If there needs to be any more proof that television has become an auteurist paradise, one need to look no further than Cinemax’s “The Knick.” It marks some of the most electrifying work director Steven Soderbergh, who has helmed all ten episodes, has done in years. It’s bold storytelling, executed with technical virtuosity and creative flair, and it’s simply some of the best work in any medium you’ll see all year. But the show lives or dies on the shoulders of star Clive Owen, and not only is he up to the challenge, he delivers the best performance of his career.
The actor plays Dr. John W. Thackery, the groundbreaking, genius, cocaine-addled surgeon of the titular hospital. He’s a casual racist, and a bit of a narcissist, but completely devoted to his work and staff, and advancing the knowledge of medical science. Owen has created one of the most complex and multifaceted characters on television right now, making Thackery relatable and sympathetic, even when his vices and self-interest take him into the darkest corners of opium dens, and sees him carelessly step over ethical lines to serve his own needs. It’s rich stuff in a performance that deserves all the accolades it receives, and it’s hopefully one the Emmy folks won’t forget about next year.
With the season finale arriving this Friday, we recently got on the phone with Owen to talk about making the show, working with Soderbergh, and what it’s like playing Thackery.
When did the script for “The Knick” first cross your path and what was your initial feeling about it?
I had a very strong reaction to it. Steven called me told me and told me he had this script and was going to turn it into a ten-hour TV show. And I knew at the end of reading it and walking away from it, I’d have to do it. I thought it was such good writing. it was original, it was dangerous, it was a take on a kind of period that I’d never read really, it was visceral and foul, almost contemporary and I knew that it was a hugely exciting time in the world of medicine. I know I was in a small film before that was set in that time, in that world. I knew that it was considered a time of great intensity and excitement in the medical world in terms of how much they were learning and how quick they were learning it. I just was really, really taken with the script. I finished reading it and knew that I’d have to do it.
What was it about John Thackery that intrigued you?
It was to do with just how dangerous he was and complicated more than a usual leading character. You know, it’s such a challenge because he’s kind of a genius and he’s brilliant but he’s so abrasive and arrogant, [but] there are elements of his personality that are so complex and difficult. And the idea of sort of navigating your way through a series with this guy was very exciting to me as to how far you could push it, taking the audience though what was going on but at the same time make it really challenging and dangerous. There was just something so wild about [playing the] guy who sort of jacks up with liquid cocaine and then walks into a life saving operation.
Was it a challenge to make Thackery relatable even when he’s acting in ways that are unlikeable?
Yeah, it is a challenge. That’s kind of why I took it on, it was an exciting challenge. It’s far more exciting than playing somebody who takes people by the hand and gently leads them through the story and is fundamentally a super nice guy. This guy’s complicated, difficult, flawed, and to sort of keep people understanding his journey. Not necessarily agreeing with it, or condoning it, but just as you say relating to it or understanding what he’s going through was very exciting to take that on and also to see how far you could push it. He does some terrible things through it, but the idea is he’s a flawed character.
I understand that the show was shot in a very short amount of time. And this is a period set show you know with some pretty intricate set pieces. What was that shoot like?
It was very, very challenging and very, very demanding and Steven works really fast and very concentrated. I think we did the ten hours in just over 70 days or 7 days an episode. As you say there’s some incredibly difficult technical stuff there. All the operation stuff that’s logistically very difficult, but you know Steven works in such a concentrated way that it was very challenging and demanding but very focused. Sometimes we’d shoot up to 13, 14 pages a day. So you had to be prepared and you know it was very hard work but very rewarding.
Soderbergh also wears many hats on the set, acting as his own DP and more. What’s that like for you as an actor? How is that seeing him do all this? Does it inspire you?
It’s fantastic because you’ve got you know he’s so smart and so experienced and I don’t think any other director could have taken this on like he took on. To take on ten hours of television to direct, operate, light, edit, at that pace. He boarded this thing like a ten hour movie. We didn’t shoot it episodically. We shot location savvy. So we did everything in my house [all at once] and I just don’t know anybody else that could keep all of that and keep on top of all of that and he did it . At the same time [he was] very alive and inventive and creative and it’s phenomenal that [he] has all aspects of filmmaking down. And its hugely impressive and it’s great for actors because one it’s a singular vision, there’s not a debate about it. But also, he’s so on top of his game that you just have to worry about what you’re doing, [and] that’s a privilege for me.
When he shoots features, at the end of the day, he’d have an edit. Was that true on “The Knick”?
A cut would be available of the days work by that evening, yeah, and it would be pretty close to the final cut.
Would you look at it? Did you find it helpful?
Sometimes. It’s difficult as an actor working at that pace. I looked when I thought it was necessary and I wanted to check something. Generally, you’re moving so fast that I think it’s quite hard to carry what you did yesterday as well as you’re doing today and tomorrow. So, I just trusted him implicitly. I didn’t need to [look at the edits] unless it was something specific to look at.
Once shooting had started were the scripts locked in, or were the writers on hand?
We got our first script and Steven said we’ll be shooting by such and such a date and everyone said no, you’ll never get it together. He said, yes I will. Even I was convinced that we would be waiting for a few scripts and those writers kept the standards so high, delivered all ten scripts a good month or two before we started shooting, so they were in time for everyone to get their notes, to hone them and they were in great shape. So we had the whole thing mapped out before, which was incredible considering how quickly it was all pulled together.
What is your take on Thackery as a person? I’m not sure if he’s a good man with bad habits, or if he’s just fundamentally flawed.
In terms of an overview I think, you know, I would never give him a simplistic, he’s a good guy, he’s a bad guy. The bottom line is he’s incredibly talented. He’s a genius doctor, he’s passionate about pushing forward the boundaries of medicine which in the end will benefit everybody. But you know he’s flawed and he has problems along the way. He’s a drug addict, he’s arrogant. [But], that’s what’s sort of great about him, it’s not clear cut. My job is to play it as honestly as possible and try to make people understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. Not necessarily agreeing with it, or thinking he’s doing the right thing, but at least understand where his impulses come from.
How did you approach playing a character as complex as Thackery through the lens of an addict?
Because of the way that Steven shot the whole thing, I needed a big white board at home where I had al the episodes and all the scenes mapped out in some visual graph because I couldn’t keep hold of everything otherwise. And also, a big part of that graph was his drug intake. How much drugs he was on, did he do drugs, was he on too many drugs? Because the one exiting thing about playing an addict in a show like this was there’s always something more going on, whatever the scene is. His energy and equilibrium is completely determined by what he’s taking or what he needs and that just means that no scene is ever boring, but I needed to really keep on top of that so it’s very, very clear as to where he was at any given point.
In the ninth episode, Thackery starts to break down. It’s the first time you really see him crawling with the need to get high. Is it fun to play that kind of stuff? What’s it like for you?
It’s hard work. But it’s very, very hard work you know and again it was actually inspired by a real thing, there was that big cocaine shortage in New York at that time. Just to have somebody who’s basically a functioning addict, who’s consuming a lot suddenly dried up, of course when it comes to drama it’s a great opportunity to see what happens to somebody when there is that crazy need.
When you first came on the scene late 90s with “Croupier,” the independent film world was really thriving. Now it seems it’s harder to get indie films made but there’s a lot of opportunity on television. What’s your perspective?
I think there’s no doubt that it’s a hugely exciting time in television and it’s also a time … there’s great writing on television and also there’s something about the format and the way people view things that you can really take time to develop and dig deep into stories and into characters. And you know the bottom line is, directors and actors follow good material. Steven was drawn to this because he liked the script, the same to me. To be honest with you, whether it had been a movie, TV show, whatever it was I wanted to do it because the writing was good. It’s also an added thing, this is the second time I’ve worked for HBO [Owen starred in the movie “Hemingway & Gellhorn“], it’s for Cinemax but they’re connected to HBO. They really do care about the quality. They have an audience already and what they care about is that the work is good. They really do care about the quality of the product and that is a really good place to be.
The season finale of “The Knick” airs on Friday, October 17th on Cinemax.