Andre Holland knew he was meant to play Dr. Algernon Edwards in the absorbing Cinemax drama The Knick from the moment the script landed in his hands. The problem? Holland was vacationing in Italy and had minutes to submit an audition tape if he wanted the part. So, much like his put-upon, resourceful character, Holland 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?’”
Now airing Friday nights at 10pm ET/PT, The Knick is set in the fact-meets-fiction world of New York’s burgeoning medical community at the turn of the 20th century, as seen through the eyes of the city’s Knickerbocker Hospital — and yes, there really was one, but this Knick is a composite. Created by the veteran writing team of Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the 10-episode drama (already ready renewed for Season 2) stars Holland, Clive Owen and a stellar supporting cast in a stunningly human story that blends issues of race, gender, religion, medical ethics and advancements, politics and corruption that still resonate today.
We recently caught up with Holland, soon to be seen in Ava DuVernay’s anticipated civil right’s drama Selma, to talk The Knick, its message and this once-in-a-lifetime role.
Channel Guide Magazine: Tell me about your first impressions and emotions when you got the script and delved deeper into this remarkable story and characters?
Andre Holland: First of all I was blown away by the storytelling — the way all of the stories were woven together and all of the issues were dealt with in such a cool way. But then, when I read my character, the first thought that I had was that it’s not often that a character like that comes along. One that is about race, but is more about being human — a man who falls in love and is struggling to make his career and take care of the family that he loves and cares about and tries to take care of and fight for his own dignity and respect. But add to that that there is this sort of racial tension and drama that was very much a part of his life. I thought it was just a really beautiful and complex character that they had drawn. And as soon as I read it, I called my agent and said, ‘What exactly do we have to do to get this?’
CGM: Not only does Algernon face racism from other races, he also struggles to be accepted by members of his own race. What was it like playing a man who was frequently made to feel he fit in nowhere?
AH: It was great! [Laughs] That was the other thing about the part that attracted me, because I grew up in the South — in Alabama —and I think that kind of duality that Algernon has and exhibits is something that I’ve carried around in my own life.
Growing up in the deep South, there’s very much a way that you have to learn how to behave that gets you by — at least when I was in high school and in college. But at the same time, it’s this very different way of being — “This is 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 things, those two selves, they collide with one another, and I think that’s where we find Algernon in the story — at that intersection, at that junction. And it’s a place that I, as Andre, have found myself a lot, especially lately, as an actor trying to find my way through the business, I’ve figured out that, OK, well, there’s this part of myself that I get rewarded for and that people seem to want to see and then there is this other part that I know is there and is me, as well. And so how do you reconcile those two?
Not to mention the part where being in Alabama some of the time with my folks versus New York for fancy parties, or being in L. A. at premieres, there’s all these different sort of facets to who I am — and I think that’s how Algernon is, as well. And I think the goal, the story we’re trying to tell with this season of The Knick is what is the cost of bringing those all together? The things that W. E. B. Du Bois said about double consciousness, and reading some of his work, really inspired me and helped me prepare for the part, because, for me its a really deep and personal connection I feel with Algernon. Having to live in several different worlds all of the same time.
CGM: There is the party scene with Captain Robertson (Grainger Hines), whom you know is desperately proud of Algernon and thinks of him as family, still using race to frame his pride and praise. Algernon’s reaction is priceless. Tell me about filming that moment.
AH:That scene was one that was really important to me. It’s a small scene, but it’s exactly that thing of being caught between people who expect you to behave a certain way and reward you for behaving in a certain way, and yet you’re also becoming aware of the fact that they’re also slightly ignorant in that they’re way of viewing isn’t actually accurate. But at what point do you actually say, “You know what, guys? You know what is really going on?” But you just swallow it down and you need to move on. And when he chooses to swallow it and move on, what is the cost of that?
It’s something I saw my father go through in the professional world when I was growing up — I just really saw him swallow down a lot of those moments. So that scene was really important to me. And, thank God, Grainger really got it, too, so he really helped me lean into his character in a way that really made it clear what was happening between us.
And working on Selma right now, it’s funny how these things intersect, because the guy I’m playing, Andrew Young, one of the things that he says in his book and that he says when he speaks as well about racism in all its forms, is it’s actually not a thing that we should jump to anger about because it’s actually just a sickness. It’s actually just a sickness of the mind that people sometimes aren’t even aware of. So part of what we have to do is educate people about why certain things are hurtful.
So I actually felt for Robertson in that scene because you’re right. I don’t think he has any idea that what he’s saying is hurtful. I think he’s just being his cheerful self and he’s clearly very, very proud of Algernon and I think his heart is in the right place. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when you’re on the other end of it.
CGM: Give me your thoughts on Dr. Thackery’s world view. Because, to me, while he certainly is still prejudiced, he doesn’t throw about the epithets that others do and he seemed to most resent Edwards for yet another setback to his and the hospital’s progress and for being, in his eyes, undeserving of his role. And Algernon clearly sees enough hope there that he choses to stay and work for the man in whatever capacity he can.
AH: That’s something that we went back and forth about, and Clive was really instrumental in clarifying. And I think, as you said Thackery was more about the financial impact of bringing someone like Algernon into the hospital, There may also be some racism in there — who knows, right? — but I think the main thing is Gallinger is the one that he had in mind and I think he doesn’t want to endanger an already shaky financial situation. And also I think he, like most people are, is resistant to change.
But I think that Algernon does know that Thackery is this incredible surgeon and I think Algernon has made a career of working only with the best people. He’s been in London and he’s been in Paris and he’s worked with the finest doctors in the world, and I think he struggled in other places as well. But his ability has always gotten him through. He’s always managed to find his way through once people see what he can do. And I think that because Algernon recognizes that Thackery is such a brilliant surgeon, he also trusts that once Thackery sees the same in Algernon, that there will be some sort of reconciliation.
CGM: The things Algernon is able to accomplish in secret, in the basement of the hospital is astounding — and the root of that reconciliation. Tell me about playing that intensely resourceful facet of Algernon’s character?
AH: Frankly, I think that’s something that black people in America have often done — finding ways under very, very difficult circumstances to be subversive, but also to push things forward. And I think that applies to music. I think it applies to dance. I think it applies to a number of things. And this is no different. It’s just a part of who Algernon is as a black man. He can find a way, you know what I mean? He just finds a way. And I think that when people have something in them — when they have a song in their heart that they are intent on getting out — I think it will come out in some way, regardless of the circumstances. And I think that the fact that Algernon was able to do as much as he did in that basement just points to how gifted a surgeon he is. How gifted a person. It’s just the story of black people in America, just constantly finding a way to get ahead no matter the circumstances.
And I think that all of these things are so clear and so present is because of the writing, but also because of Steven. He just gets things. He just gets it. All the things that we talked about in terms of racial complexity and immigration and the way of these things are woven into the story and into the show shows how Steven gets them, but doesn’t necessarily talk about them a lot. He doesn’t belabor the actors with, “This is what this is about and this is what I want that to be about.
And Mr. Clive — one of the dopest actors ever. He’s just really special. I can’t say enough things about him, really. The chance to work with him and to get to know him as a person is, for me, one of the highlights of the entire thing.
AH: Juliet! I’m crazy about her! She’s fantastic. First of all, we both come from theater and her father is one of my favorite actors ever, Mark Rylance. So when I found out that she was doing it, I was like, OK, we’re in good hands. And she and I spent a lot of time together outside of the set. We would get together and work on our stuff and just spend time together getting to know each other and hanging out. She such an easy person to fall for. She’s as charming and warm and sophisticated as Cornelia is, so you just have to kind of look at her and take her in and it takes care of itself in a sense. Getting a change to work with her was really, really special. And I don’t really know what’s gong to happen next season, but I hope it’s going to be something juicy between us!
New episodes of The Knick return Friday, September 6, at 10pm on Cinemax.
Images: HBO/Mary Cybulski