Looking to adapt Caleb Carr’s crime novel The Alienist for the screen, director/executive producer Jakob Verbruggen recognized immediately that the material was meant for television. “I think being able to have 10 hours to get under the skin of these characters was crucial,” he said during the TNT series’ panel session at Deadline’s The Contenders Emmys event.
Set in 19th century New York, the period drama follows newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), who teams with criminal psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and the NYPD’s Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) in the investigation of a serial killer.
Remaining as faithful to Carr’s source material as possible, The Alienist benefited from an adaptation that would extricate the series from Moore’s vantage point, allowing for scenes with Kreizler and Howard that weren’t initially present.
For Fanning and Brühl—who appeared with Verbruggen on the panel at a packed DGA Theater—the appeal of the project was the opportunity it offered to play pioneers of different sorts.
“We’re used to seeing a certain kind of woman in [19th century storytelling] because there were so many things that women weren’t allowed to be, and weren’t allowed to do,” Fanning said. “Sara Howard, she’s the first female to hold a position at the New York Police Department; I think that that description alone sets her apart from any other character I’ve played, or a lot of characters that we’re used to seeing on screen. I really wanted to show a strong character in this time period who is pushing the boundaries that have been set for her, but also showing the boundaries that are there, and how those negatively affect her day-to-day life.”
In Kreizler, Brühl found an astute mind akin to Freud, a man gifted in his ability to observe others but less skilled in evaluating himself. “Back in [those] days, the psychologists didn’t do introspective psychology, meaning they didn’t see a shrink themselves, what shrinks do nowadays,” he said. “So what was interesting about my character was that he’s so good in analyzing everyone around him, but when it came to himself, he gets very nervous.”
Check out the conversation above.