn’t playing Tate like I had this whole other Rubber Man side. I don’t think the audience knew, because I was really surprised when I found that out. I think that was possible because I didn’t know ahead of time.
BROWN: In Season Four, Freak Show, you sang a Nirvana song. Is that something you were excited or nervous about?
PETERS: I was both excited and nervous! What I was most nervous about was performing and shooting it. In the booth, you’re singing and it’s fun and you’re joking around. I like that. I like making music so that was fun. But shooting it, the whole music video vibe was very weird and I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I was sort of channeling Future Islands‘ lead singer. He gets so into it, he preaches every song that he sings, so that helped with my nerves a little bit.
BROWN: Do you know if there will be any singing next season?
PETERS: I have no idea. I really don’t know. Lady Gaga is in the next season, so there might be some singing. I wish I knew!
BROWN: Do you socialize as a cast outside of work or is that the last thing you want to do after a long day?
PETERS: It’s tough. You try to go to dinner and see movies and hang out with friends, but after an 18-hour day, it’s like, “I’m tired, I’m going to chill out, watch some TV, decompress and let go of the day and get ready to do it all again tomorrow.”
BROWN: What do you watch to decompress?
PETERS: I actually watch The Walking Dead. I like The Walking Dead a lot. I’m so far behind, though. I don’t like to watch a lot of things when I’m working—I like to read and listen to music, but movies and TV, I have to be pretty selective about. I try to watch stuff that’s integrated into what I’m working on. It has to be for research or trying to get into the mindset [of a character]. So, I’m so far behind on The Walking Dead. I’m still on the Governor. There are so many good TV shows out that I want to watch—House of Cards, Breaking Bad. I’m so far behind on all those things.
BROWN: We recently featured Alanna Masterson from The Walking Dead and she said that every time a new cast member joins the show, everyone comes down to meet them and welcome them. Do you do something like that on American Horror Story?
PETERS: That’s really sweet. We don’t have anything like that—we obviously shake their hand and say, “Welcome.” I think we’re pretty friendly to newcomers. We don’t have a ritual; we should definitely work on something. Get a huge cake and then have Kathy Bates pop out of it.
BROWN: Was it weird to transition between American Horror Story and Elvis & Nixon so quickly, or are you used to that?
PETERS: No, it was great. I like going right back to work, and it was New Orleans and I’d been there for, cumulatively, a year, so I know the city pretty well. It was easy to go back there as opposed to going to somewhere else and learning a new city.
BROWN: You play a real person in the film, Nixon’s former deputy assistant Dwight Chapin. Did you get to meet the real Dwight Chapin?
PETERS: No, I didn’t, but [former Nixon adviser] Bud Krogh got to come around for a little bit. He was very cool and sort of in a surreal headspace about seeing Colin Hanks playing him. He got a little nervous walking back into the oval office set. Then [Elvis’ associate] Jerry Schilling came by, which was really awesome, and talked a little bit. And we’d check back to make sure things were fairly accurate, I guess. It’s a cool movie with a great cast—very funny. I’m excited to see it.
BROWN: The premise sounds so crazy, but it’s based on a true story.
PETERS: It’s probably 90 percent true—some of it is a little embellished because it makes for a better story, but Elvis Presley going to the White House and wanting his badge [from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs] was all true. It’s hilarious, and then you find out that it’s true, and you’re like, “Oh my god, this is insane!”
BROWN: I wonder if anyone has ever done that to Obama: “Hey, I’m famous…”
PETERS: “Can I get a badge?” Probably…
BROWN: Had you seen any of Liza Johnson’s other films before signing onto Elvis & Nixon?
PETERS: No. I wasn’t familiar with any of Liza’s work beforehand. I did get copies of it and checked it out. I was very impressed, but I wanted to do the movie before I even saw her work. I was like, “I don’t care. This movie is great. This script is hilarious.” And I’m a huge Elvis fan.
BROWN: Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey both have quite a strong presence. Before you officially met them, who was more intimidating?
PETERS: They both were equally intimidating, but not because they were actually intimidating people, just because I was so intimidated to work with them. But both of them proved to be incredibly nice and easy-going and very giving actors—professional, but also keeping the set light and having fun. It was really cool to watch them work and see how it’s done.
BROWN: Did you watch the original X-Men films when they came out in the early 2000s?
PETERS: Oh yeah. I was a big fan of all the X-Men films growing up. I still am. I recently watched all of them again and they’re awesome. I love special effects movies, and the whole idea behind X-Men of homo superior and homo sapiens being at war and trying to accept homo superior—it’s a universal struggle. It’s a very relatable thing, and I think it gives it a lot of heart. That’s important when you’re dealing with a movie that’s very special effects and sci-fi driven.
BROWN: Who did you want to be when you saw the first three films?
PETERS: Definitely Wolverine. I love the first X-Men; I think it’s one of my favorites. When he first gets thrown through the windshield and then starts to heal again, it’s amazing! I think that’s the coolest power, to have incredible healing abilities. Then, to top it all off, he’s got the adamantium [metal claws] and that makes him badass, and he gets to live an incredibly long life, which I think it’s pretty sweet. I always liked that about vampires, too.
THE LAZARUS EFFECT IS OUT NOW. X-MEN: APOCALYPSE IS DUE OUT IN MAY 2016.