As Peter Maximoff, aka Quicksilver in the X-Men films, the young actor plays Magneto’s supernaturally speedy son. And, in real life, too, Mr Peters is something of a whirlwind. When we meet at a quiet, airy cafe in New York’s Chelsea, he’s awaiting the 1 June opening of his new film, American Animals, and shooting Mr Ryan Murphy’s Pose – as well as his third X-Men picture, Dark Phoenix.
It’s a lot. He opts for decaf. “I try not to take the business so seriously,” he says, complimenting my A.P.C. shirt and noting that he has a favourite sweater from the same brand. “You have to be serious, but it’s showbusiness and there’s a lot of insanity and unpredictability.”
Mr Peters is calming those waters with introspective, thoughtful roles – working simultaneously on edgy independent films and with the biggest actors and directors in blockbusters – that might make a more particular impact, not just on his career, but on viewers and his own development. Which brings us to American Animals, directed by Mr Bart Layton, a film the likes of which we probably haven’t seen before. It’s the true story of four college-aged friends who plan to heist rare art books (among them a first edition of Mr Darwin’s The Origin of Species) from a college library in Kentucky. The film splices together documentary footage of the real life young criminals, and their ringleader Mr Warren Lipka, with the dramatised heist. “People were asking me, ‘Shouldn’t it be like I, Tonya? Won’t it break the fourth wall’?” Mr Peters says. “I was a little nervous about it. But I trusted Bart.”
Mr Peters plays Mr Lipka.“Bart didn’t want us to talk to the real guys. I was like, ‘Fuck that.’ I actually broke the rules and found Warren through Twitter. And I got into trouble,” he says. “And Warren still wouldn’t tell me anything.”
As much as it is a heist movie, Animals is a film of self-discovery, a process with which the actor finds himself very much aligned right now. Mr Lipka and his pals were living their lives, he says, doing what they were supposed to do – on cruise control, if you will. They decided to try something exceptional (though, they were eventually busted and ended up in jail). “As an actor, you’re supposed to take this route, do all the right roles and climb that ladder in a weird way,” Mr Peters says. “It can make you feel like you’re trapped.”
But it also makes him aware, and open-minded. Working with the director Mr Layton, Mr Peters says, he learned a ton, including some life lessons. “Bart would always say it’s pretty incredible that we’re doing this as a job. I’d be in the middle of the heist scene and sweating and breaking down, and he’d say, ‘You have to take a moment to realize this is incredible.’ I’d be like, ‘After the scene, Bart!’”
Raised in Grand Blanc, Michigan, Mr Peters was participating in local theatre when a photographer passed his name to a manager in Los Angeles. At 15, he moved west, and booked a job after only his second audition, for the lead part in an indie called Clipping Adam. The rest just flowed, he says. “I got some commercials. I got on a Disney Channel show called Phil Of The Future. I got a movie, Sleepover.” Television roles in Monk and The Office followed (remember Michael Scott’s petulant nephew, whom he spanks?), and in 2011 he became a regular on American Horror Story. Soon, the mutants came calling.
“[X-Men director] Bryan Singer phoned me and said, ‘There’s this cool part: Quicksilver. He’s really fast. If he has a cup of coffee… forget about it.” Mr Peters’ scenes, in which Quicksilver helps Professor X and Wolverine extricate Magneto from the Pentagon, are perhaps the most memorable from X-Men: Days Of Future Past, and immediately made Mr Peters into a favourite among the franchise’s fans, a kind of attention that confounds him. “I still don’t feel like I’m a part of it. I feel like I’m on the outskirts of it. Like I’m a special guest star.”
Though he doesn’t undervalue the time he gets to spend on set and off with the other great performers in the stacked X-Men cast, including Mr Michael Fassbender who plays Magneto. “I look up to him,” Mr Peters says. “I love his career… In that scene in decaying Cairo [during X-Men: Apocalypse], there is rubble and explosions everywhere. He comes and saves us. We’re all messed up. Apocalypse has us at his mercy. [Mr Fassbender] did a take, very serious, with the gravitas of Magneto. And then we cut and he says, ‘Guys, you can go. I don’t really need you here.’ He’s such a pro.”
Back to reality, or some version of it, Mr Peters is working on Pose – Mr Ryan Murphy’s FX musical dramedy about the drag ball culture in 1980s New York City – wherein, for the first time, really, all transgender characters will be played by trans actors. “It’s incredible for the community. And it’s been an incredibly enlightening to me, to say the least,” Mr Peters says. “Everybody is different. And you can’t judge people, or know anything about them, until you walk a mile in their shoes.”
In Pose, Mr Peters plays another young man in the midst of finding himself, a yuppie in Reaganite New Jersey with a wife and two kids, trying to get ahead. “My character has a lot of unrest and doesn’t feel very good about where he’s at. How did he get here? And to what end? It’s this life that you’re supposed to want, but is it really true to you? The whole show is about being authentic. I’ve got this thing inside of me that’s been there a long time,” he says. “My character does,” he qualifies, noting the potential confusion. All these characters so alike, so much like him. And yet, he says, “I want to play somebody who is just me, something truly me.”
When he is just being himself, Mr Peters spends time at home with his fiancé, Ms Emma Roberts, writing (just for himself), making music on his computer, and – he thinks this sounds cheesy – watching films. The same ones. Over and over. “I never feel more calm, or more outside of myself. It’s almost meditative for me,” he says. “You get in your head and you start questioning yourself to the point of crippling self-doubt, where you’re overthinking everything. I’m trying to get out of that.”
In this search for quiet, his search for greater meaning in his life and work, there is the maturity of a man who knows he has much to learn, even about himself. As with his characters in Animals and Pose, the 31 year old says, “I want to be my authentic self. I’m still coming into being a man,” he says. “I guess it’s about figuring out who I am.”
He pauses for a while, before declaring, “Know thyself.” And then asks, “Is that what it is?”