Starring in all seven seasons of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, and signing on recently for an eighth, Evan Peters has had the opportunity over the years to play all kinds of unsettling and utterly specific characters within the producer’s twisted domain, finding his most haunting—and most timely—role to date with AHS: Cult’s Kai Anderson.
With his piercing gaze, his unnatural blue locks and his homicidal tendencies, cult leader Kai is the embodiment of madness, a 4chan scanning Alt-Right type taking advantage of confusion and chaos in an increasingly polarized America.
Possessing intense physicality and sheer force of personality—like Warren Lipka, Peters’ character in the upcoming true-crime drama American Animals—Kai embodies many aspects of what Peters looks for in roles. It feels fitting, then, that Kai is the role representing a shift in the actor’s career, as he collects his first Critics’ Choice Award nomination. Simply put, Peters is doing what he loves, with all the presence he can command.
Though Kai, the cult leader, is unpredictable and inscrutable—like Charles Manson before him—Peters understands Kai’s drive, at the very least. The actor put a method to his character’s madness by reflecting on his own absolute commitment to his path as an actor. “These 16-hour days, you’re having 20 espressos trying to stay up—it’s madness,” Peters says. “I was just obsessed with this show and this role. In a way, I was possessed the same way that Kai was possessed.”
Having starred in each previous season of American Horror Story, what was it about Cult that appealed to you?
It was such a current season, politically, with our election, and what had happened in Charlottesville, and the general fear that was sweeping the country at that time—and still is, really.
This character, Kai, was in the news. He was real, it was very scary, and I wanted to get it right. You just learn a lot about the seductiveness of these people who lure everybody in, and bring nothing but pain and suffering, under the guise of making the world a better place.
With all your seasons of AHS and features like American Animals on the horizon, what do you see as the throughline in the characters you like to take on?
I do see a common theme in that Kai wanted to change the world. He obviously had a chip missing and had some horrible stuff happen to him, so he was totally flipped, but it initially started out as wanting to make the world a better place. He felt this unrest and uneasiness with how the world is in its current state. The world seems unsafe and run by people who are not capable, or corrupt, and that’s scary as hell.
If you want to touch on American Animals, too, Warren [Lipka] was very unhappy with the way life was, this set-out plan that everybody is given. I feel like there’s always this underlying theme of: Why? A lot of the characters on Horror Story take it to awful, tragic, horrific extremes. Tate was one of them, Kai was definitely one of them, Mr. March was insane, and it’s sad. Those characters definitely have a lot of unrest about the current state of the world.
How do you find your way into characters of the sort you’ve mentioned? Kai is a difficult guy to know.
It was very hard to understand, and I kept asking the writers, “What is the endgame here?” They said, “Look at Helter Skelter,” Charlie Manson’s whole harebrained, insane scheme to cause a war between blacks and whites. I was just like, “Oh okay, this is starting to make sense now.”
First, I had to understand what his overall plan was, and then as the season progressed and got more and more off of reality and into this megalomaniac way of thinking, it’s just madness to get what you want—which is to run the world. But I really looked at his past and his family life, why he is the way that he is. His mother killed their abusive father, who lost his legs, and then ended up killing herself, so there was an immediate loss of family and connection and love. As a result, this hopeful, idealistic view of the world got flipped into him wanting to take it all over, and control and dominate everybody.
How I was able to empathize with him was through that, seeing that he was a normal person up to this certain point, and then he just was unable to digest it. Everything got crisscrossed, and he was searching for the love of his parents through all of his cult members.
Were you able to find a way into the character’s psychology by looking at your own experiences?
[On Cult], I found myself thinking, “Wow, what do I want? What am I striving toward?” I had this dream of becoming an actor and dedicating myself fully to it, and it came at the price of my family, who are in St. Louis. I’m the only person in my family who is out in Los Angeles, so that’s difficult, and it comes at the price of friends. We’re shooting insane hours, I’m learning lines when I have a few hours that I’m not working, and it’s absolute madness.
I lost touch with a lot of my family and friends, even my fiancé. It was hard to come home at night and put it all to rest. I couldn’t hardly do it. In that moment, I learned a lot about myself. I learned that it’s great to have goals and dreams, it’s great to go after it, but you have to maintain some semblance of who you are.
Obviously, his political views and his lack of empathy in regards to other people was hard, but connecting with him in all of those other areas I think was what got me through that.
Is physicality important to you as an actor? With his blue hair and intense features, Kai certainly has that dimension to im—and Warren, as well.
Yeah, I wanted to do the blue hair. I was researching the role, reading The Art of Seduction,and I just thought to myself, “When I’m walking down the street and I see somebody with blue hair, I’m drawn to them.” I look at them and go, “They’re an interesting person. They have the balls and the brass to make their hair blue.” That’s not a natural color. It’s very bright, it sticks out like a sore thumb, and it says, “Hey, look at me man.” It reminds me of anarchy, and Detroit, and SLC Punk!, and I love that. I thought that was appropriate for Kai, who wanted to blow up the world.
I love the physicality of roles. I love watching and listening to people in real life who are talking in different voices or moving in different ways. It’s fascinating to me. I always respect actors who take the time to work on physicality, and in this particular season, there was so much physicality to work with. I got to play six different roles, and each one was physically very different, so it was a very fun and enlightening experience for me.
Ryan Murphy runs American Horror Story like a repertory company. Is that something that’s been enjoyable?
It’s incredible. It’s an opportunity to not be pigeonholed in one type of role. Ryan Murphy’s given me opportunity after opportunity to play something very different from something I played last year. It’s a very cool thing for me to be able to do, and it’s also nice working with the other actors. You know you can joke around and laugh with them, but then when it’s time to get serious, you trust them and you can both dive into it.
This all sounds a bit like Commedia dell’arte. Each season, there are certain role reversals, and you’re putting on different masks.
Yeah. Then, you have to get used to the person in that dynamic, and it can be challenging to see them in this new light, especially when you grew to fall in love them as another character.
How would you compare Murphy to your American Animals director, Bart Layton, having worked closely with both?
Ryan Murphy’s a brilliant director to work with who’s very fun and creative. Because he’s the creator and oversees all of the writing, he can mix and match and create new things in the moment. That’s really inspiring to work with, because it makes you realize that there is a script, but we can rip it up and create something in the moment here, and that’s the best feeling.
Bart did the Sundance apprenticeship and came ready to kick ass on that movie. I was really worried because when I would tell people about the fact that it was real people and then us [in a film fusing documentary with cinematic recreation], they were like, “Eh, I don’t know if that’s gonna work.” But I think the impact of it is that much greater because of the fact that they’re in the movie, and you get to see their real emotion, and see their parents’ reactions and emotions—which is really sad, as well.
Did you end up meeting the real Warren Lipka prior to shooting?
I really wanted to talk with him, but Bart was adamant that we not because he didn’t want our performances to be colored by somebody who was 10 years older, and had the hindsight of 20/20—which I wanted. I wanted to be able to talk to him and get to know him, learn his mannerisms, the way he talks and all this stuff. Bart sent us some clips of the interviews—most of what you see in the movie—and I could go off a little bit of that. But Bart was adamant that we not talk to them.
I actually broke the rules and found Warren through Twitter, and started talking to him a little bit. But then Bart found out, and it was a whole thing. It was frustrating to say the least, but Bart knew what he was doing and felt it was the right thing. I think because it is us living our own versions of the characters, it was really just putting ourselves in this situation and then running with that. We were the movie version of what was going on, but we were playing it as ourselves in a way, not trying to do an external characterization of any of the guys, but really an internal characterization, understanding why and where they’re coming from.
It’s funny, [over] email, I was in so many words asking Warren, “Why did you do it? Why would you attempt to do something this crazy when you have a great life laid out for you? ” And he said, “To hell with this boring life. It’s going to be the same thing. I want to do something unique, and this would actually give me the opportunity to do whatever I wanted.”
It’s that thing where, with movies like Ocean’s Eleven, how cool does being a criminal look? I did watch a lot of those movies for that movie, because it does give you that feeling of, “I’m in a movie, I’m living this fantasy.” It’s scary how effective movies can be. It’s a very powerful medium that I think is sometimes abused. It’s one of the reasons why I like working with Ryan, because he does some stuff that is pop, and just getting a reaction, but at the same time, he is saying something, always trying to push the envelope and make things better for everybody.