Andre Holland is the best thing about “The Knick.” Admittedly, Cinemax’s turn-of-the-20th-century medical drama features a bevy of exquisite work, from director Steven Soderbergh — whose roaming camera has an even more experimental edge this year — to Clive Owen, who is finding new depths to Dr. John Thackery, to pretty much the entire cast and crew, who create a time machine every week for eager viewers to step inside. Everyone is working at the top of their game, but Holland, somehow, has exceeded even these industry titans to create a fascinating character played by an equally compelling actor.
Holland, who’s recently proven his range and dexterity in high-caliber films like “Selma” and “42,” was pushed to a new extreme Friday night, as Dr. Algernon Edwards came face-to-face with a person from his past who the audience had no idea even existed. It turns out Edwards is married and has been married this whole time — yes, even when he had a heated affair with Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) that lead to an unwanted pregnancy. Add that to a worsening condition with his eye and an unfounded demotion upon Dr. Thackery’s return to the Knick, and Dr. Edwards has his hands more than full headed into week four.
After watching the shocking third episode of “The Knick” Season 2, Indiewire spoke with Edwards about this new figure in his life, what Algernon might learn from her and whether or not the Knick’s two best doctors can work together long-term.
I have to apologize if my memory has failed me, but did we have any indication that Algernon was married before this episode?
No, we didn’t. We didn’t at all. I’ve been getting questions about it, myself included. When I was reading it, I thought, “What?!” But it’s a very dramatic surprise, I’ll be interested in seeing what people think about it.
It felt like it was orchestrated so that this was the big reveal, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just missing something. I also wanted to check with you to see how you found out about it. It sounded like you just read the script and it was in there, or…?
Yeah, basically. I got the script a few weeks before we started and sat down and read it and was shocked. I didn’t have any indication that that was coming. And then we spent some time talking through it and tweaking some of the scenes. You got to make sure that the story was being told the way we wanted to tell it. So it was a thing that evolved over time, but definitely the beginning was a shock.
How many details did you press for — about Edwards’ wife — that weren’t in that script prior to Episode 3?
We spent a lot of time talking about it because I just wanted to understand how they got together, why they got together [and] how long have they been together. […] [Her feelings] add an extreme, interesting dynamic to his character that he’s such an accomplished and capable surgeon, and so great at what he does, but when it comes to his personal life, he’s not so necessarily on top of it.
Kind of speaking to that process a little bit for you as an actor, I’ve heard directors and writers have their different strategies for how much information they want to give actors before they shoot a scene or as they’re going through a series. Do you have a preference? Do you want to know as much as you can going in, or are you fine with just what’s in the script or whatever they want you to know?
No, I’m one of those guys that really wants to know everything or as much as I can. I always say that when people — directors or actors — try to keep secrets, like, “We’re not going to tell you,” it feels manipulative. I feel like, as an actor, I’m capable of having information and then putting it away and not letting where it’s going affect or influence where we are in the present moment of the show. I really enjoy, for example, the fact that we get all the episode [scripts] right up front. I love that because it gives me a chance to get my head around where it’s all going, and then I can make better choices about the way scenes are played earlier. Then, it’s just sort of leaving it up to chance. That’s part of the craft of acting and I take a lot of pride in being able to do that.
To go along with that, do you know of, or do you think there are, more secrets to come out about Algernon’s past? He’s had a lot of time outside of the United States and a lot of that background could still pop up.
Yeah, I think that in terms of this season that was the big surprise, the marriage. I don’t know if there are any other big ones coming in terms of his background, but as you say, he’s had a whole other life in Europe, so I think that in Season 3 and hopefully beyond, I wouldn’t rule out more surprises. Because, you know, Steven [Soderbergh] and the writers definitely like those.
He’s such a great character. He’s got so much going on with him that it’s got to be tempting to release a lot at once, and then, at the same time, you’ve got to hold it back so that we can hold onto these moments and let it develop more naturally. But he’s so complex.
Yeah, it’s the best character that I’ve ever gotten to play. You’re right, he’s so complex. There are so many layers to him. I feel so grateful and honored to be able to play him. Steven, I’m sure, had his choice of whoever he wanted for his part. It’s that well-written. And obviously with him, it definitely attracts a lot of people to it, so I’m grateful that they chose me to do it. I take great pride in it, and I’m forever grateful.
One of the things that struck me after his marriage was revealed is that poor Dr. Edwards just hasn’t had a lot of luck with the ladies. I mean, he’s had some real big relationship problems, but he doesn’t seem to disinvest the way Dr. Thackery does. How important are his relationships in comparison to his work?
You’re right, I think that he’s a guy who is really good at work and is really good when it comes to his job, but the personal life is a real struggle for him. That somehow makes a lot of sense to me. It makes a lot of sense to me. I think he would love to have someone who could be a real partner for him, but for me, and this may be working in too much of my own thoughts about him, but I think that he’s a guy that has had to focus so much on work and has had to be the top of his class and the best at everything he’s done just to get to where he is that I don’t think that he ever really took the time to really develop the relationship skills that are necessary to really sustain a relationship. So he’s a little bit behind in that department, but over the course of the 10 episodes, I think that Opal, his wife, helps to get him up to speed.
So far this season, Dr. Edwards and Dr. Thackery have developed into something like friends. There’s still some issues between the two but when they get into their work — when they get into the medical procedures and research — they really feed off each other. I was curious if you thought that was healthy for Dr. Edwards, especially considering how extreme Dr. Thackery can take it.
That’s a good question. I think you’re right, they develop what I wouldn’t necessarily call a friendship, but they recognize each other’s brilliance despite the fact that they each have their own issues and even despite their own personal politics. When it does come to work, they’re able to focus on that together and work together, which is also what makes the whole thing so sad. If they were living in a different time, who knows what they could have done together. I think that it takes a lot of humility on Edwards’ part to even be able to establish a friendship and to be able to help Thackery with Abbie and with different projects he helps him with throughout the second season. Because as I said, in the beginning we find him running the hospital and showing the board on paper, “Listen, we have fewer deaths than we’ve ever had, we’re making more money than we’ve ever made, people are seemingly enjoying being at work, everything is running better.” And still they tell him “no” and in walks Thackery, and he kind of just strolls back into his old spot. So I think that it takes a lot of humility for Algernon to even get to the place where he can stand beside him and help him with anything. But again, at that point, to the fact it’s all about the work. When it comes to the work, they can meet on that. But when it comes to personal things, that’s when it gets a little tricky.
I’m glad you brought that up about the chief of surgery position because it was very well addressed in the first and second episode the plan your character is working out. But through even three episodes, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Thackery seems to be well-established back in that role, so where is Dr. Edwards’ mind right now? Is he still optimistic? Is there still a long-term plan to get that back? Does he still feel he’s competitive?
I think he always operates out of a sense of optimism, which I think is born out of necessity. I think he has to. I also think that when his eye thing becomes a real problem — the detached retina — I think that becomes the main focus. Him solving that problem becomes his number one focal point. To answer the question, I think that he is optimistic. I think that somehow, some way, even though he doesn’t necessarily have a plan as to how it will happen, I think he still believes that he will be able to get to the place as the chief of surgery where he wants to be. I think what that means for him is that it will also give him the opportunity and the time to do the work that he really wants to do, which is inventing new things and creating new procedures and experiments — the stuff that Thackery gets to do, basically. So, I think he’s optimistic that it’ll happen. He doesn’t have any choice, to be honest. He’s so deeply invested in it, and then when the eye thing happens, again, I think it makes it even harder for him to push and to fight back at that point because he has to take care of himself.