'The Alienist' Stars on How TNT's Drama Shines a Light on New York's Gilded Age

"It's about embracing new ideas, or being afraid of new ideas, and that's something I think still matters today," says series director Jakob Verbruggen, who along with castmembers Daniel Bruhl, Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans, also discusses prospects for a new season and how the Time's Up movement impacted the dark thriller.

What do you get when you take three franchise movie stars — Daniel Bruhl (Captain America), Dakota Fanning (Twilight) and Luke Evans (Fast and the Furious) — and put them on TV? The Alienist, a dark thriller that has become TNT's most watched current original series.

Based on Caleb Carr's best-selling book of the same name, the 1896-set story centers on Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Bruhl), an alienist (the term used for psychologists at the time) who teams with a newspaper illustrator (Evans) and the secretary (Fanning) of a New York City police station to investigate grisly murders of boy prostitutes.

Bruhl, 39; Evans, 39; Fanning, 24; and executive producer and director Jakob Verbruggen, 37, sat down with THR on May 22 to talk about the 10-episode limited series — which shot in Budapest, Hungary, and premiered in January — and how working in TV differs from their big-screen experiences.

What first drew you to this project?

JAKOB VERBRUGGEN The timelessness of it. It's about a hunt for a serial killer in New York during the Gilded Age. We witness, through Kreizler's character, the birth of not only forensics but also profiling, the early stages of psychiatry. It's a story about class division. It's a story about immigration, it's about embracing new ideas, or being afraid of new ideas, and that's something I think still matters today.

DANIEL BRUHL I've always been drawn into darkness, so I've always loved to read dark material, ever since I was a teenager. This gripping, thrilling story appealed to me at first, but then to combine that with a history lesson — and a very entertaining one about New York at the time, where so much happened — was a fascinating mixture.

Beyond the book that this is based on, what kind of research did you do to get to know these characters and this time period?

BRUHL In my case, it was very handy to have a wife who is an alienist, so she supported me all the way through, especially in the beginning. She gave me a lot of stuff to read about the famous psychologists in Austria at the time, [Sigmund] Freud and [Josef] Breuer and [Carl] Jung, and there were very interesting references in their biographies that I always kept in mind in portraying Laszlo Kreizler because there were a lot of similarities. I wonder whether Caleb Carr was also inspired by their lives and their work. I'm sure he was.

LUKE EVANS I shot a movie in New York a few years ago and had a few days off, and I said, "What shall I do?" and somebody suggested the Tenement Museum. I'm quite glad I did because it actually informed me an awful lot about the time period in which this show is based. And that period was photographed quite heavily — we have some amazing images, not images that are easy to look at sometimes, but really informed me massively about the desperation of the immigrants who lived in these tenement blocks and the streets they inhabited, and the desperation, and the dirt, and the filth, and the poverty, and the lack of quality of life.

Dakota, your character is the first woman to work on the New York police force, and we see her trying to find her voice. That's a very timely subject with the Time's Up movement. Did you relate to that?

DAKOTA FANNING We do see Sara trying to find her voice in a way, but we also see her have her voice, and it's not being listened to. I was intrigued by that. When we meet her in the first episode, she comes off very strong and a little bit forceful — it's made clear that she's not afraid to use her voice and to speak up and that she has thoughts and opinions that are valid. And then we also see the flip side of her facing harassment in the workplace. I think for me, I don't have a problem using my voice either, and I never have. I'm proud that I feel comfortable speaking up for myself and also very fortunate that I have really, truly worked with people who have been wonderful to me and supportive and true collaborators. When we filmed this, that conversation hadn't exploded in the way that it has now. It sort of happened right after we finished filming, and as the show started airing, that became the first question that I was asked with regards to Sara. So it's definitely sparked, hopefully, positive conversation.

For the rest of you, has the moment we're in with Time's Up opened your eyes to anything new about the industry?

EVANS It's interesting to see how far we've come, but how little we've come as well. There are still problems that were a problem back in 1896. It's a very powerful moment in our industry, and I think we'll never go back to the way it was. That's a very refreshing thing. It's unified the industry in a positive way.

Actors often pick up new skills on every project they work on. What did you learn from this experience?

BRUHL Some Hungarian? Not even that. I forgot it already.

FANNING I improved my typing skills. (Laughs.)

EVANS I learned how to sketch a little better. They gave me a wonderful tutor who came to my home a few times and brought all his paper and sketches and pencils and charcoal. I learned how to create this structure of a face, where the ears and the eyes and the nose go because when I did it without him, it looked like an alien. (Laughs.) I was like, OK, well, I need some help here.

The three of you have spent the majority of your careers in film, where you're done shooting a project in a couple of months, at most. What were the challenges of spending seven months working on this series?

FANNING We started out filming the first three episodes, which Jakob directed, and you kind of get tricked into thinking that's it. Then you get episode four and five, and you meet James Hawes, who's going to be the director, and Jakob is suddenly gone and in the editing room, and you're working with another director, and then you get scripts for six and seven.

And you meet Paco Cabezas, and he's the next director. Then as you continue, you're kind of jumping back and forth between different episodes and different directors, which means different energy and different styles. So that's when it started to feel different and to feel like more of a challenge in just keeping your place, in terms of what's happened right before and what's happened right after. It was a new experience for me, and I ultimately really enjoyed it.

This was a limited series, but there's another book in Carr's series. Has there been discussion about another season? Would you all come back to do it again?

BRUHL I would love to come back.

EVANS We all got on very well, and I think it was a very rewarding experience for all of us as actors. We're very proud of what we've created. It was a limited series, and we've done the whole book, but if asked to go back, I think we'd all quite happily say yes.

FANNING Yeah.

When you were on set and you needed to shed the dark day, what were some of your tricks to lightening up the mood?

BRUHL Well, one of us always started singing.

EVANS I wonder who? (Laughter.)

Luke, any particular songs?

EVANS Anything that was in my head at the time.

BRUHL Sometimes we even sang together.

EVANS We did sometimes sing together, yes. Given enough time, I can get anyone to sing.

Caleb Carr's novel spent about 30 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list after its 1994 release. But before it was even published, producer Scott Rudin and Paramount scooped up the rights to adapt it into a film for about $500,000. Getting the 500-plus page book onto the big screen turned out to be a nearly insurmountable challenge, however, with the project shuffling through several writers (among them, Philip Kaufman and David Henry Hwang) and iterations. Finally, in 2015, Paramount TV announced plans to make The Alienist into a limited series, and the adaptation finally got to see the light of day.

***

24 YEARS IN THE MAKING
A popular, strong story and a top producer should have made for a quick adaptation, but The Alienist took decades. 

Caleb Carrs' novel spent about 30 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list after its 1994 release. But before it was even published, producer Scott Rudin and Paramount scooped up the rights to adapt it into a film for about $500,000. Getting the 500-plus page book onto the big screen turned out to be a nearly insurmountable challenge, however, with the project shuffling through several writers (among them, Philip Kaufman and David Henry Hwang) and iterations. Finally, in 2015, Paramount TV announced plans to make The Alienist into a limited series, and the adaptation finally got to see the light of day. 

This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

comments powered by Disqus