"American Animals" could change how we tell true crime stories

Salon talks to Evan Peters about the process of filming reenactments of the "insane, idiotic" Transy Book Heist

Published June 10, 2018 3:30PM (EDT)

Evan Peters in "American Animals" (The Orchard)
Evan Peters in "American Animals" (The Orchard)

In his still young life, Evan Peters has a whole mess of real-life criminals. Best known for his work in Ryan Murphy's core repertory cast on "American Horror Story," the 31-year-old actor has in his career riffed on Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, serial killer H.H. Holmes and cult leaders Charles Manson, David Koresh and Jim Jones. But in writer/director Bart Layton's exhilarating new "American Animals," he plays a very different kind of mastermind.

Based on what has become known as the "Transy Book Heist," the film is a deft hybrid of documentary and crime caper. Peters plays Warren Lipka, the Kentucky college student who, along with classmate Spencer Reinhard, set out in 2004 — almost inexplicably — to rob Transylvania University's rare books collection, including its crown jewel, John James Audubon’s "Birds of America." What followed was not an historic crime like the famed Gardner robbery, but instead what can only be described as a tragicomedy of errors.

Providing hindsight for the tale are the four real-world key players in the case, as well as their family, friends and victims. But the crime and the events leading up to it are dramatized — often through the lens of selective memory — by Peters and an intense cast of costars including "The Handmaid's Tale" villain Ann Dowd and "Dunkirk" and "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" star Barry Keoghan. The result is a witty, heartbreaking and tense nail-biter that Evans accurately compares to "Dog Day Afternoon."

The film has been garnering raves since it debuted at Sundance this past winter; it's now opening widely across the country. Salon spoke via phone recently to Evan Peters about the film, about playing his own costar and why he has to reassure people he's not a homicidal maniac.

I was really excited about "American Animals" when I found out that it was from the director of "The Imposter" because I’m obsessed with that movie.

It’s an incredible story.

And this is an incredible story too. It’s a really different kind of film. The Vanity Fair piece from 11 years ago describes this as "'Ocean's 11' meets 'Harold & Kumar,'" and that sets it up. Did you know about this crime beforehand? 

No, I wish. It came to me in the email with the script they sent me [and] the Vanity Fair article you’re talking about. I read that first and I fell in love with it. I was just fascinated by the story and why these guys would do this. It’s just everything about it. I wanted [to] explore more and see what it was all about and to talk with the guys and just dive in head first.

I can’t imagine what the process is like, not just doing a film that is based on people who are still alive but actually collaborating with them on the characters. How did that work with you and Warren?

It was challenging because I really wanted to talk to Warren a lot, get to know him, hang out with him and pick his brain and ask a lot of questions. I was looking forward to going over the script with him and saying, "What is it like going through some of his stuff? What were you going through and how were you feeling at that time?" Unfortunately, Bart didn't want us to do that. He wanted us to do it on our own and make our own choices, which is liberating and so good. But at the same time, I wanted to do right by the guys in the story and keep it as true as possible. But again, Bart wanted it to be a separate world. We wanted the viewer to go further and further into the movie version of what was going on because that was the fantasy version of what was going on. To retell the story, the guys are diving into this fantasy that they all went through from start to finish. They wanted our narrative version to be its own sustainable thing. That was really interesting.

I was wondering about that when I was watching it because it is such a story about memory and perception and the fictions that we tell ourselves. Yet you all really do connect very much with the real men themselves. That’s got to be interesting, then, when you watch the final product put together.

Yeah, Warren was very — and I was very grateful that he was this way — complimentary. Then we had a number of his friends and family who saw it and said, “Oh my God, Evan.” Not to toot my own horn at all, but just to show the effect of the movie magic because I didn’t get to hang out with him. I didn’t get to talk with him. I didn’t get to do any of the stuff that I wanted to do. Yet still his friends and family were seeing some resemblance to him, like, “Oh, you’re talking just like him. That's exactly what Warren would’ve done.” I was thinking to myself, it’s crazy, the suspension of disbelief. What you want to believe when you see a film. It’s fascinating to me how little I had done to try to be like him, and yet he and friends were thinking I was giving this uncanny performance like him, which is sort of a weird thing that made me question everything about movies.

This film really made me think about that because this is so much about the storytelling, and it’s so much about perception and different accounts of it. Of course, it’s being compared a lot to "I, Tonya" because it’s also very much a story about how we remember things.

It is [an] interesting thing how unreliable the memory can be in situations like this. I loved "I, Tonya." When I read this movie, I loved it, and when I would tell people about the fact that it’s a documentary and narrating that the real guys would be the ones talking to the camera instead of us playing it, there were a lot of reservations. People were very nervous and were like, “Oh man, I don’t know if that’s going to work. You might making a huge mistake." It was really putting my faith in Bart. When I had read it, it was fascinating to me that it’s a true story and that it was this idiotic, insane true story. So you question it along the way a lot. What’s so beautiful about the documentary side of it is you actually have the real guys debunking the assumptions that it might be not a true story, or maybe they're just Hollywooding it, maybe that they’re making it up.

They totally debunk that and make it true, and that much more engrossing and that much more visceral. It was something that I was scared of initially. When I looked at the script, I wondered if it was going to translate to film. If it was going to be something that you would want to see as well. But the way they edit it only serves to give the story more truth. It doesn’t detract from the story; it only adds to it. I was pleasantly surprised by that fact that it did translate very well to the screen and people can see that, because this could be a new way of telling a true crime story. You see sometimes reenactments on "Forensic Files" or something and you kind of shake your head a little bit. But this is like taking that to another level.

I love that it leans into the characters' fantasies about themselves and that there are these really funny, overt nods to "Ocean's 11" and to "Reservoir Dogs." This is how these guys really see themselves, at least at that time.

When I was playing my part, because I couldn't talk to Warren and formulate the character that way, I had a little bit of a spine to work with. So really, I turned to movies because that’s probably what Warren was doing in a way. I did watch a lot of "Ocean's 11" and those movies. I’m inherently not cool. It was a fun thing for me to try to do a little bit of R. P. McMurphy from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," a little bit of "Fight Club" in there as well. You try to match all these different things. It was fun a way to play this fantasy version of me playing those movie characters who I love so much and I want to emulate. I got to play around with that as well. I figured it was really Evan trying to play one of those characters I love watching those movies.

Doing it as the guy who is being the cool guy who is not the cool guy just gives it a whole other layer.

That’s the thing. It starts out "Ocean's 11," but then it turns into "Dog Day Afternoon." That’s kind of what it is. It's these guys, normal guys, these average, not cool guys, trying to do the thing that they see in the movies that is cool and works out. You ride into the sunset and watch the fountains at the Bellagio. It just doesn’t work that way in real life, and people can get hurt and you can make horrible decisions. Hopefully, this film will show that you can sometimes get caught up in these fantasies and you forget that that’s the real world. We're not living in a movie There are consequences for actions and you have to think about stuff before you do it.

It seems to me that the real mystery of the film that makes it so enigmatic is the question of just why they even did it.

It’s a question I asked myself the whole time and the question I wanted to sit down and talk with Warren about. He has had 10 years to think about it and look back with 20/20 and figure out exactly why. I'm sure in the moment there were things going on. But it was hard to pin down one reason why. Looking back, I'd love to hear what he has to say about his ultimate reason. In the film, it’s very much that they want adventure and they want to do something different than this path for them that their parents want them to do. It’s feeling that they’re unfulfilled in the path that's set out for them, and they want to do something exciting that gives them adventure and makes them stand apart and makes their life meaningful to them.

This is another period piece for you. I watched it and I thought, “Oh my God, right, flip phones and the blueberry iMac.” It really is meticulous.

2004 doesn't feel like that long ago, but it was. The world has changed; social media is changing the world. It’s very different now. These guys were, in a way, trying to do something to set themselves apart.

It’s such an unbelievable cast. You and Ann Dowd and Barry Keoghan all come from backgrounds where you have done really, really dark stuff. This is a cast of people who have killed a lot of people in other movies. It is a film that is really touched with darkness, and yet there is also this tremendous humor in it. It’s really funny.

It’s not just all this darkness. The thing that kept them going was with the fun and the adventure of the whole thing. They didn’t want that to end. They just kept getting further and further into it.

I imagine that that was a very strategic bit of casting because you go into it with an expectation of a lot darker stuff. Then the humor of it and the humanity of it and the way you feel for these characters really comes through in a way that you might not have expected, because it’s actors who are not always playing the most sympathetic parts.

It was a chance to step outside of the box and show a little humanity and not be so vicious or violent, and be a little bit closer to who I'm really like. I'm just the guy from the suburbs of St. Louis. I'm not a sociopath or killer or any of that stuff.

I don’t get angry, really. I get frustrated in traffic and whatnot. But other than that, I think I’m a pretty normal guy. It was cool to be able to play something a little closer to home. I grapple with the existential crisis a little bit, so I could relate to Warren in that situation. It was fun to enjoy the planning of the heist a little bit more because it’s something you think about, how exciting and fun would that be and how much closer would you to be to your friends. Would you be bonding and hanging out, having a beer trying to figure this whole thing out? It would be a fun experience, and that’s definitely in the film.

This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

The eternal allure of true crime

Why are we obsessed with the dark side?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams