Evan Peters on Shooting ‘WandaVision’ and ‘Mare of Easttown’ at Once, Prepping to Play Jeffrey Dahmer

Mare of Easttown behind the scenes
Courtesy of Michele K. Short/HBO

Evan Peters has proven himself to be one of the most versatile actors around, not only jumping back and forth between the big and small screen but also diving into different genres. He has stolen scenes in superhero fare (“X-Men” franchise, “WandaVision”) and horror (“American Horror Story”), and soon will do so in HBO’s small-town murder mystery “Mare of Easttown,” premiering April 18, before stepping into the titular role in “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.”

What was the process like to go from Ralph aka Fietro in “WandaVision” to Colin in “Mare of Easttown”? Are you purposely looking to take back-to-back projects that are very different?

They started shooting simultaneously and then the pandemic hit and they naturally broke simultaneously, and then they picked back up simultaneously, which I couldn’t believe. But it was fun to go do the restraint and the seriousness and the naturalness of “Mare” and then go off and be in a zanier 2000s comedy world [in “WandaVision”]. But purposely, I don’t know; I’m still trying to take what I can get! I’m not picking and choosing, it’s more, “Oh great, I got that so now I can try that.”

I was going to ask you what you had to do to get out of one character before getting into the other, but in talking about shooting simultaneously it sounds like you can’t necessarily do that. So, do you compartmentalize the roles or do you allow room for little bits of one to bleed into another?

I definitely try to compartmentalize, but for each of them, I like to read stuff, watch stuff, get references to get into that headspace. When I was in Atlanta [for “WandaVision”] it was “Full House” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” and then when I was in Philly [for “Mare of Easttown”] I was watching “The First 48” all the time.

I don’t know if it was because I was working on “WandaVision” as well but originally we set out and were like, “I think Colin needs to be a little bit lighter — a little more comedic at times within the show.” So we tried to find that and bring that in as we shot more and more. I just thought it was absolutely hilarious how little Mare wants him there. The way it evolved through time, I thought it was really funny that he was just like, “Hey, I’m just trying to be nice, and PS I love you.” We tried to bring that vibe.

You mentioned filming in Philly. Kate Winslet recently spoke of your love of Wawa and specifically the Gobbler. Is that true? Is that just a way you immerse yourself in the culture of where you film in order to better inhabit the role?

I went to all the different hoagie places and Reading Terminal [Market] and ate there a bunch of times, too. Yeah, I do like to get into the food. It’s such a privilege to be able to go shoot in the place you’re actually [set in]. I love that, so before the pandemic I was going to the bars. But yeah, the Gobbler is hands-down incredible — one of the best things!

What was your approach to develop the accent? How much time did you spend working with a dialect coach versus just studying audio recordings?

We had a great dialect coach who worked with everybody on the show, and then I had this 25-minute recording of a guy named Steve Baylor, and it’s just, “What did you do this week?” [Slips into the Delco accent] “Well, I did yard work all day Sunday, watched the Eagles…” And he would just go on. And I felt like I knew this guy because every morning I would wake up and listen to it because I wanted to have that in my DNA. But then the pandemic hit and I had three weeks left of shooting so I planned to stop listening to this recording and just letting it go, but they were like, “We’re punting this until September,” and it was, “Oh my God, I have to remember and hang onto this accent.” I took down the listening from every day to once or twice a week, but I still really wanted to get that accent [right]. I’d never heard it before.

A lot of times in small-town cop shows, there is tension between the small-town cop and the detective who comes in because that detective often takes over the case. But that’s not the dynamic your character Colin has with Kate’s Mare; he sometimes seems more nervous around her. Why did you find that an interesting new take on such a forced partnership?

I was so excited to meet and work with Kate Winslet. She’s one of my favorite actresses and I’ve looked up to her for so long. I still feel like I’m still trying to figure everything out, in the sense of how to act and my technique and process and all this stuff. My whole goal for coming into of this thing was just to show up on set and watch Kate to see what she did and follow her lead and just learn from her. And I learned so much. She’s such an amazing person; she’s super nice. And Colin stumbled into this position and he’s still trying to figure out how to be a good detective, and I think he’s had that imposter syndrome, and as he’s trying to figure it out, he’s trying to do the best job he can. So in some ways, he was trying to do things by the book and Mare was like, “Yo, you’ve got to just go with your gut.” There was this weird fine line between what was what was Colin and what was me, in terms of trying to watch her and learn.

Theoretically Colin would be more objective since he doesn’t have years of personal history with the suspects, as Mare does. What were the discussions around the balance of power they would have, especially knowing that letting personal biases affect a case is something being discussed culturally right now?

We did have discussions about the level of power [between them] and in the story he says, “This is your case. I’m just here to help you.” But there was a question of who, at the end of the day, gets the final say. And we toyed around with that, but we always went back to Mare is ultimately the better detective. She has better instincts; she knows what she’s doing.

How far did you want him to be willing to go for justice or for answers?

Ultimately what I decided for Colin is that he really cares, and he just wants to bring the girls home and he wants to find the killer and get this guy off the street and bring justice. In the scene where he’s in the morgue, I found myself getting a little emotional and upset because it’s just so sad and he wants to do it the right away. He wants to solve the case more than anything. That desperation to find that person, I wanted it to be personal: you want the win, but deeper than that I think it’s actually the feeling of wanting to save this person and feeling responsible for finding their killer. This is his job, and it’s not just a job he gets paid for, it’s a level of desperately wanting to do his job properly.

In a lot of your work there are pieces of back story, in addition to plot points, that get revealed later in the season. How important is it for you to find some of that out early enough to infuse hints of what’s to come in the story?

I wanted to know about what Colin’s backstory was because there is a secret that he’s keeping the whole time, so there is the underlying thing of, “How do we play that? How good is he? How much redemption does he want? What can we reveal without revealing too much?” One thing I didn’t want to know was who the actual killer was, so I made a point to not read that episode [early]. Eventually someone let it slip on set and I was like, “Damn you!”

It’s interesting you say that because for “Monster” we’re all going into it knowing who the killer is. How differently are you treating that role, knowing the wealth of public knowledge about him and the sheer amount of source material outside of the scripts?

That’s a hard one, I’m still figuring that out. I’ve read so much, I’ve watched so much, I’ve seen so much, and at a certain point, you’ve got to say, “All right, that’s enough.” There are beautifully written scripts. You can have all the backstory you want, but at the end of the day we’re not making a documentary. It’s more about maintaining the idea and the through line of why you’re telling the story and always having that as your guiding light. But, there’s so much material for Dahmer that I think it’s incredibly important to make it really authentic. So I have been doing a lot of research, and it’s interesting, playing him or Colin or even going into “Horror Story” or “WandaVision,” where is that line? You can play around with levels of naturalism and understatedness, versus the zany, over-the-top, “this is very clearly a TV show meant for entertainment.” It’s almost a scene by scene, episode by episode, moment by moment basis, deciding, “OK yeah he did that there in real life” or “No he didn’t do that there, but that’s OK because it works for the story we’re trying to tell.”

All of these worlds are very dark. What keeps drawing you to that, and are there fears associated with it that you have to shake off?

My sister, God love her, showed me and my brother “Hellraiser” when I was, like, 4 [years old] so we’re scarred a little. [Laughs.] I like to watch scary stuff and dark stuff — not all of the time; I am obsessed with comedy and love it and crave it and need it too, but there is something fascinating about watching that stuff. And that, again, is on a case-by-case basis of how deep and how dark you want to go.

Is there anything you need to do at the end of a shoot or shoot day to come out of the darkness?

I have great family, friends and loved ones and now with texting, it’s a constant stream of communication and connection, so it’s not like I’m off in my own world, although I sort of am. I’m obsessed with trying to make it the best it can be. I’m obsessed with getting the shot. So there’s always that element of wanting to go as deep as I can, break myself, whatever, so we get the shot. But at the end of the day, they go, “Cut!” and there’s that level of awareness that it’s not real. You’re definitely putting yourself through it, but for me anyway, it always goes back to, we’re filming it; we’re making a show. That allows me to go, “OK, I’m going to take a hot bath, eat a great meal, just chill out and play some video games or something” and that allows me to reset and decompress my body. Then, that recharges me and allows me to step back into it and get excited to go there again.