Modern society loves a good crime mystery. Back in the days of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple's published sleuthing, crime revelations came from acute deduction and observational surmising. But then science got into the act and changed how real detectives and the genre's writers approach how a case is processed and, often, ultimately solved. Even savvy armchair criminologists rely heavily on what forensics and lab results reveal about potential culprits to play along at home.
The fusion of those two approaches are what fueled Caleb Carr's novel The Alienist. Published 24 years ago in March, the book merged Carr's meticulous historical research of late-1800s New York City with the grim, fictionalized tale of a serial killer preying on underaged child prostitutes. Carr posited what would happen if experts from separate disciplines, police, psychologists, illustrators, and physicians, were to come together utilizing the most advanced techniques of the time, such as fingerprinting and early psychological profiling, to solve a case.
The Alienist became a New York Times bestseller and a critical hit, spawning two more books. The rights were also immediately sold to adapt the prose into a film, but it's taken two decades for producers to figure out how to crack the dense, gruesome story. As it turns out, which happens so often these days with literary adaptations, television turned out to be the savior, as executive producer Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) helped shepherd the series to TNT with Jakob Verbruggen executive-producing and directing.
German actor Daniel Brühl (Captain America: Civil War) leads the ensemble cast as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a criminal psychologist (or alienist) who endeavors to work with newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), brilliant police secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), and even future president Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) to stop the serial killer lurking in the underbelly of 1896's New York City.
A newbie to television, Brühl was so entranced by The Alienist's dark themes and historical perspective that he signed on to the U.S. series, and tells us that his choice has been a career highlight.
I listened to the audiobook read by actor Edward Herrmann back in the '90s and I was transfixed. Did you have a dramatic introduction to the book?
It's been translated to German, but it's not that famous in Germany, so I hadn't read it before. [But reading it] was the first thing I did before I read the script. I was immediately mesmerized and fascinated by the story because of, as you know, the richness of the material. It keeps you going because it's such a gripping psychological thriller. That's why I felt, probably like you, I was thinking back in time, I felt like a 12-year-old with a torchlight under the blanket. I couldn't stop reading it. I think I read it in a day or two. I loved everything about it.
Was there a specific aspect that really grabbed you, like the characters or the case?
It was this combination of it being a psychological thriller, but also a history lesson for me learning so much about New York. At the time, probably the most fascinating city in the world, and then these compelling characters. It was the beginning of so many fascinating sciences, which made it so endearing. It's the beginning of so many things that now we take for granted. On top of that, which was very handy for me, is that my wife's a psychotherapist. I'm always interested in what she does for seven years now, and so she was as excited as I was. She read the book.
Oh, that's perfect synergy! What was her professional assessment of it?
She found it fascinating because it reminded her of all the sources and the books she read. When she started studying about Sigmund Freud and Kinsey, and all this. She was just so involved in modern psychology in her field, what she does, so it was interesting for her to go back and see, "Oh wow. This was the beginning. That's how they worked back in the days."
Was there anything that was revelatory about where the science was back when the book is set?
What she found very interesting, and me too as an actor, is that back in the days the psychologists didn't have instructive analysis like they do nowadays. They, themselves, now go to a shrink to cope with their problems, but they did not. Kreizler is brilliant at analyzing everybody else, but when it comes to himself and to face his own demons, he gets very nervous. That's this other interesting journey that goes on [in the series], which is a journey inside the characters of all the protagonists, finding out about their backgrounds.
When you were reading, was Kreizler the character you had most affinity for in the story?
Yeah. I think it was on page one, when he's described in the book for the first time. I thought, "Dammit, I want to play this guy." I was just crossing my fingers, waiting for the call.
You auditioned, so how quickly until you got word you would be playing him?
I don't know how many days until I finally got it. I was so relieved and so happy, jumping up and down, that I'm given the opportunity to portray this guy. Even me coming where I come from, that this guy has German/Hungarian root background and all that seemed like a perfect match.
So it was an immediate yes when you were offered the role?
You know, fortunately there were two offers for two very interesting series. I stepped back, because once you decide for one thing, it is a huge commitment, so you have to choose wisely. You know what I'm saying? But then after I had said no [to the other series], I was regretting it. Then when I got this call, "Would you meet the director Yakov for The Alienist?" Then I got the book and I thought like, "I have to play this part."
A TV series means you get to live in the skin of a character much longer than on a film. Was that a concern, since the world of The Alienist is a dark place to dwell for long, and film has traditionally been where you've worked?
On the one hand, I always was drawn into dark subject matters since I was a teenager. Reading the book, it reminded me of different things, of Sherlock Holmes, of Jekyll and Hyde, of Jack the Ripper, of Edgar Allan Poe. It had this wonderful gloomy atmosphere, so I didn't mind spending so much time with this. On the contrary, I was just fascinated. As fascinated on the very last day as I was when I started, or even more so. Then, as you said, the opportunity sometimes on movies, as I've done only movies, you feel restrained and restricted. If a character's fascinating as this one is, you just want to spend more time to explore the character to the core. That was a perfect choice, I think. It would have been very sad to send that book out and make a feature film out of it.
TV really is the medium to explore in the depth most people want nowadays.
Also, since I started watching especially American TV, but also English, and Scandinavian and even German TV has improved recently, this is a revolution. It's so great. It gives the actors wonderful opportunities. Sometimes I rediscover actors in shows. I get so attached to them, which is only logical because you spend so much time. Brian Geraghty made a point, we discussed many times, saying, "Yeah, it also creates weird intimacy in a way as you spend time with these characters also watching that at home. Very often in your bedroom." That's a very private space, so there's that strange intimacy that you feel, and the closeness that you feel with these characters, and with these actors.
Did you spend any time with executive producer Cary Fukunaga talking about the series?
He took the initiative in taking this to television, so I have to be extremely thankful that he did so because, again, it would have been very sad to make a feature film out of it. I'm very happy that he was still on board as a producer behind it. But had mainly to deal with the wonderful writers like Hossein Amini. Also, it was interesting to adapt to different styles in directing.
Yes, that's new for you as an actor, because in TV different directors often direct different episodes.
Yes! It refreshes you. It keeps you active and motivated. It was a great experience. I would definitely do it again. You would assume that you might get tired because six months is a long time. Of course, we were exhausted, but fulfilled. It is like two or three films back to back. But it always kept on being inspiring.
There's potential for at least two more books to adapt. If Season 1 is successful, you would come back?
I think we all agree that we definitely want to. Yeah, I would love to come back. Also, something that you cannot take for granted, and you can never foresee, is how does the chemistry work between actors. How do you like each other? I guess you can always fake it if you hate your colleague, but not for six months. (Laughs)
It's wonderful when it works.
When it works, and I guess that ultimately you would see that on screen, the audience will feel that, and that's what happened between us. We became friends in that project. We even spent most of our private time together. I guess we all wouldn't mind to keep on exploring Caleb Carr's universe.
Let's pivot to another of your upcoming projects, Cloverfield: God Particle.
It's so secretive I cannot tell you anything. (Laughs)
Right, but just in terms of the concept, what was attractive for you to be involved?
I am a fan of this genre. I always wanted to make a film in space. I'm a fan of J.J. Abrams' work. He's a mastermind when it comes to these kinds of movies. The possibility to work with all these actors from different film cultures, it's a very interesting international bunch. There were many reasons, and because I enjoyed the previous movie so much.
The Alienist premieres tonight on TNT.