If the success of the lucrative CSI franchise has proven anything, it’s the popularity of the fields of forensics and criminal profiling. By the time CSI premiered in 2000, some of these techniques were already over 100 years old. TNT’s new drama The Alienist, based on the 1994 best-selling novel by Caleb Carr, will tell you one tale of how crime scene investigation got its start.
In 1896, people with mental illness were considered “alienated” from their true selves. Those who studied them, therefore, were called alienists. Today, they might be called profilers.
Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) is such an expert. Along with reporter John Moore (Luke Evans) and police secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), Kreizler applies the first ever forensic techniques to crime scenes while tracking a serial killer in New York.
Brühl and Fanning spoke with Rotten Tomatoes before the premiere of The Alienist. Here are seven things they told us about the new world of crime solving.
Profiling serial killers has to weigh on anyone. Kreizler is the first, so there isn’t even anyone around with experience to help him.
“Every shrink needs his own shrink to cope with all the issues, the demons, and the pressure of their work,” Brühl said. “That didn’t exist, so he is pretty brilliant in analyzing everyone around him, but when he has to face his own demons, the dark chapters in his own life, he gets very nervous.”
In real life, Brühl is married Felicitas Rombold Brühl, a renowned psychotherapist. When he landed The Alienist, Brühl asked her for help.
“She gave me a lot of very important information and supported me all the way through, put me in touch with a criminal psychologist, gave me stuff to read,” Brühl said. “It was a learning process. I found out about the beginning of that science, but I also learned so much about New York at that time.”
As the first female employee of the NYPD, Sara Howard already broke the glass ceiling her first day on the job. Today she might not accept the term “secretary,” and she’s certainly more than that when she teams up with Kreizler and Moore.
“She has a very strong voice and isn’t afraid to use it,” Fanning said. “When we first meet her in the first episode, she kind of shoots up out of her chair and lunges at Luke’s character. You immediately get that she’s not a wallflower and is not afraid to speak her mind. That only grows throughout the season of the show.”
Women are still fighting for parity in the workplace today. Just look at the pay disparity in Hollywood, most recently demonstrated by Mark Wahlberg’s pay for All the Money in the World reshoots. Fanning hopes her character can inspire the women who watch The Alienist.
“I think this character is really surprisingly very relatable to somebody now even though it’s set so long ago,” Fanning said. “I think that’s one of the things that’s interesting about the show is the sort of parallels to today. She’s the first female to work at the New York Police Department. She is very much a pioneer. It’s set in 1896 so she’s not the norm, and she’s challenging society and what their expectations of a woman are.”
These days, Theodore Roosevelt is best known as the 26th U.S. president — or Robin Williams’ character in Night At The Museum. Set four years before Roosevelt’s inauguration, The Alienist shows Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) as NYC Police Commissioner.
“I learned so much about Teddy Roosevelt because in Europe, we know him as the president of the United States,” Brühl said. “I didn’t know he was running the police department before and was so eager in fighting corruption.”
On any cop show, you take it for granted they’re going to dust for fingerprints at a crime scene. That was revolutionary forensic technology in 1896. The Alienist gives a fictionalized take on the first time it was employed.
“I realized forensics was so behind, they were’t even totally aware that everyone had different fingerprints,” Fanning said. “That blew my mind. It’s just so crazy to see how new things and things that challenge the norm, people are immediately afraid of and people immediately dismiss because it scares them that they could’ve been so wrong about something for so long. That just is always the way.”
The Alienist will discover more new tools “for the first time,” Brühl said.
“Handwriting analysis, the analysis of bones and soft tissues, it was the beginning of psychology, which had born 20 years before that,” Brühl said. “It was the beginning of so many things in various fields. It was a technological revolution.”
Lucius (Matthew Shear) and Marcus Isaacson (Douglas Smith) introduce the trio to these new forensics.
“They’re detectives at the police department, and they’re also [investigators] who are kind of making these discoveries,” Fanning said. “They have a lot of the scenes of the discoveries or the explanations of forensics or autopsy or those kinds of things. My character is a very curious character, so she is always asking questions about it.”
It takes a strong stomach to watch the crime scene moments on shows like the now-retired CSI or Bones week to week. The Alienist will deliver the goods with realistic cadavers.
“I love that sh–,” Brühl said. “It reminded me of Sherlock Holmes, of Jekyll and Hyde, of Jack the Ripper, of Edgar Allen Poe. That gloomy, dark atmosphere is something that I was always attracted to. I really enjoyed the gruesome moments.”
Episode 3 will feature the Castle Garden crime scene that fans remember vividly from the book.
“There was something about that location and we shot it at night,” Brühl said. “It really gave us shivers because the bodies were so well done, it was a shock to look at them. That’s I guess the first scene where the team comes together and looks at one of these mutilated corpses and is in a rush because we don’t have that much time. We know the police are approaching.”
Fanning wasn’t as much of a gorehound.
“It wasn’t like I was vomiting over the side, but there were definitely some that were like, Oh, God, I don’t want to look at that too much,” Fanning said. “They were very realistic, which is awesome, but on the day [it’s disturbing.] Then you become desensitized to it when you’re sort of ‘Let’s move the body.’ They’re pouring the fake blood down, and you become desensitized to it because it is so obviously make-believe when you’re there. Some stuff did look pretty real.”
A historical period piece comes with lots of elaborate costumes. What women wore in 1896 was especially restrictive, but Fanning had one piece she loved.
“There’s one that’s a deep red with this velvet trim and I always felt like the chicest in that one,” Fanning said. “It was the 1896 version of when I’m having my best day, when I was wearing that costume. It’s in a few episodes, but I think it first comes in episode 5. It has red velvet buttons all down the front.”
New York City no longer looks like it did in 1896. So The Alienist he had to film in Budapest, Romania instead. Once he got there, Brühl was just as excited as if he’d taken a time machine back to 1896 New York.
“It would’ve been impossible to recreate [in New York], and I’d never been in Budapest, so I was curious to see why they chose Budapest,” Brühl said. “When I arrived there, I could clearly tell why. Not only the backlot that they recreated was overwhelming, but all the locations that we could find in that very well-preserved city were perfect for our purposes, especially for telling upper-class New York.”
The restaurant where Kreizler holds meetings is actually not a restaurant at all.
“We found an incredible library where we could recreate Delmonico’s and so on,” Brühl said. “There are so many grand, incredible buildings. The opera house is the nicest one in the world.”
The Alienist premieres Monday, January 22 at 9/8C on TNT.