From writer/director Bart Layton (The Imposter), American Animals tells the wild and unbelievable true story of four young men who attempt one of the boldest and riskiest heists in U.S. history – taking some of the world’s most valuable books from the special collections room of the Transylvania University library in Kentucky. The story unfolds from multiple perspectives and innovatively incorporates interviews with the real men at its heart, as Warren (Evan Peters), Spencer (Barry Keoghan), Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner) go on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs while learning that there’s no such thing as a perfect robbery.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with actor Blake Jenner for this 1-on-1 chat about being intrigued by this crazy true story, the film’s unconventional storytelling approach, why the director didn’t really want his cast to meet the real guy’s prior to the shoot, how much it helped to bond with his co-stars while living with them for a week, getting to play such heightened emotions, and shooting scenes on a rowing machine. He also talked about what he’d like to do next, and how proud he is of Billy Boy, which he wrote and starred in.
Collider: I had no idea that this was a true story, and I thought it was told in such an interesting way, woven together with interviews with the real guys. What was your reaction, when you read this script?
BLAKE JENNER: That’s the exact same way I felt when I read it, and that’s why I was so intrigued by it. I was like, “Well, this is the most wild script that I’ve ever read.” These characters go to so many places and display so many emotions and feel so many things. And then, the fact that you have the real people incorporated, reminding you that this is a true story and walking you through their journeys, each of them individually, I was like, “This is so interesting.” And I’m a fan of documentaries, so it just felt like this was the kind of project that I could sink my teeth into while also thinking that I was being true to myself, taking part in it. The way (writer/director) Bart [Layton] arranged everything was really tight, and it keeps you on your toes and on the edge of your seat, the whole time.
When you learned that this was a true story, were you like, “This can’t possibly be real”?
JENNER: Oh, absolutely! I had no idea this was a true story. There was a Vanity Fair article about it that Bart found and that was his inspiration to make this, but that had never come across my desk or anything and I’d never seen it online. I’d never heard about this, so I was in disbelief and was like, “This really happened?! This is crazy!” But how it read was just so original and fun and heartbreaking, and it gave you anxiety, in a way. That’s how it feels watching it, too. It just takes you on this wild journey. I was in disbelief, the whole time, but that’s what was cool about it to me. I’ve never been a part of something that was so interesting and had such an unconventional way of telling its story, where you’re still so attached to it and go along with it, beat by beat, the whole time.
And, of all things, it was a heist for books.
JENNER: Yeah. You’re like, “What is this person thinking, at this moment? Do they really think they can pull this off?!”
Did you meet the real guy, or was that something you didn’t want to do?
JENNER: We all wanted to. I had never played a real person before, so the natural thought was, “I’ve gotta talk to this guy a little bit. I’ve gotta find out a nugget of information about him. I’ve gotta start putting that into practice, every day.” But, Bart really didn’t want us doing that. It was really smart ahead-of-time thinking. He was like, “I want these guys. I cast these guys for a reason. They have the essence of what it is that I’m trying to put on display. But I don’t want them to feel this sense of responsibility to do right by this person or to feel like, ‘Okay, these are the choices that were given to me, so I only have these choices to pull out for myself and use’ on the day.’ So, it was nice to not feel like I was walking on eggshells. I realize, really early on, that there was no right or wrong. In rehearsals, it was really refreshing and liberating to take this character that did really exist and perform it in a way where you felt like you had a lot of skin in the game and you felt ownership of what you were doing. You weren’t just following a study guide of how to act. You were doing your thing.
With the research that you did, what do you feel most helped you, in figuring out how you wanted to play this guy?
JENNER: Definitely the interviews, for one. Bart sent us some of the interviews that are in the actual film. What helped me, aside from that, is that I do a stream of consciousness exercise, every time I get a role and I’ll go into a composition book or in my computer and just start writing thoughts. It’s like an expedited journal entry because you’re just spitting out information, and you’re seeing what sticks. But the biggest homework was living with my co-stars for a week. While we were doing that, we were going to rehearsals with Bart and figuring these guys out and figuring out what felt right. After that, we’d go home and all sit by the fire, or play music, or watching COPS, and have Postmates deliver food. We really got to know each other and got comfortable with each other. I felt like that was the most important homework. I had done a similar thing once before, on the movie Everybody Wants Some, where I lived with the guys for two weeks. It was a bigger group of people, but it was the same effect, where you’re just so comfortable with everyone and you’re not afraid. You don’t feel insecure about being vulnerable with them, in certain scenes. I feel like, no matter what you’re doing, you have to have time to get to know your co-stars as people, before you can get to know them as their characters.
Especially when each of these guys have some heightened emotional moments.
JENNER: Absolutely, and it never lets up. You’ve gotta be ready to go on this emotional marathon with the people that you’re working with. So, I was really grateful to Bart for getting that time for us to get to know each other.
Your character, in particular, has a couple of moments where he really freaks out. How were those to shoot?
JENNER: It was super fun to do. I don’t usually get the opportunity to do things like that, so when I read the script, I was like, “I have to be a part of this!” Then, I just dove right in. I love the fact that he is a pretty straight and narrow guy. He’s pretty prim and proper, when you first meet him. He’s all about business and getting this done for financial reasons. He wants to get a head start on the next 10 years, so he’s driven by the money. That’s why he joins this plan. He’s a physical, athletic guy. I have brothers who were athletes while I was growing up, and there was a certain amount of superstition, going into each game. I just felt like this was the football game of his life. All of the fear and paranoia shatters, in some moments, and I thought it was really interesting to take a pretty solid mind and just watch it deteriorate out of fear, paranoia and anger. I was like, “Sign me up, please!”
Was the rowing machine helpful, in getting into character, or did you hate the rowing machine, by the time you were done with it?
JENNER: I loved the rowing machine. I try to drink a gallon of water a day, and that’s actually my gallon that’s in the movie. I asked Bart, if I could do that. He had seen me, the whole shoot, drinking out of this gallon and he would make fun of me, but I’d be like, “Dude, I think this is a good prop for this character,” and he let me do it. I have it in both scenes where I’m rowing. I have my gallon right there. I got my gallon a SAG card, so that was pretty awesome. He’s auditioning for commercials and he’s killing it. He’s made so many residuals that he bought a house. It’s great! He’s got a family of little mini water bottles. No. The rowing was great. It just fed his focus. I’d like to think of myself as a physical guy. I like to hike and box, and stuff like that, and when I do that, it relaxes me. That’s his therapy, in a way. It chills him out, so it was fun. But I did have to do it a lot, so I did get fucking tired.
So, where do you go from here? Do you know what you’re going to do next, or do you already have something else lined up to come out?
JENNER: I always like to do different things. Every since I’ve been lucky enough to work, as an actor, I’ve never wanted to just do the same thing, all the time. I’d love to do something different. There are a couple of things percolating in the air that I’m trying to figure out when to make the move on, but I can’t really talk about them right now. I’ve got a comedy that I wrote with my friend, and I’m really proud of it. I want to get that off its feet because I grew up doing a lot of improv, but I’ve never gotten to do a comedic role. That’s what I dreamed of doing, since I was a kid, so I’d love to get that financed and on its feet. I’m just keeping busy and trying to put the pieces together on some things that are floating around. I also have a movie that I wrote and got made a few years ago, called Billy Boy. I’m also in that, and that’s coming out on June 15th in ten markets, theatrically, and then on video on demand. I’m really proud of that one.
That must have been a real labor of love.
JENNER: Oh, absolutely! That’s a really emotional ride, too, but in a different way. I grew up watching movies like The Basketball Diaries, This Boy’s Life, and Good Will Hunting. I really love that type of story. So, it’s my take on a young man with potential that he never knew he had, and his past is trying to reel him back in, or trying to reel him away from tapping into his full potential.
American Animals is out in select theaters on June 1st.