In 2007, four college students executed what would become one of the FBI’s most significant art-theft cases, stealing millions of dollars worth of rare books from the Special Collections Library at Transylvania University. American Animals, written and directed by Bart Layton, is an electrified re-telling of the “Transy book heist,” part-true crime drama and part-parable about the unique sense of invulnerability among white boys in college.
The film is anchored by Evan Peters (American Horror Story) as real-life robber Warren Lipka (Lipka, along with the other three members of the original heist, appear in interviews as themselves throughout the film). “In the film he’s described as the spice in the broth,” says Peters. “He’s [laughing]… He’s kind of the wild one. He’s the one who gets the whole thing together, who becomes the ringleader. He’s the class clown. He’s a hilarious guy in real life: witty and charming and cunning, and likes to break the law a little bit.”
We get to see numerous iterations of Lipka as a character: Throughout the film, he appears as a long-haired stoner, a groomed, almost debonair art expert, a confident criminal, a terrified kid in way over his head. “Bart didn’t want us to talk to the real guys because he didn’t want that to color our performances — because they’re ten years older, and just had been through a lot.” But like his character, Peters isn’t always a rule-follower. “I refused, and I said, ‘I have to talk to this guy.’ And so I found him through Twitter and I talked to him. We had an email correspondence. It was great but it was nowhere near as much as I would have liked.”
The film also features acclaimed actress Ann Dowd as Betty Jean “B.J.” Gooch, the librarian whom the students shocked with a Taser-like weapon before raiding the collection. “She’s the nicest, most lovely human being you’ve ever met,” says Peters of Dowd, “so that made my job that much harder to do in terms of the story. You know what I’m trying to say? As an actor, it made it that much harder to do what I had to do as Warren.”
It was that assault on the real-life B.J. Gooch that contributed to the federal prosecutors requesting a sentence for Warren of 14 to 17 years. According to Vanity Fair, “The severity of the requested sentences was predicated on the dual propositions that, although the Audubon volumes had never been physically removed from the library, according to the letter of the law they were nonetheless stolen — increasing the monetary value of the crime — and that the Black Cobra Stun Pen used to subdue B.J. Gooch not only inflicted ‘physical harm’ but was in actuality ‘a dangerous weapon.’ Worse still for the defendants, B.J. Gooch’s ordeal had become a cause célèbre among librarians, many of whom wrote letters to the judge arguing against leniency.” (All four boys received seven-year sentences, which they began serving in 2006.)
“It’s outrageous,” says Peters of their sentence length. “And that was one thing that just sickened me and made me really sad. And I know B.J. was obviously hurt and accosted, that’s obviously worthy of reprimand and he should have done some time, but [his sentence] was outrageous. College kids are young — they’re old enough to make choices for themselves, but they’re not always the brightest or most well-thought-out choices because they’re still learning, still figuring things out. “
American Animals is currently in theaters.