'The Alienist': Daniel Bruhl says the show mixes Freud, Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, 'CSI'

Daniel Bruhl in The Alienist (Photo: TNT)

The macabre and medicine go head-to-head, sometimes quite literally, in the adaptation of Caleb Carr’s 1994 New York Times bestseller The Alienist, which premieres tonight on TNT. Set in New York in 1896, long before forensics was an everyday part of criminal investigations, the story begins with the savagely brutalized body of a young boy dressed as a girl. The murder piques the interest of psychoanalyst Dr. Lazlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), who works the case on the down-low with the help of a newspaper illustrator (Luke Evans), a police department secretary who dreams of being the first female detective (Dakota Fanning), and a pair of budding criminalist brothers.

Bruhl spoke with Yahoo Entertainment about shooting in Budapest in the summer while wearing fur and velvet, hiding his German accent, and feeling like a time traveler while diving into the dark recesses of the human mind. 

Yahoo Entertainment: How would you describe the show to someone who has not read the book?
Daniel Bruhl: The guiding line is it’s a thriller and a crime story taking place in New York City back in the Gilded Age. A bunch of smart people are chasing a very vicious and brutal serial killer who Is killing young boys, prostitutes. The killer is as smart and as intelligent as the people who are hunting him, so the chase is winding and complicated and dangerous and long. You learn a lot about the melting pot that New York was then. In the show, we go from the upper class, the Vanderbilts and the Roosevelts, to the moldy, rotten corners filled with immigrants trying to survive. The show explores the dodgiest places and poorest in New York. You explore all these different social classes and cultures, and that’s what makes it so entertaining. And the science of forensics, when it was just getting started.

Were you familiar with the book by Caleb Carr before this project came along?
The book is not that well known in Germany. Hopefully, it will be after the show comes out. I was not familiar with that book. I was totally intrigued when I read it.

People seem to be fascinated with shows where the good guys have to get into the mindset of the bad guy to catch him — like Mindhunter, Hannibal, and Dexter. Is that what drew you in?
It definitely is one of the main reasons why I wanted to get onboard. I find it very interesting to see the beginning of criminal psychology, and to see the first steps of people exploring completely new fields. Atmosphere-wise, it is a combination of Edgar Allan Poe, Jekyll and Hyde, and Sherlock Holmes, and so many other great stories. A period version of CSI meets Jung and Freud. That’s the vibe, and I personally love that.

Do you think fans of the book will be pleased with how the story has been adapted for TV? 
I would hope so. I think we did a great job. I think people who loved the book will be pleased with the result because we always tried to be very truthful to the book. There’s always a certain freedom that you have to take in adapting it, things that you have to invent for the sake of the storytelling. There are details that you cannot shoot or have to leave out because of time or budget, but overall fans of the book will enjoy the show. But also ones who are not familiar with the story can enjoy it. It will be very nice for them to explore that wonderful world of Caleb Carr and this story. I also hope that the journey continues.

What kind of research did you do for the show?
I read a lot. Caleb’s book, of course. I read the biography of Freud, and about Jung and Piaget, all these pioneers in psychology, and about the origins of psychology. There is so much to it. Then I read about the history of New York. There was a lot of research, which is always very thrilling. I met a few people in the fields. 

I thought it was amusing that in a “melting pot” story where there are several European accents represented, and various American actors doing them, you had to lose yours. Was it challenging to do an American accent?
Finally, I had the chance to do American. For other parts I’ve been playing they wanted me to sound Austrian or German. I was trying hard to sound American and [puts on a very heavy cliché German accent] to lose my German-ness in my speaking. That took me quite a while. But it wasn’t only about doing an American accent. We worked with a dialect coach to sound like we were from that era, because the language was very different than it is today. We also took some time to get used to that period English. There were certain things that I had to get used to phonetically. For example the w, like in where and why, is different. I kept on forgetting, so it was tricky because I said those words a lot.

Does it get easier to do an accent as filming goes along?
It gets easier the more time you spend with it, but it was difficult to improvise because the danger is you would sound too modern. I like acting in different languages and accents as it helps you to understand the part better. It was actually very helpful in understanding how people were thinking back in those days.

I assume the same goes for the costumes. They seem like they would have become an important touchstone for creating the world and staying in character. Although they also seem super-layered and uncomfortable. Dakota’s character even likens the period dress to torture.
We were shooting in summer in Hungary, and believe me it’s very hot, so that was very often a nightmare. We almost fainted because it was 30 or 40 degrees Celsius [between 90 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit], and we were wearing furs and coats and whatnot. It’s wonderful when you look at the show, though. There was so much detail, so much passion put into creating these costumes. Everything was handmade. Not only for the main cast, but also for all the extras. [It was] wonderful to have the privilege to be in a show in which there is enough money and expertise to make it look great and as grand as it should be. I did a couple of period movies where on the script page it says “50 carriages, 500 extras, and an old street” and you end up having one carriage, a three-legged horse, three extras, and the first floor of the house. That was not the case in this show. It was incredible to see what they re-created in Budapest using real streets and buildings and backlots.

It’s an impressive show in that regard.
Yeah, because it makes you time-travel, and that’s one of the most wonderful things in my job. It really gave me goosebumps sometimes. We had wide shots where you are not aware of where the camera is exactly, so you don’t see the crew. You just look outside of the carriage and see the street and gaslights and you think, “Oh, my God, it’s 1896 and I’m time-traveling in New York.” It makes you feel like a kid again.

Dakota Fanning in The Alienist (Photo: TNT)

Tell me more about filming in Budapest. Had you been before?
I became a real fan of Budapest, I have to say, especially for our purposes because the city is so pretty, so romantic, and so grand. They found all these locations that we needed for our portrayal of upper-class New York in the Gilded Age. It’s the wonderful end-of-the-century architecture and buildings. The opera there is probably the nicest one I’ve seen in the world. We had a great time. I think Luke and Dakota would agree. The city, the food, the people were beautiful. You’re afraid that there might be only dumplings and goulash and paprikash to eat. But once you explore the city, [you realize] there’s wonderful neighborhoods and restaurants. I was pretty impressed by the diversity and variety of cuisine they have.

The Alienist airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on TNT.

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