Luke Evans may not be the titular Alienist in TNT’s much-anticipated new drama — premiering Jan. 22 and based on Caleb Carr’s bestselling historical thriller of the same name — but he’s very much a star of it. Alongside Daniel Brühl’s Dr. Lazlo Kreizler and Dakota Fanning’s Sara Howard, Evans stars as John Moore, a society journalist in turn-of-the-20th-century New York who forms a sort of off-the-books task force to track down a story the NYPD doesn’t seem to want to pursue; a serial killer whose ritually disemboweled victims are some of the city’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens: child prostitutes.
On set last spring in Budapest, EW sat down with the actor — praised for memorable turns in films like Girl on the Train and Disney’s recent live-action blockbuster Beauty and the Beast — to talk about taking on his first major TV role, diving deep into New York history, and losing his pants.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you sign on for this after a career spent mostly in movies?
LUKE EVANS: Well, it was a good script, and Jakob [Verbruggen, known for The Fall and London Spy] is a great director. He came to meet me in London, and I hadn’t necessarily thought about doing TV but I hadn’t necessarily not thought about doing it either. This is my first, kind of all of our firsts, and that says a lot I think about the quality and the caliber of work that you see on television. It’s also a great book, and I thought the adaption in the scripts was great. And I just love the character. He’s a very broken individual suffering with his own demons and trying to find his identity and his purpose in this group dynamic. So that, and you know, the good sell from Jakob. [Laughs]
There have been a lot of shows recently set in roughly this same time period, but a lot of them, like Sherlock or Peaky Blinders, play with anachronisms in the soundtrack or even in the script. Jakob seemed very clear he didn’t want that here.
That’s true. And that’s because we want to be loyal to the book. I mean, Caleb Carr studied as a historian! He was a historian before he was a novelist, and when he wrote The Alienist, yes, it was a novel, but he wanted to base it in a real historical period. And we have real historical people — Teddy Roosevelt, JP Morgan, characters who were in the New York scene at that time. So what we wanted to do was present an authentic 1890s Lower East Side, New York, and make it feel almost like a true story, a factual, historically accurate portrayal of New York life. Manhattan at that time was a melting pot of culture and religion and races, and I think to honor the book and to honor Caleb Carr’s authenticity was part of the draw to the production, to make it as real as possible.
He lied to his publisher when he first submitted the manuscript, didn’t he, and said it was nonfiction?
Yeah, he did, and they were like “Don’t worry about it!” [Laughs]
Well, that was before Wikipedia — you could probably still get away with it 20 years ago.
Yes! And that’s amazing isn’t it? That’s a compliment to his work and his ability to flesh out the accuracy of the story. It’s not just picking out bits from different periods. It’s that moment, those streets. They have those [municipal] records in New York where you can find out what shops were on what street, what did they sell, who lived above it, and he used all those resources. So when you see the Bowery and Mott Street and Mulberry and all that, you realize they’re really honoring that.
The production side of the show is kind of a varsity squad too; you have a prop master from Mad Men, the set designer from Django Unchained, and your costume designer Michael Kaplan did Fight Club and Stars Wars and the original Blade Runner…
Yeah. Again, me personally, I’ve worked on big, big movies where you’re with Oscar-winning directors, costume designers, scriptwriters, and you almost get used to it after a while. So it’s weird, when I came to television I thought maybe it won’t feel the same but it feels as much if not more so like a group of people who have come from the best of the best, and they’ve all been drawn to this project because you’re able to create a world. And it’s like going back in time, it’s so extraordinary.
Let’s talk about your characters a little bit, because it’s sort of a motley crew. There’s Dr. Kreizler, played by Daniel Bruhl, who’s mistrusted because he’s got these strange ideas and he’s foreign and he’s got a funny arm. Dakota Fanning is fighting to be a woman in a man’s world. And even Douglas Smith and Matthew Scheer, the two Isaacson brothers who come in to do forensics, aren’t really welcome in the NYPD because they’re Jews. Your character comes from privilege but you’re also sort of a black sheep, and maybe a little bit of a mess.
Jakob likes to call him a highly functioning alcoholic. He’s able to understand and relate to lots of different classes even though he’s from the upper classes and is a society illustrator for the New York Times, he knows all sorts. He frequents brothels and he’s tortured by this broken relationship, he has a deceased brother who he feels responsible for his death. But because of this, he’s seen parts of New York and the Lower East Side and the Tenderloin, places where none of the other people in this [show] would have frequented, so in a way his purpose in this group, although he doesn’t really understand it at the time, is that he’s quite personable and relatable and I think for the audience he really is their eyes.
You see everyone else and you understand them a little bit better because of him, because Kreizler is very sort of socially quite awkward and uncomfortable around people and he’s the opposite. He’s able to slip into a brothel or the dark seedy underworld and almost blend in even though he doesn’t come from that world. He’s able to put on a mask and be part of that experience. But he has his own demons, his own issues that he has to understand, and some of them are clearer at the end of the story and some of them never get understood at all. He also has to handle Kreizler, and translate for him sometimes, because people shut down sometimes when they see him.
Kreizler definitely struggles with social graces, judging from the scene we just watched where he’s berating Dakota’s character about her father’s suicide.
I know, who says that sh–? [Laughs] But he’s a psychologist, right, so he’s probably slightly sociopathic in a way. He sees everybody as a case study; he sees me as a case study. He talks about my problems when I don’t even talk about them to myself, so it’s a very interesting dynamic. But there’s obviously a camaraderie that goes back a long way too, and they seem to understand each other. They sort of owe it to each other to work as a team.
You also seem like an audience proxy in the sense that you’re not a masterful detective, you’re a real person who half the time doesn’t even know for sure what’s happening.
I’ve realized that there’s a sense of levity in my character’s journey — maybe through the alcohol, but also he’s just very real, He’s a man of the world, he’s a people person, but he’s not a detective, he’s not a psychologist, he’s not a criminal analyst. He’s been drawn into this thing because Kreizler needs him. Not for his criminal psychological academia [skills], because he doesn’t have that. What he has is an ability to open doors, an ability to understand people, an ability to maybe delve into the underworld better than Kreizler could. But you’re right, there are moments when Moore is completely on the back foot like, “What the hell’s going on?”
It probably helps, in a show about dead baby prostitutes and so much darkness, that there’s some humor to your character.
For sure. You’ll find that Moore delivers a lot of that. And the brothers, too, they have their moments of quirky kids being very competitive. A lot of what Moore brings, you’re on his side going “Oh my God, this poor guy.” I mean, I come home without my trousers because I’ve been roofied, basically. And it’s nice to play that because the story is incredibly dark, super dark and terrifying at moments, so you have to have a balance. It may not be an equal balance, but we have an opportunity to give it a little levity.
Would you say that maybe you put a little Gaston on it?
[Laughs] Yes, a little Gaston.
The Alienist premieres Jan. 22 at 9 p.m. on TNT.