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 Evan Peters for this 1-on-1 chat about his reaction to finding out that the story of American Animals was a real-life one, why he didn’t spend much time talking to his counterpart prior to the shoot, whether he understands why Warren and his friends did this, and what it was like to work with Ann Dowd, who plays real-life librarian Betty Jean Gooch. He also talked about the experience of having Simon Kinberg, who has previously been a writer/producer on the X-Men films, step in to direct X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and how he would describe the its tone.
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.
EVAN PETERS: Yeah.
What was your reaction when you read this unusual story and realized how it was going to be told?
PETERS: I loved that it was a true story. (Writer/Director) Bart [Layton] had filmed the documentary side first, and then wrote out all of their dialogue in the script. So, everything you see was pretty much scripted to be that way. We shot the narrative side of it to be able to stand alone without all of the documentary footage, but it was always the plan to have the documentary part in it because it just makes it that much more real and that much more true. That was exactly what drew me to it. So, when I read it, I loved that aspect of it, but I didn’t know if it was going to work or not, and Bart definitely surpassed my expectations, in the editing of it and the way that it works. How much it helps to tell the narrative side of it is really impressive. The way it’s shot is beautiful, so that was exciting.
Did you actually get to meet and talk to the real guy that you play?
PETERS: I did, a little bit. Bart didn’t really want us to converse with them too much because it would’ve colored our performances. They’re 10 years older and they have a different perspective now, so he was worried that they were going to try to save their ass, a little bit. But, I had so many questions. I was like, “Why? Give me some back story. I wanna talk to him. Where is he from? How does he talk? How does he move? What’s his energy like?” It was very frustrating for me not to be able to talk to him. Luckily, Bart did send us all the documentary footage that you see in the film, and then some more that did explain a lot of his backstory, where he’s from, why he did it, and his family life, at the time.
Do you actually feel like you understand why they did this?
PETERS: I do and I don’t.
The whole thing heist seems crazy, and having it be a heist for books seems even crazier.
PETERS: They’re just normal guys, and they’re friends. There was a little bit of a falling out before we meet them in the movie, and then they reunited when they need to assemble for the heist. Ultimately, in meeting the guys after the film and talking with them and seeing their reaction to the film, they’re just normal guys. They had this fantasy idea from watching all of these heist movies that were very popular back then, and still are, to do something exciting and interesting. Warren spearheaded the whole thing because he gets all these ideas, and he’s a bit of a trickster and rule breaker, and he loves to do that. I think they watched a lot of Jackass.
When the idea of doing this was presented to him, it didn’t seem like anybody was gonna get hurt. It wasn’t a serious crime. It was books. They were gonna steal them and sell them, and they’d be gone, but maybe they’d find their way back. It was just books. I don’t know. It just seemed like it was a pretty harmless crime, but at the end of the day, they could’ve made millions of dollars on it and ridden off into the sunset to have this incredible future and be able to tell this incredible story. They wanted an experience to give them something interesting in their life. They were young and weren’t thinking clearly, obviously.
And they had so many opportunities not to do it, but kept hanging onto this plan anyway.
PETERS: They’re friends and they grew up together, so they have this brotherly love for each other and trust for each other. In that respect, you don’t wanna wimp out when one person says, “We can totally do this!” They just stepped over a little further onto the other side. They kept doing that in baby steps, throughout the film. They just get further and further to the other side until they get to a point where they can’t go back. Spencer was ready to bail because he could see the repercussions that it would have for his family, if it went wrong.
These aren’t dumb guys, either.
PETERS: No, they were smart kids. I think that they were so disillusioned with everything that was happening in their lives. They were tired of it, and they wanted something new and interesting. That was ultimately what dragged them through to the other side. It does seem feasible and doable until they get there. Then, everything they thought they had figured out and thought they had thought about, they realized they didn’t think about it and they didn’t really know what they were doing because they were not professional criminals.
Two of the scenes that really stood out the most for me were the one with Ann Dowd, when you have to restrain her, and the argument you have in the bathtub. What were those moments like to shoot?
PETERS: The scene with Ann Dowd, and having to take her down, was hard to shoot. We’d always talked about how that was the shift in the film. Everything up until that moment, the line hadn’t been crossed. After that moment, the line has been crossed. You can’t go back. You can’t bail on the operation, at that point. They just continue to go further and further into it, even though it’s not working out and it’s painful. It stresses them out and it feels like it’s totally the wrong thing to be doing, morally. It goes against everything they were taught, but they’re trapped in it, once he takes her down. I think it just spirals into a deeper and darker paranoia and stress, and it gets harder and harder to operate under that stress. Everything falls apart and, mentally, he falls apart.