Channel24’s Herman Eloff flew to Rome to meet the cast of the unflinching period drama, The Alienist.
Rome – Nestled between the Baths of Diocletian and the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels designed by Michelangelo towers out the first 5 star luxury hotel in Rome - The Boscolo Exedra. Outside its giant windows a warm day marks the arrival of spring in the Italian capital.
I could not imagine a setting of more grandeur to meet the stars of the riveting psychological thriller, The Alienist, which is currently available to stream on Netflix across the globe (excluding the U.S. and France).
Luke Evans (John Moore), Daniel Brühl (Dr. Laszlo Kreizler), and Dakota Fanning (Sarah Howard) team up to bring to life the 10 episode small screen adaptation of Caleb Carr’s bestselling novel by the same name.
Set amidst the vast wealth, extreme poverty and technological innovation of 1896 New York a never-before-seen ritualistic killer is responsible for the gruesome murders of boy prostitutes.
Newly appointed police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Ceraghty) calls upon criminal psychologist Dr. Kreizler, newspaper illustrator Moore and police department secretary Howard to conduct the investigation in secret.
The show is set in the Gilded Age and its title refers to a name given to those who studied mental pathologies and deviant behaviours of people alienated from themselves and society.
(Dakota Fanning in The Alienist. Photo: Kata Vermes/Turner Entertainment Networks)
A WHATSAPP GROUP
Back in Rome in the extravagant hotel room of the Boscolo, Dakota is flanked by her two male co-stars. All three are eloquently dressed for the occasion, kind, and friendly when they talk about the project that brought them together.
Despite struggling with some jetlag there’s a great energy between the actors even though filming wrapped months ago. Something Luke can easily explain: “There’s been really intensive press junkets around the show, so we’ve seen each other a lot since filming wrapped last year.”
“We’re sick of one another to be honest,” Dakota jokingly adds.
“We have a WhatsApp group where we keep in touch with each other,” Luke says.
Daniel confirms: “We send each other messages almost every day.”
“It doesn’t happen on every job either. I think by pure luck they put three people together whose chemistry worked. We get along really well and respect each other very much. It’s very easy to be in each other’s company. We’re very lucky, I think,” says Luke.
NEW YORK IN BUDAPEST
Although set in New York City the series was filmed in Budapest and is a co-production between Paramount Television and Turner's Studio T. In a recent interview with Vulture, production designer Mara LePere-Schloop explained that New York had simply changed so much that it was impossible to shoot there: “We kept having to shrink our ambitions,” she said.
“But just when we thought the show was going to die a sad death because we couldn’t figure out how to produce it, someone said, ‘Have you thought of Budapest?’”
Luke echoed this sentiment during our chat: “That is why we had to build New York in the back lot, because the shop fronts and the buildings don’t look like that anymore. We have to pay credit to Mara who created this extraordinary set. I mean it was just…extraordinary. The interiors of the stores…what they were selling…I mean you could walk in and it was fully dressed. It was this magical place and we were always very happy to work on those sets. Even in Budapest’s heat.”
Budapest might have offered the interior settings to mimic a Met Opera or a Delmonico’s, but it brought with it a different challenge – the heat. Something the cast struggled with even more so due to their epic period costumes. “You put on a three-piece tweed suit with a cardboard collar and gloves, hat and everything else and it instantly makes you stand differently. It immediately changes your posture. But it also makes it more challenging in the heat,” Luke says.
For Daniel the show also offered the unique opportunity to learn more about New York City: “I learned a lot. And that’s part of the joy for me of this project. It’s not only a crime story but also a look at New York at the time.
“It’s still one of my favourite cities so it was so interesting to understand that crazy melting pot back in the day. Especially during that Gilded Age in which so much happened and New York was one of the most frequented cities in the world and a place everyone wanted to go to.
“To explore all of that was highly interesting. I didn’t know, as a German, that Theodore Roosevelt was part of the police department before becoming president. All of that was new to me. So the process of preparation I really enjoyed.
“I read a lot about psychology obviously, but also about New York. There’s a great book called Island of Vice that talks a lot about the corruption and politics in the police department and Roosevelt’s commitment in fighting against it. It was bizarre to go from this Gilded Age New York City set built in Budapest to visit Dakota, who lives in modern-day New York. So much has changed.”
(Luke Evans, Dakota Fanning, and Daniel Brühl in The Alienist. Photo: Supplied/Netflix/Turner Entertainment Networks)
DEALING WITH THE DARKNESS
The Alienist pulled big crowds when it first aired in the States. According to a report by Variety the show is one of TNT’s highest-rated and most-watched current originals making it a no-brainer for Netflix to bring it over on its internet TV platform to a global audience. This despite the show’s dark themes and pretty gruesome scenes - something the cast know all too well about.
“I should go to therapy after this,” jokes Daniel.
“We all should go to therapy. They should perhaps have given us a therapist just to deal with the intensity of what we were doing,” Luke mockingly says before adding: “But to be honest, and I don’t want to seem cold-hearted, you don’t only do these scenes once.
“You go over them time and again, take after take, and from different angles. By the time you are finished with a scene, you’ve said those lines many, many times. You’ve looked at that dead body many, many times.
“I think at the end of the day we’re all happy to let go of that scene. You don’t ever want to revisit that scene. In a way you sort of have your own closure from that traumatic moment within the storyline and then you move on.”
CONTEMPORARY ISSUES IN A PERIOD PIECE
Although set in the 19th century the show’s themes seem very contemporary. Something Luke says was interesting for him to explore whilst filming: “The issues we see now are very similar to those that existed a 120 years ago. It’s a very interesting thing to shoot something that is essentially a fictional crime drama based in a very historical moment in New York’s past that mirrors so many contemporary issues we have. Not just today in New York but all over the world.
“We turn on the TV and we see the disparity between the rich and the poor, the class system, exploitation, emancipation, all of those things which are still massively relevant today. It’s a good thing that it starts a conversation and educates younger people as well. People who watch this show will see that some things really haven’t changed that much.”
Is this something they want the viewers to take away with them when they reach the final episode? “I don’t really mind what people take away from it,” Dakota says before adding: “I hope that they enjoy it, and if they are connected to it because of those issues and topics the show takes on then that’s great. I’ve talked to people who are interested in the topics that the show takes on and I’ve talked to people who watch it because it’s entertaining and they like getting lost in the world. It’s really up to the viewer to decide what they take away from it. I think there’s a lot there to absorb.”
WHO WILL LIKE THE ALIENIST?
(Luke Evans and Daniel Brühl in The Alienist. Photo: Kata Vermes/Turner Entertainment Networks)
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*Channel24’s trip to Rome was sponsored by Netflix.