Things were looking up for The Knick’s lone black surgeon Dr. Algernon Edwards when Season 2 opened: He served as the hospital’s chief of surgery while Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) got treated for his cocaine addiction. But now that Thack’s back, Algernon is facing the same racism-fueled hostility he faced last year — it is still 1901, after all — and even learned he might not be a part of the hospital’s staff when it moves to its cushy new uptown location.
All of that means we had a lot to talk about with Andre Holland, who plays Algernon on Cinemax’s superb medical drama. Holland spoke with Yahoo TV about Algernon’s futile efforts to earn respect from some of his colleagues, the effect his wife Opal’s arrival has had on him this season, his collaborative partnership — don’t call it a “friendship” — with Thackery, the pleasures of working with series director Steven Soderbergh… and that cringe-inducing eye surgery scene in Episode 2. (We can barely think about it without involuntarily squinting.)
It’s been kind of a frustrating season for Algernon. It feels like he’s bumping his head up against the ceiling of what he’s able to do in this society.
Yeah, for sure. I think that last year, he came in with a lot of optimism and hope that he’d be able to make a place for himself. And you’re right; this year has gotten progressively more frustrating for him. To be honest, when I first read the scripts this year, I was a bit surprised as well. I thought, “He’s earned his way by now. Surely he’ll be able to get the respect he deserves.” But when I read it again and talked about it with the writers and Steven [Soderbergh], the truth is that things can’t get much better for him. Because you can look at where we are today and still see how far we have to go, you know what I mean? So it would be dishonest, I think, to let him off the hook entirely, so soon. It is frustrating, but it’s also, I think, a more honest approach.
Opal’s arrival was a big turning point for Algernon; it sort of inspired him to be more bold in asserting himself at the hospital.
Yeah, it did. One of the things that really impressed me about this part in the beginning is that he is so isolated, and so alone. Even though he’s done everything the right way and worked his butt off, he still finds himself on an island. And I think having Opal come this year really has empowered him, and given him an ally, which is something he desperately needs.
To me, the two of them… I think you’ll see it by the end of the season; the writers have crafted it in such a way that they really could be this amazing power couple in a different time, you know? And you see why they were attracted to each other in the first place. They both have that enormous ambition and fearlessness and bravado about them. And Zaraah [Abrahams], I can’t say enough about her. She’s such an incredible actress. She’s so great for that part.
We also saw Cornelia react to Opal’s arrival; there was definitely some jealousy in the air there. Are there still feelings between Algernon and Cornelia? Or is he going to give his relationship with Opal a real shot?
I think for me, given what they went through last year, Cornelia and Algernon… that romantic door has closed, from Algernon’s point of view. That being said, given the past they had together, I think there’ll always be love between them. I think Algernon certainly has feelings for her, but I don’t think they’re romantic feelings anymore.
And as far as Opal goes… [Laughs.] It’s complicated. She’s a complicated woman. But by the end of this season, that partnership that they’re forced to have, it really does re-forge a bond between them. To me, the way their relationship went in Paris was that it was very sort of hot and heavy and very fast, and it all got to be a bit too much for Algernon, and they separated. But I think now their relationship is growing in a deeper way. So by the end of the season, I think we’ll see they really are connected in almost a spiritual way. In a way that he and Cornelia could never be.
Gallinger’s been a big adversary for Algernon at the Knick. Last week, he sabotaged Algernon’s surgery and then swooped in to save the day. Are we building towards a big showdown between these two?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that comes to a head at some point.
So are we looking at a fistfight out in the alley? We know Algernon can throw a punch.
I don’t want to give it away… we know he can throw his hands. I think he’s done a good job so far of not resorting to that. But Gallinger really put him in a corner last week, so I think this week’s episode will be interesting, I’ll say that. [Laughs.]
Thackery’s had Algernon’s back lately, though. And they seem to have a mutual respect for each other. Could you call them friends, even?
I don’t know if “friends” is the right word, but I think, like you said, there is a mutual respect between them. They both are enormously ambitious men, and above all else, they’re interested in medicine and new discoveries and new technology. And regardless of their own personal politics, I think they have to respect each other, because they are the best, you know? I would call them collaborators more than I’d call them friends.
I’m not sure Thackery has any friends, actually.
Exactly. Maybe Abby, but you know… [Laughs.] He kind of does his own thing.
Steven Soderbergh brings such a distinct look to the show, serving as both director and cinematographer. What’s his style like on set?
Well, he knows what he wants, so he’s very clear with the actors and the crew about what he’s trying to accomplish. He’s a master, you know what I mean? So you get to work, and you just trust that the decisions that he’s making are the right ones. He’s always extremely open to other people’s ideas. In fact, I’d say he’s really dependent on other people’s ideas… especially the actors. He trusts that he’s cast the right people, and he expects that we’ll come in having made our own choices and having opinions about how we want to do it. And then you mix that with what he had in mind.
I’ll give you an example: Last season, when I first got the scripts, I read them a few times, and there were a couple things I was unclear about. It didn’t quite line up for me, in terms of the trajectory of the character. And I mentioned it to Steven, and right away, he said, “Alright, let’s all get together and talk about it.” And so that weekend, while we were shooting, he took half of our day off and called myself and the writers in, and we sat down and went through it, scene by scene, beat by beat, to make sure that everything was lining up in the right way. And that’s something, to me, that’s just an example of going above and beyond. He’s so deeply invested in it and wants it to be right, you know? I never expected him to do that, to be honest. But he did it, and I just respect him for that so much, for the care he takes. He’s a special man.
Do you ever get nervous shooting the surgery scenes? I know it’s not a real patient on the table, but there are expensive special effects that have to go just right.
Yeah, the surgery scenes are the ones that make me the most nervous. [Laughs.] Because it’s such a challenge: to act, first of all, and deal with the things that are going on between the characters, and be speaking this medical jargon, most of which I’ve never heard before, and also do it in an audience full of other doctors. So there’s that performative nature of it as well. And then you add the blood to it, and the camera… it’s tricky. So I definitely get nervous. To me, it really feels like that same feeling of when I’m about to walk out on stage in front of an audience. From my years of doing theater, that’s exactly what it feels like.
I was really cringing during that eye surgery scene earlier this season, with a shaky-handed Thackery about to plunge a scalpel into your eyeball. What was that clamp they put on your eye to keep it open? Was that historically accurate?
[Laughs.] Yeah, it was. That was one that our medical consultant, Dr. [Stanley] Burns, brought in. It was one from his personal collection, I believe. And it was the real thing, yeah. But I was cringing, too. Clive [Owen] is so good at playing that: the drug addict whose hands are shaking. And he had that crazy look in his eye. I said, “Oh boy, here we go.” [Laughs.] It’s funny: I just had an appointment to get LASIK. The doctor, he was like, “Oh my God… you don’t have anything to worry about. You lived through that scene with the knife; LASIK will be a breeze."
The Knick airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.