TCA 18: TNT’s ‘The Alienist’ Brings New York City’s Gilded Age to Life

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Ahead of the series’ highly-anticipated premiere, executive producers Jakob Verbruggen and Rosalie Swedlin joined stars Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning to talk about TNT’s new historical thriller The Alienist. Inspired by the bestselling novel by Caleb Carr, the story will play out across ten episodes in a limited series run starting January 22nd on TNT. Daniel Brühl stars as protagonist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a brilliant, obsessive “alienist” who uses new and controversial methods to treat mental illness in order to hunt down a ritualistic killer. Set in 1896 New York City, the term “serial killer” doesn’t yet exist in people’s minds. That makes the premise of this series so captivating: a crime drama against the backdrop of the Gilded Age where detectives aren’t afforded the kinds of modern conveniences available to today’s law enforcement.

Bringing this story to audiences was no easy feat—a labor of love three years in the making, the project originally began as a feature film before the idea of a series became finalized. But Verbruggen and Swedlin agree that the project’s setting and themes will find relevance with today’s audiences:

“We deal with themes of immigration, the exploitation of immigrants. It was a technological revolution going on. The motor car, the telephone, movies, and the beginning of psychology were all things that were evolving. And even the social and political unrest, the Suffragette movement, the socialist movement. And the fact that there was growing mistrust in all the institutions that people meant to take for granted. So that’s, I think, one of the things that will make the series feel so relevant, accessible, and modern while being set in 1896.”

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And the setting isn’t all glitz and glamour of Gilded Age New York. The Alienist will delve into the gritty aspects of the era. “I think while we all know that wealthy mansions, Delmonico’s, but we also take the audience on a journey into the seedy underbelly of the city,” Verbruggen says. “We take them to places where nobody would come. We take them to brothels. We take them to Bellevue. I think it’s opening doors that haven’t been opened before. I think that will be very intriguing for the audience to watch.”

Part of that grit will involve dealing with some horrifying subjects, like the prostitution of young boys before the turn of the century, explains Verbruggen:

“What’s extra interesting for me in the book was the unsung heroes of these stories are these boys working in brothels. But I think they are survivors, mainly. And by themselves, they are vulnerable. But together as a group, they can be potentially very dangerous. And what I always use as a metaphor with the younger actors is why do they dress up? It’s in order to transform and become a character. It’s, I think, their way to deal with trauma. And it’s only when the makeup comes off, when the dress goes out that really these three characters will understand these are children. So at the same time, it’s also about childhood and how different childhood was at the end of the 19th century. Childhood ended at six or earlier, while now childhood never ends sometimes. So I think it’s about childhood and them not necessarily being victims, of course, of society, that it’s them being survivors, I think, is key.”

Though the show will draw inspiration from Carr’s book, it won’t be a line-for-line copy of its source material. Instead, The Alienist will have the opportunity to delve deeper into its characters’ narrative arcs throughout the show’s ten episodes. Swedlin clarifies:

“One of the gifts the novel gave us is that sometimes one or two lines—for instance, about John Moore’s character (Luke Evans) that his brother had died in somewhat uncertain circumstances that only John Moore is willing to tell truth to—and we turn that into a whole story arc for Moore’s character. Likewise, there were things about Sarah’s character (Dakota Fanning) that we knew she wanted to be the first female police detective in New York Police Department, but that becomes, you know, a big story arc throughout the series. And Laszlo Kreizler’s dark secrets also are built in too. So we use the book as inspiration and source material, but when you dramatize anything, you have to then begin to branch out and take what you’ve been given and expand on it.”

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In preparing for the role of Dr. Kreizler, Brühl was fascinated by the richness of Carr’s dark mystery thriller.

“It was a history lesson for me as in the history of New York at the time, probably the most fascinating city in the world, the exploding melting pot. A history lesson about corruption, about politics, still incredibly current, as Rosalie said before. An incredible interior journey which is going on among the key characters in that story, so that all made it a perfect combination. And I’m very happy that it was brought to television, that we have the possibility to have these ten hours to explore all these wonderful things in the book and that it wasn’t thinned out and made into a feature film.”

Evans, who portrays John Moore, also found value in referring to the book. “It was useful for me to see the changes in my character because he changes massively from the narrator to a really integral character in the story and he’s fleshed out. And like Rosalie said, there’s a lot of backstory to John Moore’s character that’s added to his character within the ten episodes, which was very interesting for me because it gave me a much bigger arc.”

Swedlin adds,

“I think a big thematic arc that we drew from the book is that all our characters start off as sort of societal outcasts and all of them, to use the appropriate word, are alienated in some way or another from the life in which they’ve grown up or, in the case of Dr. Kreizler, his family immigrated to the United States. So, you know, they start off just being loners, outcasts.  And by the end of the series, in a way they’ve created a family among themselves and that’s a big […] it all comes about through the investigation and how they begin to relate to each other, and I think it’s a huge emotional thread.”

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Fanning, who stars as Sarah Howard, agrees that the core of the show comes from how the three protagonists’ dynamic is cultivated over the course of the series.

“[…] A really important part of the show that comes up over and over again, is each one of us struggling to confront our past and struggling to be vulnerable with one another, and I think ultimately this triangle that we have, it does become a family and our bonds change so much throughout the series. But ultimately, it’s kind of like we, by the end, we’re the only ones who could ever possibly understand one another, really, because of this experience.”

Apart from the show’s compelling lead characters to draw audiences in, The Alienist has the potential to appeal to a large demographic of historical fiction enthusiasts. The series is vividly rendered with high production values to really transport viewers to New York City in 1896 as if they’re traveling through time. Gorgeous costumes and sets bring the era to life, down to the detail. And the executive producers tease the appearance of several historical figures. “A lot of the characters who come in and out of The Alienist are real people, like Teddy Roosevelt, like J.P. Morgan, even our gangsters, Bill Ellison and Paul Kelly. They were all real, in New York, in that period.”

But the Teddy Roosevelt we’ll meet will be just a bit different than the presidential figure we’re familiar with. “This is the young Roosevelt,” Swedlin continues. “So this is when he’s recovering from some personal losses and stepping into the job of police commissioner in a very corrupt New York City. So we call it the origin story for Teddy Roosevelt.”

Of The Alienist‘s appeal, Fanning says:

“I think there’s a lot in this series for a lot of different age groups. And as somebody who’s part of a younger generation, I think there’s something there too. […] I think the younger generation now takes a lot for granted and takes a lot of rights and a lot of things for granted. I think now we’re starting so many more conversations about inequalities and injustices and, you know, the sort of women’s movement that’s happening at the moment. And so I think that there’s a really huge storyline that really speaks to that, that I think people my age could really benefit from of seeing how if you don’t speak up and you don’t make moves to change things, they continue happening or history repeats itself. And this is a show in 1896 and there’s a situation that happens to my character in the workplace that parallels stories that have come out, you know, only a few months ago. And so I think it’s really important on that level. I think there’s a lot of people that can find something to learn from.”

The Alienist will premiere Monday, January 22nd at 9/8c on TNT. Check out the trailer for the series below.