American Animals: Evan Peters on How to Plan a Heist

The star of the new docudrama American Animals delves into the story behind the movie, plus Dark Phoenix, American Horror Story and more.

American Animals is based on the true (if strange) story of two friends from the suburbs of Lexington, Kentucky — Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) — who want something more out of life than what they’re getting, and want somehow to be special. So soon after they go off to college, the two young men decide to embark on a course of action far from ordinary: they plan to rob some of the most valuable books in the world from the library at Spencer’s school.

Enlisting two other friends, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner), they use heist movies as their guideposts for mapping out one of the most daring and unexpected robberies in history. Writer and director Bart Layton follows his documentary The Impostor with this unique mash-up of fact and fiction, as the story unfolds alongside filmed recollections from the real-life men involved.

As Warren, the ringleader and instigator, Evan Peters brings the same offbeat energy to this character that he’s brought to his performances as multiple characters in the first seven seasons of American Horror Story, as well as his two showstopping turns as Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. Warren is both charismatic and perhaps dangerous, a combination that is a hallmark of Peters’ work.

We spoke with the actor via phone about American Animals — which opened in limited release this past weekend and will expand to more theaters soon — the story behind the movie and more, including the upcoming eighth season of American Horror Story and the next X-Men movie, Dark Phoenix.

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Den of Geek: What, if anything, did you know about this story going in? Did you know it was a true story?

Evan Peters: Well, when I got the email with the script, attached to it was the Vanity Fair article, and I read that first and was immediately hooked because it is a true story and it felt like I could play that age, and I could play Warren, and I sort of understood suburbia, and where they came from, and why they would want to blow it all up and do something crazy like this to their lives. So, I felt like I sort of understood that and connected to that in a weird way.

What were the things about Warren that appealed to you?

To me he was kind of this trickster or this shaman who couldn’t find his place in society and didn’t understand why it was the way that it was, and wanted to test that and push the boundaries of that. I grew up hanging out with somebody like that, and they just make life so much more interesting and so much more fun. You immediately stop worrying about everything that you’re worrying about in your life, and you start focusing on what’s right in front of you. Warren is one of those people. I really jumped at the opportunity to play him because that would be so much fun, to be able to live inside that skin.

Did you get to meet with Warren? There seems to be two schools of thought on that: some actors want to meet with the real life person if they’re available and alive, but others want to keep their distance and not let that affect the performance.

Well, it was very frustrating because I’m from the school that you definitely, 1,000% talk to the person, and hang out with them, and interact with them, and get to know them, and Bart didn’t want us to do that at all. So I broke the rules and found Warren through Twitter, and we had a correspondence through email. I started asking questions, and the relationship started to further develop. That was immediately squashed by Bart because he was worried that the guys are 10 years older, and it would color our performance, and because of our friendships, they would color it in a way where we wouldn’t be able to play it as violent, or as angry, or, “I didn’t do that there so you shouldn’t do that there,” or, “That’s not really how it went down.”

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So he was worried about that but to me, I felt it was a little bit of a lack of trust on us as actors, because I feel like the whole point of hanging out with Warren was so I could pick up on his energy, and how he talks, and how he moves, and the way he thinks about things, it wasn’t so much as trying to change the script, or trying to play him any less violent or angry, because I certainly would’ve kept all of that in there. It just would have been more of a life changing experience for me. That’s what I was seeking, and that’s what I was craving, and to hang out with somebody with Warren, that would have been really fun. So, I was really disappointed that we couldn’t do that, for sure, ’cause I felt it could’ve been a really fun experience.

Why do you think Bart felt so strongly about that?

Well, to his credit, he wanted us to film our own versions of the character, and because the real guys are on screen, it wasn’t so much about do an impersonation or trying to be like them, it was more about creating the fantasy movie version of them. So I watched a lot of Ocean’s Eleven, I watched a lot of Fight Club, I watched a lot of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s a lot of trying to find this movie version of Warren, to make him a little darker, a little cooler, his clothes a little more eccentric. It was like I was trying to make a more fantastical movie version of Warren and, in the process, got to play this character that was me playing this movie version of a character that I’ve always wanted to play. That’s how I sort of approached the role, to be able to create my own version of Warren.

So that was fun in its own right, and I think because the whole point is that the real guys are telling the story, as the movie progresses, we get deeper and deeper into the fantasy movie version of the world. So I think Bart knew what he was doing and wanted us to do that, but it was still frustrating nonetheless.

If you were going to plan a heist in real life, what would be your go-to movie?

I would watch Ocean’s Eleven, I’m not sure how accurate that would be, but in terms of assembling a team and getting excited about doing the heist, and sort of having a fantasy version of how it will all play out, and getting to watch the fountain at the Bellagio at the end, that would certainly ignite that fantasy in me. But in terms of planning a heist, to actually do it, I don’t know. Maybe I’d watch this movie now.

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This takes place in 2004, just before the social media culture that we have now. In a way, is this almost a cautionary tale about the world now, with people wanting to create their own reality and be special in their own little worlds?

I’m not going to try to relate it to what’s going on with social media now. I think it’s a separate thing. And it was in 2004. I think the guys were just trying to do something different then what everybody else was doing, and wanted to have an adventure, and have something that they could call their own. However you want to relate that into social media, that’s your own interpretation. But to me, it wasn’t really about that, it was just about society, really, and the structure of society, and how it geared towards going down this one path, and how unfulfilling that path can be sometimes, for certain people.

To me, these guys were not being nurtured in the right way to have a creative outlet or something positive to do with this energy. I’m not sure what the answer was. Either way, what they did was inexcusable and not the right answer, but they were certainly craving something different, and something more fulfilling, and I think that’s really what the movie’s about for me, is craving that thing that’s more fulfilling and to make life more meaningful for you, personally. What and how can we get that in a way that is safe and productive, and not doing something illegal? So it’s kind of more of a question mark at the end of it than anything, not so much a statement about social media.

Let me ask you a little bit about Dark Phoenix. Where are we going to find Quicksilver in this film?

Quicky is with the X-Men going on missions, and doing good with his powers. So he’s kind of integrated himself into that world and is trying to fit in there as best he can.

Are you done filming or are you going back for reshoots?

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No, I’ll be going back, I think. I’m not sure when or how much, but I’m excited to get back in there and do some more stuff. It’ll be fun.

How would you describe the vibe of this film compared to the last few?

I think the title kind of says it all. It’s a little bit darker, and it’s a little bit more of a drama. It’s more emotional, I think. It’s really about the Phoenix and Jean’s inner struggle and how that pans out, and who your real friends are, and helping you through these difficult times. It’s really about that and it’s about the X-Men family, and I think it’s a serious film.

You also start shooting the next season of American Horror Story shortly.

That is correct, yeah. I can’t believe it’s already coming up again.

What tone is Ryan going for in this one?

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I think it’s a little futuristic. It’s going to be more comedic in tone. I think it’s going to be a little bit closer to season 3 in terms of its tone, and a little bit into the future, I think he said 18 months into the future. So we shall see.

American Animals is out in limited release now.