When SYFY WIRE last checked in with The Alienist's Daniel Bruhl, the German actor — who also features in The Cloverfield Paradox — revealed what attracted him to playing the brilliant Dr. Laszlo Kreizler in the 10-part adaptation of the 1994 Caleb Carr bestseller.
The TNT event series is a ratings hit, so we decided to dig deeper with Bruhl on why the 19th-century New York City-set serial killer thriller connected with audiences, analyze a few key scenes and tease what's to come in the weeks ahead.
Why do you think The Alienist has connected with audiences in such a big way?
Daniel Bruhl: There seems to be an interest in subject matter dealing with serial killers recently. It has always been something that fascinates people, who enjoy the mystery, darkness, and secrets of the human mind. In this case, the show tells us something about the beginning of so many sciences that nowadays we take for granted and understand much better. It is interesting to follow these prime years and discover these new fields.
Also, New York at the time was the most fascinating city in the world, this exploding melting pot with these huge cultural clashes. When we shot the show, we talked a lot about how the story is more relevant and modern than you think because of the subject matters we deal with that are still current: immigration crisis, huge class divisions, sexual harassment and gender issues. It is quite sad to think that 2018 isn't that much different than 1896.
Dr. Laszlo Kreizler has been described as a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. Was this role an actor's dream?
Wow, big names. For me, it was an absolute dream and a huge privilege to be offered the part. Everything about it I absolutely loved and embraced. It gave me the opportunity to dive into this fascinating universe and period in time. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is a very multilayered, twisted character. He's bright and smart on the one hand, and then incredibly vulnerable and emotional on the other. It is a very interesting journey from Episode 1 to 10 where you will find out about his motivations, his demons and his past.
I was very pleased this was brought to television, and that I had the luxury to spend so much time with this character that I loved so much. I was so glad they didn't have to cut it down to 120 minutes for a movie and lose too many things from the book.
Was there anything not in the novel or script that you brought to the character?
Not sure. Generally speaking, I tried to be close to some of the descriptions about Laszlo in the book, including some of his mannerisms described by Caleb Carr. I'm puzzled over what I added, though.
Does the second half of the series stick as faithfully to the novel?
Yes. The book was always our bible. We always kept the book in mind. I remember our read-throughs with the writers, where we always discussed references in the book to stay truthful. Then again, it is an adaptation, and you have to find a certain freedom in inventing some moments or intensifying relationships or forgetting a couple of details just for the sake of a good working adaptation. That is a very challenging process.
Every now and then I write some stuff myself — pretty lousily — and I am very curious about the process. So, on The Alienist, I would stick close to the writers and ask them where we should add some more salt and pepper to a moment, when is there a moment that doesn't work that has to be cut out, etc. Also, with the editing, I wanted to be involved in the process so I could learn about storytelling. It's a fascinating journey, but it's tough. You have to please the audience, the show must have a good pulse and pace, and you also want to remain truthful to the book. It's not easy.
I'd like to get into the nitty-gritty of Episode 3's rooftop scene where you examine the latest victim.
I've done a couple of movies where they didn't do such a great job recreating a certain time. On The Alienist, it was very easy for us to believe we were living during those years, because everything was done with so much precision and passion. Every department shocked us in the perfection they achieved. For example, the special makeup department, the guys responsible for all the corpses and dead bodies, we were pretty shocked when we saw that body. It was the first scene with a corpse that we shot. I loved everything about it.
The mass obsession of the director [Jakob Verbruggen] and DP [P.J. Dillon] in shooting all the details, like the eye socket, the color of the skin, the texture of the skin … everything was discussed for hours. So there was a creepy love, precision, and passion put into that. It shows you how crazy our job is sometimes when you are talking about a corpse for two and a half hours. I was always drawn to the darkness since I was a teenager, so I loved everything about it. And, again, it was a learning process for me to stand beside the camera and talk about how the hair should fall, how the blood should look, etc.
Take me back to the first episode, where you interview the suspect in the sanitarium.
The scene with Mr. Wolff [Jack Kesy], who was suffering from syphilis, was the first proper introduction of Kreizler as a psychologist. In this very situation, we wanted to show how professional Kreizler is, and how he's not scared to enter that cell and talk to this guy because he knows, psychologically, he won't be harmed. We wanted to show Kreizler's toughness, how determined he is and how matter-of-fact he can be in dealing with these patients.
I talked a lot about Kreizler and my approach with my wife, who is a psychologist in real life, and she said in portraying this guy it is important to show the right balance of being curious and engaged on the one hand, but also, as a professional psychologist, keeping your distance from the person you are dealing with. In that scene, we wanted to show Kreizler's distance, seriousness, and toughness, but also his tenderness and interest in the man. As a humanistic guy who is generally interested in human beings, Kreizler wants to help people with mental disorders and criminals. The scene displays his humanity and curiosity about the human mind.
Episode 3 has a very heavy, dramatic confrontation between Kreizler, John Moore [Luke Evans], and Sara Howard [Dakota Fanning]. We start to see some cracks in their relationship.
That was a tough scene, because Kreizler is confronting them with very delicate issues. Interestingly, back in the day, these psychologists did not have their own psychologists. Nowadays, shrinks do instructive analysis, which means they themselves have to talk to someone to deal with the issues and problems that they face in their jobs. Back then, they didn't have that, so Kreizler is great in attacking and analyzing everyone, but when it comes to himself, he gets very nervous and vulnerable. And that will be an interesting journey in the show, when we see Kreizler challenged with equally powerful confrontations by his people and colleagues.
It was an absolute pleasure to play those scenes with Dakota and Luke, where we could really go for it. It was bizarre shooting those moments, because in real life we couldn't have had a better chemistry. It was always nice to have a drink after work and just be Daniel, Dakota, and Luke and not be so tough on each other, especially Kreizler not being so tough on them. Chemistry is something you cannot foresee. This just happened between us, that we really enjoyed working with each other. Despite the pressures of this intense, six-month ride where you constantly work with each other, there was a huge amount of generosity between us. We always gave the same amount of energy to help each other even when off-camera, no matter how tired we were. We developed a good vibe and genuine friendship on set.