As John Thackery, a surgeon in 1900s New York City, Clive Owen creates a frightening visage at times — all the blood and gore and driven by cocaine.
In the new 10-part series “The Knick,” Thackery is not like some mad Dr. Frankenstein, although he is something of a madman in his attempts to create breakthroughs in the operating room.
Owen's fictional character is loosely inspired by William Halsted, considered the most innovative surgeon of the era. In the late 1800s, when Halsted began to practice, surgeons operated in street clothes and washing hands before surgery hadn't become an accepted practice. Major surgical procedures in the era carried an estimated mortality rate of nearly 50 percent, much of this due to infections.
Halsted pioneered numerous operating techniques and the use of local anesthesia. While using himself as a guinea pig, he became addicted to cocaine and later turned to heroin to try to break his cocaine habit. Yet, Halsted became one of the most influential physicians of the 20th century as head of surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
When first approached for the role of Thackery — who shares Halsted's need for drugs — Owen expected the character to be a staid Victorian type. “Then I read it and I thought ‘This is quite wild,' ” the English actor says. “It felt very original. I never read a character like that; unbelievably edgy for 1900.”
Created by writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, “The Knick” was brought to Cinemax by Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”). Though the filmmaker has supposedly retired from making movies, he's been very busy with television the last couple of years, first with the Emmy-winning “Behind the Candelabra” and now with this series, nearly 10 hours of TV that he shot in 73 days on a set in New York City.
“He lit it, shot it, directed it, edited it. He's unbelievable,” says Owen about Soderbergh. “He's a complete original. I don't think I have ever come across anyone who's on top of all aspects of filmmaking like he is. And he has an incredible team, a lot of whom have been with him for a long time.”
Soderbergh and his producing partner Gregory Jacobs took the show to Michael Lombardo, HBO's president of programming, and asked to be on Cinemax.
The filmmaker jokes that it was an “ego problem.” “I kind of wanted to be the big kid at a small school,” he said of wanting to be on HBO's sister channel. As it happened, HBO was looking to expand Cinemax's brand and who better to help do that than an Emmy- and Oscar-winning director?
Having a Golden Globe-winning actor of Owen's caliber was also a pretty good get for Cinemax, which has already renewed “The Knick.”
Though he has done TV, Owen says television wasn't where he was looking in his career when he got the offer. “But it's all driven by the material. When you read a script that reminds you of why you do what you do in the first place, it doesn't matter what it is. The material was great, and you just want to get in there.”
The series title refers to the fictional Knickerbocker Hospital. It sits amid a rundown area of Manhattan but is endowed by a wealthy family. Grim and dark — electric lights have yet to be installed — the show begins with Thackery assisting in an emergency cesarean section in an operating theater filled with observers.
The doctors aren't wearing gloves or masks. Some in the audience smoke. It may have been the most modern of procedures at the time, but the crude instruments and flowing blood make it seem primitive by today's standards.
“The Knick” is not for the squeamish, but it makes for riveting drama. As Thackery, the hospital's head of surgery, tries to force his way into the 20th century, he must deal with a host of problems. Corruption is rampant. Ambulance drivers get paid off for picking up the sick and injured, and cadavers are at a premium for medical research. Money is pocketed that is meant to be put in the electrical system. Outbreaks of disease, including typhoid, are rampant.
The liberal benefactors of the hospital also have installed an African-American surgeon, Algernon Edwards, who trained at Harvard as Thackery's assistant — a move that doesn't sit well with the chief surgeon or others on the staff, especially those passed over. Despite his expertise, Edwards, played by Andre Holland (“42”), is often humiliated by the other doctors, yet must keep his cool.
“One of the first things I connected to was W.E.B. Du Bois' idea of his double consciousness,” says Holland, who also will be in the upcoming film “Selma,” about the civil rights movement. “Black people have had to develop these two different ways of living in the world in order to get by, and I think Algernon is very much an example of that.”
For Owen, it was important that Thackery's reaction to the situation was “authentic to the period. His hospital is in trouble and he's in the business of saving people's lives and knows people won't want to be treated by a black doctor, and that's tough.”
The Thackery-Edwards relationship, however, grows “more interesting and more complicated throughout the series,” says Holland.
All the actors involved were trained to look like they could handle the equipment of the era. “The sets were all designed to be lit practically by the kinds of instruments that existed during that period,” Soderbergh says. While “Knick” creators Amiel and Begler did extensive research on the era, they credit medical consultant Dr. Stanley Burns with making the sets look even more authentic.
“He showed us things that even all the books and all the research we had didn't,” says Begler.
Owen was faced with two main challenges with his role. One he shared with everyone, which is that the 73-day shoot was like doing a 10-hour movie. “I had to carry 10 hours of this guy in my head at one time. By the end, I literally had a visual graph to keep track of scenes,” says the 49-year-old actor.
But he credits Soderbergh with keeping things running smoothly. “Steven has very, very high standards, but he moves very quickly and doesn't do many takes. It's both challenging and exciting.”
The thing Owen had to deal with that others didn't was his character's functioning drug addiction. He describes Thackery is a “pretty open and wild guy” who spends nights in Chinese opium dens. As part of his research, the actor read a number of books about doctors of the time, including “Genius on the Edge: The Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Stewart Halsted” by Gerald Imber.
“Halsted was ingesting unbelievable amounts of drugs while being brilliant as a doctor,” notes Owen. To bring someone like that to the screen was a fascinating idea for the actor, who says he had to approach each scene by asking, “Am I flying high? Do I need to be flying high? Am I down? That builds and builds throughout the series, and he ends up at times pretty desperate.”
All the reading he did about the period made Owen “realize what an incredible era it was. In a short amount of time they made incredible discoveries that we still reap the benefits from today.”