“American Horror Story” star Evan Peters joked he wanted to know what it felt like to rob a convenience store with his real-life counterpart he portrays in the film, “American Animals.”
Peters plays Warren Lipka in Bart Layton’s movie — a hybrid of a fictionalized heist film and a documentary about four young men who tried to rob some priceless, rare books from a library in Kentucky. IRL Lipka serves as a charismatic, unpredictable and unreliable narrator of sorts in the film. He’s the ring leader of the lawless crew. And though Layton asked his actors not to interact with the feature’s real subjects, Peters said he embraced the spirit of the project and broke the rules.
“I was channeling Warren and I found Warren on Twitter, and messaged with him and started a correspondence, and one of the main things I wanted to ask him was, ‘Why? Why did you do this?’ I never really did ever get a straight answer from him,” Peters told TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman. “I had a buddy, he stole an air freshener from Wal-Mart. He got busted, so I was channeling that.”
But as one audience member at TheWrap’s Awards and Foreign Screening Series at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles pointed out Wednesday night, this isn’t exactly a laughing matter. Featured on TheWrap’s panel discussion for the film was Chas Allen, now a Los Angeles-based fitness instructor. But 14 years ago, when “American Animals” takes place, he was the getaway driver for the aforementioned band of thieves.
Allen, along with Lipka, Spencer Reinhard and Eric Borsuk, each spent seven years in federal prison for the robbery. An audience member told Allen during the Q&A that she had no sympathy for him or his crime and questioned if he was now profiting from appearing in the film and from a book he wrote about his experience, entitled “Mr. Pink.”
“I spent from the age of 20 through 26 in prison. And for the rest of my life I am a convicted felon. I understand how you feel, and you’re entitled to that, and I respect your opinion. But at the same time, this is something I have to live with and bear for the rest of my life, as I do.” Allen said. “That’s one of the things that really drew me to the project, is that it wasn’t a glorification or glamorization for these ultimately shameful things that I did that I’m not proud of.”
Director Layton also said it’s important his real-life subjects in “American Animals” won’t be using the film as a space to apologize or justify their actions.
“I didn’t feel like I needed to give them a platform for making excuses,” Layton said. “I wasn’t about to make them out to be heroes. I took what was relevant, and I distilled the characters in the best ways I thought I could, and at the same time, allowed them to be human but didn’t give them a platform for making it OK.”
Layton’s film grapples with why the four young men, all coming from wealthy upbringings and given privilege and opportunity in school and at home, felt so stuck in their lives that they felt the need to commit a felony. The movie frequently has the guys wondering if they should just face reality or get out while they’re ahead, even though their reality left little to be desired.
“This was a kid who’s main problem was that he didn’t have a problem,” Layton said. “That felt like a real modern thing, that he needed to have a story, that he needed to be a somebody. That was the thing for me that took it from being a mishap heist to being a story of rather lost young men who are looking in all the wrong places for meaning and identity.”
The beauty of “American Animals” and the panel discussion on Wednesday was that the audience didn’t have to speculate as to the real subjects’ motives. They could just ask. Allen clarified that he initially turned down the offer to rob the library, but after going through a divorce and some unexpected financial trouble, suddenly felt as lost in his life as his partners in crime.
“I felt I had too much to lose at the time. In my personal life and family life, I lost what I felt I had to lose. That was because I was given a lot of opportunity and privilege very early on,” Allen said. “I lost everything, and along with that, I lost my dreams and hope for the future I was envisioning.”
“American Animals” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 and opened in theaters on Aug. 14. Watch a clip from the panel discussion featuring Layton, Peters and Allen above.