The actress plays real-life murderer Susan Atkins in the NBC drama

By Michele Corriston
Updated June 25, 2015 07:20 PM
Credit: Vivian Zink/NBC; Gabriel Olsen/Getty

It’s not easy portraying one of America’s most infamous female convicts.

Ambyr Childers gets the job done in her mesmerizing turn on NBC’s ’60s drama Aquarius, playing Susan Atkins, a Charles Manson recruit who turned into the serial killer known as Sadie Mae Glutz. After the Sharon Tate murder, she spent almost 40 years in prison, becoming the longest-incarcerated woman in California.

But Aquarius is about the period before the public knew Charles Manson as a monster – back when he was just a magnetic, charismatic man drawing wayward people into his “family.”

“I’ve always been fascinated with murders and the psychology behind it, and whether you’re born this way or whether you’re a product of your environment growing up,” Childers, 26, tells PEOPLE.

Hot on the heels of NBC’s renewal announcement Thursday, read on to learn what Childers has to say about the real-life inspiration for her character, working with David Duchovny and the cast’s mascot, a rooster named Carl.

What drew you to the show and made you want to be a part of it?
The whole Charlie Manson story is such a huge story, and it’s so raw and gritty. At first I was a little bit hesitant on being able to show the true colors of what really happened during the ’60s and not making it popcorn television. I was really careful of that. But after talking to [creator John McNamara], I really believed in him and his vision of the show. The’60s were in my opinion one of the craziest eras so far. When I did The Master I did the late ’40s and then the ’50s in Gangster Squad, so I thought it would be fun to dive into the ’60s. It was the coming of the new age, and civil rights. So much changed in our country during that time.

What is it like portraying Sadie, whose story is very real and who is so infamous for her crimes?
It’s very hard for me. I try to read books about Helter Skelter. And being a parent and a mother of two girls, I think it’s hard for anyone to wrap their head around and grasp what these heinous acts that were committed, and the killing of Sharon, which was the most notorious one for Susan. It was really difficult for me, to be honest, even thinking about it now, it’s not easy. But as an actor, my job is to relate in some way to our characters and to feel empathy and make them feel as human as possible. A lot of people say that when you commit the crimes that they did, that you’re an animal. You’re an animal of some sort, and you’re not human and you don’t have a heart. But Susan had a very tough life growing up, and it wasn’t easy, from the research that I have done, and I think that made her kind of unstable. What Charlie did, he was a mind manipulator and he just drew her in like he drew in all the other hundreds of girls that he did. I think the biggest thing was the drugs, as well. A lot of the time when they did commit these acts, they were on acid, LSD. Obviously when you’re doing those things, you’re not thinking with a clear conscience.

She was involved in the Sharon Tate murder, but we re starting earlier. Is this something Aquarius will show down the line? Would you like it to?
I don’t think it should happen in the second season and it maybe shouldn’t happen at all. I think there’s a way to do it having respect for the family and the victims who witnessed and have gone through this in the trials. Also, I don’t think it would leave anywhere for the show, because I don’t think people want to watch seasons 4 and 5 of the trials. That would kind of get boring. The most fascinating part of it is the changes that you see within the girls while they lived with Manson. And then they run away and you have Susan, who had a baby. There’s so much story that I think it would be kind of silly to go into the Sharon Tate massacre. Again, I’m just the actor. I’m not the creator, I’m not the writer, I don’t make those decisions, but I don’t think that would be the priority for the second season.

What is the vibe like on set?
It’s fun! It’s super fun. Half the time when we’re acting like we’re high or on drugs, I think it really somehow affects us. It’s kind of like when you go out and you’re like, “Okay, I’m the designated driver tonight,” but you’re with all these people that are drinking, and somehow you feel differently relaxed, goofy, just having fun. And that’s how it is. We didn’t wear a lot of makeup on set, we didn’t have to wash our hair everyday, we didn’t have to look pretty. We were just really raw, and to me that’s the best way to go to work. It’s like, “Oh, roll out of bed!” Ten minutes in the hair and makeup chair and I was done.

We filmed on a ranch in Altadena, California. There were chickens and horses, and I grew up with all that stuff. There was this rooster, his name was Carl. We just had a lot of fun! It wasn’t like your typical TV show filming, because everyone was probably having too much fun, but it was the ’60s, so we were allowed! We haven’t gotten into the serious stuff yet.

The cast has so many amazing people in it. What’s it like working with someone like David Duchovny?
David is fantastic. He is a phenomenal actor. I didn’t work with him so much because I’m more with the Manson family, but just being with him as part of the cast and on set, he’s very great, very nice, very respectful and fun to work with.

Gethin [Anthony], who plays Manson, is the nicest guy in the world. It’ll be like, “Okay, cut,” and he chimes in with his British accent, and you’re like, “You are the cutest and sweetest guy, how in the world are you pulling this off?” He plays it very well.

And then Claire Holt is one of my really good friends. We actually lived in the same apartment when I first moved to L.A. We lived across from each other, so we have some history together. She’s also great, I love her. She plays Charmain so great, and I love that she can stand up against the guys. That’s also a really important character, I think she plays the first female police officer, and how they were treated and women taking a stand and getting back to worth, having the same opportunities as the men did.

The show s distribution is unprecedented, especially for a major network: The episodes are airing each week on TV but are also all available on demand. What do you think about this move, and would you recommend fans watch week to week or binge?
I think that’s personal preference. I’m a big fan of Penny Dreadful, every other Sunday I’ll watch two episodes. Some people like to binge watch, but then some people look forward to every Thursday night, it could be like date night almost with your spouse or your boyfriend or whoever. I think this is a new formula that the network, from my understanding, is trying to do, so I don’t know – we’ll see if it works.

Aquarius airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC, and the full first season is streaming online now.