PASADENA, Calif. — It’s taken 24 years for Caleb Carr’s best-seller The Alienist to make it from the page to the screen, and that’s just long enough for Dakota Fanning, who’ll be 24 next month, to grow into her role in the 10-episode series, premiering at 9 p.m. Monday on TNT.
Fanning costars with Daniel Bruhl and Luke Evans in the 1890s mystery, in which she plays Sara Howard, a young woman working for New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), who becomes embroiled in a serial-killer investigation by pioneering psychiatrist — or “alienist” — Laszlo Kreizler (Bruhl).
In a recent interview, edited and condensed here, the actress, who hasn’t starred in a TV series since the 2002 Steven Spielberg mini-series Taken, talked about finding 19th-century New York in Budapest, the timeliness of the story’s themes, and about why she hasn’t yet read Carr’s book.
You were born the year this book was published. Aren’t you glad they waited so long to make this?
I’m so glad. Thrilled. That’s the thing — this has been a project in the works for a really long time, in various proposed formats. I’m so excited that it happened now, and that limited series became a thing, so that it could become one of those. Because I think that there’s really no other way to tell it.
Had you read the book before this? Or since getting the role?
No, I hadn’t. And then when I knew I was going to do it, and was able to tell people, I was so blown away by how many people were fans of the book. [But] I have a superstition. I never read the book before I do it. I just don’t.
It’s been years since I read The Alienist, but I remember it as a really immersive experience of the era, and in the episodes I’ve seen, it feels as if that world is all around you. What was it like to film?
That was the thing about this production in general, and something that, besides the story and the character, made me so excited about it. The costume designer’s Michael Kaplan [the Philadelphia-born designer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi], the production designer, Mara [LePere-Schloop], all of these people are so talented. And the energy, and the work that went into creating that immersive experience is so overwhelming. We filmed this in Budapest, and at our studio where we filmed, there’s a whole back lot that is downtown New York. You can, like, get lost in it. It just really pays off because it all seems so real, and you are transported there.
Sara is a very free-thinking woman for her time, but she also seems, from our point of view, to lead a very restricted life. What was that like to play?
The challenge, and the fun part of playing her, was finding that balance of what she accepts, and what she challenges, which might be different than what I would accept, and what I would challenge in today’s world. She challenges more than she accepts, and I loved that. But I think sometimes it’s so unfair that when you play someone who’s a strong woman, you can’t show any vulnerability. And I loved getting to bring vulnerability to her, and the fragility that we all have as human beings, and getting to see how that tough exterior affects her when she’s alone. I liked finding that balance between who she thinks she has to be to accomplish something and who she really wants to be, and it also seems very relevant to the conversations that are happening now.
What also seems relevant is the Gilded Age setting, because of the income inequality that once again exists between the very rich and the rest of us. Did it give you a greater understanding of the history of that time?
It definitely did. You see so much in the series of the inequality between the classes and between the different groups of immigrants that were coming in to New York City at that time, and the struggle for everyone to find their place in an unfair society. We would film something, and then would read a [news] story that seemed similar to what [they] had just filmed in 1896. Everyone wants their film, or their show, to be relevant to audiences, but at the same time, you don’t want an unjust society to be relevant. But if it can bring about positive conversation, I guess then that is ultimately a good thing.