A Go-To Villain, Daniel Brühl Finds Playing a Complicated Hero a Welcome Experience (Exclusive)

Daniel Bruhl
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As the brilliant and obsessive psychologist Laszlo Kreizler on TNT’s The Alienist, German actor Daniel Brühl explored uncharted territory as an actor. It was the first time in nearly a decade that he’s played a hero. Well, a complicated hero.

“I’m not playing a villain, but a guy who is difficult and pretty much a pain in the a** for the people around him,” Bruhl tells ET about his first starring television role. “There are so many different sides to the character that made it hugely exciting to play.”

Adapted from Caleb Carr’s novel of the same name, the limited series, which wraps up its 10-episode run on Monday evening, tells the story of a criminal psychologist hired by the New York City police commissioner to hunt down and stop a killer of boy prostitutes in 1896. The period thriller brings together Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans in an unexpectedly resonate thriller that’s earned buzz and prestige for TNT.

For Brühl, it was a welcome opportunity to go deeper than he ever has before with any film role. “To have that luxury of time is what is so wonderful about it,” Brühl says, reflecting on the fact that the show didn’t so much thin out the story, but rather found new elements and layers to explore.

Unrestrained by the limits of a movie, the actor didn’t feel pressured to rush through the experience. “If you have a fascinating character like this one, you just enjoy yourself playing him for a long while," he shares.

And despite any initial hesitation about committing to a TV series, the actor says he would jump at continuing to play this role.

Largely known in the United States for his villainous turns onscreen, Laszlo Kreizler is certainly a far cry from Brühl’s breakout role as Nazi war hero Fredrick Zoller in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and the morally corrupt characters he's played in everything from Ron Howard’s Rush opposite Chris Hemsworth as well as Helmut Zemo in Captain America: Civil War. His latest film, 7 Days in Entebbe, which is now in theaters, sees the actor portraying German terrorist Wilfried Böse, who led the hijacking of Air France Flight 139 in 1976.

While it’s easy to assume Brühl would be worried about typecasting, the actor relishes the opportunity to play a dark character. Attracted to that kind of material, it was only Tarantino’s film that broke him out of a decade-long career of playing “the good guy.”

“I was incredibly bored by that,” he says, happy to play more complicated characters that have led him to The Alienist. “For years, in Germany, people saw me as the best son-in-law, who helped all the people across the street. I have to say, exploring darkness and exploring evil is always fascinating to me. People in Germany don’t see that in me. [However,] I really enjoy being seen as an a**hole from the outside.”

Of course, there is a balance that comes with playing such evil characters, particularly Wilfried Böse. For Brühl, it’s not about finding empathy in the character as much as just understanding his motivation. “That’s exactly the challenge,” he adds.

To get inside his world and that of Kreizler’s, the actor, perhaps, had the best aide: his wife, psychologist Felicitas Rombold. For 7 Days in Entebbe, the two discussed terrorism and rational thinking, drawing on experiences she had with similar patients. On The Alienist, she helped understand the history and context of the medical field both then and now.

“She had a laugh at first, when she found out I was playing a psychologist,” Brühl admits. But the two bonded in exploring that world together, with the actor noting: “These last couple of years, our relationship has become even stronger with my work.”

Thankful for all her help and interest in his work, Brühl adds: “I hope she gets something from me in return. I want to hope so.”


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