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Tribune News Service
Kate Feldman

Domhnall Gleeson, Steve Carell try to avoid empathizing with a serial killer in ‘The Patient’

Domhnall Gleeson has to do a balancing act for the new limited TV series he stars in — delve into the psyche of a serial killer without justifying his behavior.

The Irish actor stars as Sam Fortner, a murderer who chains his therapist to the floor in his basement in “The Patient,” an introspective psychological thriller that premiered Tuesday on Hulu. Sam has just one request of Dr. Alan Strauss, played by Steve Carell: Help me stop murdering people.

“The notion of wanting to get better is a very empathetic trait,” Gleeson, 39, told the Daily News.

“Everybody is capable of moments of kindness, even the people who are responsible for the worst things that have ever happened. To somebody, those people may have been a good person. They may have treated them well at the store. Even the worst people in the world have done nice things. You need to understand both sides of that.”

“The Patient,” which aims to unravel the truth, piece by piece, is showrunners Joel Fields’ and Joseph Weisberg’s first collaboration since “The Americans.”

For most of the show’s 10 episodes — with most under 30 minutes — Sam and Alan sit across from each other, trying to figure out how they got there.

With Alan under lock and key, Sam can be more honest than he was in early therapy sessions in the doctor’s office. He’s not Gene, as he initially presented himself, but a restaurant health inspector with enough daddy issues to fill a library. And he murders people.

The trick for “The Patient” is getting to the bottom of Sam’s cruelty without excusing it.

“There’s no question that he does these evil things. It’s an understatement to call them evil,” Weisberg told The News.

“But [Sam’s] a good example of somebody with another side to him, a person who’s suffered therapy himself, who’s taking extreme and crazy measures to try to heal himself, who wants to heal himself. Those parts of him aren’t evil. Those parts of him are a victim and someone who’s trying to get better.”

Alan, the therapist Sam kidnapped to fix him, is not perfect. But his disappointments are smaller, and consist of a tortured relationship with his son, who begins separating himself from his family when he marries an Orthodox Jewish woman.

Fields and Weisberg defended casting a non-Jewish actor in Carell, “The Office” alum, to play the role in a show filled with Holocaust imagery and recitations of the kaddish prayer because it’s all acting.

“We’re big believers in scale when it comes to morality,” Fields told The News.

“There’s no question that Alan Strauss’ failings pale in comparison to Sam’s failings, but when it comes to each of their individual experiences and human struggles, we’re all struggling, and that is universal. If we’re not trying to be a little better tomorrow than we were today, then we’re slipping backwards.”

Between scenes, Carell kept himself chained to the set, a manacle around his ankle. Gleeson paced the room, wondering about topics like masculinity, evil and restraint. “The Patient” explores the same issues.

“I think that people are capable of doing nearly only evil things, or only evil things that will define not only their lives but the lives of other people, but I don’t think anybody wakes up twirling their mustache,” Gleeson, recently seen as as Gen. Armitage Hux in the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy, said.

Instead, he said, Sam chooses to kill. He allows himself to succumb to his instincts.

“[Sam] has this blind spot, a total blind spot, where he’s saying, ‘I want to get better, don’t you see? I want to stop.’ And that’s true, and yet at the same time, there’s a really easy way of getting out of this which is just to hand himself in,” Gleeson said.

“But he isn’t doing that. He doesn’t even really allow for the possibility of that being a real option because he is so selfish, so ego-driven that he can’t understand that. He will always put himself above everything else, even if it’s literally the lives of other people.”


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