When news first broke about “The Knick” coming to Cinemax, all anyone could talk about was Steven Soderbergh’s involvement in the new TV series. The Academy Award-winning director was coming out of his semi-retirement for a period medical drama — why? We all got our answer last August when “The Knick” premiered to rave reviews, and we also discovered a whole new reason to admire Soderbergh’s latest beauty: Clive Owen — who’s not too hard on the eyes, either.
Owen’s portrayal of Dr. John Thackery was immediately gripping, steadily evolving and, in the end, like nothing the Oscar nominee has done before. Playing a drug-addicted doctor with a proclivity for experimental procedures is quite the juicy role as is, and Owen bit into it with relish. His carefully balanced capturing of a man who lives on the edge of everything never felt too large for the small screen, even if it could’ve easily held the entirety of an auditorium for film. Below, Owen tells Indiewire about the keys to unlocking Thackery’s humanity, whether he considers him an antihero, what’s next for “The Knick” and having a “great” time playing someone a little bit bad.
What about Dr. Thackery made him stand out to you when you first got the script?
I hadn’t read a script like it, really. I was really, really impressed with it. I thought it was the most unusual period piece I’ve ever read. I knew that the turn of the century was a very exciting time in the world of medicine, but I never read a period piece quite like this. I’ve never read such a wild leading character for something like this. He was very bold, very caring, very difficult. He’s not a natural lead character that makes it easier for the audience. He’s difficult and challenging. I just thought it was a very exciting idea to take on.
Do you think that Dr. Thackery fits into the mold of an antihero?
I think kind of, yeah. What I love about it is walking that tightrope, taking an audience with you and not being an easy ride. It’s a very bumpy, difficult, challenging ride. He’s a flawed character. He’s got huge weaknesses, but also amazing strengths like a lot of very brilliant people. They’re not perfect. Bottom line, he’s trying to push forward the boundaries of medicine, but at the same time he’s difficult, challenging and uncompromising. He isn’t a perfect character.
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Do you feel it’s part of your job as the actor to make him likable enough to watch on TV, or do you just have to go with what’s in the script and trust that people want to see that character?
My job is to make people understand why he does what he does. I love taking on that chance. I’d much rather do that than something that was much more obvious and much more palatable in a way. I love treading that kind of line [where] it’s dangerous and difficult, but if you pull it off… It’s about making people understand his motivations more than it is liking him. You draw people in, you get them to understand and then you make it difficult. It’s drama, it’s conflict. It’s where I think the most fun is to be had as an actor.
Was there a particular scene or a decision that Dr. Thackery made that you found hard to understand??
There was a scene right at the end of Season 1 where I did the blood transfusion, and I did turn to Steven Soderbergh and say to him, “How on earth are we coming from this? Surely, we’ve gone too far with this one.” [laughs] But we are back, and it gets even wilder.
“The Knick” is known for some really grisly surgeries with such a unique feeling when you’re watching it. Then having to do it, having to believe it’s real on some level, there’s a lot going on there. What’s it like shooting those scenes and being right there in the moment for them?
I do remember the very first one. We have a brilliant advisor who’s around for all the medical stuff. He is a leading expert in medicine at that time and how operations were done. We are incredibly faithful to how those operations would have been done. There’s nothing there that’s been sort of exaggerated or adapted for our show. It’s just how it was done. His mantra in the beginning was always, “More clamps. More blood. That’s the reality.” They’re the most challenging scenes. There are three things happening. You’ve got working out the operation, so technically you’ve got to say, “Exactly, what is it that we’re doing? How do we do this? How do we move from this to this, and who does what?” So you’ve got to work that out. Then you’ve got the dialogue with the other doctors, which is often not related to the operation. There’s something else going on, some dynamics between the people doing the operation. Then there’s the element of performing the operation because they were in a surgical theater with a big audience in front of you.
So they’re often the most challenging scenes. The first one we did was quite shocking because— we rehearsed it thoroughly enough. Steven loves to try and work out a way of covering it that isn’t breaking it all into tiny pieces, so he’ll do as much as he can with an elaborate shot to try and hold it as long as he can. Once we started and they pumped out blood and the blood just kept coming, we just kept going. When we said cut, the set was just awash with blood. [laughs] It was pretty wild and we were like, “Oh my.” That kind of set the template, really. We have a variety of operations. The guys who do the prosthetics and everything are just unbelievable. Even to the naked eye, I’m standing there doing operations on the brain or working with people’s intestines. Even to my eye, it just looks so real. It’s impossible to see where the make believe starts. That’s a huge help. There often are scenes where rehearsals are hugely important because the rhythm of the scene is dictated by what the operation is. You really need to get on top of the technical side so that you can begin to find out what the scene is really.
What kind of research did you do to gain knowledge of that technical aspect of the character?
Well, my character is inspired by a real doctor named William Halsted, who worked at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and was brilliant. It was discovered he was consuming vast amounts of drugs while being brilliant. That was the kind of inspiration for Thackery, really. So I read all of the stuff about him and about the doctors that he was working with at that time. I knew a little bit. I did a very small film set in this time, in the world of medicine years ago, and knew that this was considered the time where they made huge strides. Stuff we’re still benefiting from today. It was very much a huge step forward — a lot of trial and error but they discovered important things that we still value today. I just buried myself in as much of that material as I could find.
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Was there a scene that caught you off guard that was more challenging than you expected? Not necessarily because of technical aspects but due to the emotion that went into it or other circumstances?
The whole talking point with race in the show was quite shocking to a lot of people. And it should be shocking. Ultimately, you have to be faithful to the period. It would have been a complete disservice if Thackery was the forward-thinking doctor who was very cool about everything. There wasn’t a single black doctor working in a hospital in New York in 1900, and one of the strengths of the show is it’s incredibly well-researched. There’s nothing that can be held up and said, “Well, that was just shown or used for effect for the show.” It’s all been inspired by real things. Treading that line of what that is and being uncompromising about it, as obviously we’re in a very different place now, was a challenging thing. But it had to be taken on since we have to show people what it would have been like.
Seeing what the accepted standards were back then, and especially with surgeries, is fun, but it’s also shocking. It’s one those things where you sit back in wonderment. Was there anything that took you off guard and made you say, “They really did that? They really believed that was the right thing to do?”
The show is littered with those things. The fact that people only started wearing gloves in the surgical theater because the carbolic solution they were putting instruments in was damaging people’s hands is one. It wasn’t a hygiene thing, and then they noticed infection rates started dropping dramatically. I think that there’s so much. And there’s much more in the second season, too, that you’re just shocked by. All that makes clear is that in 50 years’ time we’ll be looking at some things we thought now and thinking, “How on earth could we have thought that?”
You’ve done some dark movies before, but this is a much larger commitment with a television series. What’s it like being in Dr. Thackery’s headspace for so long?
I had a great time to tell you the truth. I thought it was pretty wild and pretty dangerous. I love pushing it and seeing how far we could push it. I thought the the writing was really fantastic. I’ve done them myself and I’ve seen a lot of period things where the past is treated with such respect and reverence, and there’s a feeling that everything is like a painting. Where the way people lived was sitting around nice drawing rooms, and the reality is to live in New York in 1900 for most people would have been incredibly tough and scary and difficult. Life expectancy was low, and it was a dangerous world out there, and I felt that these writers really embraced that. I felt it was a very visceral drama that really gave you a great opportunity to give you all sections of society. You go from the slums all the way to the guys who are funding the hospital. You get to see a huge amount of what life would have been like at that time. The way it was approached, the way Steven shot it, the music he chose, it made it just edgy. It felt immediate and relatable. I found that very, very exciting. I didn’t feel we were all straightjacketed by the fact that it was period. It’s a real living and breathing show. It has a strong sense of what it might have been like at that time.
I’m going to be speaking with your co-star Andre Holland soon, so I thought I’d get both your and his take on what it’s like working with each other. Did you have a favorite aspect of his performance?
I loved with working with him. I had such a great time with him. I think he’s such a fine actor. I think he’s a great foil for Thackery. I loved playing off him. My character is so unpredictable and mercurial and is forever changing. You never know what you’re getting. And there’s something very, very together about Andre. He exudes intelligence. He’s very, very centered. He’s very cool in front of the camera. I just think it’s the perfect person to play off of. We complement each other. I had a great time working with him. I’ve got a huge amount of respect for him and what he does.
Where are you at in shooting Season 2?
We just finished a couple of weeks ago.
Oh, great. Congratulations on wrapping. Can you tease a little for what’s coming in Season 2?
The great thing is that it’s a very bold piece of television. To push it and make something that’s pretty daring. To pick up a second season was really thrilling because we’ve already opened the doors. We’ve put the work in and set the groundwork and now it’s time to really explore and push. It’s much bigger. It’s much more open. It goes much more outside of the hospital and gives you a big pallet of New York at this time. It’s wild and brave. There’s some really extraordinary stuff. It was just great. We all work really great together. It’s a very positive atmosphere. When we started Season 2, it was just like the next day’s filming. We picked up right where we left off and hit the ground running. There was something really satisfying about that.
Going along with that, how much do you know about Dr. Thackery’s overall arc? Do you know beyond Season 2?