Many actors and actresses in the industry will clamor on about pursuing ‘versatility’ in their careers as a noble challenge, like a well-scripted line that all highbrow creatives are mandated to say in order to be taken seriously about their craft. Outwardly, the words can feel empty, especially in the face of such oversaturated talent (or lack thereof). But when you come across real versatility in an actor, coupled with a subtlety, humility, and greatness of artistry, you’re able to witness the almost spellbinding freedom that allows them to rearrange themselves in a creative field with true poise.
Evan Peters—best-known for his various roles in American Horror Story and blockbusters like X-Men: Apocalypse—is one of those greats, and he’s only just getting started. We’ve been able to witness his creative determination to humbly weave in and out of great opportunities with his head down, taking each new pursuit in stride; from drama to comedy, action to historical epics, the rate at which he swings from one end of the film genre spectrum to the next never ceases to enthuse. Here, we talk to him about his foray into acting, his philosophies around being creatively flexible, and what he’s learned so far throughout the course of his career.
How did you decide that you were going to become an actor at such a young age? Was there ever a time that you considered doing something else?
I just really loved movies and TV and wanted to be a part of them. I also wanted to be a Veterinarian for a while.
Even though you eventually made the move out to LA, do you think beginning your professional acting career in Michigan had its benefits over being immersed in a very entertainment-centric city like LA from the get go?
Yes, definitely. I think it helped to formulate a strong desire to maintain a sense of the world outside of the entertainment industry. I still try to go back to St. Louis, Missouri at least a couple times a year to stay in touch with family and friends who put everything in perspective.
What do you think was it about yourself and your circumstances that allowed you to dive into acting head first at such a young age?
I think it was having moved to Michigan—going to a high school not knowing anybody there made me feel like I could move to California and go to another new school not knowing anybody, but this time have the opportunity to try to make it as an actor.
As a kid, what actors did you look up to and why?
I always loved Chris Farley, Jim Carrey, and Tom Hanks. I loved their ability to make me laugh but also to cry.
You’re no stranger to a playing a huge range and diversity of roles—from a political organizer in comedy-dramas like Elvis & Nixon to a fictional superhero in huge blockbuster films like X-Men: Apocalypse. What is the most important lesson you have learned from any of these roles in your career, and why?
I'm constantly still learning. I think each role has its own challenges and things you obsess about doing differently, but I think the most important thing is to be flexible. Because you can prepare all you want, but on the actual day there will be curveballs and you’ll need to do everything you can to stay fully in the moment. Things change constantly when you're shooting, so you have to learn to let go of idealizations. You are a very small peg in a very large wheel.
You’ve racked up six seasons on American Horror Story now. Did you ever imagine that the show would become this sort of a cult-sensation, let alone get picked up for a 7th season?
I knew Ryan Murphy was a genius but I had no idea that fans would respond as amazingly as they did. The idea of an anthology series was a new idea that I personally loved, but again was blown away by the support and enthusiasm of the fans. I'm grateful because the fans are the reason we get to come back each year and get to play different characters and tell different stories. It's a dream come true.
How has the experience of working with writer/director Ryan Murphy shaped you as an actor?
Ryan is a creative genius and I love working with him because he is very open to new ideas and always creating on the day of shooting. He is a very giving man and is always giving actors a chance. He also gives the opportunity to challenge yourself and believes that you can do it.
What was it about the show and the character, Tate Langdon, that drew you in the first place?
The duality and tragedy of him; a heart capable of loving but a mind abused and short circuited and turned down a path of evil.
American Horror Story is definitely not for the faint of heart, which makes me wonder if playing all these roles in a deeply gothic, horror tv series scares you at all during filming? Do you ever get freaked out watching the show?
This season is really freaking me out watching it. Usually filming the show is really scary because you’re dealing with horrific content and the sets, actors, and the special effects are all so incredible that you can't help but to be freaked out. Last season, I had a moment as Mr. March where I was cutting up a body and started to be desensitized to the whole thing and thought to myself, "That's a little scary..." but thankfully I quickly went back to realizing this stuff really does happen in the world.
Typically, we see actors on TV series that get stuck into a recurring role for seasons on end, but there seems to be a lot of variety on American Horror Story in terms of the characters that you get to play. Can you tell us about that experience, and making that transition from a psychotic teen as Tate Langdon to the sinister hotelier, Mr. March?
There is a lot of variety and it's a dream come true to be able to play a different character each year and to challenge yourself and not get pigeon-holed into a single role. You never know what you are going to get each year, so it's equally a surprise to the cast as it is to fans. And when you get your role you sort of hit the ground running and sometimes you're not all that sure you can do it. But like I said before, because Ryan believes in you to play the role, you develop a confidence and can dive right into it.
How you usually prepare for a role? Do you have certain methods that you live by?
I just to try to understand why the character is doing what he is doing. Read books on the subject and watch movies for reference. Listen to music that puts you in the time period or mind set.
What would you say is the best piece of advice anyone has given to you about pursuing this line of creative work?
Shut up and listen.
That’s some solid advice right there. Going off that note, then how would you start to put words around this question regarding the sweep of your experience with the life you've lived so far—what have you've learned or are you still learning about what it means to be an actor?
Being an actor, I've learned it's important to work on projects that you believe in and can stand behind what is being said. I always love watching movies and TV shows that have a takeaway. You leave the theatre or your room feeling affected; whether you're in a great mood and not taking life so seriously after a great comedy or if you’re re-examining the world or the way you live after a great drama. To work together with people to create something that others will enjoy and even be changed by in a positive way is the goal.
Being an actor is essentially being a storyteller, and if the stories you are a part of are good enough, they can affect people and educate them. You want to try to be a part of the good stories.