“Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” Netflix’s limited series about the infamous serial killer, always had ambitions that went beyond telling a single story. For star Evan Peters (who has earned a SAG Award nomination for his portrayal of Dahmer) the show felt novel because it opened up the narrative around the man. Though Ian Brennan and Ryan Murphy’s drama provides enough of its subject’s backstory to justify the title, it also gives plenty of narrative space to Dahmer’s victims and their families.
In particular, the series focuses on the story of the killer’s neighbor, Glenda Cleveland (first-time SAG nominee Niecy Nash), whose appeals to the police regarding the noises and smells issuing from Dahmer’s apartment went unheeded for months.
“It wasn’t just about Dahmer himself, but about every aspect of the case and how it affected the community,” Peters says. That in and of itself weighed heavily on the actor, who knew he had a responsibility to handle the story with care.
“We really wanted to approach it in a very toned-down way,” he adds. “We were trying to make it as real as we possibly could.” That meant privileging a stillness that began with the series’ sustained takes but was also vital to Peters’ performance. The actor weaponizes restraint, giving his Dahmer a discomfiting complexity that’s hard to shake off.
When you’re taking on a story as well-known as this one, there’s perhaps too much research to comb through. What did that process look like for each of you, and how did you know when to put it aside?
Evan Peters: [The process] was pretty extensive. I had about four months to prepare before we started shooting; so I read as many books, psychology reports, and articles and watched as much footage as I could, just to attempt to understand why [Dahmer] would do something this horrific. It didn’t really stop. It was a continuous search throughout the entirety of shooting. It was a constant exploration, and it just carried on till the day we were out.
Niecy Nash: For me, there wasn’t a lot that I could get my hands on about Glenda Cleveland. She was the unsung hero of all of it. I did get to hear the 911 call, and I did get to read a tiny blurb in a newspaper somewhere. So a lot of it was the research of finding out, like: How many times did she call? What was the nature of the call? How was she treated when she called? What was her experience with Jesse Jackson, [who met with her regarding the case]? Just trying to go that route and lean into who she was in every circumstance. Who was she when she was with her family? Who was she as a neighbor? Who was she when she had to interact with the police? And I agree, I don’t think you ever stop. You keep going deeper and deeper until you find another layer. You keep peeling back the onion until they say, “That’s a wrap.”
It sounds like it was a daunting endeavor. In your case, Evan, so many people are familiar with Dahmer—not just his story, but how he acts and speaks. How did you make the character your own?
“What I took away was that I also needed to have the strength to say, ‘OK, that is my limit.’ I need to maybe pause—to take a step back and then still carry on”
Peters: It was an incredible challenge. As soon as I saw [Dahmer’s] “Dateline” interview and accepted the project, I just immediately dove in. I created this 45-minute audio composite of the interviews where he seemed sort of uninhibited. I would listen to that every day to try to learn his dialect, the way he spoke, and try to get in and understand his mindset. Then I watched footage of him—how he walked, how he carried himself. That was also a bit of a challenge, because in a lot of the footage, he’s in front of a lot of people or on camera. So it was a constant exploration based on the fact that we had to try to figure out how he behaved prior to being imprisoned, prior to being sober, prior to all of these horrible things taking place.
Nash: I will say, for me, this is probably my hardest work to date, because you are playing a lot of things at the same time. You are playing pain and anguish, and then there’s fear and anxiety. There are so many emotions happening at any given moment in this series. And I’m still trying to master this. I didn’t get the chance often to live in the dramatic world, because the industry met me in the comedy world. So roles like this were not commonplace for me. I was born funny. [Laughs] But this part of my instrument definitely is work.
The writers weave Cleveland’s story in throughout the series, and her interactions with Dahmer come to a head in an astounding scene in which he comes over and offers her a sandwich. It’s a tense, riveting exchange that gives both of you an opportunity to truly shine. What was it like to work together on that scene?
Nash: Well, first of all, let me just say I love working with [Evan]. He is very, very talented and intentional. And I love the way he shares his art. However, I will tell you that in order for that scene to take flight, it was better to not have a lot of rehearsals. We just needed to be who we both were and be in the moment. Ryan wanted to see it. I think we ran it once for him. But it wasn’t a lot of: “Now, let’s try this and let’s try that and let’s go over this and let’s go over that.” We tried it with Ryan, and then it was like: Let’s go!
Peters: Yeah, it was amazing to work with you, Niecy, especially in that scene. Most of our scenes were pretty quick, but that was one of my favorites to shoot. Niecy was just so powerful and strong in that scene. It was amazing to see her—to see Glenda—stand up to Jeffrey Dahmer and take away his power. It was very fulfilling to finally be able to have a full scene with you.
There’s so much restraint in your performance, Evan. There’s a blankness to Dahmer’s demeanor, but you can tell there’s a depth behind it. Achieving that balance strikes me as the most difficult part of playing this role.
Peters: He was very still, and I think that was one thing we talked about going into this. It’s the one thing I constantly told myself: to try to remain still. And with the amazing directors that we had, especially Carl Franklin out of the gate, we really experimented and explored the way Jeffrey Dahmer reacts. The way he reacts in a situation is completely different to how you or I would react. I think we ultimately ended up choosing to have the emotion but swallow it—to sort of push it all down and then see what bubbled up when it bubbled up. It really helped to have it there underneath.
There’s a lot of darkness in the material you had to work with. How did you keep yourselves grounded, and how were you able to leave that heaviness behind at the end of the day?
“A lot of times I feel like we are always questioning: Is this right? Is that right?...My takeaway was: Trust your gift.”
Peters: Well, Niecy! You’re so warm and funny and lovely and an amazing person. I think you saw me and my process. And I don’t know if you know this or not, but it was so helpful to me that you checked in. I’ve said it before, but you told me the saying your grandmother said, which is…
Nash: “Hang tough until you get enough. And when you get enough, still hang tough!” Meaning, when you are in a hard place, you gotta pull up and you gotta push through. I loved checking on Evan, because he needed somebody to check on him. And when I didn’t check on him, I prayed for him. Because this work was weighty. I knew what it cost him. I knew what it cost him to have the weight of all of it on his shoulders. That was a lot. He needed to be covered; he needed to be cared for.
Peters: Well, I was really pushing myself to my limits on this one. But what I took away was that I also needed to have the strength to say, “OK, that is my limit.” I need to maybe pause—to take a step back and then still carry on. It was really an amazing thing, and I thank you, Niecy, for that, because I carried that with me. You said that to me early on, and I carried that with me the whole way through the shoot.
How about you, Niecy?
Nash: Well, I was actually filming “Dahmer” and “Reno 911!” at the same time. So I was taking care of myself by trying to find the light and running toward that—running toward the joy in the world. On days when it was a little too hard, my better half, who I married in 2020, was always there to provide for me whatever I needed in terms of, you know, picking me up and making me laugh.
As you look back on “Dahmer,” what do you want to take with you into future projects?
Nash: What I learned was to trust my instincts. A lot of times I feel like we are always questioning: Is this right? Is that right? There is a part of you when—I don’t even want to say when you choose this career, but if this career chooses you—there’s a point where you just have to trust it. A lot of people told me to stay in my comedy lane, that drama wasn’t really for me. Stuff like that gives you seeds of doubt. But I mean, I know how I see myself. I’m sure I can do it, and then somebody just gives me the chance. My takeaway was: Trust your gift.
And for you, Evan, was there a project that you think helped set you up to star on “Dahmer”?
Peters: Well, Ryan Murphy gave me a huge shot with “American Horror Story.” He gave me opportunity after opportunity to play a different character each season. And absolutely, there was darkness for some of those characters. Working on “Horror Story” helped me be able to approach a darker character like Jeffrey Dahmer. I knew I was going to take the 10 years of working on that show and apply it to something that I felt had a message that was incredibly important. I really wanted to tone everything down and home in on it and really give it everything that I had—all the things that I’ve learned over the years—and apply it to this project. I have to thank Ryan Murphy for giving me the opportunity. It all goes back to him. He changed my life—he really did.
Nash: And now, Evan, what we’re going to do is we’re going to hold him accountable to write us a rom-com, because we need something light to do together!
Peters: That is right! I am absolutely all for that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. This story originally appeared in the Feb. 9 issue of Backstage Magazine.
Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia in Culver City, CA on 1/22. Nash’s Hair by Robbi Rogers. Nash’s Makeup by Stephanie Nimoh. Peter’s styling by Wendy and Nicole. Peter’s grooming by Sonia Lee. Cover designed by Ian Robinson.