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, actress Eve Hewson (who plays fresh-faced nurse Lucy Elkins) talked about what led her down a path to acting, how she came to be a part of The Knick, why she decided to sign on for a TV show, what it’s like to have someone like Steven Soderbergh directing every episode, why she likes doing accents, the power play between Lucy and Dr. Thackery, what it’s like to shoot the scenes in the surgical theater, the craziest surgery scenes that they shot, the types of roles she’d like to do, and her desire to do theater on Broadway. Check out what she had to say after the jump. The Knick airs on Cinemax on Friday nights.
EVE HEWSON: I got a script and my agent said that I was auditioning. I was away with my family, so they sent it to me and said, “Can you put yourself on tape?” I had met Carmen [Cuba], our casting director, before and we got along really well, so she knew me. And then, I sent in a tape and they said, “They’re sending your tape to Steven [Soderbergh].” And then, I met with Steven and they were like, “You’ve got it.” I was like, “How is it possible that I’ve done a zillion auditions, and then all of this happened so easily?” But, it was great. It was amazing! I hit the jackpot.
And this is your first TV show, right?
HEWSON: Oh, it’s the first big thing I’ve really done. My first job out of college was working with Steven Soderbergh. I was telling my acting teachers, “I did it, you guys!”
Had you been looking for a project where you could explore a character more long-term?
HEWSON: It’s funny because when I first met with Carmen, she said, “Have you ever thought about doing TV?” And I was like, “No, not really, but I’d audition for TV.” And she said, “That’s where the roles are for women now. That’s where you can go and get a really great part.” Especially for people who are unknown, it’s easier to get a TV show because you don’t have to put a certain amount of people in movie theaters for a box office weekend. It’s really difficult to get a great lead role in some big film, if nobody knows you. So, she said, “You should go do TV. That’s where you can find a great part, and people can learn about you from that.” I don’t even think she knew what was going to come. I had met her in February, and then I think Steven got the script in May and they started casting in June. It was really just a funny coincidence.
HEWSON: I think I always knew I was going to somehow be on a stage. I was quite an extrovert, as a child. And I did a lot of music, when I was younger, so I thought I was going to go into music, but I fell into acting, in a really weird way. My tutor was a film director on the side, and she introduced me to film. She then put me in one of her short films, and it came out of that. That’s when I fell in love with the process of making a film. After that, I was about 15 and I was like, “This is what I’ve gotta do.” So, I started taking acting lessons, and then I applied to college to do acting. I got an agent, and it all just happened.
Obviously, people are always going to be interested in your family, but do you feel like taking this other path allows you a chance to establish yourself, with an identity separate from all of that?
HEWSON: Yeah, definitely. Thank god, I can’t sing because that would be a lot of pressure. But yeah, it’s nice doing something different and that’s something I really feel like is my own passion. It’s also connected. Everything is connected in the entertainment business, so I have the support of my parents because they’ve been through it all before and they can give me advice. And I don’t have family members calling me and saying, “Is this rumor about you in the newspaper true?,” because they know it’s all bullshit. I already have that support system, and it’s actually been really helpful. My parents have been in the entertainment business for so long that they really know what not to do.
You’re still new to professional acting, but you’re already working with such incredibly talented and acclaimed people, in front of and behind the camera. Do you feel like you’ve already grown, as an actress, since you started?
HEWSON: Yeah, definitely. It’s all about growing and trying new things. With this project, particularly, I was very inexperienced. I had worked on a few things, but this was my big part. I was thrown into the deep end, and it worked out. It’s like boot camp, working with Steven. He works so fast and you have to be so prepared, but I like that. I learned, really quickly. I feel like it’s definitely helped me.
HEWSON: It’s amazing because Steven is so focused and so aware of what he wants. He is so in control. He’s the director, the editor and the cinematographer, so he’s thought about absolutely everything, by the time you get onto the set. We also had to move so fast. We did nine pages a day, and we basically did one or two takes. That would have been really scary for me, having not worked on a lot before, with anybody else. But knowing that he trusted me, and if we needed to get another take, we would, and if he liked it, we would move on, gives you a confidence with it. He’s so involved. He’s looking into the camera that’s pointed at you. He’s not off in video village, eating nuts. He’s there, he’s in your face, he’s watching you, and he’s got your back. That was really great. And it was so nice to be able to have a working relationship with him and get to know him. We had that for five months. I loved that part of it. We’re lucky that he’s actually really nice and fun, and everyone wants to hang out with him. He really enjoys what he’s doing. He’s taking a lot of risks, and he’s not scared of failing. I loved working with him.
What was it about this story and character that stood out for you and made you want to be a part of telling this story?
HEWSON: Everything about it stood out. The script was so uncomfortable and really gruesome and off-putting, and I loved that. I love that about film, and that you can make someone squirm in their seat. I was squirming when I was reading it, but I had an adrenaline rush because I feel like that’s what it’s all about. Of course, we’re so lucky to be in a time where that’s not our reality anymore. I just thought it was very interesting to go back to that time now, and to look at all of these issues that are still relevant today, but just in such a different way, and to see how we approach them and try to overcome them. Yeah, we’ve come a long way with medicine and women’s health in the Western world, but in a lot of parts of the rest of the world, that’s still a huge issue. I think it’s really important that people can look at this show and be offended by it. Hopefully, then people will understand that this is still very much a problem we need to solve in other parts of the world. At least we have antibiotics.
HEWSON: Yeah, definitely. Because I’m Irish, I’ve always done an accent. Not doing an accent is off-putting because I sound like me. I love doing an accent. Doing the accent from West Virginia was great, and we had to get specific with it. She grew up in West Virginia in the mountains, for the past 20 years, and we had to really figure out what kind of Southern accent it was. It really helps me. It’s one of the first things that will help me. The research comes next. And then, getting into costume and being on set is really important, too. All of those elements were really heightened for this. For most of the movies that I’ve done, we’ve shot in a contemporary house, in contemporary clothes, speaking in a contemporary way. So, I really enjoy that. It really helps.
What can you say about who Lucy Elkins and how she came to be a nurse?
HEWSON: It wasn’t a profession that was respected, in any way, but at that point, they were trying to make it respectable. The origin of nursing started out with prostitutes, who would go care for people in jail. That was back when nobody wanted to go to the hospital because it was basically a place that you went to die. It started progressing with the visiting nurses in the South. The women started wearing these outfits to make it look like they were more sophisticated and so that they could be more respected. They started recruiting women from good education backgrounds because they wanted to make it a more respected profession. Back then though, you had a few months of training, and then you were just thrown into it. So, anyone could really be a nurse, and that’s the case with Lucy. She moved to New York to be a nurse because she wanted the excitement of living in a city, but she doesn’t know anything, and it’s not really her fault. She’s just thrown into the deep end. Underneath it all, she’s looking for that excitement. She’s not just a scared girl. She’s there and she’s put herself in this situation for a reason.
There’s an interesting power play between Lucy and Dr. Thackery, who seems to like to use his position of power to get people to do what he wants them to.
HEWSON: And she’s definitely the kind of person that wants to be told what to do because she gets off on that. It is an interesting heightened situation. I couldn’t imagine working in a hospital where there’s just death, everywhere. But for a lot of women, it was their only option. They couldn’t get other jobs. Even though Lucy is pretty freaked out and scared shitless in the first episode, she did move from West Virginia to New York. She is a lot bolder than you would expect. I really liked playing someone that had that excitement underneath her.
HEWSON: Yeah, she does. She gets herself into a lot of trouble, but she wants to get herself into a lot of trouble. That’s the whole thing.
What can you say about how the relationship between Lucy and Dr. Thackery evolves?
HEWSON: In the first episode, he embarrasses and humiliates her, in front of everybody, and that set the tone for a very complicated relationship. But then, you see him be very vulnerable, and she is the one who has to look after him. I really enjoy that power play that they have between them. You definitely see that go up and down, throughout the season. The way that she communicates with people is in her own funny little way, which I enjoy playing.
What’s it like to do those scenes in the surgical theater, with everyone sitting there watching?
HEWSON: That was so wild, but it was actually really fun for us to have everyone in the surgical theater. It felt like we had an audience, and it added a lot of pressure to the actual surgery. For us to try to get it right in one take for Steven, and in front of everybody, we had that added urgency and anxiousness for it to go right. That’s a tiny piece of what doctors must feel, every single day. But, it was nice for the actors to have the audience.
What’s the craziest surgery scene you had to shoot?
HEWSON: The placenta praevia cases were the craziest because they had the most blood and they were the most invasive, in terms of cutting up a pregnant woman, reaching inside her stomach and taking out a human. There was some gross stuff, like the bowel repair. That was just nasty because they really did make it look like his intestines were rotting. It was green and full of puss, and it was just vile. We did a heart surgery. In Episode 3, we sewed someone’s arm to their face. We did a skin graft where we had to take a piece of skin from his body and attach it, so that it would grow. There was a lot of really gory, gross stuff. Every day, we would be like, “Oh, my god, this is a big day! We’re operating on this person.” There was no dull moment, at all.
HEWSON: There have been a few moments where Steven had to be like, “Just don’t look at it, Eve!” And I was like, “I’m gonna get sick!” Most of the time, I was actually just really fascinated. I love make-up, and I love special effects make-up, so I was really excited to see how they were going to come up with these crazy prosthetics, and how they were going to get the blood and puss to ooze out, at the right time. The special effects guys were hiding around the corner with their remotes, and pumping stuff into tubes. It was really cool. It’s fascinating. That’s what I love about movies. You get to see the behind-the-scenes.
Aside from and behind this show, have you given any thought to the types of roles you’d like to do?
HEWSON: Yeah. I grew up loving E.T. That’s my favorite movie. I have an original movie poster, framed in my bedroom. I have E.T. robots and t-shirts. I adore Steven Spielberg. I think Paul Thomas Anderson is amazing. Alfonso Cuarón is incredible. In film, there are so many great up-and-coming directors. I’d love to try comedy. I love everything Judd Apatow touches. I think Girls is fantastic. And then, I’d really like to do theater. Being on Broadway would be my big goal. I love New York and I love theater. That’s what I studied in college. I love Martin McDonagh, who’s an Irish playwright that’s fucking hilarious. Whether he’s doing a movie or he’s doing a play, I want to be involved with it. There are a lot of things that I want to do.