At the turn of the 20th century, New York City’s Knickerbocker Hospital was deeply in flux. As the wealthy patrons who once filled its beds — and its bank account — fled its urban locale for loftier boroughs, replaced by a teeming brew of racial and cultural disparities, the doctors and nurses at the “The Knick” struggled to stay atop the city’s burgeoning medical community.
This is the world from which director Steven Soderbergh’s engrossing new fact-meets-fiction Cinemax series The Knick, which premieres Friday, emerges.
Created by the veteran writing team of Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, the 10-episode drama sprung from Begler’s research into his own health struggles. Soon he and Amiel were poring over vintage medical texts they scored on eBay and envisioning a world in which electricity was a luxury, antibiotics had yet to be invented and desperate human beings served as surgical playgrounds. The result is a stunningly human story that blends issues of race, gender, religion, medical ethics and advancements, politics and corruption that still resonate today.
The dual heart of The Knick is its chief surgeon Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), an accomplished egoist whose drive for professional success masks a painful past and fosters a raging drug addiction, and Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), an equally skilled physician who is brought into the hospital as Thackery’s deputy by its most prominent patron, Capt. August Robertson (Grainger Hines).
Though Robertson considers both men family, and Edwards has practiced with top European doctors, Thackery — and nearly everyone else in the hospital — sees only that Edwards is black. Fearful that his white patients and remaining benefactors will balk at a man of color in its professional ranks — further endangering The Knick’s future — Thackery relegates Edwards to stitches and bandages until a chance discovery forces him to accept that the newcomer may be the key to the acclaim he has dreamed of.
“I want to make sure it was handled properly,” says Owen of the doctors’ thrust-and-parry relationship. “Yes, Thackery is racist because we live in a racist time, and there weren’t any black doctors working in hospitals at that time. But his business is saving people’s lives, and a lot of the earlier episodes are of me testing and pushing Edwards and seeing what he comes back with. I can tell he is a brilliant doctor, but does he have the resources to handle the situation when coming into a place like this?”
For Holland, who will next appear as Georgia politician and human rights activist Andrew Young in the Christmas 2014 release Selma, The Knick offered a chance to explore race in a way he hadn’t encountered in his career.
“I grew up in Alabama, and that kind of duality that Algernon exhibits is something that I’ve carried around in my own life,” says Holland, who studied W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of double consciousness to prepare for the role. “Growing up in the Deep South, there’s very much a way that you have to learn how to behave that gets you by, but at the same time, there’s this very different way of being — how I am home with my parents and how I am when I’m out with my friends who also grew up in the South. At a certain point, those two selves collide with one another, and that’s where we find Algernon in the story — at that junction. How do you reconcile the two?”
To further embroider their irresistible human tapestry, Amiel and Begler populated The Knick with deliciously vibrant supporting characters — Chris Sullivan as Tom Cleary, the hospital’s unscrupulous Irish ambulance driver who sees opportunities to pad his pockets at every turn; Cara Seymour as Sister Harriet, a whiskey-shooting nun who runs the hospital’s orphanage while hiding a shocking second vocation; Jeremy Bobb as The Knick’s twitchy administrator Herman Barrow, whose taste for the good life leads to choices that dangerously impact himself and the hospital; Juliet Rylance as Robertson’s elegant, altruistic daughter Cornelia, who has a lifelong bond with Algernon and now oversees the hospital’s board; and Eve Hewson (pictured right), the luminous daughter of U2 rocker Bono, as Lucy Elkins, a young nurse from West Virginia whose entanglements with Thackery expand her world in a hurry.
And though The Knick’s surgical scenes do require a strong stomach (or a quick glance elsewhere), some of its best moments and relationships employ liberal doses of humor. Scenes of Barrow’s introduction to new X-ray technology and Cornelia’s mission to track down “Typhoid Mary” Mallon with the city’s cagey health inspector are both instructive and an outright hoot.
“I don’t think I have ever seen or been involved in a period thing that is a particular time that feels so right,” says Owen. “New York feels like a very edgy, modern place, a complex city with complex problems going on. Steven has put it together in a way that feels relevant and it feels fresh and makes us look anew. It’s a real eye-opener in terms of where we are and where we were and an exciting way to look back at a particular time.”
The Knick airs Fridays at 10pm beginning Aug. 8 on Cinemax.
Andre Holland: Is There A Cameraman In The House?
Andre Holland knew he was meant to play Dr. Algernon Edwards the minute the script landed in his hands. The problem? Holland was vacationing in Italy and also had minutes to submit an audition tape if he wanted the part. So, much like his character, he made magic with what he had.
“My agents were like, ‘The producers are moving very fast with this and we need you to get something on tape right away!’” Holland laughs. “So I found a British couple who were also vacationing at the time and talked them into helping me record my audition in my hotel room and at the hotel bar. I was like, ‘I am not going to miss this opportunity, no matter what,’ but it was an ordeal because the first person I got worked at the hotel and obviously had no idea on how to do an audition tape. I asked him to read the off-camera lines and his English was not great, so after about an hour of trying to do it that way, I just looked for anyone who was speaking English and was like, ‘YOU! Come with me now! Please?’”
“Every now and again you come across a piece as an actor that brings you to life and makes you alive. It reminds you why you started doing this in the first place. This is one of those scripts,” says Clive Owen of playing The Knick’s flawed genius John Thackery. “The character was inspired by a real doctor named William Halsted and there is this great book called Genius on the Edge, which is about his work at the turn of the century at Johns Hopkins. He was brilliant but they also discovered that he was consuming vast amounts of drugs at the same time. At that time cocaine was legal, and it was considered the new wonder drug and that is the context at which he comes to it. I have always been attracted to characters that tread a very delicate line.
“Thackery is brilliant … and at times he is certainly awful.”
Photos: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax