You’re going to squirm when you see Clive Owen—as brilliant but volatile surgeon Dr. John Thackeray—shoot himself up with a drug cocktail before heading off to the Knickerbocker Hospital to perform surgery without any effective anesthesia and antibiotics, masks or gloves. Hello, what is this, New York City 1900?
Well, yes, it is. And your discomfort is going to thrill Owen and Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, the driving forces behind Cinemax’s jaw-dropping new series The Knick (Fridays, 10/9c beginning August 8th), a period medical drama that follows surgeons on the cusp of groundbreaking innovations while also addressing issues of race and class. It’s creepily fascinating.
Owen, who can easily switch from crime capers (Inside Man) to spy films (The International) and human dramas (Closer, for which he won a Golden Globe), wears a moustache and packs a heavy velvet punch. We caught up with the Englishman in LA to get the bloody skinny on The Knick, working with Soderbergh and his passion for Association Football.
“My character was ‘inspired’ by historic American surgeon William Halsted, who was a genius while consuming vast amounts of drugs that weren’t illegal at that time. He has his own personal demons. But he gets results.”
In the opening operating theater scene, with the bloody sponges and blood spurting everywhere, I had to remind myself it was fake…
Good, we like that! It shows we did our job in recreating that brutal but fascinating world of medicine at the end of the Victorian period. Our research medical consultant showed us a Civil War medical kit that looked like a builder’s toolkit, complete with saws and cutting tools. They say one in four patients died after surgery, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t more. On the other hand, these pioneering surgeons in The Knick are on the edge of so many vital discoveries.
What’s with surgeons not wearing gloves and masks in 1900?
You’re right, the whole notion of hygiene was not present, no gloves or masks, dropping bloody sponges on the ground. The incredible thing is they only started wearing gloves in operations because the carbolic solutions they were putting the instruments in were hurting the surgeons’ hands. It wasn’t because of hygiene. Then over period of time, they started to understand about germs and the benefits of hygiene. Just mind-boggling, isn’t it?
Tell us about your character, Dr. John Thackery, and why you were drawn to playing him?
He was “inspired” by historic American surgeon William Halsted, who was a genius while consuming vast amounts of drugs that weren’t illegal at that time. I read his biography and books about the Johns Hopkins Hospital, where this group of five brilliant doctors made life-saving discoveries. There’s an element throughout The Knick that our characters are shooting from the hip, testing things out. My character likes the Knickbocker Hospital because he’s given some free rein, as they know how good he is. But he does things unconventionally and that causes him to cross swords with his bottom line-driven hospital board, retrograde medical thinking, etc. And then he has his own personal demons. But he gets results.
How did The Knick come about?
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do ten hours of television. But occasionally in your career, everything gets set alight when you read a script. It’s one joy that’s still the same as when I was fifteen doing school stage work. You get this huge appetite within yourself. I called my agent straightaway and said, “This is fantastic, what a character, what a script!” There was no way I wasn’t doing it. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done for TV.
You’ve worked with celebrated film directors like Spike Lee, Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Nichols, but what does Soderbergh bring to television?
He’s a phenomenal storyteller with clarity and vision. The guy’s unique. He’s lighting, camera operating and directing. What he’s shot is very close to what it’s going to be, then he’s editing at 10 p.m. what he needs. I’ve never met anyone who’s so on top of all aspects of making a movie. He told us upfront, we’re not shooting episodic—this is a ten-hour movie.
Juuust in case you thought we were lying about the blood…
How challenging was it shooting the first season?
It was grueling, like doing a five-hundred-page movie script. The story is happening at a very fast pace and because Steven is so on top of things, when you walk on set you’ve got to be on top of your game. It’s brilliant for an actor like me to feel you’re in such good hands.
How did Soderbergh manage to capture the New York of 1900?
It’s amazing that many of the exteriors were shot right in Brooklyn. Drop some dirt and manure on a cobbled street and, presto, movie magic. I remember the day Steven found the exterior of the “Knickerbocker.” He was thrilled, saying, “We can have the horse-drawn carriages and emergency wagons arriving, do all those shots and every direction you look from this place, we can cheat it for 1900.”
So The Knick has a very rich sense of New York?
It’s a brilliant way of looking at New York at that time. From the rich to the slums, across economic and class lines, it’s a great way of seeing the textured tapestry of a city through the eyes of a hospital.
What response are you hoping for?
People are talking more about television than they are movies. They’re not saying, did you see that movie, they’re talking about TV shows, did you see that episode? That’s a big sea change. The hope and goal is that people talk about The Knick like that.
You narrated the documentary TV series Being: Liverpool. How long have you been a Liverpool FC fan?
Since I was a kid living in the midlands. Liverpool was winning everything, and as a boy you gravitate to winners, and to the singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I’ve now been to Anfield many times, and the atmosphere, as anyone who’s been there knows, is electric.
Have you tried to get your two young daughters into supporting The Reds?
It broke my heart when I was shooting in San Francisco, and we went to the opening game for baseball season for a family thing. We had a great time, then we all come back and they go, “Dad, that was so much cooler than (English) football.” It was like a dagger in my heart. Just tragic!
To what lengths have you gone to catch soccer games on live TV here?
I follow football everywhere I go but the TV coverage in America is fantastic. During shooting The Knick, I was watching three games on Saturday morning, plus the highlights and recaps at various pubs in the city. I was in football nirvana.
What still excites you about acting?
For me, one of the joys of this business is that you take on a project like this and that world adopts you. You play Hemingway, you read all he’s done, you go where he’s been. Now you’re suddenly delving into the real world of medicine at a particular time, and it’s a world I probably would never have looked into, and it’s absolutely fascinating.