Andre Holland is a true star in the making. Holland’s first crucial film role came in Spike Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna,” before he spent some time as a series regular in two network comedies (“Friends With Benefits” and “1600 Penn”). Over the past two years, Holland has more than proven himself as a dynamic screen presence and versatile thespian with key parts in “42,” “Selma,” and of course, “The Knick.”
As Dr. Algernon Edwards, an African-American surgeon trying to break down barriers (by doing his job) in an openly racist 1900s hospital, Holland was given layer upon layer of mental and physical challenges, all during a surprising and speedy shoot run by the intuitive Steven Soderbergh. Holland not only met each test of character (so to speak), but blew past them to become a fan favorite, critical darling and standout presence among an excellent ensemble. Below, Holland discusses his first meeting with Soderbergh about the role, how his own experiences have added to his investment in the character, and his goals for Algernon in Season 2.
Your two previous TV series were comedies. Was it hard for you to break into drama, even with dramatic training?
Not at all. If anything, I think that my heart and probably my skill set are geared more towards drama. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do more. When the comedy came along, it was kind of a surprise to me, to be honest, that I got those shows. Obviously, the line between comedy and drama is very thin, but I’ve never really considered myself to be a comedic actor. I always gravitated more towards the dramatic stuff.
I’ve just heard a lot of horror stories where if someone’s first break is in comedy, they have a really hard time getting into drama — even into the audition rooms. Glad to hear that wasn’t the case.
Me too, man. I get it. I came out of school and literally was just trying to find some traction. Just trying to find a way to work and a place to work, and the comedies are what seemed to be most available at that time. And I hope to do more comedy at some point. But I’m glad I’m not stuck exclusively in the comedy world.
So how did you first get involved with “The Knick”?
My agent sent me the script. I was abroad, actually. I had been doing a play in Italy and was on my way back. I was in Lisbon, stopped over for a couple of days, and got the script; loved it as soon as I read it. And of course, we were on a timeline, so they needed me to send the taped scene right away. So I wound up having to get a British couple who were on their honeymoon to come to my hotel room and help me tape the audition. [laughs] It was a crazy, crazy couple of days trying to find somebody who spoke English well enough and was trusting enough to go to my hotel room and help me tape the audition. But I got it done, sent it in and by the time I got back to New York there was a meeting that was set up with Steven and the writers and Greg Jacobs, the producing partner. We met for about an hour-and-a-half or two hours, and later on that night I got the call saying that it was mine.
Do you remember what they asked you about during that meeting? Was it more of an audition, or a little bit of both?
It wasn’t really an audition. It was more of just a conversation. I think what they wanted to do is just get a sense of who I was as a person and what I would be like to work with. One of the great things about this show is that the people — everybody from the cast and crew, everybody involved in it — really has a wonderful attitude and wants to be there. It just makes the day go by so much easier. There’s no tantrums being thrown. It’s just a very calm, productive place to work. So I think the meeting in large part was about that. We talked a little bit about the character, but mostly we talked about getting into the business — they asked how I got into it, very little about the character. I think by the time I had done the tape — and I think I actually did two versions of the tape — I think he understood I was capable of doing the part. It was just a question of, “Who is this guy who I never met before?”
What was it about the character that really spoke to you; that made you want to play him?
A lot of the roles that I had gotten prior to this one were stereotypical roles — things that were either the friend of the guy, or things that just weren’t really three-dimensional characters who were integral to the story. First of all, I read this story and thought, “Man, this guy. Here he is, a very well-educated, smart, ambitious, talented surgeon during this time period.” Which, frankly, I didn’t know. I never really thought about the fact that there were black surgeons working at that level during that time. He was a character I just had not encountered before, and then you had the fact that Clive was doing it — who is an actor I admire a lot — and Steven was directing it. It kind of seemed too good to be true, to be honest.
And also, I loved the way the script dealt with racism and didn’t shy away from the realities from what it would have been like to be a black surgeon at that time. At the same time, it didn’t try to turn him into an entirely noble character. He’s a complicated guy who also has a dark side. I just loved that it dealt with all of that, and treated him like a real, full person.
Speaking to that, very little has gone well for Dr. Edwards since he joined The Knick. What kind of motivations are remaining for him — that you see — now that Thackery is in rehab and Cornelia has been married?
Good question. I think that his motivation remains to live up to every ounce of his potential. I think he has an enormous amount of potential, and I feel like at the end of the season we leave him in a place where he just now is ready to do what he’s capable of doing. So far, he’s had to work in the basement and even when he got to work upstairs, the jobs he got to do were well below his ability. I think now going into the second season, the work has been laid to really see what Dr. Edwards is capable of and see not only if he’s a great surgeon, but if he’s also capable of running the hospital. I think there’s still an enormous amount of motivation for him to continue his quest to be the surgeon he needs to be and to really leave his mark on the medical field.
Was it difficult for you as an actor to be in his headspace for so long? It’s been two seasons now, and he’s just constantly disrespected as a doctor and as an African American. Is that difficult or do you see it as just part of the job?
It definitely comes along with the job. It felt like a relief because in so much of my own personal life, I feel that way. I feel slighted at times, judged often and that’s something that’s always been a part of our life, for all of my life. I grew up in the South of Alabama, and had some very difficult encounters with people early on. So for me, it feels like a real relief to get a chance to play this character and to live out these circumstances in public and on-screen that I feel like I’ve been living out in my own life, in private, for quite a long time. So it feels quite empowering, actually, to be able to speak up for this character and in essence be speaking up for myself and for other people like me. I hope that makes sense. It feels like there’s an audience, now, of people who actually resonate to this story. And not just me, but so many other African Americans who have been living out for so long.
Did you have a specific scene or moment that spoke to that for you? If you had to pick one.
Man, there are so many. The one scene that really jumped out for me was the scene where Thackery and Edwards (played by Clive Owen and Holland, respectively) finally have it out. I think that it really spoke to me because for the first time you really get to here Algernon say, “Listen” — I think he says something like, “Show me any proof that I’m not as qualified as you are, to work alongside you.” I think that’s something that I understand, that I feel often. We’re in a business where it ain’t always fair. And I’m not just talking about myself. I feel [that way] all the time for other people’s careers and their lives, too.
For example, my father often talked to me about being overlooked for jobs in his own career. I’ve seen first-hand the effect that it had on his life. That for me really felt true. It really felt like, “Yeah, man, I want to say these words because these are words that I feel like are in my heart. What I want to say and also don’t feel that I have license to.” When I think of what my father supposedly wanted to say and his father before him, and so on and so forth down the line, again, that scene gave me a real opportunity to be a witness for the experiences of so many other people who have come before me, and who are walking alongside me right now. So I think that’s the one I would point to. It’s the one I was most excited about when I first read it.
Does the period setting ever bother you? A lot of the stuff is still happening today, and you talked about how you grew up seeing this. A lot of viewers may think that this is a problem that’s gone away, but it’s also speaking to a lot stuff that’s going on right now in modern society.
That’s another thing that I love and hate about the show — the fact that so many of these things are things we’re still dealing with right now. Even right now, as this conversation is happening about the Confederate Flag. These things that symbolize, in my opinion, brutality and attempts to repress people. I think that, as Obama said, the DNA of that is something that we’re still dealing with. I often have thought in my life that the repercussions of that legacy are something that I’ve had. That I, myself, and other people in my family have had to deal with on our own and in silence.
I think that shows like “The Knick” remind us that this time period, these things, the ugliness that happened, are a part of our heritage as Americans. I think that we all have to take a deep, hard look at it in order for us to find a way forward. It can’t be something that I, Andre, have to deal with on my own, in silence. The fact that we’re looking at this period, in 1900, and these things are happening in the world today; I think it’s a great reminder to everybody, not just African Americans but to everybody, that hey, this is where we come from. We need to all acknowledge that and learn from it. Again, it’s a love-hate thing, and I love that it’s there because it feels like we’re really doing important work with the show, but also you hate that we have so far still to go.
To go along with what you were saying about the historical background of this, I was wondering what sort of research you may have done to get into this character — whether it’s just learning about his educational background or where he came from or anything like that.
One of the books I read was called “Lowlife,” which talks a lot about the history of New York, which is really informative. As a New Yorker, one of the things that I learned was about the neighborhood that I live in right now on the Western Edge of what we now call SoHo, but it used to be called Little Africa. It was the center of black life for a time. I never knew that. Finding little bits like that out was really exciting. But also I did a lot of research about black doctors, black surgeons, in this time period and before, and was surprised to find there’s a long lineage of black medical professionals who have been working in and out of the state. Several black medical colleges had been formed, one of which my uncle attended. I didn’t realize how far back that lineage went, so hearing about that was important for me.
And also, I read a lot of poetry and literature from that time period, particularly by black authors. W.E.B. DuBois really spoke to me. I carried around his book “Souls of Black Folk” for quite some time. He talks a lot about this idea of “double consciousness” of living, sharing between two worlds — a particular phenomenon that African American people feel — not quite fitting into one place or another and having to be able to navigate between the two worlds. That’s something that I think was inspiring for me to get a handle on the character; something I was very familiar with.
So there was quite a lot of that. And then the last element was the actual medical part. We spent a few weeks with a man named Dr. Burns, who’s our medical consultant on the show. We did his version of medical school. We learned to make incisions, and any surgery that we were doing he took us through it step-by-step and showed us photos and old instruments they would have actually used; just made sure of all those details [were right]. And that was probably the most challenging part, just making sure that all of the technical bits were right while also talking and acting. There’s a lot to juggle, but we had great support in terms of making sure that all of our choices were accurate.
I’ve read a lot about how fast the production went, but also the way that Soderbergh would use the camera in distinct, creative and spontaneous ways. Was that something you had to adjust to? Or that was fun for you? Was there a part that sticks up where you thought, “Man, I didn’t see that coming”?
I could honestly say that every single day — and I’m not exaggerating, every single day on set — we were surprised. The way Steven chooses to shoot things, I don’t know where he gets it from, I really don’t, but he has a way of seeing things in the most deep way. He also then has the confidence to execute exactly what he wants, and what that means is a couple things: One, as an actor, you have to come to work prepared. And I mean prepared to a level beyond what most people think is “prepared.” You have to be even more prepared than that. Literally anything can happen. So I think that’s one thing.
But then also, it’s true that I don’t have an enormous amount of experience behind the camera. So I don’t have a ton to compare to. But the pace that he works at and the choices that he makes with the camera are really incredible. I feel like everybody is a masterclass for me. I mean, I go home and make notes to myself — “How’d he do that?” — and I’ll try to figure it out. Because one day, I’ll make my own films, so I try to figure out: “Hey, how did he come up with that story? What is it that led him to that place, and what is the effect of doing it that way versus this way?” So beyond just getting to play a wonderful character, I really feel like I’m being taken through a film school of sorts.
Do you have hopes or goals for Algernon going into a new season?
I do. I feel like there’s so much fertile ground to cover with this character. I have to say it’s very interesting how some people come up to me on the street and say things. Particularly young black people are so excited, like: “I can’t wait to see what happens with Algernon. I’m so excited that Cinemax is putting a character like that on TV.” Literally, the joy that they express is really moving. So going forward, I hope we get to see him really become all that he’s capable of. He’s been wanting for so long to be in a position of prominence and power, and I’d like to see that happen and see what he does with it. Also, I would be really interested to see what else is going on in New York outside of just the hospital. Particularly with the black community, I wonder who’s doing what and where. I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity there.
“The Knick” returns for Season 2 in October. Stream Season 1 on MAX GO.
[Editor’s Note: Indiewire’s Consider This is an ongoing series meant to raise awareness for Emmys contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This selections may be underdogs, frontrunners or somewhere in between. More importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]