Evan Peters on His Wildest Auditions, From Bombing ‘Superbad’ to Dressing in Drag

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Whether leading a new Ryan Murphy anthology, mingling with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or acting opposite Kate Winslet on “Mare of Easttown,” Evan Peters is an actor who fully commits—but it hasn’t always been that way. Remembering his early days doing commercials and flopping at auditions (like one with Seth Rogen for “Superbad”), the gifted performer says he’d tell his younger self to “stop fucking around” and take the craft as seriously as he does today. 

What first made you want to sign on to play Detective Colin Zabel? 
I got the materials and the scripts were great and people attached are great—but really it was the chance to work with Kate Winslet and just kind of be in the same room as her. 

I imagine a performer like her elevates everyone else’s performances. 
Yeah, definitely. 

When it comes to a project like “Mare of Easttown,” how mapped out is your performance as Colin? Did you know going in all the twists and turns that were going to be coming your way? 
I knew up until Episode 5. I knew what happened up until then, and then I decided that I didn’t really want to know what happened after…. You know, you have a plan, but as you’re shooting and the environment takes over and what Kate’s doing and what the director’s thinking—you just get in the moment and you play around a lot more and decide what’s working and readjust. 

“I find a lot of the great scene partners and great actors and actresses that I’ve worked with are just always very confident and relaxed and comfortable.”

Would you describe yourself as a more technical actor or an instinctual one? What does your process of building a new character look like? 
Oh, man, I’m still trying to figure it out myself. I think I’m exploring different ways of doing things and seeing what works and what doesn’t. I try to do a little bit of both, you know? I try to do as much research as I possibly can before we start. I watch a lot of stuff, I read a lot of stuff, I try to get into the mindset of what the character’s going through and figure out their world as best as I can. And then on the day, when you’re there and you’re shooting a scene, some stuff that you’ve been doing works and some stuff you kinda have to throw out the door. I’m very open and collaborative to new ideas and techniques and ways of working and all sorts of stuff, because I’m just trying it all on and seeing what fits. So, it’s still a work in progress, I guess is the best answer. 

You’re working opposite Winslet here, and looking at the rest of your work, you’ve had a lot of great scene partners over the years. In your opinion, what makes a great scene partner?
I’ve learned that it’s very much about being in the moment and sort of going with what you have and what works and being very relaxed. You know, I find a lot of the great scene partners and great actors and actresses that I’ve worked with are just always very confident and relaxed and comfortable. And then they just dive into it. It’s really impressive to watch them do that. That’s one thing that I always seem to take away from them. 

Zeroing in on “Mare” specifically, is there any interaction that ultimately made it on camera that took you by surprise in the moment? Anything between you and Winslet that really excited you? 
There were a couple things. I think one thing that always was really interesting was both [director] Craig Zobel and I and Kate thought it was really funny how much Mare doesn’t want Colin to be there in the beginning. And Kate would come in in the scenes very standoffish and hard to engage with, you know? And as Colin, you’re sitting there trying to talk to her and say, “Hey, man, I’m trying to help you out. Can you let me in?” And I always found that very shocking in the moment, because I just never pictured her not wanting me there that much. So that was a little shocking and kind of jarring and I would find myself after a take going, Oh, my God. It’s so funny that she just does not want me there at all and I’m trying so hard to get her to like me. So that was always sort of a shocking moment. 

And then I think in that bar scene, there was a moment at the end where she says something and she kinda gave me a look at one point where it was like, “Maybe I do want you to stay here with me.” You know? And I kinda got caught off-guard. I just looked at her in a way and felt a feeling that was like, Oh, my god, maybe she does want me here! It was this surge of excitement and attraction that I was sort of surprised by in the moment. So that was another thing that I wasn’t expecting her to give me, to open up a little bit in that moment. 

She keeps you on your toes. 
Exactly, yeah.

How did you first get your SAG-AFTRA card?
I think it was a couple commercials. It was either Papa John’s or Sour Patch Kids or a Moviefone commercial. It was one of those three, because around that time, I did those and was able to Taft-Hartley and then finally get the card. 

“[It’s about] learning your lines, doing your research, prepping as much as you possibly can, and then letting it go and having fun, which is so fucking hard to do.”

Do you have an audition horror story you could share with us?
I have too many. I remember one time auditioning for “Superbad”—this one really kinda stood out. I remember Seth Rogen was in the room, and I was just so nervous. I was shaking. You know, I had all my stuff ready, but I probably could’ve been more prepared. I was in my early 20s, not knowing what the hell I was doing; it might’ve even been before my 20s—late teens. I was so nervous, and my mouth was so dry that I could not speak at all. I was trying so hard to play it cool, but I couldn’t breathe, I was shaking, and my mouth was just so incredibly dry that, after the audition, I believe Seth or the casting director told one of the casting assistants to get me a cup of water. [Laughs] They brought me this giant cup of water, and that was the end of that. I did not get it. 

I guess that could’ve gone one of two ways: You either successfully zeroed in on the awkwardness of these teen characters—or it just blew up in your face. 
Yeah, it totally failed.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done to land a role?
I remember this movie I did, “Gardens of the Night,” and I was playing a character [who] would dress in women’s clothing and makeup, and so I grew out my fingernails really long and painted those. I kinda knew ahead of time that I was gonna get the audition. So I started doing that, and I went in full hair and makeup and outfit and everything, in women’s clothing. I think they were a little thrown off. I was the only one who’d done that. I just kind of decided to go for it there. I really wanted it. 

I’ll have to go back and watch that one. I see the cast had Gillian Jacobs, John Malkovich…
Yeah, it was a great one. I really enjoyed working on that. That was cool. We went and actually talked to kids who’d been sort of estranged from their families or out on the streets. It was an interesting one to work on for sure. I learned a lot.

What’s one screen performance that every actor should see and why?
There’s been so many. When I was much younger, I was watching “Forrest Gump.” I think Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” is just a phenomenal performance and heartbreaking and funny and he’s just spot on. There's not one false note. And then as I got older, I think it was after Marlon Brando passed away in 2004, that someone was like, “Oh, Marlon Brando passed away,” and I go, “Who’s Marlon Brando?” [Laughs] So then of course I got obsessed with Marlon Brando, and his performance as Stanley Kowalski [in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’] is just one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s so fluid and natural and throws things away and then explodes out of nowhere. He's just incredible in that role. 

You also mention that one of the major appeals of joining “Mare of Easttown” was acting opposite Winslet. Do you have a favorite performance of hers?
That's such a hard question. OK, I’ll give you three: Obviously “Titanic,” that’s sort of a given. And then “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” where she’s just hilarious and lovable and amazing and tragic and scary and all those things. It’s really incredible to see her work in that. And then “The Reader,” which is just gut-wrenching. That's such an incredible, understated, brilliant performance. And so hard to do. I can’t imagine how hard that movie was to make. She really is just incredible. So, I think three. I couldn’t only give you one, she’s too good. 

What’s one piece of advice you would give your younger self?
I feel like it wasn’t until my early 20s that I started to [be] like, “You need to bust your ass. You need to try harder.” Stop fucking around, essentially. I was having fun and going off of instinct and playing around [as an actor], and if it wasn’t intriguing at the time, I would sort of just glide through it and mess around. And it showed. It was so flippant. But, yeah, I would say: You need to buckle down and bust your ass. And try hard. Give it your all. The trick is: You can't look like you’re trying too hard. I think Laurence Olivier said, “If you give 110%, it looks like you’re trying too hard, so you’ve got to give 65%.” I think it means more in terms of prep—learning your lines, doing your research, prepping as much as you possibly can, and then letting it go and having fun, which is so fucking hard to do when there’s a lot of pressure. So, I don’t know, it’s a double-edged sword of: Try really hard and then let it go, which I’m still learning to do. But yeah, I would say, “Stop fuckin’ around, man. Memorize your lines, be off-book, and try your best.” That's what I would tell my younger self.

This story originally appeared in the June 10 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Benjamin Lindsay
Benjamin Lindsay is managing editor at Backstage, where if you’re reading it in our magazine, he’s written or edited it first. He’s also producer and host of a number of our digital interview series, including our inaugural on-camera segment, Backstage Live.
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