The FX series American Horror Story often plays on our most basic fears, but for its seventh installment, American Horror Story: Cult, it took things one step further, to exploring the level of intense anxiety many have experienced since the presidential election. No matter what side you’re on personally, it’s easy to relate to and sympathize with feeling lost or confused or afraid, and when that’s intentionally used to very effectively induce fear, it can be more frightening than any supernatural entity.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Evan Peters (who played Kai Anderson, a mentally damaged young man who leads a cult of followers that do his bidding, and who has done tremendous work on every season of the series, thus far) talked about the challenges of AHS: Cult, what he was told about his role, prior to the start of the season, how Ryan Murphy has challenged him, as an actor, that real-life can sometimes be scarier than supernatural horror, how he approached playing Kai, and taking on so many characters this season. He also talked about how cool it was for Simon Kinberg to step up as director for X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and why he’s excited about being a part of Ryan Murphy’s next series for FX, Pose. Be aware that spoilers for the season are discussed.
Collider: You’re one of the American Horror Story veterans, at this point, but every season, you’re still presented with new challenges that I’m guessing you never could have expected or imagined. Before this season started, what did Ryan Murphy tell you about the theme for the season and your character?
EVAN PETERS: The only thing he told me, going into it, was that I was going to be a cult leader. That was pretty much it. I didn’t know anything about the politics of it all, and I didn’t know that I was going to be playing all of those characters either. I was a little shocked about all of that.
Ryan Murphy has put together the best acting family, ever, and I love how he tends to see things in his actors that they might not even see in themselves. In all the time you’ve spent working and collaborating with him, what have you learned about yourself and what you’re capable of, as an actor?
PETERS: Oh, man, that’s a great question. He does see things that I never thought I would ever play, in my life, with any of those characters that he’s had me play. Also, to play Kai was obviously very intense. He loses his mind, so it was very challenging to go into that area. The massive amounts of dialogue that I was given was pretty shocking. I didn’t know if I could memorize all of that. Some seasons, I’ve had big chunks to do, but this was pretty consistent with each episode. After Episodes 8 and 9, I thought they’d switch it over to Sarah [Paulson], I wouldn’t have as much dialogue, and it would be a breeze, but there was even more. And then, with Episode 11, there was even more than that. I was in shock. I didn’t know how I was going to be able to do it. It was a very daunting process. I just did it. I had to just get up and do it. There was no time to think.
Usually, I’m an over-thinker. I ruminate, marinate and stew in all of this crap, but I didn’t have any time. I had no time to do that. I had no time to second guess or doubt or worry, or any of that stuff. It was a cool lesson in that area, where I realized that maybe I didn’t have to overthink so much and didn’t have to worry about all that stuff, and could just do it and go off of my gut and my instinct and just play around with it. You research and try to go over things as much as you can, but there’s a limited amount of time and you just have to go with it. That was a really cool lesson that I learned, and I’ve gotta thank Ryan for giving me the chance to learn that about myself and for giving me so much work this season to do and push myself with. It was pretty rewarding.
This season really drew from the most horrific source material out there, by focusing on the 2016 presidential election. Did you find this season, in particular, the most scary because it hits so close to our current life predicament, or do you find the supernatural horror stuff to be scarier than real-life horror?
PETERS: I watched Episode 6, with the shooting, and I thought, “That’s real. That’s actually going on.” On the show, it was a small scale compared to what was going on, in the real world, and that’s what was so scary to me. It’s sad and terrifying and a little too close to home. I think it was good I saw that and I felt that because that shit is happening a lot, right now, and it’s really, really scary. It is terrifying, in that respect, when it does hit close to home. As a kid, I was more scared of the supernatural stuff, and ghosts and goblins and the Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt. I was always scared he would chase me up the stairs, as a kid. But then, as you get older, you’re like, “Maybe it could exist, but I haven’t really seen any of that stuff.” Then, you see the real-life stuff and it really strikes a nerve in your central nervous system and you start to have actual fear in your everyday life. I think this season was very scary, for that reason.
How did you approach finding Kai? Did you want to find ways to make him sympathetic, and did you hope that viewers could somehow find a way to sympathize with him or at least understand him, or did you see him as someone who really had no hope for redemption?
PETERS: When I read Episode 5, which had the family history in it, I felt bad for him. I sympathized with him, in that way. Anybody going through that, and then having your brother do that to cover it up, is crazy and would totally mess somebody up, especially if they already had some obvious issues. That helped me sympathize with him, but then he continued to take things too far. He lost it. He flipped a switch and went into another area. I don’t really think there can be much sympathy, but there is the fact that he’s lost his family and he’s so far gone that he’s killed what was left of his family. I think the child is still inside him, wanting a family and wanting to have people around him who love him. That’s where he gets wanting to be a cult leader and have all of these people love and admire him. And then, that took over his soul and his insides, and he ended up killing the things that he loved the most. In that case, I guess you could sympathize with him, but I also think that anybody who has gone that far should be stopped.