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January 22, 2018
Online Originals

Douglas Smith leaves young adult roles behind to play a forensic detective in TNT’s Gilded Age NYC-based psychological thriller, The Alienist.

Neanimorphic:  Appearing younger than one’s actual age.

Most people would love to be described with this adjective, but Douglas Smith doesn’t mince words with his own opinion:  “It’s a curse.  I hate it.  I friggin’ hate it,” he groans.  “I’m so tired of people telling me I look like I’m 20 or something.”  He goes on to recount a story about trying to grow a full facial beard to look older, to no avail - “It somehow just highlighted the boyish look more,” he laughs. 

“I mean, we all have things that we wish we could change about ourselves, but I definitely wish I could not look so young.  I feel like I didn’t mind it as much when I was younger, but the older I get, I’m getting less okay with it.  I mean, when it rains, my right knee hurts.  I’m like, ‘Come on, people.  I’m 32!’  Even in my own life, nobody seems to take me seriously as a 32-year-old.”

Born in Toronto, Smith spent most of his 32 years growing up on screen, due to his show business-oriented family’s connections.  His first role was as a newborn extra in one of his producer-father’s films.  As a young boy, he scored bit parts in movies such as Harriet the Spy and as a young Brendan Fraser in Blast from the Past simply by tagging along with older brother Greg, an actor and director. 

Most of his jobs before age 14 were “just coincidence,” Smith admits,  “I hate to say that because there are frustrated people outside of the industry wondering how to get in, but I really didn’t consider myself an actor at that point.” 

After age 14, however, everything changed for Smith, and he can clearly pinpoint the exact moment that made him want to pursue acting as a profession:  “I was jumping from theater to theater in the suburbs of Los Angeles … You know, that thing where kids sneak into movies and then they see maybe 20 minutes of one movie, and then they sneak into another movie, and then another movie?  I was a pretty athletic kid.  I sort of identified as a jock, even though I came from a family of performers. 

“The movie was American Beauty.  We jumped into it like midway through.   It was my first time ever seeing anything alternative and dramatic.  I grew up watching things like Independence Day and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - it was the 90s, and I wasn’t a hip kid.  I don’t know; it just hit me in a really different way.  When my friends wanted to skip to another movie, I just said, ‘No, I think I’ll stay.’ 

“It totally rotated my ambitions in that moment.  Before that, I had a really intense desire to be an athlete.  I wanted to be an Olympic runner, and I was training with my track teacher and going to competitions.  After that, I ended up not going out for the track team and hanging out with the photography kids.”

With his sights firmly set on making a career of acting, Smith started auditioning, adding an impressive list of guest spots to his resume on shows such as Cold Case, Everwood, Joan of Arcadia, The Guardian, CSI, CSI: Miami, and Crossing Jordan.  “I think I was on every CBS procedural show there was,” he jokes. 

His big break came when he landed the role of Ben Henrickson, Bill Paxon’s teenage son on HBO’s hit Big Love - a role that lasted seven years and bridged the gap between his teen years and adulthood. 

When Big Love ended, however, Smith had trouble finding parts playing someone his actual age.  Despite being in his mid to late 20s, he was typically cast as a teenager or college student. 

His most notable roles were as Tyson the Cyclops in Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, homicidal teen Buddy in Stage Fright, a teenage rock-star in HBO’s Vinyl, a young Dustin Lance Black in When We Rise, and tormented college student Elliot in the horror film The Bye Bye Man.  He also appeared in the films Miss Sloane and Terminator Genisys.

With The Alienist, Smith is finally coming into his own as an adult character, and he couldn’t be happier or more relieved about it:  “It’s so nice.  HUGELY nice,” he gushes.  In the 10-episode limited series, based on the novel by Caleb Carr, he plays Marcus Isaacson, a Jewish police officer working for the New York City Police Department in 1896 - a time when the force was mostly overrun by an old guard of openly racist Irish cops. 

“There’s a serial killer who is targeting boy prostitutes on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  It’s a period of time when New York is coming of age and becoming a world city.  It’s a little bit medieval village mixed with massive industry,” Smith explains. 

The show revolves around Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (played by Daniel Bruhl), a criminal psychiatrist known as an “alienist” because he studies the “alien natures” of the psychologically disturbed.  Kreizler teams with newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), police secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), and a small team of outsiders who attempt to stop the series of gruesome murders plaguing the city. 

“My character is a twin, and he and his brother get assigned to work alongside this psychiatrist by Theodore Roosevelt.  I think he assigns us because we’re smart and we think outside the box, and we’re more intellectual than the older generation of cops,” Smith says. 

“The character is cool because he’s one of the most headstrong characters I’ve ever played.  My twin Lucius, played by Matt Shear, is more of the insecure, bumbling brother, and I’m the faster-moving, headstrong brother.”

The brothers work on the forensic science end of the case, but Smith especially enjoys the emotional, family-oriented scenes between Marcus and Lucius:  “The neat thing the writers did was add at-home moments with the different characters.  For example, my character is struggling with a bit of a rift between he and his brother.  I’m really interested in assimilation and becoming “American,” while he has much closer ties to our heritage and Judaism.

“So yes, there’s a lot of us doing forensic stuff - 1890s CSI, if you will -- but it goes deeper into our home.  There’s a relationship I begin to have with a girl, and my brother has opinions about it, for example.  It’s a great project because it does have this pounding thriller plot as we try to stop a killer from killing again, but at the same time it goes into the characters’ personal lives in a way that is very atypical for serial killer shows.” 

In his excitement to play the role, Smith read the original book by Carr multiple times.  He watched documentaries about the Gilded Age, looked at old forensic books from the 1800s, and worked with a dialect coach and a Yiddish teacher in Budapest, where the series was filmed over seven months. 

With the premiere on the horizon, the neanimorphic Smith is excited to see how his first adult role turned out:  “It’s a combination of reading source material, finding random links to study, having conversations with your fellow actors, and conversations with your dialect coach …  and then suddenly you film, and it never feels finished.  It never feels like, ‘Oh, yeah, cool.  That was definitely it.’ 

“That’s how it’s always been for me.  I never really feel satisfied, because I never feel like there’s only one way that something is meant to be performed.  You do your thing, and you leave, and it’s a mysterious time because you’re not involved in the editing, but I have high expectations.  I really hope it all comes together in the way that I think that it can.” 

The Alienist premieres January 22nd at 9:00 p.m. on TNT. 

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