“Who in this room has bought the new Taylor Swift album?” That’s what Ryan Murphy asks the Variety studio, filled with our photographer and art director, his publicity team and Evan Peters, whom he’s posing next to for the shoot. The mood is light — “I feel like Dracula,” Murphy laughs at one point as they seamlessly step into the shot together, proof of just how comfortable they are together.
The vibe is an exact contrast to the set of “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” they tell me during the interview later that day — oddly enough, done on Halloween.
“You could hear a pin drop on that set. We all felt, ‘We are here to work on very difficult material. We’re here to answer very difficult questions about homophobia, systemic racism, white privilege.’ When Evan would step onto the set or when Niecy Nash would step onto the set, it was very like church in a weird way,” recalls Murphy. “Sometimes you make a show — and we’ve certainly done this — you’re making a show about witchcraft, and you talk about doughnuts or Taylor Swift. There was none of that.”
In fact, Peters stayed in character, focusing on the serial killer who murdered 17 boys and men between 1978 and 1991, during most of the shoot. “It was scary,” Murphy admits.
“Evan would go home, and it wasn’t like he would rock back and forth in his bedroom, which I think people presume. He had a life, however restricted and dedicated. It was like running a marathon. If you run a marathon, you eat a certain way. You sleep a certain way. It was a very athletic way of approaching the performance,” says the creator, who consistently checked in on Peters during the shoot and had open discussions about mental health. “There were moments I sort of felt like a father who has a child who is in the Olympics. You say, how can I help you?”
Peters notes that it was “difficult but felt worth it” to stay in character in order to tell the story and spread the message intended.
But they both knew it wouldn’t be easy; in fact, Murphy hesitated before sending it to Peters because he knew he could do it — but also knew how intense it could get.
Looking back, while Murphy admits there “were some dark days” and Peters kept to himself for the most part, he couldn’t imagine another actor who would have put in “120%” as Peters did.
And although the duo have worked together on 10 projects, beginning in 2011 on the first season of “American Horror Story,” “Dahmer” wasn’t an immediate yes for Peters.
“It was a real struggle. I was really thinking about it and trying to process it. I went back and forth a lot,” he says. Ultimately, it came down to working with Murphy again, someone he trusted and knew understood his process.
“I knew that you’re an incredible support system and I trust you and there’s an honesty there,” he tells Murphy. “I knew that, with the goal in mind of finishing this thing as strong as I started it, that you would create a great safety net. If I fell down, I could get back up and we could finish this thing. I was up for the challenge.”
Similar to his mental transformation, Peters also had to physically change quite a bit over the course of filming; he took on a no-carb, no-sugar diet to drop 15 pounds in the beginning.
“I didn’t really have an appetite during the early stages of shooting,” he says. “Then I was working out for episode 3 when Dahmer gets into working out and gained about 20 pounds for the end in prison to show how he looked then.”
When they wrapped, the yearlong editing process began. For the first time, Peters was an executive producer and went through every single take.
“He would advocate for the other actors, and many of those scenes would change based on his observations as an actor-producer,” says Murphy. “He stayed in it for a very long time and was dedicated. This is a very heavy thing to keep reliving.”
The work didn’t stop until the show came out. They didn’t do any marketing or publicity for the series, something Murphy says was due to the material being too heavy. Critics didn’t receive episodes early. No one knew how it would perform.
Coming four years into Murphy’s five-year, $300 million deal with Netflix, it quickly became his biggest hit, with more than 1 billion hours viewed over the first 60 days.
That popularity came with backlash. Relatives of Dahmer’s victims spoke out, upset they were not involved; Murphy says he reached out to around 20 families but never heard back. So, he relied on his “very large research staff,” who worked around the clock for 3.5 half years.
“I was never interested in Jeffrey Dahmer, the monster. I was interested in what made him. I think that the fact that all of the characters in this are seen as true humans makes some people uncomfortable. I understand that and I try not to have an opinion on that,” he says. “We always tried to center everything on the victims.”
One person the “Dahmer” team didn’t contact was the killer’s father, Lionel, portrayed by Richard Jenkins in the series.
“I’ve done many biopics. It’s almost like you’re being a reporter; I always try and keep a place of neutrality. I think that we were telling a very specific story,” he says. “I think Lionel’s told his story. This was not that story.”
When the show was released, Netflix listed it under the LGBTQ tag, which up until now, was used to label uplifting stories about the community. After significant backlash, the tag was removed.
“I think that it got the tag, one, because of my involvement. I’m a gay man, so most of my stories deal with some sort of LGBTQ thing and I do that selfishly; when I was growing up, I had nothing [to look to],” Murphy explains. “My mission statement has been to talk about those stories and those characters and unearth buried history.”
Murphy gets why people weren’t happy with the tag — “Many people in the community want to uplift. I understand that,” he says — but he doesn’t agree.
“It’s about homophobia,” he adds. “I have a saying: ‘My job as an artist is to hold up a mirror about what happened.’ It’s ugly. It’s not pretty. Do you want to look at it? If you do, watch it. If you don’t, look away, and sometimes, some of this outrage is directed at the frame of the mirror instead of the reflection. I try and say, I really understand why you’re upset about the inclusion of that. I understand it, but I also disagree with it personally.”
After such a heavy lift, both Murphy and Peters aren’t sure what’s next… or so they say. Seven days after this interview was completed, “Monster” was renewed for the second and third seasons. While Murphy wasn’t able to be reached for comment on what that looks like, it doesn’t seem like Peters will be jumping to be part of it.
“I’m going to take a little break from darker roles and explore the light,” he says. “It would be interesting to me to play something that is a little closer to home, a little more mundane and to explore the details of those kinds of experiences.”
Murphy also claims he wants some time to himself, which may be difficult now with more “Monster,” “Feud” and “The Watcher” on the way.
“Up until now, I always had an answer of ‘I want to do this’ or ‘I want to do that.’ I feel that with what I’ve been lucky enough to do, I feel very content. I have no interest keeping on that treadmill that I’ve been on for a very long time, so I’m going to get off. I’m interested in the not knowing,” he says. “My day has always been in 15-minute increments, and I’m not interested in that anymore. I bought a farm. I’m, for some reason, much more interested in chickens and daffodil bulbs. I’m interested in a different part of my life. For the first time I’m just chilling and not looking to do anything.”