Whether or not to watch on DAHMER – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is something I wrestled with for long time as a viewer. The subject matter is so intense it in no way can be considered light entertainment or even entertainment in general, from my perspective. It is was not a surprise to learn that Evan Peters, the actor who masterfully played the serial killer, wrestled with the idea himself. What allowed Peters to do so was how the Ryan Murphy series explored the tragic events beyond the murders and murderer.
Instead, the limited series explores the horrific events from many perspectives while painting a picture of a system that failed the victims in part due to institutional prejudice. This can best be seen in the series through Niecy Nash, the neighbor whose calls and pleas to investigate the activities of Dahmer’s apartment were ignored while bodies unknowingly piled up. It also views the situation from the perspective of the father (Richard Jenkins) who is horrified by his son, but cannot turn off being his father. It is a dark and complex series that has kept me thinking about these human aspects long after viewing.
Evan Peters spoke with Awards Radar to discuss what led him to star in the series, its affects on him and much more. You can read the full conversation below. DAHMER – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is currently streaming exclusively. on Netflix.
Steven Prusakowski: I’ve been a fan of your work for quite a long time. I realized you were so young that you’ve started acting probably around 15 or 16 years old. So, now you’ve been acting for two decades. That’s incredible.
Evan Peters: It is overwhelming when you put it like that.
Steven Prusakowski: More than half your life. What drew you to acting in the first place?
Evan Peters: There’s a picture of me as a kid on a beanbag chair watching TV. I was obsessed with TV and movies and the escapism of going into their worlds and falling in love with the characters. I was always very excited by actors like Tom Hanks. I really loved Chris Farley as well, Jim Carrey. It was just so enticing. I felt pulled in by it. I just really wanted to be a part of those worlds and go inside the movies. That sounds a little out there, but it was the chance to be somebody else and go explore a different world. I think that was really what pulled me in, ultimately. I was very excited at a young age when I had the opportunity to come out to LA and start pursuing it. Pretty surreal and really out there. I was shocked to learn that when you got on set, you were sort of inside the world of the movie, but there was also a camera right in front of your face and 100 other people on set. So it was a little bit different than I’d imagined. But if you get on an incredible set, and you have an incredible cast, then you can really lose yourself and get into the world. That’s originally what drew me to it. Very long answer, sorry about that.
Steven Prusakowski: No, I love long answers. That’s where you find these little nuggets of information, because, for example the beanbag chair – imagining you being a kid watching TV, my kids are doing that right now. And yet, something in you is triggered that says,’Hey, you know what, I want to start this journey,’ and takes you not just to LA, but ultimately places you in some amazing TV series and creating these characters that wouldn’t have existed, or at least your extraordinary versions of them wouldn’t have existed without you. So it’s fascinating to me that all you bring into the work starts with something as simple as a kid dreaming in a beanbag. Fast forwarding, how familiar were you with the Dahmer case before you get involved?
Evan Peters: Quite honestly, I didn’t know anything about it. I only remembered from being a child, seeing some news footage of men in hazmat suits cleaning out his apartment. That’s pretty much the only thing that I remembered. I knew nothing of what was going on at the time. I didn’t know anything.
Steven Prusakowski: You’re working with Ryan Murphy again, here. What was his pitch to you for this role?
Evan Peters: First of all, he sent me the first four or five scripts. And he said, I want you to read it and see what you think, if it’s something you’d be interested in playing. But he was also very thoughtful and conscientious and concerned, and wanted to make sure that I could play it and get through it because it is a difficult, dark role. There’s some very complicated material. He was very upfront about that and wanted to take care of me and guide me through it if I wanted to do it. He also said, I want you to watch the Dateline Stone Phillips interview because you’ll see the way that he speaks about what he did. It’s not like a Richard Ramirez. It’s very dissociated. He’s also confused and doesn’t understand or know why he wanted to do what he did. The way that he speaks is very normal and unassuming. So that was what he pitched me, and so I watched that and I read the scripts. The writing was brilliant in that it was very careful to show many different perspectives. Not just Dahmer’s. It wasn’t just about Dahmer, it was so much bigger than that. It showed the victims’ perspectives, family members, neighbors who tried to sound the alarm, all in service of trying to relay this message of how the system tragically failed to stop him on multiple occasions, because of prejudice. I was sort of stunned, in disbelief after I read it, and continue to be. I think that I was very compelled to do it. It was an incredibly compelling pitch that he gave. It was in the writing and in the case itself, just how large in scope it was.
Steven Prusakowski: Did you wrestle with that decision at all?
Evan Peters: I did. I did wrestle with it. I think it was the writing and the scope of it, and the message of it, that really pulled me into this series and made me want to do it. I didn’t really want to do any dark roles for a while. I kind of wrote them off and said, I want to do something else and explore the light. But this pulled me in. And then of course I signed on to do it and realized, Okay, how the hell am I going to do this? I was very nervous about playing ages 17 to 34, the alcoholism, the worsening compulsion. The scenes are very complicated, and there’s a lot of internal conflict, and a lot of atrocities are thought about and acted out. It was going to be one of the hardest roles I’ve ever had to do, so I was very nervous about diving into that. But like I said before, Ryan was so helpful, and so much of a shoulder to lean on, that I really felt like I wouldn’t be able to do this part without him. I felt like he was the backbone of what it was going to be. And I felt like I could trust him, and he would help me get through it. So that was another reason why I felt like I was able to dive into it.
Steven Prusakowski: What really impressed me is there are so many layers to this and so many different perspectives. I was hesitant to watch. Actually, I didn’t watch it at first. My wife watched and my reaction was, ‘It’s not for me.’ I was kind of nervous to watch until she told me to check it out. It is rough up front, difficult to watch. But there’s more to it than I expected. As you dive in, you see it explores and looks at this horrific situation, but in a way that is respectful of everybody involved. I was also really impressed with your physical transformation. It’s not just the hair and the glasses and costuming. It’s also your speech pattern, the way you carry yourself and your body language. And so much comes across of your character on screen because of that physical performance. You know, there’s these awkward moments when the police are investigating. So much is said beyond your words – through your physical transformation. Can you explain a little bit of what goes into that part of your performance?
Evan Peters: Well, thanks for saying that. For me, it was watching footage of him and listening to him speak. I listened to his audio composite every day to try to get the speech down. A lot of the clips were him speaking about what he did, and just in his voice. There’s also a family video, a very short two-minute family video of him. And this is prior to him being caught. It was interesting to see the way he behaved. It was very normal, very unassuming. He seemed to be a very internal person, almost shy, and in the footage, he almost sounds a little sarcastic at times. Even his father comments that he had recently killed people at the time when that was being filmed. So it was absolutely terrifying to think there was this whole private world and secrecy happening underneath everything that you saw there. How would you ever know? Looking at that really made me think about where this took place. It didn’t take place in a big city. Mostly in Wisconsin. I felt like the tempo there is much slower. I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, and we take our time, and everybody’s very nice and friendly and seems very normal. In watching that footage of him, I almost felt like I saw some people that I know. I saw their temperament. It immediately grounded it for me. You think about all the news footage and the publicity around it, and it just evaporated that and brought it into this question of, What would it be like if somebody that I knew in my personal life, who was so normal, and seems so unassuming, then all of a sudden you find out that they’ve committed these atrocities? That really changed everything for me and made me strip down the performance and make it much more matter of fact. I felt like in realizing that it could be anybody who committed these atrocities, it really was him, and the way that he was able to use some of these traits. I think they were innate in him, but I also think he was very much aware that he could come across that way, and used it to manipulate and to get away with things. I felt like it was something in the scripts and in the circumstances of the scenes and in the real life case, that was important to get across, and to try to stay in that. It’s just a terrifying experience, a terrifying situation.
Steven Prusakowski: In addition to a murderer, Dahmer’s essentially a conman. He’s not a dim bulb, and he uses his wit and his ability to sway people into these dangerous situations. That’s the scariest part about it, like you said, you wouldn’t expect this. This is just the guy who works at the supermarket or who is next to you on the bus, and yet, there’s this monster behind that smile
Evan Peters: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Steven Prusakowski: When you’re playing a character like this, there’s a lot you have to do to get into his head to be ready to portray him but also to understand him so you can create that on screen. Does that leave a physical or mental toll on you?
Evan Peters: Getting into, staying in the headspace and the character?
Steven Prusakowski: Yeah, for so long. This isn’t just like an overnight thing. You were doing this for months. It’s a lot of darkness to be surrounded by.Evan Peters: I had to take some time off after this was done to decompress and detox in a way. I felt like that was something I had to do. To me, and I keep keep saying it, but I feel like everybody who worked on set–I was just one department–everybody in their department was diving into this darkness and world every day, so I didn’t feel alone in it. I felt like it was a collaborative team effort. Everybody was just trying to bring their all the whole way through. It’s sort of inspiring, and helps to carry you to the finish line when you see other people dedicating themselves to it like that.
Steven Prusakowski: I just can’t imagine waking up and saying, ‘Yay, time to get back into that world.’ I mean, being an actor is one thing, but being surrounded with the darkness is so much more.
Evan Peters: It was difficult, but it felt worth it to stay in it for the entirety, because of the message of the series that we were all working so hard to try to relay. It felt important, and it felt inspiring, and I think it helped push everybody to their limit. It definitely pushed me to my limit. But again, it felt worth it.
Steven Prusakowski: And speaking to that message, what do you hope viewers take away from this series?
Evan Peters: The intention of this series, exactly what it was, was to show how the system failed on multiple occasions because of prejudice. It’s a terrifying notion to think about a human being wanting to commit these atrocities, and not even himself knowing why. I think that’s a very scary reality that we have, but I think it’s exponentially scarier when you have the systems that are put in place to stop him, failing. Failing the victims, the victims’ family members, because of bias and because of prejudice. I really sincerely hope that some good came out of this. I really really do.
Steven Prusakowski: And to close out a real quick one three words to describe Jeffrey Dahmer
Evan Peters: Three words to describe Jeffrey Dahmer? Gosh, I don’t know that I can do that.
Steven Prusakowski: It could be a phrase or just individual words.
Evan Peters: To describe Jeffrey Dahmer?
Steven Prusakowski: It could be you know, what you put into the character and any? And if you don’t have an answer, I mean, I’m not going to
Evan Peters: I don’t know that I have an answer to that. I’m sorry, Steven. I don’t think I can summarize him in three words, quite honestly.
Steven Prusakowski: It’s usually not as odd of a question but with the subject matter and it’s probably much tougher.
Evan Peters: I really just don’t know that there’s a way to describe him in three words. I think it’s far too complicated and complex than that.
Steven Prusakowski: That says a lot.