Dakota Fanning on ‘The Alienist: Angel of Darkness’ and Directing Her Own Material

     August 9, 2020

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The TNT original drama series The Alienist: Angel of Darkness, the follow-up season to The Alienist, is an unflinching and sinister murder mystery set at the turn-of-the-century during New York’s Gilded Age. The series follows Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), an alienist in the field of treating mental pathologies, John Moore (Luke Evans), a New York Times journalist, and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), an ambitious woman who has opened her own private detective agency. Together, they are on the case of a kidnapped infant and on the dangerous path after an elusive killer.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Dakota Fanning talked about digging deeper into these characters for Season 2, her character’s biggest strength, what she appreciates about Sara Howard, the incredible wardrobe, the Sara-John relationship dynamic, and whether she’d want to continue playing this character for another season. She also talked about her desire to step behind the camera to direct, and that sacred relationship between actor and director.

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Image via TNT

Collider: What did you most enjoy about the first season and exploring the introduction to this world and these characters, and then how did it feel to return to that for Season 2 and dig in even deeper with her?

DAKOTA FANNING: I loved that. It’s really the first time that I’ve gotten to dive into something for a second time and for another eight hours. It’s really an exciting thing to do, when you get to take a character that you’ve grown to love and that you feel like you know so well to a different level and into a new place, and I really got to do that with Sara. I loved playing her in The Alienist and seeing that she was the first female to hold the position at the police department, as a secretary, but having aspirations of more. And then, right away, in the first episode, we see that she’s opened her own detective agency and has realized that dream, and is still forging ahead to fight for people and to solve these crimes that are not being looked at because the police department is corrupt, or that people don’t care about. She’s a very compassionate, empathetic person, and I think that allows her to look at the people that she’s solving these crimes for, in a very non-judgmental way, and that’s ultimately her biggest strength.

Are there things with her, especially the longer that you’ve played her in the more you’ve gotten to know her, that you’ve grown to appreciate about her that you maybe didn’t realize when you started playing her?

FANNING: I love Sara’s wit, and her ability to cut to the chase and get to the point. You see that in the first season, but you still see her being questioned by the people closest to her. And this time around, John Moore and Dr. Kreizler see her as more of an equal and as their peer from the start, and she doesn’t have to fight so hard with them. It’s the people outside of that inner circle because they do have that friendship that was built up in Season 1. We see the roots of that friendship come alive, once more, in Season 2. We also get to see her as a boss. She has other young women that are working at her agency that she’s setting an example for, and that was definitely new, seeing her as an employer. She doesn’t take that position lightly. She really cares about the people that she’s setting an example for.

In what ways has this character challenged you that’s been different from any other character that you’ve played?

FANNING: I’m playing someone that lived so long ago, so there’s the obvious challenges of the costumes, for example, and the restriction of the corset and the layers of clothes. Something that we were always finding the balance of with Sara was what she would wear to what occasion, and wanting to be taken seriously, but still being a young woman, and how that comes through in the way that she dresses. Something that I learned in Season 1, and even more so in Season 2, is how her clothing becomes her armor to go out into the world.

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Image via TNT

I absolutely love Sara’s wardrobe. It’s so detailed, every inch of it. Was it a love-hate relationship for you, since it’s gorgeous to look at but probably a nightmare to spend hours working in?

FANNING: It’s a love and not quite hate [relationship]. We were filming a lot in the summer in Hungary, which is very hot. There were definitely some days where the sweat was rolling from under the corset down my leg and into my high socks, down into my boots. But it takes care of the physicality of the character, in terms of how a woman would move during that time. There’s only so much you can do in the clothes. I would try to lift up my arm in a jacket, and then have to figure out how I could move. I had to navigate the costumes. The wardrobe also evolved. In the first season, we saw Sara wear trousers once, but this time, I wear trousers throughout the whole thing. They look like skirts, but they’re more like long culottes. That was another protective thing for her, wearing pants. It’s a small act of rebellion. Sara is very rebellious, but it’s also about the small rebellion that she gets to do, to stick it to the man a little bit.

Are you someone who researches throughout the time that you’re playing someone, or did you do all of your research at the beginning of the first season?

FANNING: We’re so lucky to have two wonderful books by Caleb Carr, who’s so talented, and [there’s] so much detail in the books. The scripts are also very detailed and there’s a lot in there. And the people we have working on the show – the production designers and the props masters and the costumes – have done so much research that everything around you is period accurate. Everything in your surrounding is what it would have been like if you were living in 1897, so that’s immediately very helpful. And in terms of the story and the character, what I did feel, this time, was a very fierce protectiveness over Sara and the choices that I feel that she would make or not make. I feel that protectiveness over all of the returning characters. We were all able to be real sounding boards for each other, if something didn’t feel right, or if we had an idea. We were able to collaborate in a different way because we felt so educated on who we felt our characters are.

Sara and John reach a turning point in their relationship, but she admits to still having trouble communicating how she really feels. How did you feel about the relationship between them this season?

FANNING: It’s not over, totally, between John and Sara. They still have some unfinished business between them. Sara is a woman who is experiencing what a lot of women experience, then, now, and in the future, even though I hope less so, which is that struggle between what society expects and what you actually want, and the lines getting all blurred and not even knowing what you actually want anymore. That’s what Sara is working through, the choice between a career and owning a business, with this detective agency, and being independent and free. But she also has desire and emotions for another person, and worries that she’s not going to make the right choice and will realize that it’s too late. Those are all things that women, especially, are constantly thinking about, no matter what age you are. We’re always being made to feel like we have to choose, and Sara is going through that. We get to see that play out alongside the other aspects of the story, with the mystery and all the other things. I think that’s important, and women around the globe can understand that.

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Image via TNT

Would you like to continue to explore this character? Is she someone that you feel like there’s still more story to tell with her?

FANNING: I never say never to anything. I love Sara and I love the world that has been created. I would never say never. I think that people will be satiated, in the end, as well, or I hope so, but I never say never.

You’ve already done so much in your career, but you’re still so young. Have you thought about what you might like to do that you feel you haven’t done? Are there genres that you’d like to do, or do you want to get more involved behind the scenes, producing, writing and directing?

FANNING: Yeah, for sure. I definitely want to and am working on those behind the scenes things as well. I definitely want to direct. I directed a short film and I really [hope] to continue doing that in the future. And I definitely want to produce. I’m so lucky to have been a part of a lot of different kinds of stories and I’ve played a lot of different characters and had a lot of great experiences, but there’s so many more to have. I’ve been acting for 20 years, even though I’m 26. I’m the kind of person that’s always like, “Okay, well, what’s the next thing, then?” I think it’s important to have goals and dreams, and continue to set different bars for yourself.

Are there a specific directors that have most inspired you when it comes to directing yourself, or is it more of just an overall experience of all the directors you’ve worked with?

FANNING: Definitely more towards overall, but just the relationship that an actor has with a director can be make-or-break to an experience. It’s such a sacred relationship, and I’ve been so lucky to work with so many great directors, and I’ve always wanted to be on the other end and be that director for another actor, as so many directors have been to me. I think, eventually, when I do make a film, I’ll steal a little bit from all of the greats that I’ve worked with. One of the blessings of my life is just getting to watch these people and get to learn from their examples for how they operate on set, how they treat people, and all of those things. So it’ll be an overall mixture, one day.

Do you feel like you learned something from directing a short that surprised you, that you didn’t know about directing until you tried it yourself?

FANNING: I didn’t know exactly how anxiety-inducing it can be. You feel responsible for not only what’s happening on screen, but you feel responsible for the behind the scenes stuff, and making sure that your crew feels taken care of and appreciated and valued and heard, and making sure that your actors feel comfortable and safe. You are responsible for the environment that people are working in, and making a film, most of the time, is not a very glamorous experience. People are really giving their heart and soul and their time to you, as the director, to tell a story. It’s a huge responsibility, and I felt very responsible. It’s a lot to take on, but when it’s going well and when it works out, it’s the best feeling in the world.

The Alienist: Angel of Darkness airs on Sunday nights on TNT.

Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.

Television