By Valerie Milano
Pasadena, CA (The Hollywood Times) 1/22/18 – Sarah Aubrey introduced the TNT panel convened to discuss THE ALIENIST on Thursday, January 11th, 2018 at the Winter TCA Press Tour taking place at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. Present were cast members Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning along with director and executive producer Jakob Verbruggen and executive producer Rosalie Swedlin.
THE ALIENIST is based on Caleb Carr’s award-winning best-seller by the same name and premieres on Monday, January 22nd. Set in the underbelly of New York City’s Gilded Age, this series follows Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a brilliant and obsessive “alienist,” who, at the turn of the century, is using his controversial new methods of treating mental illness to hunt down a ritualistic killer. The highly anticipated ten-part series was shot in Budapest, Hungary and has been three years in the making after nearly 25 years in development!
Rosalie Swedlin and Jakob Verbruggen first discussed the series’ creation from start to finish. Rosalie said that they had essentially started from a “blank page.” She thought it was exciting to transport viewers into the world of 1896 where much of what we now know about serial killers and crime detection was new and different.
Themes relating to immigration and the exploitation of immigrants; the technological revolution of the early 20th century; and the social and political unrest that produced the women’s suffrage movement and the socialist movement keep the show “relevant, accessible, and modern” according to Rosalie Swedlin. Jakob Verbruggen added, “I think THE ALIENIST is creating a visual time machine and literally transporting the audience to the streets of Gilded Age New York.
I think we all know about the wealthy mansions and Delmonico’s, but we also take the audience on a journey into the seedy underbelly of the city. We take them to places where nobody would go. We take them to brothels. We take them to Bellevue. I think it’s opening doors that haven’t been opened before.”
Paramount owned the book and TNT asked if they could produce it as a television series instead of a film. The TNT producers consider this a stroke of great good luck and a “perfect marriage” with Paramount.
Author Caleb Carr was not really involved with the creation of THE ALIENIST miniseries. The book was used mainly as inspiration and source material that got expanded upon during the course of developing the show.
The young Theodore Roosevelt appears both in the book and the television adaptation right as he is recovering from some personal losses and stepping into the position of police commissioner in a very corrupt New York City. Rosalie Swedlin said that at TNT they called this the “origin story” for Teddy Roosevelt.
“I always love the darkness!” said actor Daniel Brühl, who plays “the alienist” himself (Dr. Kreizler). As a teenager Daniel liked reading the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Sherlock Holmes, and other Gothic-style mysteries under his bed covers with a flashlight.
He observed that not only was THE ALIENIST a dark mystery thriller but also a history lesson of sorts about New York, “probably the most fascinating city in the world, the exploding melting pot.” Daniel was pleased that this complex novel had been brought to television, giving the creators more time to explore its many intriguing facets that were not “thinned out” into a feature film.
Daniel Brühl, who is of German and Spanish descent, said that he was now picking more lucrative American projects rather than European ones not only because of the money but also because of the talent and passion found in America that he had never had before in his life. Plus, American producers have the budgets to make period films more believable as they can cast legions of extras and sink considerable funds into costumes, props, sets, and so on according to Brühl.
Rosalie Swedlin and Dakota Fanning also commented on the beautiful and much-coveted costumes worn in THE ALIENIST. Fanning had even had to wear an authentic corset!
One critic asked the cast whether they had sought out the book to help inform their performances in THE ALIENIST or if they had preferred not to read it and just go by what the TNT writers had given them. Luke Evans, who plays narrator John Moore, said that this was always a difficult decision for actors. “The book was good to have, and it was there,” Evans concluded. “It was always there and it was open to references and sometimes we talked about it. . . .It’s wonderful book!”
Dakota Fanning said that she had seen many actors “crippled” by their love for the original book. Walking the fine line between adaptation and inspiration is the real challenge in such cases.
Rosalie Swedlin pointed out that all of the characters in THE ALIENIST started off as societal outcasts who were alienated in some way such as being immigrants, as in the case of Dr. Kreizler. By the end of the series these very disparate characters come together as a sort of family because of the serial murder investigation. Daniel Brühl’s narrator character even says that the investigators are going to have to confront their own pain and trauma stemming from difficult pasts to get inside the mind of the murderer.
While any number of books, films, and television shows have been made about serial killers and women prostitutes, the killer in THE ALIENIST targets boy prostitutes. One questioner wondered what audience the panelists expected THE ALIENIST to reach in view of this unusually dark and disturbing subject matter.
“I think we all feel that the audience for this show is enormous,” Rosalie Swedlin replied. “I think people who love historical fiction, people who love great procedurals, people who love the novel, and people who love elevated drama, who watch MASTERPIECE THEATRE–there is something for everyone!”
“You make something and I never want to say who it’s made for, you know? Because I’m constantly surprised by people who come up to me who are fans of something that I never would have expected,” mused Dakota Fanning. The actress thought that there was a lot in this series for a lot of different age groups and that the younger generation could benefit from knowing more about the social inequities and social injustice that used to exist. And in 1896 her character experiences workplace harassment of the sort that is all over the news right now.
Jakob Verbruggen said that childhood was very different than in 1896 than it is now. It ended around six years of age and children often had to work to survive just like adults. The less fortunate children, like the less fortunate adults, sometimes felt compelled to become prostitutes.
“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. I think it’s their way to deal with trauma,” Verbruggen said. Certainly this could apply to the dire situation of the cross-dressed boy prostitutes, who might be considered survivors rather than victims.
There is another book in this series, and one audience member asked whether it might be used during Season 2 of the show as part of a renewable franchise for THE ALIENIST. Dakota Fanning said, “I think that there could be the potential to do it again, and I think I can safely speak for everyone in saying that we would love to. We had the best time and love our characters so much and love this world and would certainly be open to it. But I think we’re happy to have completed the story of THE ALIENIST for now.” On that hopeful note, Sarah Aubrey ended the panel.