The Cinemax drama series The Knick, created by Jack Amiel & Michael Begler and directed by Steven Soderbergh, is back for Season 2 and it’s 1901 in New York City, as The Knickerbocker Hospital faces upheaval. Dr. John Thackery’s (Clive Owen) absence due to his hospitalization for cocaine addiction is clearly being felt, and financial missteps have led to the board’s decision to close down in favor of a new building uptown. In this world of corruption, invention and progress, everyone is searching for the new path that will help him or her survive, but nothing will come easy for any of them.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor/executive producer Clive Owen talked about playing The Knick’s brilliant but drug-addled chief of surgery, what he most enjoys about working on the show, how exciting Steven Soderbergh’s approach has been, how technically challenging the medical operation scenes are, how he keeps track of his character trajectory, where Thackery is at in Season 2, and whether there could be a Season 3. He also talked about currently making his Broadway debut, with the Harold Pinter play Old Times, and signing on to work with Luc Besson on Valérian and the City of a Thousand Planets next year. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: How has working on this show been, in comparison to what you thought it might be when you started on it?
CLIVE OWEN: At the heart of it all is Steven Soderbergh and the way that he does things. It’s a very exciting and galvanizing approach. Because he’s doing everything, he operates, lights, directs and edits. It’s such an auteur vision, in a way, that there’s such a clarity about what it is we’re doing, all the time. There’s not a series of voices contributing. There is one person at the helm, and there’s something really great about that. He’s on top of every aspect of putting it together, so you just feel that you’re in great hands.
As an executive producer on the show yourself, how involved are you with things?
OWEN: There’s no question that Steven is at the helm, and that he’s the driving force and the brains behind the whole thing. There’s no question, at all. I’m an exec producer because I came on very, very early, when he first put the idea together, packaged it, and took it to HBO and Cinemax. He had already talked to me, and I came as part of the deal of doing this show. I do get very good input with Steven, as to the mapped out story for Thackery. I’ll see it and give my notes and thoughts and feelings. And then, I’ll get on the phone with Steven and we’ll shape it and hone it. The beauty is that the writers are hugely talented and very quick, so by the time we begin shooting, we’ve already ironed out most of the stuff. We’re always tweaking as we go, but the sweep of it has already been executed.
This seems like a show where you’re always having to learn something new to do each scene. Did it feel like you could build off of the research and work you did for the first season, or did you have to learn some all-new things for this season?
OWEN: The medical operations are so challenging because they’re so technical, as well. I assumed before we started that we would do the classic thing, when it comes to the operations, that we would do all of these inserts with real doctors. But Steven’s way of doing it is that he much prefers to shoot us and just shoot it very carefully, and be very specific about what he’s look at, at any given time. Virtually nothing is added afterwards. When you’re doing those operation scenes, you not only have to be on top of the dialogue and the rhythm of the dialogue and what’s happening dramatically, but you’ve got to technically get the rhythm right, so that everything is fitting with the dialogue at the right time. And you’re performing the operation to the audience that’s watching it. Thackery has to present it, as well. In some ways, that’s the most challenging. The first hour of those days really dictate the scene. It’s when you’ve got to iron out the rhythm, the details and the physicality of it. And each one is a different thing and presents something new that you have to learn and execute.
Steven Soderbergh decided to take on directing all of the episodes of the first season, so it would have been understandable, if he hadn’t wanted to do that again. But he made the decision to direct every episode of Season 2, as well. Did he need any convincing to do it again, or is he as excited about the material now as he was, in the beginning?
OWEN: He’d never taken on something like this, and he didn’t know quite what it would entail. In taking on ten hours, he wasn’t sure what that was going to feel like or be like. Half-way through Season 1, he turned to me and said, “I’m going to do Season 2, as well.” Honestly, he’s so on top of his game that I think it was easier than he thought it was going to be. He is so together that he mapped and boarded it like a 10-hour movie, executed it, and realized half-way through that he could do it. He loved the material and was having a good time on it, so he said, “I’m going to come back and do the next ten.”
You shot the first season out of order. Did you do that again with the second season, and do you have any special tricks for keeping track of the trajectory of your character?
OWEN: When he first told me that, I was like, “Okay, let’s try it. Every movie is shot out of sequence, so that doesn’t phase me.” But the reality of doing something of this size like that, I soon realized that it’s quite hard to keep the whole ten hours in your head, so I basically stole something that he used. We had brainstorming in Season 1 with the writers, and I went to see them in New York, and they had this big white board where they could move things around and go, “That scene there would be better in that episode, and we’ll move that to there.” I basically just had a big white board with episodes across the top and all of the key scenes in the episode. It was a great visual guide, as we jumped around, to be able to go, “That’s where we’re at.” It was also a coding for me, in terms of my drug intake. I was like, “Am I on a lot of drugs? Do I need a lot of drugs? Where is Thackery, in terms of his mental health?” It was a huge help, and I used that again for Season 2.
How has everything Thackery went through in Season 1 changed him into who we see in Season 2?
OWEN: The beauty of playing such a crazy, wild, unpredictable character is that you can hit the ground running with Season 2 and take it even further. When we got to the transfusion scene in Season 1, I got to the middle of the scene and turned to Steven and said, “How on earth are we going to bring him back for Season 2? How can he get any worse than this?” And the good news is that it can. It’s very exciting. The big thing for me, going in to Season 2, when we first started talking about the shape of it, we’ve done all of this great establishing work, and we can just hit the ground running and push it and really go for it. That’s the same for all of the characters. I love that about the show. There’s a fearlessness about it that I really love.
Will we get to learn more this season about who this man was before we met him and how the things in his backstory may have shaped him into who he is now?
OWEN: We see a little bit of that. We do see how he came to be at The Knick, but not much more than that, and I’m glad about that. I think it’s a very conventional way of storytelling to start saying, “How did this guy become who he is?” I much prefer having this character who you’re trying to keep up with because he’s this crazy, wild, unpredictable guy. The rhythm of going back and saying, “How did he become like this?,” is a very over-used one.
Thackery got himself involved with Lucy last season when he probably never should have done that. At this point, how does he feel about her and how does he view the relationship that they had?
OWEN: He was in a pretty wild state when they came together and I think he realizes, after being in rehab, that their relationship was inappropriate. He still has feelings for her, but he realizes that their relationship was involved with drugs. He was in a pretty wild place when they came together, and when he comes back, he realizes that that’s not good for either of them. The show is not about good and bad, and right and wrong. It’s in the grey areas, and it’s conflicted and complicated. He’s a complex, unusual guy. Is he terrible to Lucy? No, he does have feelings. It’s a bit like life. It’s mixed up and complicated.
To cope with his own addiction and inability to stop using drugs, he’s turned to finding a cure for addiction. Do you think that Thackery can ever really get himself together, or would he have to stop masking his own issues and deal with himself first?
OWEN: For me, that was an important part of what the journey of Season 2 should be. It’s his struggle with his own addition. They were beginning to look, for the first time, at why some people are more prone to addiction than others. It is based on fact. They were beginning to look at why and how some people became addicts, and why some people were more disposed. It’s like a lot of brilliant people in a lot of brilliant areas. People always want the good bit of it. But often, what drives Thackery to take drugs is what drives him to be brilliant in the world of medicine. You can’t just take the good things out of people.
During Season 1, Steven Soderbergh let you know that he wanted to sign on again for Season 2. Has he had a moment yet where he’s told you that he wants to do a third season?
OWEN: That’s very much up in the air, at the moment. We don’t know if, how or when, moving forward. It’s all up for discussion, at the moment.
Is this a character that you would like to continue to explore? Does it feel like there’s still more there?
OWEN: Yeah, there’s no question. I read that very first script of Season 1 and knew I wanted to do it. I had never read anything quite like it, really. I do love this high-wire act of someone who doesn’t make it easy for people. He’s not a lead character that takes people by the hand and says, “Come with me, and I’ll take you through a journey in 1900.” He’s difficult and challenging, and you never quite know where you’re at with him. It’s a real beauty to take that on, as an actor. I love the challenge of playing somebody so conflicting. That’s why I wanted to do it.
What’s next for you? Is the Luc Besson film, Valérian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the next thing you’re going to be working on?
OWEN: The next thing I’m doing is my first play on Broadway in 14 years, with Old Times, the [Harold] Pinter play. That’s the looming challenge that I’ve got to get through. During one of those big operation scenes, I turned to Steven and said, “This is like prepping to go back on stage.” Some of those operations were huge with a lot of dialogue and about a hundred people in the medical theater, watching the operation. It was the beginnings of me finding my feet and going back on stage again. So, I do the play, and then I’ve got a part in the Luc Besson film, early next year.
What attracted you to the project with Luc Besson, especially knowing that that’s a film that he’s been working on for a number of years?
OWEN: It was him, really. I’ve always been a big fan of his, and he’s a great and interesting guy. It is a project that he’s been passionate and interested about for many, many years. It sounded exciting, when I met up with him and he asked me. It’s not a huge commitment for me. It’s a very nice part, and I want to work with him.
The Knick airs on Friday nights on Cinemax.