Andre Holland on ‘The Knick’

We speak to the co-star of Cinemax’s turn of the century medical drama about what’s in store for medical and social progress, and how they do those surgery scenes.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Cinemax’s new drama “The Knick” is groundbreaking in a lot of ways. It brings Steven Soderbergh to television as the director of all 10 first season episodes, and Clive Owen as the star. It also explores a side of medical drama rarely depicted.

In 1900, Dr. Thackery (Owen) is a surgeon at the Knickerbocker hospital, before surgery was what it is today. Skilled surgeon Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) joins him, but because sos racial segregation he is at a disadvantage, at a time when no surgeon can afford to be working at any further disadvantage. We got to sit down with Holland before “The Knick” panel for the Television Critics Association this summer and really delve into Algernon’s role in “The Knick.”

 

CraveOnline: John and Mark said Algernon was not based on the story Flowers for Algernon but did you think of that when you played the character?

Andre Holland: You know, actually the thing that came to mind for me was Algernon in Oscar Wilde’s play. That’s the only other time I heard that name, but then I thought about Flowers for Algernon. I don’t know how they came up with the name but I don’t think they were trying to focus on anywhere in particular.

It seemed like by episode two, Algernon became very patient with discrimination.

Well, I don’t think he becomes patient with it, but I think he understands how big the task is. I think he understands this is not something that’s going to be solved in a day, so he starts finding subversive ways to get around it.

Does that translate into his bedside manner, where he’s better able to handle perhaps hostile patients?

That’s a good question. I don’t think so. I think that he’s a patient person by nature and I think he actually has good bedside manner, which I don’t think that Thackery does. Throughout the whole thing, it’s always a challenge because the patients, both black and white, are shocked at the fact that he’s actually a surgeon and it’s the first time for them seeing a black surgeon. I think they’re all a little bit scared of it. But, I think after dealing with the number of patients who are like that, he kind of begins to understand going into it that okay, they’re going to be a little freaked out. Maybe in episode six or seven he starts to say to patients, “Don’t be alarmed. I’m going to touch you.” Anyway, I think it just becomes a part of his life.

What sort of interesting surgical cases does Algernon have?

Oh man, he does a lot. He does a hernia. He operates in a hernia. He works on Ida Harris, the woman with the swollen arm.

She went to the other hospital. So she comes back.

I don’t want to spoil it for you, man.

No, I can imagine how we’d see her again.

Yeah, there’s a number of things. He also works in The Knick as well assisting with some things. There are some heart procedures that happen. There’s an eye. There’s all kinds of things, tons of different surgical procedures but he’s pretty proficient at all of them.

How technical does the dialogue get for you?

Very technical. We had a guy called Dr. Burns standing by who was our medical consultant. He’s one of the leading medical historians around and he has an archive in New York City that we visited a number of times. So all the dialogue, all the technical stuff is based in reality and very spot on. Dr. Burns and Steven were both very adamant about [making] sure we pronounce this thing exactly right. So we spent a lot of time really understanding exactly what it is that we’re saying and how we’re meant to be saying it and what it means, just getting all the technical jargon down.

Have you ever had a job this technical before?

Never. Never ever. I mean, the first session that we had with Dr. Burns, he called it medical school. “Welcome to medical school.” We learned how to do sutures and we spent hours and hours learning how to do it with the forceps. He sent us home with little kits so that we could practice on these. He attached this thing to your arm and there’s a cut on it, right? It’s like this rubber material cut into it, so you just are constantly sewing and suturing and tying, so that by the time we got there to do it, it looked like we were really doing it. But it was terribly technical.

Is Thackery in some ways right that the medical field is not the right place to talk about social progress and integration? That by the time things get as tense as they are in a hospital, that might not be the ideal place for social progress? It’s complicated.

From his point of view I can understand, because he has a vested interest in the success of the hospital and the hospital’s already struggling financially, so I can understand his point of view. But at the same time, I think that, like Dr. King says, if not now, when? If you wait for an ideal time to make a change, to deal with issues, then I don’t know if that time will ever come.

I was thinking more that people who are dying just aren’t as open minded as they might be in good health.

I see what you mean. Yeah, sure. If it was a case of there’s a patient who needs help, we don’t want to try some experiment on this person. We want to actually save their lives, but from Algernon’s point of view, he actually is one of the finest surgeons in the world. It would actually make sense to have him help.

Are you otherwise a history buff?

I do enjoy history. That’s one of the things that I love about acting is you get a chance to really dive into history and develop a real personal opinion about it. So this is a period of history that I kind of know a little bit about but not really. So getting a chance to really read a lot about New York City in 1900, what it was like, how immigration was affecting the city and the class structure, how important that was. All of it was really fascinating for me to learn.

It looks so convincing on screen. How realistic is the makeup of the surgery scenes?

Very realistic. I mean, those guys, there were moments when we all got a little squeamish. When the blood starts flowing and you see the organs that look and feel so real, it’s pretty scary. When you touch the bowel, it feels like the real deal.

Did you ever have a chance to practice on a cadaver?

No, no. We didn’t have a chance and I’m not sure that I would’ve wanted to. I’m all about doing my research, but I think that’s the part where I’ll just use my imagination.

Did you read medical texts?

Yeah, I did. I read a lot of medical texts. I spent a lot of time up at Columbia Medical School, sitting in on lectures about things that I did not necessarily understand just to get a feel for what that world is like. Then obviously we spent a lot of time with Dr. Burns who has medical documents dating way, way back. He would show us a photo of, “Oh, this is the first whatever operation and here’s the instrument that they used to do it with.” He literally has so many things you could play with and touch and read about. It was very helpful.

How does Algernon’s relationship with Thackery progress. Is it always confrontational? Do they have to form an uneasy alliance?

Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say the way it starts, it starts very rough. It gets a lot worse before it gets any better, but it does develop. Even where it’s left at the end of the season, it still has a lot more ground to cover. If we’re fortunate enough to do a season two, I think that relationship is going to be one of the key ones.

I think it’s key now. If season two is 1901, how different will things be for black doctors a year later?

I don’t know. I think New York at that time was changing at such a rapid pace, fast forwarding even a year, the city would be different than it was in 1900. In terms of the black patients, I think that Algernon really is breaking ground in New York City as a black doctor. He’s beginning to get some notoriety and some fame as being this black doctor who people can come to for help. I’m not sure where they’re going to go with that storyline, but I imagine that he’s going to be the guy to see. Especially for African-American patients who need help because I don’t think the hospitals in the city are going to all open their doors and go, “Okay, come on in, guys. We’re here to treat everybody.” He’s going to become more important.

With segregation, Thackery’s equipment is already so bad and faulty. Does Algernon get stuck with even worse equipment?

He does. Yeah, he goes down to the basement and scavenges and gets as much old stuff together as he can, modifies some things. Every once in a while he’ll borrow some things from the hospital upstairs, but he just makes it work.

Are any of his surgeries compromised by that?

There’s one that gets compromised, not because of the equipment but because it’s difficult for him to offer continued care. Because he has a very small space he’s working in, there’s only room really for one patient so he doesn’t have time to let people sit there and recover for the time that they need to. So he has to trust that people will follow his directions and take care of themselves, but he doesn’t realize that these people also have to go to work, they have to make a living for themselves. So sometimes things get a little tricky in that way, but not because of the equipment. Just because of the difficulty of the whole situation.

You can never count on people to follow directions.

Exactly, exactly.

How long would it take to film a surgery scene?

It depends. One of them I think Steven said we did 70 setups to cover it all because that’s what he needed to get all the different angles of it. It could take anywhere from two hours to six hours or more. It just depends on what the surgery is, how many people are in the scene, how he wants to cover it. Also early on, it just took time for us to figure out as the actors how to handle the instruments. When you want to put the knife down, where do you put it? Does the nurse take it? Where does she put it? If you need another one, do you reuse that one? All the little technical stuff. Then of course the blood starts flowing and it gets sticky and slippery, so all the stuff you planned to do now has to change a little bit because you can’t even hold onto it. So that part of it took time and we rehearsed a lot of those, like the day before we shot ‘em, just to know what we were doing technically.

Are the instruments dulled props or are they the real thing?

Most of them are the real thing. The scalpels and stuff were dulled but the forceps, the clamps, all that stuff was real. Even the suturing, all those things were actually the real deal.

This is the first time a lot of viewers are seeing you. What was your background in acting?

Theater. I started out doing a lot of theater, a lot of Shakespeare, classic plays. Then I started making the transition to TV and film just a few years ago, so I’m still quite new to it but really loving it and hoping I get more opportunities.

Did you study at a drama school?

I did. I did my undergrad at Florida State, got a Bachelor’s and then I got my Masters in Acting at NYU. So I’ve spent a lot of time in the classroom.

You’ve always been a New York actor?

Yeah. Never lived in L.A. I’ve always done the New York thing.

And “The Knick” shoots in New York.

It does, it shoots in Brooklyn so I get to take the train to work. It’s pretty cool.