Plus, what he learned about real cult leaders, his Cheetos mask, and working with 'sweetheart' Lena Dunham
WARNING: This article contains spoilers from Tuesday’s episode of American Horror Story: Cult. Read (and watch the series) at your own risk!
This week, AHS: Cult viewers received some pivotal information about cult leader Kai (Evan Peters): his parents are basically rotting in their upstairs bedroom and his brother is psychiatrist Dr. Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson). Kai also had one of his most purely terrifying moments in this hour when he pressured his followers into killing one of their own with a nail gun.
EW talked to Peters about tonight’s terror as well as his incredible Cheetos moment and working in an upcoming episode with Lena Dunham.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Who decided on Kai’s blue hair color?
EVAN PETERS: That was originally my idea. I remember seeing this movie called SLC Punk and I always associated Detroit with this punk rock type scene. There was something kind of scary but alluring and kind of underground about blue hair. I was also looking around me and seeing so many people with blue hair — I was shocked! I was like, this is some kind of sign and I just have to do it. Everybody has brown hair, blonde hair, and red hair. So it was kind of like, destroy what’s already kind of going on everywhere — what’s normal — and let’s create something new. That was the logic behind it.
When you found out you were going to be a cult leader, did you do research on Charles Manson or David Koresh?
Absolutely. I read a lot of books. I read Seductive Poison, which is about a survivor of the Jonestown Massacre. I read Combatting Cult Mind Control, which is a great book to help people get out of cults. I read a great book called The Art of Seduction. I watched as many documentaries as I could on cults — a great one to watch is Holy Hell on Netflix.
What was your biggest takeaway or what did you learn about these kinds of leaders? That they feed on people’s weaknesses?
That’s exactly what they do. It’s usually people who are educated, oddly enough. And smart and with it. They want somebody to lead for them. So these leaders usually isolate everybody and keep information from the outside world out and the leader is always right. They find wounds and they find weaknesses and they cut them open and they can embarrass you and shame you. Then, on the other hand, they can be very sweet to you and motivate you but it’s all in the vein of their cause. Another thing that they do is, they sleep deprive you so that you can’t think clearly. Everything that they say at that point becomes almost like they’re a god. You’re looking at them through this haze of tiredness and hunger and malnutrition and you just believe everything they say and they become infallible.
You’re playing multiple cult leaders, right, like Jim Jones and David Koresh? Is that all in one episode?
No, it’s all the way until the end. It’s over the course of some episodes. There’s one episode where there’s a lot of them.
How challenging was that? Those are all very different guys.
It was difficult. But it was really, really fun. It was incredibly difficult. A lot of research was involved in it. First, Ryan told me I was playing Andy Warhol and so I immediately started doing research on him and just fell in love with him. I thought he was amazing and the ’60s and The Factory and that whole world to live in is so fun. So it was great to learn about him but challenging to get his mannerisms and his speech and his state of mind. I would just listen to him constantly. For every person, there was luckily some sort of video or recording of them on YouTube.
Lena Dunham is playing Valerie Solanas, who tried to kill Warhol. How was it working with her?
She’s a sweetheart. She did a great job and we had a lot of fun playing around in The Factory. I got a kick out of her.
You’ve done this seven years now. It’s definitely your biggest character since Tate in season 1. How do you qualify Kai? How do you rank him? Is he a favorite?
He’s definitely the most prominent, therefore I got to play him the most and sort of explore him the most. In that respect, I think he was not only my most challenging and exhausting but as a result the most fun and I learned the most from it. It’s a very current character with the fear that’s going on in our country. I think Kai ranks as No. 1 on all the characters I’ve played.
Was it hard to let go of, though, because this plotline hits so close to home?
Well, we wrapped the 22nd [of September]. He’s very wound up and high-strung and on edge all the time. He could get angry so easily. That hasn’t started to wind down till a little bit now. It took me a little over a week to let that go. [Laughs] But it was a lot. It was just the longest, most exhausting shoot and the hardest I had to work.
On a lighter note, is that actual Cheetos dust on your face?
It was yeah. And you’ll notice if you ever are feeling risky or frisky and you decide to put Cheetos on your face, it’s more of a paler consistency. So we threw in a little orange paint in there as well. There were definitely Cheetos chunks in there and I definitely rubbed Cheetos all over my face.
Was that a good mask? How did that affect the skin?
It was nice. It was kind of an astringent and a little drying. It was good for the normal to oily skin and to alleviate that shine.
Did you smell like Cheetos for days?
We shot part of it and then we had to go to lunch. They were like, “You could wipe it off and we could reapply it.” I was like, “Let’s just keep it on. It’s going to be so hard to match that so let’s keep it on.” So everything I ate tasted or smelled like Cheetos.
You had to wear the Rubber Man costume. How are the costumes? How does that rate against the clown gear?
I have to say it’s a little hot. A lot of that material is pretty thick and the jacket is leather. Those masks are really scary but kind of hilarious because we can’t see anything. So we’re like trying to walk around the set and we’re bumping into everything and swinging knives and missing.
You’ve had to do some nutty things on the show. How does masturbating in front of Billy Eichner rank?
Look, it’s never an easy day at work when you have to jerk off in front of a bunch of strangers. It’s a little daunting. You kind of have to in a sense check out or put up a wall. I have done some insane stuff. There’s been so much sex and murder on the show that it was pretty small compared to where this season goes. So I was like, let’s just get in there and break the ice.
Was the nail gun scene disturbing to shoot? It’s terrifying to watch.
It was intense. Everybody was upset and had to be upset about killing our friend. Makeup did a great job and made it very real and it was also performed very real. The thing about it is, there are certain scenes when you’re playing Kai that are excruciatingly difficult, like the flashback stuff. Then, you have the other stuff, like that, which for everyone else it was hard to shoot but for me it was enjoyable because the character was enjoying it in a way. Although, when you take a step back and look at it from the outside, it’s like, Jesus Christ, what are we doing here?
Tuesday’s episode reveals that Dr. Vincent is your brother. Was that a surprise to you?
No, I knew that going in.
I love the relationship between Beverly (Adine Porter) and Kai. She seems to be getting more power hungry. Do we continue to follow that relationship’s evolution?
Yeah, absolutely. And you’re right on track with that: she’s definitely getting more power hungry. I want it to be equal power but then years of oppression. It’s interesting seeing that relationship unfold and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed as the season goes on.
It must so weird to be so antagonistic for Sarah but last season you were married on Roanoke. In real life, you’ve known her for so long and you’re friends.
It’s been fun and Sarah is such a great actress and is a very giving actress and will help you in a lot of ways. I really like working with her. I think when it comes to being antagonistic with her there’s a certain understanding we have where we can get into it and play that. But then, at the end of the day or in between takes, laugh or screw around.
What can you say about Kai going forward? Is his rise just going to continue?
Yeah. Right now he’s a narcissist but then he turns into a megalomaniac and it just gets more and more and more. It’s tragic and fun and scary to watch Kai’s power get strong and stronger and stronger with the lack of sanity and empathy he has. It gets pretty terrifying.