In an era of unlimited TV, the new TNT crime drama The Alienist understands it has limited time to get your attention. Within the first minute of the series, a title card explains that an alienist was a 19th-century expert who studied mental illness, a police officer discovers a severed hand in the street, and a drop of blood lands on the officer’s face from above.
The alienist in The Alienist is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, and the show revolves around his investigation of the murders of “boy whores"—underaged boys working in a high-end prostitution ring—in New York City in 1896. Just as Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale spoke to early 2017 anxieties about authoritarianism and women’s rights at the beginning of the Trump administration, The Alienist—starring Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning—tackles early 2018 anxieties about sexual misconduct, immigration and political corruption.
Brühl, who plays the title role, sits down with Playboy ahead of the series’ Monday premiere. He discusses the show’s use of the earliest forms of psychological profiling and forensic science, what it’s like to enter the mind of a serial killer and the uncomfortable echoes the series has in the current political conversation.
"Halfway through the production of the show, we started seeing both of those things all over the news, and it didn’t feel as historical anymore.”
The title of the show refers to your character’s profession. Was an alienist something like the 1896 equivalent of a psychologist?
That’s right. The study of psychology was very new then. For a long time, psychology was a branch of philosophy. It was only in the 1870s that it became its own science. The first laboratory was founded in German, and all these famous Austrians like Sigmund Freud came up with a lot of their studies and theories in the 1890s. Alienists were specialists trying to analyze human behavior and emotions. It was fascinating to dive into that.
What we see in the show seems fairly sophisticated for that time. Did that surprise you?
It was. My wife is a psychotherapist, which was pretty handy for me. She gave me a lot of stuff to read about the origins of psychology. There were sophisticated, brilliant minds at that time. I read a lot about William James, who was an important early psychologist in the United States.
And you had Caleb Carr’s book The Alienist, which delves into a lot of the psychology.
Exactly. What’s fascinating about the book is that those characters are all confronting their own demons and finding out more about themselves over the course of the story. Dr. Kreizler is so good at analyzing the people around him and figuring out these murders, but he’s overwhelmed by his own demons. I was very interested in that.
You liked the book, I take it?
I did. Caleb Carr makes me think of Sherlock Holmes, Jekyll and Hyde, Edgar Allen Poe, Jack the Ripper. I’ve always enjoyed that atmosphere and darkness.
Dr. Kreizler is investigating these murders, but he’s not a part of the police department like you’d see today. What’s the source of his access to the investigation?
In those days, the psychologists were all doctors who had become specialists. He’s crucial to the investigation by being able to put himself into the mind of a serial killer. People thought alienists were charlatans, which made it quite difficult for them to be taken seriously. He surrounds himself with pioneers in their own fields. What’s very endearing about the book and about the show is that you see so many beginnings—the beginning of forensics, the first woman to become a detective in the New York Police Department, an artist’s renderings becoming an important part of an investigation.
The Alienist has a similar fascination with new science in a historical context as The Knick and Mindhunter.
The fascination with serial killers was interesting to watch in Mindhunter. The Knick is a show I really like, and I actually re-watched it before I started on The Alienist.
Teddy Roosevelt is a character in the series, and it’s the youngest I think I’ve ever seen him portrayed on film or TV. Did you come away from The Alienist with different ideas about who Roosevelt was?
It was such a history lesson. I knew him as a president, but I didn’t know about his years as the New York police commissioner. There’s a great book called Island of Vice by Richard Zacks about the corruption in politics and in the police department at that time, and there’s a lot about Teddy Roosevelt. He was fighting massive corruption in those years.
You work in a lot of different languages and play a lot of different nationalities. Are you going where the roles are, or do you like jumping around from culture to culture?
My mother is Spanish, my father is German and a lot of my family is French. I grew up in a multicultural environment and really enjoyed that. You can express certain things better in certain languages, and I enjoy working in different languages. My father told me when I was young that Charles V, who was the king of Spain and the emperor of Austria, had been quoted as saying he spoke to God in Spanish, to his mistress in French and to his horse in German. [Laughs]
How many languages do you speak?
I speak German, French, English, Spanish and Catalan. I would love to learn more, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have enough time to learn Chinese or Russian or Japanese. But I’d certainly love to.
There are a lot of big sets in the series. There’s a giant bridge in episode 1, a packed opera house in episode 2. Can you tell the difference in the production value between film and TV anymore?
I was blown away by the production design on The Alienist. There was so many people paying attention to every detail and with so much passion about it. The New York set that we had in Budapest was just remarkable. The opera house is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. Coming from German film set in different periods, I’ll see a script that says, “Fifty carriages and 200 extras,” and then arrive on set to see one carriage, two extras and a horse with three legs. [Laughs] On The Alienist, you could turn 360 degrees, and the whole thing looked like New York in the 1890s.
Two things in the series struck me as pretty timely. One is the egregious sexism that Dakota Fanning’s character endures, and the other is the extreme hostility to immigrants. Did either of those strike you during production as issues that would be in the air when the series came out? Yeah, we talked about the fact that those things seem to be more prominent now than when the book came out in the 1990s. Halfway through the production of the show, we started seeing both of those things all over the news, and it didn’t feel as historical anymore.
The Alienist premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on TNT.