‘Alienist’ actress changes rules – for 1890s

By Lynn Elber

AP Television Writer


Dakota Fanning was unfazed by being on her own for six months in Budapest or the dark nature of the TV series that brought her there, TNT’s adaptation of “The Alienist,” Caleb Carr’s 1994 novel.

The young actress said creating a life in Europe proved an exciting and “transformative” time, one that allowed her to disconnect from routine demands and “lean into the experience” and her role.

She clearly doesn’t shy away from work. On-screen for most of her 23 years, Fanning has compiled a deep list of TV and movie credits that veteran performers would boast about, including “War of the Worlds” and the “Twilight” franchise.

In “The Alienist,” set among the grandeur and poverty of 1890s New York, Fanning plays Sara, an ambitious woman who joins with a psychologist – or alienist, in the parlance of the day – played by Daniel Bruhl; a newspaper illustrator (Luke Evans); and police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) to find a serial killer targeting boy prostitutes.

She discussed the series (which airs Mondays at 9 p.m.) and how she approaches acting in a recent interview.

Q. Your character is a secretary who aspires to be a police detective, an unusual goal for that period. Is she a young woman out of sync with her time?

A. She’s almost not supposed to be born in the period she was. We get to see her balance her desire to advance herself in society and not just by getting married to a rich man. But at the same time, she is a young woman, and we get to see her blossoming sexuality and femininity, and how she has to balance that with being taken seriously and being heard. She inhabits a very hostile workplace in the police department, and we see how it affects her when she’s alone and with other people.

Q. Workplace struggles for women aren’t just part of a bygone era, with the current sexual-misconduct crisis a reminder. Were you struck by the parallel?

A. It has struck me for sure, and it has for a long time. Unfortunately this has been going on for a while, and it is confusing why we can’t keep these conversations going. We feel like things change for a while and they go back to the way they were. This story has really proved that to me. I want people to be talking about it always and forever until it does change.

Q. What are the advantages and challenges of a period drama?

A. The costumes. They are very restrictive. It’s a very tight corset all day, every day. And because it takes multiple people to get them on you, you realize what it must have been like for women in that time. You couldn’t do anything for yourself, you couldn’t get dressed or take your clothes off.

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