Based on Caleb Carr’s novels The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness, the period drama follows psychiatrist Laszlo Kreizler (Bruhl), newspaper reporter John Moore (Luke Evans) and private detective Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) as they investigate murders in New York.
Season 2 is to debut Sunday.
“This story was set in 1897. This book was published in the 1990s, and still it feels incredibly current today because it touches so many aspects and conflicts we are still struggling with,” Bruhl told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.
He cited racism, female empowerment and women’s rights, equality, and corruption as examples.
“When we shot the show, we felt like this is not 1897, this is 2019,” Bruhl said.
The opportunity to explore complex ideas is one reason the actor was initially attracted to The Alienist.
“It’s that combination of it being a thrilling and gripping, dark tale, but on the other hand, also a very entertaining history lesson in which you learn so much about fascinating sciences that were born back in those days,” he said. “You learn so much about New York and about its society back then and the politics, social matters. That combination made it very rich and attractive.”
To prepare for Season 2, Bruhl’s wife, Felicitas Rombold, a real alienist or psychiatrist introduced him to her colleagues so he could pick their brains.
He also was hypnotized as part of his research into how the mind works, and he read a book about Nellie Bly, a journalist who went undercover to expose abuses in mental institutions in the 1800s.
Despite the show’s grim storylines — someone is kidnapping and killing infants in Season 2 — Bruhl said he doesn’t have much trouble leaving that world behind at the end of the day and returning to his normal life with his wife and young son.
In fact, he even can watch the episodes and lose himself in them as a viewer.
“What’s funny is that — although you are in the show, you’re shooting it and you know it by heart — if it’s well done, it still works when you are watching it. I was shocked when I watched it and it gave me nightmares,” he laughed.
The actor recalled feeling “happy and relieved” when he heard in 2018 that The Alienist was renewed for a second season.
“Dakota, Luke and I became very close — real friends — thanks to the show. We shared incredible chemistry and always knew that there was so much more to tell that we wanted to explore,” he said.
Season 1 had raised the bar so high in terms of storytelling and performance, Bruhl knew the challenge would be to make Season 2 just as good or better.
“You hope that you will have a long breath to make it an equally fascinating and captivating show the second time around and to not feel a certain routine or redundancy,” he said. “That was never the case, thanks to the scripts we were sent. We immediately felt this was a very different endeavor, a different journey.”
The biggest difference from Season 1 is that Laszlo and John now find themselves assisting Sara on cases instead of the other way around.
“There is a power shift in our triangle,” Bruhl said. “There is a different focus, a different pulse, a different rhythm and, obviously, different storylines and subject matters.”
Because of the low number of coronavirus cases in Germany this spring, Bruhl was able to make his directorial debut with Next Door, a film penned by playwright/novelist Daniel Kehlmann.
Still, he was at home for long stretches of time with his family in recent months because of closures in Europe and the United States intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Whether isolated during a pandemic or experiencing down time between takes on a film/TV production, Bruhl agrees with Laszlo’s theory that “time is never wasted when one is thinking.”
“It always felt OK, relatively safe, but still there was a quarantine,” Bruhl said.
“It was horrible what was going on and what is still going on, but, on the other hand, it gave me time, us time to think things through and to spend more time with each other and to appreciate more what you have.”
Next up for Bruhl is returning to work on the Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, in which he will reprise his role of Helmut Zemo from Captain America: Civil War.
The actor said he loves the variety and creativity that come with playing a kindly psychiatrist on one show, and then transitioning to portray a terrorist for another project.
“That’s what keeps you alive and happy and fulfilled as an actor,” he said. “I really see that as a huge privilege, if people give you the chances to explore very different parts, to never feel limited to just one thing.”
Bruhl was nearly pigeonholed by German filmmakers after playing nice-guy roles early in his career, but Hollywood directors changed all that by casting him as dangerous or flawed characters in movies such as Inglourious Basterds and Rush.
“Nobody would have given me the part of a villain and finally it was the eye from outside — from abroad — like Quentin Tarantino or Ron Howard or Kevin Feige to see that in me and offer me much darker parts,” he said.
“It’s always interesting to be as diverse as you possibly can, to be lucky enough to get chances to prove that,” added Bruhl whose other credits include The Fifth Estate and The Cloverfield Paradox.
The actor hopes that working with great filmmakers and playing lots of different parts made him a good director on Next Door.
“I understand the other side [of the camera] and, still, so many aspects of filmmaking were new to me. Thanks to the wonderful people around me, I am learning and absorbing and thinking and, hopefully, it will be an enjoyable film and people will like it as much as I did when I was working on it.”
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