2:14pm PT by Jackie Strause
How Evan Peters Channeled 6 Cult Leaders for 'American Horror Story'
American Horror Story has always presented Evan Peters with a challenge. Heading into this season, six challenges to be precise.
A veteran star of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's FX horror anthology, the 30-year-old actor has played a famed serial killer, a lobster-handed circus performer and, most memorably, his breakout role in season one's Murder House as a deeply troubled teen later revealed to be The Rubber Man, father of the antichrist.
Peters, along with the rest of last season's Roanoke ensemble, even played dual roles when the mid-season twist revealed the main cast to be actors. But in Cult, Peter plays a whopping six roles. In addition to his fictional rising cult leader Kai Anderson, Peters will go on to embody Charles Manson, David Koresh, Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite and Andy Warhol.
"I didn’t realize I was going to be playing so many different characters going into the season," Peters tells The Hollywood Reporter. Speaking during the last week of filming, the actor was looking forward to the finish line. "The challenge as an actor of playing all of them was pretty daunting, and Kai is the most vicious of all of the cult leaders. He has been a difficult character to play, with a lot of highs and lows, and a lot of darkness." Adding with a laugh, "I'm excited to wrap and go on vacation."
Cult explored the layers of Kai with its revealing fourth episode on Sept. 26, flashing back to Election Day, the beginning of Cult's story, to show viewers how Kai's cult came to be. When the season first began on 2016 election night, Kai, a blue-haired basement-dweller, reacted emphatically to Trump's astonishing win by thrusting his Fox News-blaring TV screen and spreading Cheeto dust all over his face. But as the most recent episode showed, Kai, the foil to liberal protagonist Ally (played by Sarah Paulson) is far from being just a parody of the alt-right.
While the first three episodes merely hinted at Kai's prophesied cult, the latest showed viewers how Kai recruits his followers. Employing an intimate, pinky-swearing ritual, Kai exploits their fears and promises them salvation after they confess their deepest and darkest thoughts. The identity politics dividing the once idyllic Michigan suburb, now a swing state divided in post-election America, provides the perfect opportunity for Kai to infiltrate.
"Trump is small potatoes compared to what Kai has in mind," says Peters of Kai's master plan. Though viewers have only seen Kai set his sights on the local city council, Murphy has said he will eventually run for Senate and get darker and darker as he rises. On Tuesday, Kai revealed his master plan during a blink-and-you'd-miss-it moment with Billy Eichner's character: World domination. "Kai was always bigger than Trump. Trump getting elected is just the starting point, the spark that’s going to bring it all down and help with Kai taking over the world."
Peters, who spent the most time of any season yet preparing for the role of Kai, didn't find out that he was playing additional characters until they started filming. Murphy popped into his trailer one day, he says, and told the star, "I need you to be Andy Warhol."
Of the day Peters recalls, "At this point I was deep into it, exhausted and overwhelmed by Kai, and I was just like, 'Oh. OK. I'll totally do that.' (Laughs)."
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He immediately dove into watching documentaries and YouTube videos on Warhol and when the time came, he had about 10 to 15 minutes to play around with the hair and makeup before stepping onto set in his second character. Murphy and team liked Peters' Warhol so much, the showrunner came back and asked him to play Manson — followed by Applewhite, Koresh and Jones.
"Each character has been a new challenge," says Peters. "It helps that it lends itself well to Kai and what Kai is going through, which is my favorite part about the whole thing." Though Peters wouldn't spoil when his other characters will appear during the 11-episode season, he did say that they all route back to Kai. "It’s not something that comes out of nowhere, it's actually grounded in the story. That made it more fun and made me want to do it even more."
When it came to researching, Peters immersed himself in books and documentaries on cults and some of their most famous leaders. To get into the mindset of Kai, he read Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple by Deborah Layton and Combating Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan, and watched Netflix's Holy Hell and Deprogrammed, Jesus Camp and the 1973 documentary Manson.
"It was a pretty heartbreaking research process," he admits, ranking the filming of the Jonestown mass suicide while playing Jim Jones as most difficult. "I listened to the final death tape, where he talks to the followers and persuades them through a lot of the tactics that I learned about with mind control, how to get his followers to drink this poison and to kill themselves. It was heartbreaking. I'm more scared of cults now."
Once on set, the actor often isolated himself, reverting to what he calls "headphone land," but tried to keep some semblance of a balance. "Otherwise you go insane, which has happened a couple times throughout the season," he admits. "I've never worked this much in my life, period, and I've never been in the show this much and had so much thrown at me." Ahead of the season, Murphy praised Cult as Peters' best performance to date. But he also said it's been a challenge, mentally and physically, and one that really "pushed him to the limit."
For any viewers who were initially wondering how Murphy's cult theme would tie in with the election, Cult's interpretation of the divisive identity politics that have risen in the wake of the 2016 presidential election are the link. Something Peters says this season is doing is, hopefully, "scaring" people into waking up.
"All the cults are very similar in how they wear people down, make them tired and isolate them," Peters says of his research. "They don’t give them information and the leader is always right and there's no questioning. Usually, there is some sense of paranoia and fear about the outside world so that their cult and their group is the only thing that’s safe, and then they end up believing that leader. This season is a great lens to our times right now, of the fear and of fear-based politics, and how crazy it's all gotten."
After learning more about Kai's recruitment process, Peters says next week will continue to delve into the backstory of the soon-to-be leader. He also provides insight into why Kai has such a fascination with Paulson's Ally — the only member of the cast who has yet to be indoctrinated.
"Ally is very special to Kai because she is terrified of a lot and has phobia, the worst kind of fear," he says of Ally suffering from a range of phobias, including the fear of clowns, holes and blood. "It’s a challenge for Kai to maybe take her in and make her the queen, his right-hand woman. There’s something special and bewitching about her, where he sees her as an integral part of his master plan. Almost a heaven-sent figure."
For devoted Paulson and Peters shippers, the actor says the ensuing relationship between Ally and Kai won't disappoint: "It definitely goes into a strange, odd, combative but loving relationship — if that makes any sense."
And in the end, all questions will be addressed.
"I particularly like the season because everything gets answered in a way," he promises. "You walk away feeling very satisfied."