The Alienist: Inside The Mind of a Serial Killer With Daniel Brühl

Daniel Brühl opens up on crime, serial killers, and his complicated character, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, in The Alienist.

Serial killers have never been more popular. The taboo, frightening topic has always had a place in pop culture, but recently there has been an abundance of programs about serial killers and grisly murders. TNT has recently thrown their hat into the ring in this category with The Alienist, which is based on Caleb Carr’s series of books. The Alienist is set at the end of the 1800s in New York City and follows the unusual group of professionals who are brought together to take down a murderer who targets young boy prostitutes. One of the reasons that The Alienist works so well is that it’s an original, fictionalized crime, but it pulls many actual details from history and involves real historical figures. It has the feeling of a great true crime story, even though it’s not. 

The Alienist also features an incredible cast that features the likes of Luke Evans, Dakota Fanning, and Daniel Brühl. Brühl portrays Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an “alienist” (1900s criminal psychologist), who finds himself trying to get into this serial killer’s head in order to catch him, but he must also be careful to not lose himself in the process. Brühl brings a strong, nuanced performance to the role and we got the opportunity to chat with him about Laszlo Kreizler, the show’s grisly subject matter, and if he’s a big crime junkie himself. 

DEN OF GEEK: The Alienist isn’t exactly true crime, but it uses a lot of historical figures and accuracies to tell its story. Why do you think this genre and serial killers have exploded so much lately?

DANIEL BRUHL: There’s always been a huge interest in stories dealing with serial killers because darkness and evil lies within us all and we normally, as human beings, try to bury the horrible impulses that we have, I guess that makes the subject fascinating. Violence is such a big human theme. We’re captivated by it in this particular show. I think it’s thought-provoking to see the forensic experts and psychologists who started to chase and follow serial killers all that time ago.  

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Are you a big true crime junkie yourself?

Yes I am. Right now I’m watching Mindhunter and addicted to the show.

There’s a really fascinating team or personalities and specialties in this show between an alienist, a police commissioner, a newspaper illustrator, and a secretary. Talk a little on why you think this dynamic between this eclectic group works?

I think because they are all outcasts who share similar motivations and values, each one of them is determined to make a change and each of them is a pioneer in their own right and field. All of them have to fight obstacles and enemies, none of them are accepted, and most of them have to fight tough backgrounds and demons of their own. They have these symbiotic relationships because they know they need each other to succeed.

Dr. Laszlo Kreisler is such a fascinating character because he really needs to get in these criminals heads and you can see him begin to lose himself in the process. Talk a little on how he tows that line and what’s interesting about that balance?

It is interesting to play a psychologist back in those days. They didn’t do instructive analysis which nowadays everyone does. Kreizler needs to deal with his personal problems, pressures and demons by himself and that puts him very often in a state of a huge vulnerability and emotional fragility. That contrast of being such a determined and smart psychologist and analyzing everyone as well as being sensitive to everything around him appeals to me.

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There’s that telling line in the pilot where Laszlo says that John Moore represents the good in people. There’s also another line about how some people might think that Laszlo looks at himself as God. How do you think Laszlo looks at himself and what do you think that he represents in people?

At the end of the show we’ll clearly understand his issues and the reasons why he is such an obsessive man. This obsession and attempt to help children comes from a deeply rooted humanistic attitude he has, so he is a man who is genuinely interest in human beings and wants to help them. This is why I would say he is not God, but is good.

There are so many unique, unusual details about this case that make it so interesting, like the fact that the body shows up on the Brooklyn Bridge, or that it involves little boys whose organs are removed. What was it about this story that you were attracted to?

Since I was a teenager I was attracted by darkness, dark books, dark writers so I devoured all these dark stories like ‘Jack The Ripper’ and mysteries with ‘Sherlock Holmes’. Many of these stories that I was attracted were set is this period of time. The Alienist for me was a combination of all these dark fictional stories and all historical books I read which equally fascinate me. I’ve been reading a lot about psychologists and how their mind works and thought process so to play a character like this was a great challenge.

Misdiagnoses were so rampant back in that day and your character is right in the middle of that field. Elaborate on that a little and if you think Laszlo is reluctant or cavalier with his diagnoses?

It is such a complex process to diagnose disease, especially mental disorders. There are still misdiagnoses, many question marks, and mysteries when it comes to the human mind. It’s not surprising this science began quite late because it also means looking into ourselves and that’s something not everyone is ready to do and know. Kreizler does his best in finding the right path, as we’ll see further on the show. He will also commit mistakes and make wrong judgments and so this is something that I liked about him and something I look for when choosing characters. He has to live and deal with his flaws and mistakes because these can have a huge impact on him and the people around him.

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The Alienist’s first season continues to air Mondays at 9 p.m. (ET) on TNT.