The Cinemax drama series The Knick, created by Jack Amiel & Michael Begler and directed by Steven Soderbergh, is back for Season 2 and it’s 1901 in New York City, as The Knickerbocker Hospital faces upheaval. In this world of corruption, invention and progress, everyone is searching for the new path that will help him or her survive, but nothing will come easy for any of them.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor André Holland (who plays Dr. Algernon Edwards, a bright, gifted surgeon who’s determined not to be held back by the color of his skin) talked about what it’s been like to collaborate with Steven Soderbergh, the biggest challenges in playing this character, preparing for the surgery scenes, keeping track of his character’s trajectory, the dynamic between Dr. Edwards and Dr. Thackery, the women in Algernon’s life, how the issues with race at the time are still reflected in today’s society, and what he looks for in a role.
Collider: What’s it been like to work and collaborate with Steven Soderbergh on The Knick?
ANDRE HOLLAND: It’s really been like going to film school. It’s such a treat. As you know, he directs, he operates the camera, he edits, he does the lighting, and he’s doing everything. It’s really great to be up close and personal, and watch him make a film. He’s also been a great supporter and friend, outside of work, in terms of talking about films and talking about careers and helping me navigate this next phase of my career. I definitely want to make sure the people I work with, going forward, are at that level.
This character is so complex and complicated. Have there been any particular challenges to playing Dr. Algernon Edwards?
HOLLAND: The whole thing has been challenging. When I first read it, right away, I saw that it was very complicated and unique, and I wanted to make sure that I did it justice. Every day felt like a challenge. What was especially challenging for me were the surgery scenes. You have to learn about the procedures themselves, what the words mean and how to say them, and really hold the instruments and do whatever we say that we’re doing. It adds a whole other layer, and then you add blood to that. And then, they bring in a hundred background actors to be in the gallery, and you’re speaking to them while suturing and dealing with blood and saying the words. That’s the most challenging part for me.
As things get deeper and deeper into the story and into the medical side of things, did you have to do anything or learn anything new to prepare for this season?
HOLLAND: All of the surgeries and operations for Season 2 are new, so we had to approach each one from a brand-new, clean slate. There was still research to be done, in that regard. In terms of the emotional journey of it, I feel like we were very much picking up where we left off and building on what we had already established. This year, instead of going broader, it really gets narrower and deeper into the characters. For me, as an actor, this year felt great. Last year was so much about establishing the show and getting to know each other, as fellow actors, and getting to know Steven, so there were some nerves involved. This year, we were all much more relaxed and the result is that it’s a much better season.
How did what this guy went through in Season 1 change him into who he is now in Season 2?
HOLLAND: I think he’s much smarter and wiser now. He’s not as surprised by the behavior of the people at the hospital. He’s learned how to manage them a little bit better. At the beginning of the season, things were going great at the hospital. There are fewer deaths, they’re making more advances, and they’re making money. Things are going really smoothly. And yet, when he goes to the board to apply for the permanent job, he still gets turned down. At the beginning of the season, his approach was to take the emotion out of it and just make it fact-based and say, “Listen, I’m able to make you more money. I’m able to make this place run better than it ever has before.” I think he really believes that that will get through to them, and he’s surprised when it doesn’t.
Clearly, Dr. Edwards doesn’t receive the respect he deserves at work, and the woman he loves married another man. What keeps driving him forward, and is there a breaking point for him?
HOLLAND: He’s so capable and so smart and so hungry, and frankly I don’t think he has another choice. To me, he’s not the kind of man who will go get a job at a bakery or a coffee shop. He’s born to do this. Everything he’s done in his life has been leading to this point. He doesn’t have the luxury of quitting. So, I think necessity is what motivates him.
Season 1 was shot like a 10-hour movie, with the entire thing being shot out of order. Did you approach Season 2 the same way, and do you have any special tricks for keeping track of your character’s trajectory?
HOLLAND: This season, we actually shot much more in order than we did last year, so that was really nice. But still, I made this big chart that laid out all the scenes that I had in each of the episodes. I had that on my wall, so that I could always refer to it and say, “Okay, here’s where we are in the story, so this is where I am, emotionally.” And then, if we have to jump forwards or backwards, I can point very quickly to where I am in the arc, at that moment. We tend to work at a pretty quick pace, so you have to stay on top of it, for sure.
There’s such an interesting dynamic between Dr. Edwards and Dr. Thackery. Why do you think it is that Algernon is willing to overlook the possible risks of getting involved with the sometimes crazy things that Thackery is doing?
HOLLAND: At the end of the day, he realizes that Thackery is a brilliant surgeon and a brilliant man. Yes, he does have his demons, but you can’t take away what he’s been able to do. There’s an unbridled ambition that they both have, that keeps them going and keeps them interested in each other. One of the questions that I had, going into the season, was why would Algernon continue to be okay with this or ignore it? He’s a highly functioning person with an addiction. If he’s able to help save lives, Algernon is able to look past his faults, in certain moments.
What was it like to have Opal show up and have her appearance be such a surprise to Algernon?
HOLLAND: It came as a surprise to me, too, when I was reading it. What it did was add a layer. We get to understand more about Algernon’s backstory, where he’s come from and what his life was in Europe. I think Algernon really felt like that relationship was a thing of the past, but what it brings to the present is that she’s a real ally for Algernon. He was alone the entire first season. He hasn’t really had anyone to rely on. Even though there’s obviously some bad blood between them and things that need to be figured out, she really cares about him and will be there for him.
How difficult is it for Algernon to be faced with what happened with Cornelia and still having feelings for her while he’s also dealing with his past?
HOLLAND: It’s complicated. One of Algernon’s great strengths is that he’s able to compartmentalize things. With Cornelia, he closed that door, at the end of last season, and locked it. I don’t think he had any intention of them finding another way to try again. Once the abortion happened, she made it very clear that she’s not able to be with him and she doesn’t believe they can have a family together, so he closed that door. Same thing with Opal. When he left Europe, he closed that door. It makes it quite interesting and dramatic, when they both are in the same room, at the same time.
Between what he’s going through with his eye and the women in his life, can this poor guy ever just have something go his way, for once?
HOLLAND: Yeah, it just get worse and worse for him, doesn’t it? I think he’s earned a vacation.
When you dive so deeply into what race relations were like, in this time period, does it make you appreciate what’s changed since that, at the same time you feel a sense of disappointment that things haven’t come nearly far enough?
HOLLAND: For sure. Some of the things in this show feel so current that it’s really scary. That’s part of the reason that people relate to the show. People stop me on the street and at different events, and particularly people of color will say, “Man, it feels so real. It feels so today, the way you guys treat race on the show.” And I think that’s true. It is sad. But, it’s another reason for people to tune in and watch the show. It really does a wonderful job of depicting how things were and what things were like, and reminding us of how far we still have to go.
At this point in your life and career, what is it that ultimately gets you to sign on for a project?
HOLLAND: At the end of the day, I want to play parts that really have some integrity and that are three-dimensional characters. I don’t ever want to do anything that is an embarrassment to my family. Also, especially after having worked with Steven [Soderbergh] and Clive [Owen] and this group of people, I definitely want to work with people who are artists and who are interested in being their best version of themselves. And then, of course, the material always has a huge part to play. It’s gotta be something that really speaks to me. People sometimes say, “What is your dream role?” I don’t really have a dream role. I’ll know it when I see it. I just hope to work with great people, and do things that are challenging for me and that I can be proud of and not have to hide my face about. Those are my guidelines.
The Knick airs on Friday nights on Cinemax.