“If you want to know what this place is about, you have to know about the man who built it,” Kathy Bates’s desk clerk tells us in episode two of American Horror Story: Hotel, before revealing the history of the Hotel Cortez. Turns out it was built by a serial killer in 1925 to facilitate and hide his crimes — complete with torture chambers, blind passageways, trapdoors, disposal chutes for bodies, and walls lined with asbestos to mute the screams. That mysterious Room 64? “His black heart, his office.” Evan Peters, who plays owner/builder/founder James March, chatted with Vulture about prepping to play a psychopath, Lady Gaga’s pool parties, and his hopes for American Horror Story season six.
What did Ryan Murphy tell you about this character? And what was your approach?
Ryan said he would be very rich, and very evil [chuckles], and that he built the hotel to murder people, basically. I really like his backstory, which gives the whole history of the hotel and why it’s so haunted. He’s sort of the original serial killer, and why this hotel is the way that it is. It’s crazy and it’s scary, but it’s fun. It’s based off of H.H. Holmes — he built this murder castle in Chicago in the late 1800s, which had asphyxiation chambers, chutes leading down to the basement, and all sorts of insane things. And I read The Devil in the White City, but it was more about researching the 1920s, the 1930s. A lot of going to downtown L.A. and looking at the old Art Deco buildings, driving down Broadway and just imagining what it was like back in the day. Oh, and watching My Man Godfrey. I watched that movie like a thousand times! William Powell has a great 1920s, 1930s cadence to his voice, and that movie is sort of an interesting look at society, the rich and the famous doing nothing to help those who are in the dumps from the Great Depression. And I listened to a lot of music from the 1930s. I love it. It’s fun to immerse yourself in that time period. They don’t have a lot of the things that we have now, but they also had so many things that we don’t now, in terms of society and reading and language. And money, spending ungodly amounts of money on things like this hotel. The set design is gorgeous.
James March is clearly a psychopath, but why do you think that is?
I was trying to get inside his head and figure out why. I mean, some people just are, but I feel like there’s something that ignites it in them, this desire. He’s detached himself from humanity, and sees humans as mere animals, as objects, and not so much as people. He’s obviously mentally built to be a psychopath, but there are also events in his childhood, events with his father that have flicked the switch on to make him this vengeful, evil person who is out to only follow his happiness. He doesn’t care about anyone else, really. There was a lot of writing and creative thinking and coming up with different backstories to make this guy feel more real, and also more fun to watch. It is nice to be able to be the person who’s torturing, as opposed to being the person who’s getting tortured! [Laughs.] It’s a lot more fun to play. There’s murder, torture, rape, killing, all that good stuff that you would expect from someone who’s completely insane. It’s cool. It’s interesting to do things that you’re not doing in real life. But I’ll have to let the audience judge whether he’s any type of endearing psychopath.
We have the flashbacks from when he built the hotel, but he’s also still around.
He died in the 1930s, but he’s a ghost, so anytime you see him now, he’s in ghost form. And he’s going to be interacting with some of the people from present-day.
What about Lady Gaga’s character, the Countess? They could have some history …
He’ll be interacting with most of the cast, but you’ll have to see. [Laughs.] She’s been really gracious and super friendly to all of us. She threw a little party at the beginning so we could meet her, get to know each other, get to know everybody, and that was really nice, really fun.
I heard the water in the pool was dyed red. Did that make you feel like you were swimming in blood?
[Chuckles.] I don’t know. I didn’t get into the pool. I was eating cake. But yeah, it looked pretty amazing, and pretty creepy. I wonder how they clean that out? It looked like a big pool of red Jell-O. It was cool that she did that. It said who she is in a nutshell, that she’s an inviting, generous person who just wants to have fun. She’s a really down-to-earth person who is incredibly creative, and she’s fantastic, I think, as the Countess. She’s definitely a talented actress. She just immerses herself in it. She’s playing a very scary role, so when you’re in the moment with her, it can be a little scary because you don’t know what she’s going to do. But when they call “Cut!” she’s an absolute sweetheart.
Ryan Murphy already asked her to come back for season six. And apparently you’d like season six to take place on a space station?
[Laughs.] I keep pitching that it should be in space because I think the contained thing in space is really scary! It’s not as sexy as some of these past seasons, but space is very intense, and there are a lot of things can go wrong. Alien creatures. People going crazy up there. There’s a lot that could happen. And it could look cool. It could be awesome to design a space-station set, and that would be amazing, to play around in that. Who knows? They’re the ones who come up with all the brilliant ideas. I just get to play around with them.
If you did a space station, you could have callbacks to the aliens from Asylum.
That would be cool! We’d get to have closure with them. Figure out what happened there! And then for the space station, you’ve got to have a crew. You always have the smartass one, the genius brainy one, the leader, so you’d have to have all of those in there. Space is really scary, though.
Meanwhile, are you lobbying Ryan Murphy to get a part on Scream Queens?
I’m in love with this show. It’s crazy. It’s so funny. I love how it pokes fun at the horror genre. It’s insane. I don’t know how they write all that dialogue. It’s pretty impressive. And of course Emma [Roberts] is in it, so that’s always fun to watch, too. I’d love to be on the show. I haven’t said anything to Ryan yet. I don’t know if he’d want to put me on there? But next time I see him I’ll be like, “Hey, man. What’s going on with my role on Scream Queens?”
Do you have theories about who the Red Devil actually is? Or one of them?
Honestly, there have been so many reveals, I don’t even know anymore. I’m so torn. They’ve led me down so many paths. It can’t be Zayday. Right? They keep pointing to Zayday, but I’m like, “It can’t be.” Who do you think?
Boone’s got to be one of them.
That’s the thing, Boone’s one. And now we’ve found out that the chick who’s trapped in ‘95, what’s her name?
Now she’s in on it. And I don’t know who she was talking to, but either she was talking to someone about Boone getting out of hand, or she was talking to Boone about someone else getting out of hand, but I don’t know who that would be. I can’t wait to find out more. I was talking to Emma about it, and they’re reading the scripts as they shoot it, so they’re trying to figure out who the Red Devil is, too. [Laughs.] It’s kind of funny to listen to them be like, “I think you’re the Red Devil.” “No, I think you’re the Red Devil.” You just keep trying to figure out what the hell is going on!
Apparently Ryan Murphy has everyone do two takes — one as if they’re the killer, one as if they’re not — just to keep them guessing about their own characters. Does he ever do anything like that on Horror Story, just to keep you in the dark about an aspect of the story or your character?
I’ve never gotten that from Ryan, but that is a brilliant piece of directing right there, especially for the mystery crime aspect of Scream Queens. I’ll have to try it on Horror Story, even if he doesn’t give me that direction!