Hands down, one of the best surprises of The Alienist: Angel of Darkness is that the serial killer this season has been front and center alongside the cast as a fully-formed character. We’ve watched Libby Hatch devolve from a prim, mild-mannered nurse to a woman in a rage hell-bent on recreating a lost bond and desperately searching for some kind of genuine emotional tether in an increasingly cruel world.
British actress Rosy McEwen has expertly crafted such a rich, multi-layered performance that, weirdly enough, has been an actual joy to watch. I say weirdly because joy is an emotion that Libby rarely traffics in.
When she does, it’s fleeting and leaves extraordinary sadness and confusion in its wake. I had the pleasure of speaking with McEwen by phone this morning, and we chatted about taking on such an exquisite character in her very first television role.
McEwen is a graduate of the Bristol Old Vic drama school and has appeared onstage in plays as varied as Julius Caesar and The Cherry Orchard and at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Alienist came her way via her agent, and it took four auditions and the support of showrunner Stuart Carolan and director David Caffrey to get buy-in that the series would take a gamble on an unknown. It paid off.
“When the role came along, I [thought this isn’t me], so I went in quite blasé on my first round, which I think is sometimes the best way because you can overthink it and [instead] you just are. And then I got called back and a more detailed character brief about Libby. And I was like, ‘Oh shit, oh my God, she’s everything,'” she laughs.
“And it’s so rare to have a female character that has such a story. I don’t even think [she’s] three-dimensional because she’s four, five, six. You get to see every aspect and facet of everything she feels. And that was just such a joy. I think I went in about four times to read for Libby. I had Stuart Carolan and David Caffrey who were on my side. I think they really had to fight for me.”
“And for my final audition, Stuart basically panic wrote this gorgeous scene in a day and I had to go in and film it. And it, it [wasn’t] actually in the show, but it’s just a scene of Libby basically losing her mind for about four pages. And I think that convinced them in the end. And I’m so grateful for Stuart really was the main one. He just was pushing and fighting for me.”
Block shooting episodes two at a time, and sometimes sequentially, sometimes not, meant going back and forth between calm, collected Libby and the version who’s abandoned all pretense. “Occasionally you just do a massive jump. They were writing the scripts [as we were shooting] as well,” she explains. “So it was all changing as we were going, which was terrifying.”
“Because Stuart and me were so close and I felt very attached to Libby, and he could see that, he was always willing to [ask], ‘Is this right for you? Do you think this is where you should end up?’ And I would always get my opinion. I definitely was able to give him my ideas on Libby. And he was so kind to take everyone’s opinion on board, which is quite rare, I think.”
One of the things that’s so compelling about Libby is that McEwen makes us care about her, and she worked hard to do that. “She’s such a gift as a role. I’m very keen for people to sympathize with her, because she’s such a big part of the story,” she shares.
“You find out actually what’s going on and then her character evolves so much. I felt it’s so important that the audience sort of be on her side, [because otherwise] it just becomes a cat and mouse story and then there’s no weight to it.”
“She’s not a psychopath [who] doesn’t feel emotion [or show it] behind the eyes. She has had a traumatic childhood, but the way that I approached it was I had to go right back to the basic human instinct, which she feels, which will transpire in the final two episodes. You will find out.”
“Basically the only way that I could get on board with everything she was doing was going back to the roots of what she feels, which is essentially a need to be loved, which is an innate human feeling that we all have. And going back to that basic need, from there, I could build everything on top of that.”
“So that goes back to her trauma. The fact that she’s missed out on being loved, that that’s all she ever craved. She’s been embodied by so much trauma and confusion as she’s growing up, but it translates in such an odd way. And in a very dramatic way.”
“[She has all this] vulnerability [and] when love comes into the story, it cracks her facade. So little things like when they have the meal and Sara [talks about her father], she’s very rarely felt that connection or had someone reach out to her on that level.”
“Anything to do with someone reaching out or loving her or showing her affection or this normal happy life just breaks her. And I think that was such a fun thing for me to play because she snaps from unfazed and murderer, even though she’s literally doing what she thinks is the best way to get what she wants, so quickly to lost, broken little girl, really.”
“Even when she’s that timid, unsure creature, it’s all real, she’s never pretending to be anyone else other than what she is. She’s never been fake or sly, she’s just confused and deeply troubled and traumatized. So a lot of her actions have blinded her, it’s just her way of translating her emotions. And it’s just been very convoluted [due] to her experiences.”
Tune in after the finale for more of our conversation!
The Alienist: Angel of Darkness airs its season finale Sunday at 9 pm ET on TNT Drama. I’ll be back later with a preview. Season 1 and Season 2 so far are now streaming on TNT Drama. Click here for my previews.
Images courtesy of TNT.
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