Emmys 2021: Evan Peters’s Big Win Started With a Risky Gamble

Ever since he burst onto the scene a decade ago as troubled, lovesick ghost Tate Langdon in American Horror Story: Murder House, Evan Peters has been putting in solid work both in the Ryan Murphy–verse of TV shows and as one of the brightest spots in Fox’s troubled X-Men films. Peters was able to find steady work and a loyal fan base and seemed comfortable playing the various freaks, monsters and ghouls of Murphy-verse. But Peters decided to shake things up. His naturalistic performance as innocent Detective Colin Zabel—sidekick to Kate Winslet’s titular Mare of Easttown—was unlike anything he had done before.

Series director Craig Zobel asked Peters to push himself far out of his comfort zone, resulting in tears and near panic attacks on the set. It also earned Peters Emmy gold Sunday night as the Television Academy gave this young talent the Television Academy Award for pushing himself to the limit. 

“It was definitely something different,” Peters told Vanity Fair’s Still Watching podcast of his first reaction to Mare of Easttown as a potential gig. “I was sent the project and it said, ‘Kate Winslet starring,’ and I was just like, Uh, yeah.” Zabel as he was originally written on the page was a bit closer to some of the braggadocio-infused characters Peters has played in the past, but Peters says that in chewing over the role with Zobel, they decided it was a better choice to make Zabel more of an eager-to-learn admirer of Mare’s. 

“When we were in rehearsals,” Zobel recalls, “it became the most interesting choice for him to be the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed one, both to him and to me.” The result was a puppy-ish eager-to-please performance—and some pitch-perfect accent work—that was new territory for Peters. According to Peters, that golden retriever energy Zabel exudes around Mare was ripped directly from the actor’s own admiration of Winslet. 

“I hate the word meta,” Peters laughed. “I don’t even know what it means. But you sort of go in there thinking, I’m going to try to learn from Kate. I’m gonna try to do the best job that I can. Colin is also going in there trying to learn from Mare and realizes that she’s really good at her job and really in tune with her instincts.”

But as endearing (and ultimately tragic) as Zabel’s story is, the scene that pushed Peters over the edge into Emmy-winning territory was an unforgettable drunken meltdown in episode three that left Peters sure he had given one of his worst performances. As Winslet’s Mare looks on, Peters as Zabel runs the full drunken gamut of despair, sarcastic humor, and unsubtle flirtation.

“I was over the moon,” Zobel says. “I could tell it was special when we were shooting that thing.… I remember hugging [Peters] at the end. It was emotional.” Peters remembers it differently: “The reason that we were emotional and hugging was because I was hysterically sobbing. I thought we didn’t get the scene. I was like, ‘We didn’t get it, we didn’t get it. I can’t do this. I’m terrible. I’m going to shadow you, Craig, and be a director because I can’t fuckin’ do it anymore.”

Winslet tried to help Peters move on. “I was like, ‘Oh, God, I didn’t get it,’” Peters responds. Winslet replied, in brisk Mare fashion: “Let’s go get a cup of coffee. We’re great. We’re done.” It was only when the episode aired and the scene received raves that Peters understood what he had accomplished. “I was surprised…I was,” He says. “I thought I failed miserably.” Series creator Brad Ingelsby was equally elated: “He’s selling himself short. Evan’s wonderful.”

You can read more about how Peters pushed himself to the breaking point, channeled his brother, and slurred, cried, and grinned his way to Emmy gold here. 

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