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Daniel Brühl talks TNT’s adaptation of ‘The Alienist’

The versatile German actor says he “was mesmerized” when he read Caleb Carr’s novel for the first time.

Daniel Brühl stars as an 1890s New York

Daniel Brühl stars as an 1890s New York criminal psychologist in TNT's "The Alienist." Photo Credit: Invision / Evan Agostini

If you think of Daniel Brühl as a multipurpose tool, you can get a good idea of the versatility of this 39-year old, Spanish-born German actor. Sure, he’s played Nazis (“The Zookeeper’s Wife,” “Inglourious Basterds”) and a World War I-era German soldier (in the Oscar nominated “Joyeux Noel”) but he’s also portrayed a famous race-car driver (“Rush”) and had a prominent role in “Captain America: Civil War.” Plus, he won European and German best actor awards for his work in the 2003 German film “Good Bye, Lenin!” Coming up in March, the multilingual Brühl plays a Palestinian terrorist in “Entebbe,” based on the notorious 1976 plane hijacking, and Monday, Jan. 22, he pops up in the limited TNT series “The Alienist,” based on Caleb Carr’s best-selling novel, starring as an 1890s New York criminal psychologist trying to nab a serial killer.

Were you familiar with “The Alienist” when you accepted the role, and what was it that interested you?

I did not know the book; it was published in Germany, but was not that well-known. I was mesmerized by the story right away. I felt like a 12-year-old with a torch light reading under the blanket. I was fascinated by the thriller element, but I learned so much about New York at the time, an exploding melting pot. I also learned about the politics of the time.

Was there anything in particular that fascinated you about the era?

It was the diversity and what was going on in that city. In that story, you explore all the social classes, from the Roosevelts on down, and that got me engaged to read more about New York. And the book is about the beginning of psychology, a science that was born just 20 years before that, and it was the beginning of forensic science, and you have a character who was the first female detective in the police department.

Yet the series was shot in Budapest, although you can’t tell, thanks to the amazing sets.

It was very bizarre. When I got the call that I was offered the part, I was assuming we would shoot in New York, and my wife and I were planning on moving to New York, and then I was told it was Budapest. I had never been there, and I wondered how they would create 1890 New York in Budapest, but there is so much grand architecture there that could re-create the era.

Was it tough breaking into English-language films?

At first it was. Being German is not that easy to be chosen for parts in English. I feel extremely privileged, that I have had the opportunity to act in English. I feel very comfortable playing in English, but when it comes to improvisation, I can struggle a little bit.

You actually have no discernible accent in English. How did you accomplish that?

It’s hard for Germans to get rid of that accent. I really tried hard with a fantastic dialect coach, trying to sound as American as I could. This guy Kreisler I play in the series grew up in the U.S., and I wanted it to sound as good as possible.

In the beginning, though, was there a tendency to try to cast you as a Nazi?

Every German has to play a Nazi, carefully choosing these parts. In many offers for Second World War movies, many in my case, most of them I have said no to. But you never know if a fascinating script comes along, if there’s a compelling character. But it’s disappointing if it always comes down to that dark chapter in our history.

Growing up in Europe, what kinds of film influences did you have?

It wasn’t the typical films shown at the time. My father was a filmmaker, so I was influenced by his taste. When I was 16, I went to the video store, and I got all these French and Italian movies from the ’60s and ’70s. Even now [the 1961 Italian film] “Rocco and His Brothers” is one of my favorite films. I remember trying to look as cool as Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon.

Working in European and American films, what differences do you see in the way they’re made?

The scale of it, thinking of “The Alienist.” The possibilities you have, and it’s not only about the money, it’s about the talent of the people involved. You have guys with long experience that are hard to find in Germany, who have been working on big productions for a long time.

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