Created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the Cinemax drama series The Knick showcases The Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City in 1900, when it was the home to groundbreaking surgeons, nurses and stuff who pushed the boundaries of medicine in a time of high mortality rates and no antibiotics. Equal parts brilliant and arrogant, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) is the newly appointed leader of the surgery staff, but his own ambition for medical discovery is almost overshadowed by his addiction to cocaine and opium. While addressing issues of race, sex and class, the show will undoubtedly make viewers grateful for how far we’ve come.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor André Holland (who plays gifted, Harvard-trained surgeon Dr. Algernon Edwards) talked about how he got involved with The Knick, what attracted him to this role, the extent of his research, the level of outward racism during this time period, the constantly shifting dynamics between the characters, dealing with the gore level of the show, his most memorable surgery scene, and how much he loves the fast pace. He also talked about what it means to him to be a part of Selma, due out in theaters on Christmas, and the remarkable man that he got to portray.
Collider: How did this come about for you?
ANDRE HOLLAND: I got the script and read it while I was in Europe, at the time, and I loved it right away. I frantically put myself on tape from my hotel room in Lisbon, with the assistance of the housekeeper whose English was not so good. And then, I went back to New York and met with Steven [Soderbergh]. After that, it went pretty fast. I was pinching myself for a few days and was like, “Is this really happening?!” And that was it. Before I knew it, we started, and we were off and running. I met with the writers (Jack Amiel and Michael Begler) and they told me, “Here’s what we’re thinking will happen with your character,” and it was so rich.
You’d been doing a bit of comedy before this. Were you actively looking to do more dramatic stuff, or did this just appeal to you, and it happened to be more dramatic?
HOLLAND: It was more that. My goal has always been to try to live up to every ounce of my potential. For me, that means working with the best people and working with the best material. This came along and there was no question in my mind that it was one of the best things that I’d read. And with Steven and Clive [Owen] involved, and it being HBO and Cinemax, if there was any way for me to be a part of it, I definitely wanted to do it. Each of the scripts that they delivered just got better and better and better. And the ideas for Season 2 are just crazy and cool, and I cannot wait.
What was it about Dr. Algernon Edwards that really made you want to play this character?
HOLLAND: The thing I really identified with most was that he’s a guy who’s caught in between these two worlds, and he doesn’t really fit anywhere. He doesn’t fit at home with his family anymore, and not at work. The neighborhood that he’s staying in, the black residents don’t like him because they think he’s too proper and too high on himself. He just doesn’t fit anywhere, and that’s something that I identify with, especially coming from small town Alabama and moving to New York and spending time in L.A. It’s all amazing, but the whole Hollywood thing is so different from how I was brought up. There are times where I feel like a fish out of water, and that’s something that Algernon is definitely going through. And in terms of the challenges of playing him, there’s so much there. There are so many things about him that are interesting that I just wanted to express as much of that as possible and I’d sometimes go home going, “Man, I wish I’d had another crack at that. I feel like maybe I could have done this.” But, you trust that Steven knows what he’s doing. All of the things that I wanted to get in there, he found ways of getting in there, in his own way.
What did you do for research, to give yourself a better understanding of what it would be like, at this time?
HOLLAND: I read a lot of W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote The Souls of Black Folk. I carried that around a lot. And I read the book Low Life by Luc Sante, which just really deals with New York at that time. And then, in terms of the medical research, we had a guy called Stanley Burns, who’s a medical historian that has a four-story brownstone in New York that’s filled with antique instruments and photographs. He literally knows everything. If you say anything about any operation or condition, he knows the history of it. He just knows everything, and he was there on set with us on all of the operation days. I spent a lot of time with him. I also went up to the medical school at Columbia and sat in on some lectures on molecular biology. It had nothing to do with this show, but for me, it felt like it was informative. I sat there and did not understand a single word that was being said, but something about the feel of the place helped me out.
This was a time period when people weren’t subtle in their racism. What’s it like to explore that aspect of the story? Does it give you a new perspective?
HOLLAND: I don’t know if it’s because of my own upbringing, but that part of the story wasn’t that shocking to me, and it wasn’t something that I felt like I needed to shy away from. If anything, I was really drawn to that part of it. I really identified with that. It felt very just underneath the surface, so when Clive and I got into some of those scenes where some horrible things were being said, it felt very easy to get there. It didn’t take deep, dark preparation. That stuff is always a part of me, in a weird sort of way.
Why do you think he stays at The Knickerbocker when other people clearly don’t want him there?
HOLLAND: One of the things that he and Dr. Thackery have in common is that thirst for knowledge, and personal ambition towards that thirst for new knowledge. That keeps him around. And his mother and father both work for the Robertson family. His mother is their cook and his father is their driver. I think there is a loneliness in Algernon and he really does want to be closer to his family, and you couple that with the fact that he’s a bit of a crusader, in his own right. I think those are the reasons that he stays.
What’s it like to play the constantly shifting dynamics between all of the doctors and how they see Algernon?
HOLLAND: I think they’re all doctors on the cutting edge of medicine and they all want to know what the next thing is. Having been in Paris and working with the finest surgeons in the world, Algernon is clearly a part of that. They recognize that he is a really, really brilliant surgeon. One of the questions that each of the characters has to answer for themselves is, “Is it enough that he’s a good surgeon? Is that enough for us to accept him, or is it more important for us to hold onto our personal feelings that we don’t want this black man working alongside of us?” All of the characters have different responses to that, which is one of the things that keeps the show feeling so rich. There’s a constant negotiation with every single person.
How do you see the relationship between Algernon and Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance)?
HOLLAND: It’s interesting because they were raised in the same household, almost as brother and sister. Cornelia knows how brilliant he is, and he knows how brilliant Cornelia is, so they’re on a similar trajectory. She’s a woman, so she’s limited in how she can express herself in her career. She also is finding her way forward, in much the same way that Algernon is. So, the two of them mirror each other.
How hard is it to deal with the gore level on this show?
HOLLAND: It’s a little bit cringe-worthy. At first, we all got a little bit squeamish at moments. But after you spend four or five hours with that stuff, handling that stuff with blood everywhere, it gets like, “Okay, let’s get it done and go take a shower.”
What was the most challenging scene to do?
HOLLAND: The surgeries were the hardest scenes for me because it’s literally balancing so many balls in the air, at the same time, and each surgery is different. They’s bring in the prosthetics and show us what everything is. And then, they had the blood, which makes everything even harder because it’s slippery and you can’t see. It took a lot to figure out how to do those scenes. They didn’t get any easier, but Steven figured out how best to cover them. The early ones took a long time.
Did you have a particularly memorable surgery?
HOLLAND: The one I remember most was the one we did in the sub-basement. In the middle of it, someone came down the stairs, so we had to cut all of the lights off and I was trying to keep this man alive in the dark. That one was pretty challenging.
Steven Soderbergh likes to work at a fast pace, doesn’t he?
HOLLAND: Very fast. The pace is breakneck. It’s really, really fast. There is no time to wait. You turn up in the morning, you get through hair and make-up, and then you are on set working until it’s time to go home. And I love that. Coming from the theater, you just turn up and you’re ready for whatever happens. That energy really appeals to me.
What was it like to do a movie like 42, where you were helping expose a lot of audiences to Jackie Robinson for the first time, and then do a movie like Selma, where you’re going to introduce people to such an important story there?
HOLLAND: It really means a lot to me. It really does. I’m also learning about some of these things myself, in a different way. With Selma, I grew up in Alabama, 45 minutes away from Selma. I have gone to that commemorative march many times with my parents. But, working on the movie, it just gives you a different look at it. We really got into the details of how the march was put together and what everybody had to sacrifice, in order to make it happen. And then, standing on the bridge with 400 background artists, many of whom were on that bridge, at that march, and hearing their stories, it’s history, but you can also take things pretty personally. It’s really important to me.
Who do you play in the film?
HOLLAND: I play Andrew Young, who was the former mayor of Atlanta and is an ambassador now. He was one of MLK’s top guys, in terms of planning and negotiating and organizing. He’s a remarkable man. I got to spend some time with him, too, which was really unbelievable.
The Knick airs on Friday nights on Cinemax.