Andre Holland interview: The Knick

We sat down with Andre Holland, who plays Algernon Edwards in Steven Soderbergh's suberb period medical drama, The Knick...

The Knick offers a frantic tour of a racially-charged New York, difficult doctors and messy early twentieth century surgery. We caught up with Andre Holland, who plays surgeon Algernon Edwards, to talk about double consciousness, arrogant surgeons and finding fake blood under your fingernails…

The Knick is a show that revels in tension and never more so than with Algernon, who falls between so many positions. Is this something that you’ve consciously built into the character?

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A lot of it was already there on the page but it’s definitely something that I felt like I understand and have lent a certain amount of dimension to. I did a lot a research on this part and one of the things I read was W. E. B. Du Bois and his book The Souls Of Black Folk in which he talked about was double consciousness, which is what you’ve just said, falling in between a lot of positions. The writers did most of the work but I helped a little bit.

It’s almost as though he’s seeking it out, isn’t it? We know that he’s been away in Paris where it’s implied that he possibly had an easier time of it than he’s having in New York, and he’s come back and everything from the first moment we meet him seems to say ‘go away’ and he’s still there and he’s still pursuing it and taking all these risks. What do you think is there in him that drives him to do this?

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I think that it’s a couple of things. One of the things that he and Dr Thackery (Clive Owen) share is a sort of enormous personal ambition. He’s been at the fore of medicine in Paris but I think there’s something about wanting to do it at home. Obviously he had a relationship with Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), that makes him want to stay close to home, his family is there. And then I think there is also a certain amount of, frankly, arrogance about him, you know ‘if you tell me I can’t do it, that just makes me want to do it even more’ [laughs]. You know what I mean? So that I think is what really fuels it.

The arrogance is something that is shared with Thackery, and with Christiansen as well and Gallinger and Chickering, the whole set-up. Is that something that becomes competitive?

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I think it is. I think everybody is in the pursuit of new knowledge and they all want to be the one to make the big discovery, make the big find and I think that’s what probably fuels most people in that vocation. Certainly it’s what fuels me, Andre, there’s a certain amount of ‘I wanna be the one to get there to discover the thing’ and think that it does breed a certain amount of arrogance. Dr Burns, who was our medical consultant on the show, I sat with him for a couple of days before we started shooting and I asked him ‘if you have to describe surgeons, what would you say? If surgeons are always blank or surgeons are usually blank, what would you say?’ He said ‘precise’ they’re always precise. They’re also arrogant [laughs]. So I think that sorta got lodged in my head.

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With Cornelia there’s a direct parallel, she’s facing her own frustrations and with both Algernon and Cornelia you get this sense that they’re not being permitted to do everything their ability lets them do. Was there any collaboration between you and Juliet Rylance in how you were going to approach this?

Juliet and I spent quite a lot of time before we started shooting and during shooting. Off set, we would get together. We were very interested in how we could chart their growth as a couple and also as individuals. That was one of the things we found very early on. They are on very similar parallel paths. So I’m glad you felt that because it was definitely something we wanted to take care of and I think that’s what attracts them to one another. The thing that really binds them is that they both, again have this enormous ambition, this enormous ability and are constantly running into closed door after closed door after closed door. But the two of them together are a power couple.

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And how was the surgery? You said you had a mentor to give medical guidance but the scenes are very intense, and quite…disgusting! How are they to perform?

They were challenging early on. We had to rehearse it, which is first of all, learning the lines, learning the lingo and the doctor jargon, words I’ve never even heard of before, which takes a certain amount of will. You add to that the fact that, the fact that the same time you are performing a surgery of some kind. And then you turn up on set and they add blood to that. Then there’s background actors and there’s cameras and there’s lights. It was pretty challenging to be honest. At a certain point the blood just became part of the daily routine. You do it then you go home and you try to dig it out of your fingernails and get it out of your hair. But the hardest part about it was just the precision that we were working under on the bodies so the clarity and the intention which which we’re speaking and at the same time just maintaining and managing your own ‘actor nerves’ not to mess it up because messing it up means having to go back, clean up all the blood, put it all back in the thing and start again. It took a lot of doing but at some point we got into a nice rhythm.

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Did that actually help though, the fact that you were under pressure? I mean, you’re performing a scene in which your character is under pressure.

Man that’s a good question and it did. There’s one scene in which they’re trying to perform a surgery that Algernon had already done and written a paper on it in French but they couldn’t read French so he had to walk them through it. It ended up being one of my first big days on set and looking out and seeing 150 background actors, 100 crew members running around and Clive Owen standing there, everybody waiting on me to do this thing. They do it and I have to stop telling them how to do it and come in at the last moment and save they day and that the pressure of that certainly felt similar to the pressure that Algernon was under. So it definitely helped.

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You’ve talked about recognising in the character your own ambition and your own career. Is there anything you’ve brought from your career to shape the character of Algernon?

I think hard work; I think that  I tend to be a hard working actor, diligent about what I’m doing. So i think that’s probably the biggest thing that I brought. You know those scenes where he’s staying up late working in the basement? I’ve done a lot of that in my career [laughs] staying up working late on auditions, working on scenes, doing a play, whatever, anything I can do that gives me that extra little bit of competitive edge, I relate to that.

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And what have you learned from working on the show?

I learned a lot about medicine that I never thought I needed to know. A lot about New York. For example, the neighbourhood I live in New York is SoHo. I never realised that it used to be called Little Africa and was the centre of black life in the city. Literally the street that I live on is mentioned in this book ‘Lowlife’ a number of times to being smack middle of the black experience in the city. That’s something I never knew. Loads of things, I did a lot of reading W. E. B. DuBois and James Baldwin and discovered some writers and poets that were doing work at that time that I never knew. It’s taught me a lot.

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So you didn’t know that the street you live on had this history and this show has helped you to bring that out? Can we expect more hidden ideas emerging?

Yeah. So much of the first season was about what was happening in the hospital. In Season 2 we come outside of the hospital so we understand more about what’s going on in New York at the time. There’s a lot of that. In fact very early on Algernon befriends a new character who exposes him to a lot of things about New York that I, Andre, didn’t know and certainly Algernon didn’t know. So there’s a lot more of that to expect coming.

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So New York itself is important?

Yeah, New York becomes a character in the piece this year.

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The Knick Season 1 was released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download on Monday 17 August. The second series of The Knick premieres exclusively on Sky Atlantic on Sky and NOW TV this autumn.