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In 'The Alienist,' Dakota Fanning Plays The NYPD's First Woman Hire

Jan 21, 2018

It's New York City in 1896. Young boys are being brutally murdered, and a team of outsiders assembles to hunt down the killer. On that team is a doctor with some unconventional views, a newspaper illustrator haunted by his past, and a police secretary who upsets the status quo: Miss Sara Howard, who's played by Dakota Fanning in the new television series, The Alienist.

"She's a young woman who is finding the balance of this strong, tough exterior that she has to put on to survive in this man's world," Fanning says, "and also the vulnerability that she feels in her private life when that mask can kind of come off."


Interview Highlights

On what the costumes taught her about the experience of being a woman in 1896

We know that women were restricted in what they could and could not do and say. But they were also literally restricted by the clothing that they had to wear. We were filming this series for six months, and I was wearing a corset and those clothes every single day, and someone has to help you get dressed in the morning. Someone has to help you undress. Even those simple tasks and those intimate moments that usually we have with ourselves, a woman had to sort of have someone to help her, to chaperone that experience. And so for me, it kind of, it helped put me in the mindset of that time period and gave me a window into, you know, the experience of being a woman back then.

On the show's relevance today for women in the workplace

On one hand, you know, it's great when the show that you're making is relevant to the times that you're living in. But some of the relevance is kind of unfortunate because there is a scene in the first episode with my character and another police officer, and you see sexual harassment and abuses of power in the workplace. And the stories do parallel stories that are being told right now, so I think it is important, especially for my generation, to see those similarities between now and so long ago.

On playing the secretary to Theodore Roosevelt

It's a different version of Roosevelt than I think people are used to seeing. It's early Teddy Roosevelt and the beginning of him changing New York. And my character is very close to Commissioner Roosevelt because I'm his secretary, and we have a great relationship on the show that gets explored. And you sort of get to see how Roosevelt's hands are tied at times with the corruption that's going on within his department.

On what she's learned as a former child actor

I think for me, what's always been the thing that's grounded me is my genuine love of what I do. And I still check in with myself to make sure I enjoy what I'm doing. You know, when I was younger, my mom was with me at all times, traveling with me and on set with me, and she always made it very clear that if I didn't want to do it anymore, I didn't have to.

Sophia Boyd and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

New York City, 1896 - young boys are being brutally murdered. A team of outsiders assembles to hunt down the killer - a doctor with some unconventional views, a newspaper illustrator haunted by his past and a police secretary who upsets the normalcy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ALIENIST")

DAKOTA FANNING: (As Sara Howard) What are you doing here?

DANIEL BRUHL: (As Dr. Laszlo Kreizler) We've come to see the commissioner.

LUKE EVANS: (As John Moore) Sara and I...

FANNING: (As Sara Howard) I am Miss Howard, an employee of the New York Police Department. You will please accord me the respect that my position demands.

EVANS: (As John Moore) Miss Howard is the first woman to hold a position with the police department.

BRUHL: (As Dr. Laszlo Kreizler) Excellent. Perhaps Miss Howard can help arrange an impromptu meeting with the commissioner.

FANNING: (As Sara Howard) And how should I help do that? With my especially rosy mouth or my sparkling blue eyes?

EVANS: (As John Moore) Sara, I did not...

FANNING: (As Sara Howard) Miss Howard.

SIMON: Miss Sara Howard is played by Dakota Fanning in the new TV series on TNT, "The Alienist." And she joins us now from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

FANNING: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Alienist is what they used to call psychiatrists. Right?

FANNING: Yeah. It's an old-fashioned term for a psychologist. And your description of the show - I think I'm going to steal it. It was perfect (laughter).

SIMON: Well, with our compliments. And what attracted you to playing Sara?

FANNING: Well, I am fascinated by this time period and fascinated to play a character who aspires to have a career and pushes the boundaries of what women were allowed to do. And at the same time, she's a young woman who is finding the balance of this strong, tough exterior that she has to put on to survive in this man's world and also the vulnerability that she feels in her private life when that mask can kind of come off.

SIMON: Strong exterior, but there's also a scene when she's home and her maid helps her get out of a corset, which is a pretty strong not-quite interior.

FANNING: (Laughter) It's another exterior, right?

SIMON: We can learn something by taking a look at the corset these days - about how women were once viewed and how they had to live. Can't we?

FANNING: I think so. We know that women were restricted in what they could and could not do and say. But they were also literally restricted by the clothing that they had to wear.

We were filming the series for six months, and I was wearing a corset and those clothes every single day. And someone has to help you get dressed in the morning. Someone has to help you undress. Even those simple tasks and those intimate moments that usually we have with ourselves, a woman had to sort of have someone to help her - to chaperone that experience. And so for me, it kind of - it helped put me in the mindset of that time period and gave me a window into, you know, the experience of being a woman back then.

SIMON: And did you notice, playing the character - obviously, there are more women in the workforce in 2018, including police forces around the country. But a lot of the attitudes and problems sound familiar, don't they?

FANNING: Well, they do. And that's something - I struggle sometimes to find the right words to talk about that because, on one hand, you know, it's great when the show that you're making is relevant to the times that you're living in. But some of the relevance is kind of unfortunate because - there's a scene in the first episode with my character and another police officer, and you see sexual harassment and abuses of power in the workplace. And the stories do parallel stories that are being told right now. So I think it is important, especially for my generation, to see those similarities between now and so long ago.

SIMON: Yeah. I love the look the series gives young that Theodore Roosevelt...

FANNING: Yes, my boss.

SIMON: ...When he was New York City's police commissioner.

Is it hard not to turn to that character and say, you know, Teddy, I don't know - somehow, I forsee great things for you?

FANNING: (Laughter) Yeah. It's a different version of Roosevelt than I think people are used to seeing. It's early Teddy Roosevelt and the beginning of him changing New York. And then my character is very close to Commissioner Roosevelt because I'm his secretary, and we have a great relationship on the show that gets explored. And you sort of get to see how Roosevelt's hands are tied at times with the corruption that's going on within his department.

SIMON: You've been acting professionally since you were a child. And I don't have to tell you, there are notable success stories. There are a lot of sad stories, too. What have you learned?

FANNING: I think, for me, what's always been the thing that has grounded me is my genuine love of what I do. And I still check in with myself to make sure that I still am enjoying what I'm doing. You know, when I was younger, my mom was with me at all times - traveling with me and on set with me - and she always made it very clear that if I didn't want to do it anymore, that I didn't have to.

If I was coming to her with sort of a tough moment that had happened that was, you know, a professional situation, she would say - well, you know, do you want to stop? Does it make you want to not do this anymore? And I would always say, no, Mom. Of course not (laughter).

And so, yeah, I still check in with myself and make sure that I'm still - sounds so simple - but still having fun.

SIMON: Dakota Fanning in the new TV series on TNT "The Alienist."

Thanks so much for being with us.

FANNING: Oh, thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDOVICO EINAUDI'S "EXPERIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.