[The below interview includes information through Episode 2 of “The Knick’s” second season. Spoilers ahead.]
Thack is back. So much we learned from the second episode of “The Knick’s” second season, as the drug-addicted former chief of surgery resumed his role despite the improvements made in his absence by Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland).
Played with a swagger by the incomparable Clive Owen, Thackery — and his quest for medicinal discovery — made a big impact in “You’re No Rose.” He surprised just about everyone with his presence before shooting down the dreams of poor Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) and teasing a dangerous new cocktail to end the enticing hour of television.
Indiewire spoke with Owen about the pivotal episode, where Thackery’s passions might take him in Season 2, how the doctor compares to his real-world counterparts and how his biggest mistake yet continues to haunt him.
One of Dr. Thackery’s big arcs in Season 2 is his new plan to study addiction as a disease. Part of it has to do with his experiences, part of it has to do with the girl [who died during an experimental blood transfusion], but why do it now?
That’s an interesting question. It’s a double-edged thing. It’s been very well-researched, the show, and that was the beginning of when they were starting to look at addiction and go “What is it that makes somebody more prone than someone else to addiction? Is it something to do with the way their brain works? Is it a psychological thing?” So this is a time when that was beginning to be looked into and Thackery was at the forefront of a lot of things. But there’s no question it’s driven by his own personal need. He needs to understand himself. In Season 1, the reality is he was a high-functioning addict. And now he’s got to try, and part of the journey of Season 2 is him struggling to be able to do what he’s doing without the aiding support of drugs.
In today’s day and age a doctor would never be able to come back from what Thackery did: stealing drugs and using drugs. Was that based on real cases — his accepted and expected return to the Knick?
No, actually. Thackery is inspired by a real doctor, William Halsted, who was considered a leading doctor of the turn of the century, who was at the John Hopkins Hospital in New York. And he did brilliant things, but was consuming vast amounts of drugs. Life expectancy on an operating table was really low. If you ended up being wheeled out into one of the surgical theaters, your chances weren’t great. So the idea of somebody trying something and somebody dying was very, very high. It was not as regulated as it is now. And I think Halsted, the real guy that Thackery is inspired by, had situations where he walked out mid-operations because of his drug addiction. And he would take sabbaticals where he would disappear and they weren’t sure if it was to recover from drugs or to take more drugs, and he spent a huge part of his career high during big operations.
[laughs] I knew about him being based on a real person and his addiction, but I guess the awareness of his addiction in the hospital is still surprising to me.
Yeah, to be honest with you, there’s an awful lot of doctors who have come up to me since Season 1 and it’s been really encouraging because they’ve totally embraced the thing. They love how well-researched it is. And I’ve talked to people [laughs] and they actually say, “What’s ‘The Knick’ about?” I say, “Well, I’m playing this doctor who is also addicted to drugs,” and I often get the response, “Well, what’s changed?” [laughs] The scary thing is, it could still be going on.
That’s pretty terrifying. Speaking to that, though, one of the interesting things and one of the funnier moments in that premiere episode of Season 2 is when Thackery comes back and he speaks to the board with such arrogance and confidence, as if he knows he’s getting his job back and he’s telling them that he’s going to study this addiction. In his mind, there was never a question of him getting fired, and where that arrogance comes from was an interesting choice.
Well, I think we touched back to it at the beginning. He’s a hugely flawed character, but he is brilliant at what he does. […] These brilliant doctors have huge egos. They have to; they’re kind of playing God. They have people’s lives in their hands. Some of the risks that Thackery has taken, people have hugely benefitted from and people have been saved. It’s a real mixed bag. And in this season, there are operations where he goes out on a limb and he performs something absolutely incredible, and sometimes it doesn’t come off. And it was a time when they were doing that. They were shooting from the hip, they were taking risks and, in taking risks, were making huge advancements. And that’s the inspiration for what our series is.
I really wanted to talk about the girl who seems to be haunting Dr. Thackery throughout the beginning of Season 2. I was curious what her appearance represents for him, at least in your mind.
Well, I think he’s haunted by it really. I do remember when we shot the transfusion scene in Season 1. That was the one scene where I came up to Steven and said, “How can we come back for Season 2? How can we bring Thackery back after this? We can’t go lower than this.” I think it is just something that is going to haunt Thackery. I’m not sure if this is the case really for doctors. It’s a pretty wild example, but they are dealing with lives and deaths and there must be times where the consequences of what they’re attempting haunt them, and I think this is… He knows he did this operation not in the best fit state and it had a huge cost, and it’s haunting him and rattling him throughout the whole of the season.
Will she serve as a reminder of what can happen if he falls off the wagon?
There’s an element of that, and another element of responsibility — that’s the consequence of him, you know, going off the rails. So it is that, but it’s something that I think it’s something that’s just going to haunt him throughout the entire season.
How real is she in his mind? In your performance, I can see a double take when he notices her and then there has to be a realization that she’s not real, but how real is she to him?
I think very real, but the impact and the feelings are hugely real. We see it when he first sees her, and he’s in a very, very haunted, fragile state. There’s no question that when people have big addictions and then come off, the reality of hallucinations and seeing things have huge impacts. That’s what is happening the first time he sees [her].
One of the striking events of the premiere was when Thackery was performing those backroom operations in exchange for drugs, and he was doing the nose job on a woman. [Owen laughs] He ends up clipping off a wire and sticking it into her nose. Was there any background for that, or was that purely just to show where he was at and have a moment of humor?
Yes, I think [it was more for humor], but again they were doing those operations. In terms of using that, we do find him completely high on drugs when he’s performing that. I’m not sure if that specifically was done, but that was the beginning of very early plastic surgery; a time when they were attempting these kinds of operations.
Thackery and Dr. Edwards’ relationship has developed in Season 2. They’ve become — I don’t want to say friends — but something like friends in that they share that passion for discovery. Is there feeding off one another good for them? Does that actually bring out the best in who they are?
I think there’s no question that Thackery recognizes how talented Edwards is and at the end of the day that, to him, is everything. He understands that in that hospital, and in this world this guy is the closest to him, and he’s the guy to go to and to lean on whilst they’re pushing the boundaries forward. And that’s the great thing about the journey of the relationship, it starts so badly and ends up that they lean on each other a little bit. I like the way that that relationship developed.
Another important relationship for Dr. Thackery is his relationship with Nurse Elkins, and that may be more important for her as the season goes on. But I was curious how Dr. Thackery saw that relationship during Season 1, and what relevance it holds as he goes through his process of Season 2.
I think that what happens while he’s in rehab is that he realizes it was inappropriate. The relationship was pretty wild and there were a lot of drugs involved in them coming together, in their time together. And he comes back and he’s been in rehab and part of his journey is to stop taking the drugs. But also, looking at that relationship and no doubt he still has feelings for her. He recognizes it’s an inappropriate thing, and that it’s best that they’re not together.
Do you have a line in your mind about Dr. Thackery can’t cross? You mentioned earlier how the botched blood transfusion was something you felt crossed the line, and obviously it did for him. But is he finding that line now, or where do you find that line?
I think the beauty of the character is that people always want to take just the good things out. There’s no question that he’s a brilliant doctor, but he’s usually flawed and the great thing about playing him in the high wire act is you get everything. And he does some appalling things and he does some brilliant things. We are always asking, “Can we not just have the best of everybody?” And life is just not like that. The world is full of hugely talented people who also have flaws, and that’s the beauty of playing him. We’re not just going to take all the bad things away and say, “Leave us just with the brilliant doctor, and we’ll get rid of everything else.” It’s that conflict which drives him. and he’s also the reason I took the part.
The last thing I wanted to ask you about was something you mentioned before, which was how Season 2 has opened up outside of the hospital and is showing a lot more of the city. What’s your favorite aspect of the broadened view in Season 2?
We’ve done some sequences where we go into a club of the time and a bar of the time, and one of the great things about the show is it feels very different from a lot of period shows that I’ve seen. There’s something immediate and visceral about New York life at that time. And it’s not a lot of period dramas [with] people standing around drawing rooms and living this very protected privileged life. What Steven has done with “The Knick” is make New York a very edgy dangerous place, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of it. And when we go outside there, the streets are vibrant and edgy and there’s something almost contemporary about the feel of them. And you feel that it will be an exciting but dangerous place in time to live.