Steven Soderbergh’s latest foray into television, The Knick, is now airing Friday nights at 10/9CT on Cinemax. Essentially a 10-episode feature film — gloriously acted, beautifully shot and chock-full of fascinating characters crafted by the veteran writing team of Jack Amiel and Michael Begler — The Knick is the sort of series that begs for binge-watching. And it doesn’t take more than a few episodes to understand why the series has already been renewed for a second season.
Clive Owen stars as Dr. John Thackery, chief surgeon of New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital — and yes, there really was one, though Begler and Amiel say their story is an amalgamation of the city’s medical landscape at the time. Thackery is an accomplished egoist whose drive for professional success masks a painful past and fosters a raging drug addiction.
Struggling to stay at the forefront of medicine as suburban hospitals unveil newer technology and lure away the dollars and wealthy clientele that once filled the Knick’s beds, Thackery finds his mission — and his ego — further challenged when the hospital’s most prominent patron, Capt. August Robertson (Grainger Hines) assigns him a new deputy, Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), a European-trained physician whose progress in his homeland is hampered by the color of his skin.
We caught up with Owen to talk The Knick, working with Soderbergh and walking into the fascinating world of medicine at the turn of the century.
Channel Guide Magazine: In addition to playing this remarkable role, you also serve as executive producer. At what point in the series’ inception did you come aboard?
Clive Owen: Steven got the script and he pretty quickly sent it to me. I love Steven and I loved the idea of working with him, but I was not sure I wanted to do a TV thing. But I read the script and was so blown away by it, and it was such a great part that I called him up and came onboard. He put the whole thing together and showed it to HBO and Cinemax.
It’s almost miraculous how this series manages to weave issues of race, gender, immigration and the impact of money and politics on medicine into an intensely human story that still has relevance today. Do you recall your impressions and emotions as you delved deeper into this story and these characters?
And it all started with our very first script! Every now and again you come across a piece as an actor that brings you to life and just makes you alive. It reminds you why you started doing this in the first place. This is one of those scripts. I read it and was hugely excited and knew it was something I had to do. I just could not not do it. It was so well written.
But before I fully committed to it, I needed to know where they were taking it and what their plan was — what the lines were and where the character was heading. I got on the phone with Steven and the other two writers and they had obviously done so much research into the time, and everything in it is completely inspired by something real that they read about. So I looked into what they were doing and it all looked so exciting that I signed on — and amazingly they kept this quality up. Not only did they write very fast, but it was just thrilling get the scripts and having very few notes. I would read them and they were written so well and were so well constructed and the story really moves along. The last three episodes are really thorough and cover so much and it really charges to the end.
You’re also working with some remarkable, compelling actors that audiences might not know well now — Eve Hewson, Andre Holland, Juliet Rylance, Jeremy Bobb, Cara Seymour, Chris Sullivan — but will not forget in these roles. Tell me about watching this cast come together and work.
After the whole thing was happening, Steven said to me, “The great thing is whoever we think is right for the part, we have cast them. They are not necessarily known names — they just said to go and cast the best actors for the part.”
Steven has such great taste and is such a smart guy. The beauty of working on a project like this is working with him, someone who is on top of everything. And then he cast great actors who are brilliant on their game. It is just a joy. It was just a great time doing it.
I also spoke with Eve earlier and she talked about how Steven would shoot certain scenes in unexpected ways and sometimes reshoot them entirely, and how exciting it was to be a part of. Agreed?
I think the thing that separates Steven from a lot of directors is he has great perspective in every scene. He never shoots a scene just as an overview — like, here are the characters and their lines. He always take a position in a scene. It can be from a character’s position or something he looks at as the most important thing in the scene. He is a very brilliant, very clear storyteller. He can get quite complex things across very clearly and simply, because he is sure how to tell the story.
I don’t think I have ever seen or been involved in a period thing that is a particular time that feels so right. New York feels like a very kind of edgy modern place. The themes they were grappling with then, it feels like it was a dangerous place, it feels like it was a complex city and complex problems going on. All of that is conveyed in a way that I found very exciting. It feels relevant and it feels fresh and modern and makes us look anew. It is real eye-opener in terms of where we are and where we were. I can’t believe we did certain things in those times and those ways especially in the world of medicine. It is a real exciting way to look back at a particular time.
Thackery’s doomed mentor Dr. Christiansen [played by Matt Frewer] says early on that he has an insatiable desire for fame — but, while Thackery certainly has an ago, his driving force seems to be moving medicine forward. Or are both in equal balance?
I have always been slightly attracted to characters that tread a very delicate line. He is not an obvious leading character; he is not someone who takes the audience by the hand and leads them through the story. He is quite a complex, fallible, barbarian guy. And one thing about treading that line through a series like this is it is not comfortable. That is enjoyable to play because you need to take people through the story to keep them with you, but it is not done in a sentimental way. That is something I am instantly attracted to. He is a complex character, he is brilliant … and at times he is certainly awful.
Thackery also doesn’t strike me as racially prejudiced as some of the other characters — he didn’t throw about the epithets that others did. He most seemed to resent Edwards for yet another setback to his and the Knick’s progress and for being, in his eyes, undeserving of his role.
I think that is it. I think that is something that I was obviously concerned about when I read and I want to make sure it was handled properly. Yes he is racist, because we live in a racist time. There weren’t any black doctors working in hospitals at that time. My business is saving people’s lives. It is quite shocking in the present day to have that stick out, but there is also the thing with Thackery — that journey that he goes through.
It was a case of Thackery challenging Algernon. If he was going to step up and be a part of this place, he had to show he was mentally resilient and mentally strong. A lot of the earlier episodes are of me testing and pushing him 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? And I think there is a strong element of that. As a doctor, the thing I am most passionate about is medicine and pushing it forward to a new age and I recognize someone who is brilliant when I see it. I am pretty brilliant because of that.
I think once I see how good he is, how strong he is, I have no problem inviting him in.
Tell me how you view Thackery’s drug use. He’s clearly a brilliant surgeon, but he is certainly struggling with any number of demons.
What was great for me was that the guys made it clear that 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. He has huge problems, he is a very complex character but ultimately he is brilliant — and foremost, he is trying to push medicine forward to a new age. There was a great group of doctors who were around at that time who were doing that and did do that and he was one of them.
And let’s remember the context. At that time cocaine was legal and it was considered the new wonder drug and a number of doctors became addicted to it because they didn’t see the bad side of it. That is the context at which he comes to it. I think that once you define yourself through something like that, it is very hard to let it go. And you will see that that really intensifies towards the end. He is a driven man and he has been using drugs and it’s hard to stop doing it. He has kind of defined himself with it. But it is important to remember that it was very different then than it is now.
The first trailers for the series were pretty bloody and not entirely indicative of the story that was about to be told, leading some outlets to describe The Knick as creepy and gruesome. But that really isn’t the case as the series unfolds. Were you impressed with how well Jack and Michael handled balancing the level of gore and operating theater horrors needed for viewers to understand medicine at the time, but never crossed the line into gratuitousness?
It is great writing and it is a great part, but just the historical context is a world I went off and read about, and I found out about these doctors. And it was such an incredible time. That is just a great opportunity when you are invited into a world that you’ve discovered. That is why I loved reading that first script and that first mutilation and how it is described and the “welcome to the 1900s!” It’s brutal, but that’s the reality of the time and the situation. That’s what medicine was like. People going into operating theaters were lucky to come out alive.
The Knick airs Friday nights at 10pm on Cinemax