For Daniel Bruhl, being cast as the title character in TNT’s new series “The Alienist” was a dream come true. The actor, who has a historian’s fascination with the past, could hardly believe the luck of being cast in a period crime drama set in New York, and the complexity of his character made the role even more thrilling.
“The Alienist” centers on Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist in 1896 New York, who finds himself involved in the investigation of a string of brutal murders. The victims, all young boys who had been pulled into the city’s sex trade, have been horribly mutilated, and Kreizler believes that by studying the murders he and his colleagues can create a psychological portrait of who the killer is and aid in his capture.
But how does one prepare for a role that requires not only an understanding of a time period, but also the the practice of psychology in its infancy? It was a challenging question, but one that the actor was keen to answer.
“I was mesmerized by the book by Caleb Carr,” Bruhl told me when we chatted earlier this week. “I was gripped by it and these wonderful characters who are all pioneers exploring fields that we now take for granted.”
And so, his preparation began. He began to read about the history of New York and the political climate in the late 1800s while simultaneously reading the work of Freud and Jung.
It also helped that the actor’s wife is a psychologist and was able to give him insights into the history of its study and practice. In fact, it was one of those insights in particular that helped cement part of Dr. Kreizler’s personality.
“She told me that back in the day psychologists didn’t take part in what we now call instructive analysis,” he said. “Today, every shrink has to go to a psychologist themselves to help deal with the pressures of a profession which puts them face to face with people dealing with horrible mental illnesses, some of whom have done terrible things or had terrible things done to them.”
Psychologists or “alienists” as they were called at the time, did not readily have an outlet to deal with these pressures and it could take a heavy toll on them. Bruhl knew that this was key to understanding why Kreizler. so confident in analyzing others, became uncomfortable when the lens was turned upon himself.
With all of his preparation complete, the moment came to travel to Budapest where the series’ production crew had painstakingly recreated 19th century New York, and Bruhl recalls that he and his fellow actors were in awe of that creation.
“I remember walking down Mulberry St. with Luke [Evans] the first time, and we were just enthralled by it,” he said. “The passion put into building these sets was amazing. In Kreizler’s house, every piece of furniture, every prop was from the time period and that, of course, made it easier for the actors to believe that we’re living and working in that time.”
But it wasn’t all backlots and manufactured sets. Budapest itself was a boon to the production team.
“There’s so much preserved architecture from that time period, especially for filming locations for the upper class scenes,” Bruhl explained. “I didn’t know Budapest before shooting, and I was surprised by how grand and pretty it really is.”
Filming on location also enabled Bruhl and his fellow actors time to really bond and get to know each other. An amazing chemistry comes through on screen, and Bruhl pointed out that much of that came from he and his fellow actors spending most of their time together.
“None of us lives in Budapest and we actually enjoyed hanging out together even when we weren’t working,” he said. “You wouldn’t do that if you didn’t like your colleagues. It was really remarkable.”
At the end of the day, Bruhl feels honored to have been part of a project like this, and is obviously hopeful to inhabit the world again should TNT want to adapt further books in the series.
“The Alienist” airs Monday nights on TNT (check local listings for time).