'The Knick' Returns To The Bloody Pursuit Of Knowledge The TV show, set in a New York City hospital in the early 1900s, depicts turn-of-the-century medicine in grisly detail. Stars Clive Owen and Andre Holland say there's no nostalgia involved.

'The Knick' Returns To The Bloody Pursuit Of Knowledge

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"The Knick" is not your typical medical drama. It's set in New York's Knickerbocker Hospital in the early 1900s. In fact, the city did have a real Knickerbocker hospital once. "The Knick's" version, just entering its second season on the Cinemax cable network, is a world of white coats, dark hallways and all manner of infectious diseases. Everything is grimy. The surgeries are often graphic, the doctors' lives often messy and racial and anti-immigrant sentiments fester like an untreated wound.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What kind were they?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Italian.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Dark-haired, dark-skinned?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yes, and small.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Southern, most likely then - an entirely different breed than what comes out of Florence or Milan.

MONTAGNE: Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh directs "The Knick." It stars Clive Owen as Dr. John W. Thackery and Andre Holland as Dr. Algernon Edward, topping a vibrant ensemble cast. NPR special correspondent Michele Norris spoke with the two actors who play colleagues as well as rivals.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: "The Knick" has a big-screen look and sophisticated cinematography. But it's the script that won over the show's two lead actors. Clive Owen plays a brilliant surgeon who has a wicked drug habit.


CLIVE OWEN: (As Dr. John W. Thackery) While you're here, you could do me a great favor - to keep all the drugs locked in Dr. Hackett's office, OK? Pay him a visit, tell him you dared to discuss my treatment and then grab me a couple vials of cocaine and heroin and I'll meet you at the kitchen entrance. Huh? Yeah? Agreed?

NORRIS: Andre Holland plays an equally brilliant surgeon trained in London, but he can't get equal footing because he happens to be black.


ANDRE HOLLAND: (As Dr. Algernon Edwards) I would like to put myself forward as a candidate for the permanent job as chief of surgery.

OWEN: In some ways, after the first season, the early stuff between Andre and I were the stuff that sort of - in some ways, people wanted to talk about more than anything because people were quite shocked about the racism element. In talking to the writers, they were adamant, and I think rightly so, that the show is trying to show what life might've been like for the people in 1900. And it would have been a complete disservice if I was the one cool, white, liberal doctor who said, yeah, you're very talented, you should come and work in this hospital. You know, we're trying to depict what it might've been like for a character like Dr. Edwards. There is something about Thackery that he's got all these issues, and you know, he's a functioning drug addict. But his one saving grace is that he is passionate about furthering medicine and passion - and ultimately, that is to the benefit of everybody. And it was important to me that once he realizes how good Dr. Edwards is, is that everything else falls by the wayside because that becomes, to him, the most important thing he can see, the talent and intelligence, you know, very clearly.

HOLLAND: Although they do have different, sort of, politics and they started where they started in quite an adversarial way. You know, that pursuit of new knowledge is really what binds them. And there are some things that Thackery gets up to in season two that he needs some help with and there are some things that Algernon needs some help with. And ironically, each other are really the only ones that they have.

NORRIS: Was it physically challenging or mentally challenging to play someone who's - who is an addict? I mean, he's, you know, surgeon, genius, addict, not necessarily in that order.

OWEN: It was both. You know, both the beauty and the challenge of it is that you're playing - you're never just playing a scene because he's consuming a lot of drugs, so you have to inform every scene with something else. It's not just what's going on in the scene, it's - you know, is he on drugs? How much is he on? Does he need drugs? There's no scene where you just sit back and play it very cool and relaxed. You've got to always be in a very kind of heightened state.


OWEN: (As Dr. John W. Thackery) I know about living on the edge between life and death. It's a matter of will, and she has plenty of it.

HOLLAND: (As Dr. Algernon Edwards) I won't stand here and watch her die. We swore to first do no harm, and we violated that the moment we began this. It's over.

OWEN: (As Dr. John W. Thackery) Not until I say.

NORRIS: So I have to ask, what's up with the white shoes?

OWEN: That was on the first day of the costume fitting. I went in and somebody said to me the other day it was my idea. It definitely wasn't. And we had the most brilliant costume designer. And I walked in there and she said I've had this idea. I don't know what you're going to think of it. And she showed me these white boots and I instantly loved it because there was something so kind of arrogant about Thackery that, you know, he's a bit of a kind of rock star doctor, or he thinks of himself in that way. And Steven had loved the idea, but wasn't sure how I was going to take to it. And I saw it and thought it was a really inspired idea. And, you know, so much so that Steven ended up, you know, the first shot of the whole - of "The Knicks," you know, is a pair of these white boots sort of lying in an opium den.

NORRIS: Did you try to get any kind of sideline medical training to prepare for these roles even though you were, you know, in the surgical theater at a time when it was very different than what we now understand?

OWEN: We were very lucky we had a medical adviser called Dr. Stanley Burns who has this incredible townhouse here in New York. And his specialty is sort of medical history, and he has literally hundreds of thousands of pictures of operations that were happening at this time. He had surgical instruments from the period, so really "The Knick" was his fantasy come to life.

HOLLAND: Yeah, I've been stopped on the street a number of times by groups of doctors and nurses and you would think I was a rock star to those guys because they're so happy with, you know, the accuracy of it all. And they really applaud the level of detail, which again, points to Stanley Burns, our medical consultant.

NORRIS: They stop you on the street?

HOLLAND: Yeah. There have been a number of doctors and nurses who've come up and said, oh, my God, you play that doctor. And, you know, I loved how you did that aortic aneurysm. It was just so accurate.


OWEN: Nothing in "The Knick" has been created to make for dramatic effects. It's all been totally inspired by research and what was really happening.

NORRIS: And can we just say, though, that some of the scenes are a little cringe-worthy?

HOLLAND: Oh, yeah, for sure.

OWEN: They should be.

NORRIS: What's it like for either of you to go to the doctor now?


HOLLAND: Well, I would not go into the Knick.


OWEN: Yeah, that's true. I think there's one thing that Steven said right from the beginning is that he didn't want anyone to feel nostalgic about living in New York in 1900. And you certainly, after seeing this show, wouldn't want to be wheeled out on one of those gurneys.

MONTAGNE: Clive Owen and Andre Holland speaking with NPR's Michele Norris about the medical drama "The Knick," now on its second season on Cinemax.

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