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 phone interview with Collider, actor Chris Sullivan (who plays Tom Cleary, the Irish ambulance driver who can make almost any situation work to his benefit) talked about how he came to be a part of The Knick, what attracted him to this role, how he views Tom Cleary, what’s most surprised him about playing this character, the relationship between Cleary and Sister Harriet, how much he’s enjoyed working with Cara Seymour, how much the uniform informs his performance, and why working with Steven Soderbergh is an opportunity of a lifetime. He also talked about his band, Sully and the Benevolent Folk, what he loves about making music, and their eclectic sound. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did you come to this?
CHRIS SULLIVAN: I had a very basic audition process. I auditioned once on tape, through my manager, and then Carmen Cuba, who is Steven Soderbergh’s casting lady, flew out to New York to see a bunch of us. I don’t know if it was part of the deal for Steven agreeing to do it, but he had final say on everything. But, that was it. It was an audition and a callback. It wasn’t as involved as some audition processes are.
This character has revealed himself in small bits, throughout the season. Since you probably didn’t know too much about him when you signed on, what was it about him that appealed to you and what did you see in him, as far as the potential of where he might go in the future?
SULLIVAN: When I was auditioning, they had given us the first episode. At first glance, he seemed like your stereotypical bully and tough guy, but there was something in the way that they had written Sister Harriet that made me think that perhaps his attitude was justified, or perhaps he was coming from someplace a little bit more in-depth than just general anger. I think that all of that has revealed itself.
He’s this guy who’s looking for any way he can to make extra money and survive, even if it’s not the most ethical thing he could be doing. How do you view him? Do you see him as a man who’s just trying to get by and not as someone who does any of what he does for any evil purpose?
SULLIVAN: I think that New York City in the year 1900 was a very difficult place to survive. The only people who have a good chance of surviving are people with money. The rich are obviously trying to keep their money, but everyone in the lower class is trying to get their money. The interesting part about Cleary is that he’s one of the few characters, at least on the darker side of the show, that doesn’t hide who he is, at any point. He’s pretty upfront about what he wants and the kind of person that he is. Even though he can be malicious, at times, or a little dark, I have some respect for that character trait.
Why do you think he is so open about his flexible morality and doesn’t really try to hide or be more secretive about it? What do you think got him to that point?
SULLIVAN: I don’t know. I think he’s probably the type of person who never had to hide it. On top of being loud and outspoken, he’s also probably very good at what he does. What he does also happens to benefit other people, in several ways. So, I think people need him. I think he’s integral to the hospital’s functioning. The relationship between he and Barrow is just out in the open. I think he’s gotten a little cocky about who he is and what he does.
Do you think that will come back to bite him?
SULLIVAN: I don’t know. I think he has a fool proof position in society, oddly enough. He’s not too high, and he’s not too low. He’s the guy who, when you need him, shows up and gets you to the people that can help you. As far as Barrow is concerned, he’s a pipeline for getting things done, oftentimes so that Barrow can keep his hands somewhat clean. He’s a bit of a hired thug, in that fashion, as far as getting ahold of bodies or getting ahold of things that the hospital needs.
On the surface, Cleary seems like a thug or a villain, but you also see moments of real humanity in him. What has most surprised you about what you’ve learned about Clearly, from playing the character?
SULLIVAN: People’s initial reaction to Cleary was that he’s the bad guy, but the best thing about this show is that the writers have created all of these characters in a way where none of them are all good and none of them are all bad. Enough of Cleary’s dark side was revealed, early on, for people to think that’s who he is, but as we find out, there are objectionable things happening in all of the characters’ lives. The best part about Cleary is that he has a set of principles that he stands by. Oddly enough, if you really take a look at it, it’s crazy because he’s presented as this thug, but he hasn’t done anything wrong. He hasn’t broken any laws. He walks a pretty straight and narrow path, outside of his dealings with the hospital. But even then, people are receiving help. Cara Seymour, who plays Sister Harriet, is just the greatest co-worker and acting partner a person could have. A lot of the humanity that comes out in Cleary is based off of the way she reacts to him. There’s a softness in the way she reacts to Cleary, from the beginning, that gives the character way more depth than maybe I could have ever given him. So, I owe a lot to the way that she’s playing Sister Harriet, in that regard.
SULLIVAN: Yeah. One of the amazing things about the way Steven and this whole production works is their level of organization and preparedness. We got all 10 scripts for the first season about three weeks before we started shooting. Cara and I were able to get together a handful of times and literally walk through every scene our characters have together, in the first season. So, we had many conversations about the way they interact and why they interact. We don’t have nuns in our life the way they used to be. When people think about a nun, they think about this saintly, holy, walking around on a cloud type of character, but it’s much more complicated than that. Nuns were in the streets, nuns were dirty, nuns were helping the lowest of society. You see Sister Harriet in surgery, helping in the orphanage, and taking care of mothers. Her being a nun, so far, is almost inconsequential. So, the relationship between the two of them has already gotten a lot more intimate and pedestrian than people expect. But yeah, she and I were able to decide how we wanted to develop the characters, from beginning to end, and how close we wanted them to get and how familiar we wanted them to get, based on the work that was given to us. And then, of course, as the season went on, all of that changed, too. It’s one of my favorite relationships that I’ve ever gotten to portray, in my entire career.
What have you most enjoyed about playing this character and living in his shoes, in this world?
SULLIVAN: Since he is upfront about who he is, and the way that they’ve written him in this loud, outspoken fashion, the best part is that it leaves me a lot of room to make him a little larger than life. He can do anything. He’s unpredictable. He can do anything he wants, at any time. That makes for fun acting choices.
The character also has a very specific uniform. How much does that inform your performance and the way you carry yourself?
SULLIVAN: Ellen Mirojnick, the costume designer, told me early on, “This is it. This is what you will wear for the entire first season.” For me, the costume is 50% of everything. It informs posture, it informs flexibility, it informs the way you walk, it informs what the character is capable of doing, at any time. That costume gives Cleary this posture that pulls his shoulders back because of the tightness of the wool jacket, which I love. Cleary walks everywhere, leading with his crotch. It’s overly bombastic posture. His hips enter a room before he does, and it informs his whole attitude. The costume is invaluable.
What was it like to have someone like Steven Soderbergh, directing every episode, and what’s it like to know that he enjoyed it so much that he wanted to do it again for Season 2?
SULLIVAN: Obviously, this is an opportunity of a lifetime. Something like this comes along very, very rarely. To walk onto set and, no matter how early you get there, Steven is always there first, observing and looking around and deciding how he wants to shoot things. So, to walk onto set and be under his command is thrilling. The first couple of days on set, I had to actively lower my heart rate, so that I could do the job. He had meetings with all of us, before we started shooting, and the gist of the meeting was to get everyone together and make sure that everyone was calm. Oddly enough, that’s the best word to describe the whole process. It’s just calm. Everything about it is calm and collected and focused and really light. It’s not overly serious. There’s no raising of voices. People aren’t running around. He knows exactly what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, or if he doesn’t, nobody can tell. It’s a pretty unique experience. From what I saw, Cinemax and HBO just said, “You can do whatever you want, however you want to do it,” and Steven got to make the show that he wanted to make. That made for a really enjoyable experience, for all of us. As is well known, he operates his own camera and he edits everything himself, and he just had a super clear picture of how everything was going to fit together, so there was no time wasted. Everyone felt like their time was being used well. There was not a lot of standing around. You’d show up, shoot and go home. It was great.
As an artist, what do you enjoy about getting to explore music that you don’t get from acting?
SULLIVAN: The interesting part about being an artist is that the ways in which you express yourself are not always readily available. So, when I first started writing music, I was doing theater. I was doing the same show, over and over again, for about eight months. A lot of the creativity in theater and a lot of the work that gets done happens in rehearsal. A lot of actors will tell you that that’s their favorite part because they’re working things out. Once I get into performances, it becomes almost more like a science. You’re exploring these moments differently every evening, but that leaves 22 hours left in the day to explore other things. I think the best part about music is that you can do it anywhere at any time and it’s always with you. It’s also not my career. There’s no pressure behind it, to make money or to play shows. So, we released our first album a year and a half ago and we played a couple of shows, and I just kept writing songs. There will eventually be a second album, and we will play shows when we find time. I think the accessibility of music is one of my favorite things about it.
For someone who’s wondering whether your music would appeal to them and whether they should download your album, how would you describe what you do?
SULLIVAN: The band is called Sully and the Benevolent Folk, and it’s basically a large collection of all of my group of friends. It’s a very eclectic group of musicians that are all coming together to play blues, country and rock-based folk music. My producer and my guitar player does post-apocalyptic metal. My bass player is a brilliant bass player, who toured with a show called Million Dollar Quartet, so he’s a rockabilly country guy. My wife, who does most of the back-up vocals on the album, was brought up in the choral world. There are a lot of different influences that come into the album. The most interesting part about that whole process, for me, was that I had bought a ukelele and wanted to learn how to play it. As a creative challenge, when I was doing that show that I mentioned before, I set out to 30 songs in 30 days, and I did. I ended up writing 32 songs in 32 days, and all of the songs from the album are pulled from that group of songs. What ended up happening was that, 10 or 15 days in, I started running out of ideas and wondered, “What do I do next?” It became an exercise in songwriting where I was like, “If I was going to be a songwriter and could write a song for Tom Waits, what would that sound like? If I was going to write a song for Jeff Buckley, what would that sound like?” I would explore different styles and different vocal ranges. It became a real project of love for me. There’s blues in there, there’s country in there, there’s folk in there. I don’t know what kind of person that would appeal to.
The Knick airs on Friday nights on Cinemax.