Daniel Bruhl is the star of TNT’s recent limited series “The Alienist,” about a team of investigators exploring a string of child prostitute murders in the late 1800s in New York. Bruhl plays Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a criminal psychologist at a time when such a field of study was often dismissed. While this is his first TV series role in English, he is well known in the world of film, collecting Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award, BAFTA and Critics’ Choice Award nominations for the 2013 film “Rush.”
Bruhl recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws in a video interview about playing the titular role in “The Alienist” and working with actors like Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning. Watch the full exclusive video above and read the entire interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: So Daniel Bruhl, you are the alienist of TNT’s “The Alienist.” Tell us a little bit about when you first read the script or the book or whatever it is that you first read for this project. What about it made you wanna be a part of it?
Daniel Bruhl: Well I had read the book first and it had been published in Germany but it was not as well known as it is here in the U.S. It’s one of these books that you cannot put away so I read it in a day or two and I was immediately fascinated by it, about that combination of it being a gripping, dark thriller but also a very entertaining history lesson about New York at the time. I learned so many things I didn’t know. In Germany we don’t know that [Theodore] Roosevelt was running the police department in New York before he became president so so many things I learned, and then also going back in time and exploring the beginning of so many sciences that now we know so much better and know so much more about was just a great combination. And then I met Jakob Verbruggen, the director, in Berlin. They didn’t let me suffer for too long. I’m used to these meetings where then you don’t hear anything for a couple of weeks and then you get the call and they say, “Well it was great but somebody else is gonna play the part.” So after a week, Jakob had made his decision and the producers and I was happy, even more so to then learn that Luke Evans was playing John Moore and Dakota Fanning was playing Sara Howard. So just a great combination of things.
GD: Tell us a little bit about Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, the character that you play. Tell us about this guy.
DB: Well he’s one of these early psychologists. Psychology had just been born 20 years prior to that, in the 1870s in Germany. Before that, people considered psychology as a branch of philosophy and basically something weird, because people were afraid to look inside the human mind and it was easier to declare a vicious killer like the one we’re hunting in that book and declare him as possessed by the devil. So there was a lot of superstition, religious issues and beliefs, and so these guys were real pioneers. They had a lot of enemies and had to fight many obstacles. This man that I play was probably very much influenced by that rising power of psychology and these great theories in Vienna, Sigmund Freud, [Josef] Breuer and [Carl] Jung so I prepared myself by reading a lot about those guys. There were very interesting references and similarities between Sigmund Freud and my character. The handiest thing is that I’m married to an alienist. My wife is a psychologist so she supported my all the way through. She put me in touch with criminal psychologists. I even went to psychotherapy in Budapest just to learn a bit more about that. This man is a hugely traumatized person himself, so he has to deal with a lot of demons and traumas from childhood and that also explains why he’s so obsessed about the idea of helping children in similar situations and that was a very interesting journey for me to play a guy who is very determined, very passionate about what he’s doing and yet still very contained when it comes to himself and so to slowly give glimpses and an idea of what is haunting him was very appealing to me to play this character.
GD: You touched on this a bit but I wanted to ask you more about it because the show is so much about the birth of this very specific kind of forensic science and I wonder if you could talk more about the research that you did and what you learned that helped you with the character.
DB: There was one very interesting read. It’s a book called “Island of Vice” which deals with Roosevelt’s commitment in fighting corruption within the police department and in politics in New York at the time. So there I learned a lot about the gangsters at that time that were running the underbelly of New York. I learned a lot about the huge immigration crisis they had. I also learned about the class division. The show wonderfully shows these two sides, the grand buildings in which the J.P. Morgans and Roosevelts and Vanderbilts lived and then going to the most rotten parts of the city, the tenements where hundreds of thousands of immigrants lived. So much stuff I didn’t know about. And yes, as you said, it’s also the beginning of the forensic science. Having watched many “CSI” shows today, it’s very endearing to go back and to see a couple of characters being fascinated by seeing a fingerprint, and that being a revolution in the police work and in science. That was interesting.
GD: I wonder if you could talk a bit about some of the darker aspects of the show. It’s about a child murderer, a child prostitute murderer. So as an actor, is it difficult for you to put yourself into those kinds of situations and deal with this kind of really disturbing and disquieting material?
DB: Well, yes and no. Whenever we dealt with that world of child prostitution it was really touching, also to see those scenes and some of the scenes I wasn’t in, it was more John Moore’s path, but it was really moving when I saw these young actors playing these prostitutes and to think about the fact that this really happened, and still happens, exploitation of children. So this is a huge subject in the show. On the other hand, I have to say that I was always drawn into dark material. I always enjoyed reading dark stuff since I was a teenager so a part of me thought like, “Great! I’m happy to be in this gloomy, dark world.” So I actually enjoyed the scene with corpses. It sounds horrible, but.
GD: I’m a true crime junkie myself so I know what you mean. Your character, what drives this guy to get to the bottom of this situation? What motivates him to figure out what’s going on here?
DB: His humanity. He’s a true humanist, and again, because of his own suffering, his own experiences, he just wants to help other people. He wants to help vulnerable children who have no one to protect them. And also scientifically speaking, and scientists I guess are always curious and obsessed, he wants to know what makes one such a vicious murderer. And again, there wasn’t that much knowledge about psychopaths, about serial killers. Even the word serial killer didn’t exist. That was also new theory that came up that someone follows a pattern and killed several people. That was, like the word “alienist,” a new term, a new idea. So yeah, I would say his scientific greed, hunger, curiosity on the one hand, and his humanity on the other.
GD: Right, I think one of the things that’s fascinating about true crime and things like that, it’s not so much the how as it is the why. Why would somebody want to do things like this and what would motivate somebody to do things like this and I think that’s probably part of his reasonings for delving into this.
DB: Exactly, and always trying to see the person behind those horrible crimes and also the idea that he expresses and that shocked the society back then to say every single one of us could be capable of doing these things. It just depends on your environment in which you grew up, things which are done to you when you’re a child. But evil lies within us all, he says, and I totally agree. That’s still true.
GD: You are one of three people on this team of investigators. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between your character and Luke Evans’ character, the illustrator John Moore, and what it was like working together?
DB: The experience was great. The chemistry was there from the first moment on and that’s something you cannot foresee, that you cannot take for granted and it’s so good when you feel, you’re doing the first rehearsal and it makes click. There’s a generosity there. There’s a curiosity in each other. So that was wonderful. It’s an interesting relationship that these two have, and also that triangle with Dakota because they’re all social outcasts. They’re all outsiders. They’re all brilliant in what they do because they want to break out of the norm. They’re modern thinkers. So Dakota is that determined, young, tough lady who wants to become the first female police officer. John Moore is a romantic soul. He’s an artist deep down. He is a guy who is a true artist and what is helpful for me in using him as part of the team are his social abilities to move around New York because he knows everyone in New York from the upper class but then he can easily move himself around the dodgy places, which he very often goes to. So there’s a very symbiotic, mutual interest and bond between all those characters and they all need each other and Kreizler has his brain and he has this understanding about psychology which is very crucial and necessary in the investigation but he perfectly knows that he needs other equally brilliant people to help him, because otherwise on his own he would never find the killer. So John Moore, the society guy, Sara Howard, tough lady at the police department with a lot of psychological knowledge himself, the Isaacson brothers, brilliant forensic experts, and so forth. Even Roosevelt, who is kind of an enemy sometimes and a rival, ‘cause it all goes back to the time they had at Harvard where they studied together. But even him, he has that human core which eventually makes him also support our cause.
GD: That’s interesting with Dakota’s character, Sara. Both of you are trying to, in a sense, prove yourselves. You are trying to that this method of investigation is worthwhile and she’s just simply trying to prove that she has what it takes to work in what is a man’s world. Very predominantly a male world at that time. Can you talk a bit about working with her?
DB: Dakota was absolutely perfect in that part, almost to degree that started annoying me because she always got it right after one take or two, whereas I needed 17. But she just understood that part, took brave decisions as an actress and gives that character that straightforwardness, sharpness, bluntness that it needed. I particularly enjoyed the scenes in which my character is questioned and cornered by her, in which she confronts me with her female intuition, her theory, her question marks. And then I very often rely on my books that I read and my studies on the human mind and analysis and psychology. But she surprises me every now and then with very logical, matter of fact, also psychologically clever female points of view.
GD: Was part of the appeal of doing this being able to play a character for 10 episodes, I don’t remember off the top of my head how long you guys shot this but I know somebody mentioned it to me earlier, but just being able to chart a longer character arc than you can in a movie?
DB: Yeah, you have to measure certain things and you have to be careful, especially the first episodes, about the decisions that you take because once you establish a certain thing you have to keep it for the rest of the journey. So it was very important to get the right start and to introduce the characters in a good and powerful way so I was a bit nervous about the first scenes. I wanted to make sure that my character was clear and understood by the audience. And then it took off. What was very refreshing and a new experience to me was working with different directors. So whenever we got to a point in which we thought our movie clock was thinking, “Okay, it’s the end of the first movie,” a new director took over with new ideas, a new vision, a new approach and still having the big picture in mind. That was very interesting. It was fascinating.
GD: Now you are a Golden Globe and SAG and BAFTA and Critics’ Choice nominee for “Rush.” You’re also a SAG Ensemble winner for “Inglourious Basterds.” What has that recognition meant for you in your career?
DB: It’s the best, especially with SAG it’s an award by the peers, so to be recognized, celebrated, appreciated by your colleagues is the nicest thing. It’s such a great ceremony. I went there this year and met some of my idols. I shook hands with Robert De Niro. That was my childhood dream as an actor. And so many other inspiring actors, Frances McDormand, Elisabeth Moss, all of these wonderful people and the vibe in the room was so good because they all support each other and lift each other up and recognize our work. So it means a lot to me, yeah.
GD: Well Daniel Bruhl, thank you so much and congratulations on your work on “The Alienist.” It was a pleasure talking with you.
DB: Thank you, likewise. All the best.
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