André Holland on The Knick, Period Pieces, and Bloody Surgery Scenes

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The Knick’s André Holland. Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

André Holland is used to playing pioneers. In last year’s 42, he portrayed Wendell Smith, an African-American sportswriter who chronicled the rise of Jackie Robinson. In the upcoming Selma, we’ll see him as former Atlanta mayor and Civil Rights pioneer Andrew Young. Then there’s his current role on the Steven Soderbergh period medical drama The Knick: Holland plays Dr. Algernon Edwards, one of the country’s only black surgeons. Edwards faces the kind of discrimination you’d expect a minority doctor to face at the turn of the century, but he finds himself stuck in the middle, excoriated by fellow blacks for his “fancy shoes and clothes” and looked down upon by whites — including his own boss, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) — for trying his hand at an educated profession. Holland rang up Vulture to discuss the racism his character faces, the show’s gory surgery scenes, and the recent showdown between Edwards and Thackery. [Note: This interview contains spoilers through episode six of The Knick.]

In last week’s episode, we finally got the Thackery-Edwards showdown we’ve been waiting for, as the hospital discovers Algernon has been conducting surgery on black patients in the basement.
Yeah, man. They gave us all the episodes right up front, and it was good all the way through. But then when I got to episode six, where they finally confronted each other, my mouth started watering. I just knew that was the [scene] I wanted to play. All the dudes who I met who have seen the show, they all say, “When are you gonna call old Thackery out? When are you gonna get him?” I just had to tell them: “It’s coming. Keep watching.” That, for me, was one of the most fun scenes we got to do the whole season.

Are you surprised it took this long for them to finally confront each other face-to-face?
Not really. I think that’s the way we set the story up. The idea of having an African-American surgeon working at this hospital was such an anomaly in the city, it probably would have taken that much time, or likely much longer, for a black doctor to be accepted. So it didn’t surprise me. And also just from a dramatic standpoint, I think it’s fun to tease it out as long as you can. It gives a chance for Algernon’s character to develop, because you then get to see his resourcefulness and all the other things he comes up with to get around the obvious racial differences and challenges.

I am pretty impressed how Algernon is able to maintain his cool in that scene and throughout the show. He’s very confident.
There was a surgeon we worked with, Dr. Stanley Burns, who was a consultant on the show. I asked him early on, “What’s the one thing that all surgeons have in common?” And he said “Precision. They’re all very precise.” He also said they tend to have a pretty healthy ego [laughs]. I think that Algernon is obviously a very accomplished and skilled surgeon. I think he’s very precise, not only in his work but also socially, in the way he sees the world. I also think that he does have some ego about what he’s doing. I think that he’s done the work, he’s put in the time, and he really, truly believes in his heart that he can be one of the world’s best surgeons. So I think it’s an odd mix. It’s not just a guy who’s a put-upon character; he has a real point of view about what he’s doing. So he sits on the abuse and the insults and he finds a way around it for as long as he possibly can. Even in the scene in episode three or four, when he has a showdown with Dr. Gallinger, what I wanted to explore was this man who is both standing up for himself but also taking a tiny bit of joy in the fact that he has the knowledge and he has the power. He takes a little bit of what it would be like to be in control, and he enjoys it. And I think that’s human and it’s more interesting than him just being the black man who has to suffer in silence.

Yeah, you want him to start knocking these guys out who are insulting him, but he doesn’t, which, as you said, makes things a bit more intriguing. 
For me, growing up in Alabama, in Birmingham, I really relate to that feeling: swallowing things down that you don’t necessarily want to swallow down, and having to find other ways around things. And this is something that I relearned in researching the part. It’s really interesting what that does to a person, you know? When you live in an environment where you aren’t allowed to be fully who you are, you aren’t taken seriously, and you aren’t respected. What that actually does to a person’s confidence and psyche is really fascinating to me. And on a personal level, growing up in Alabama and experiencing that, it definitely had an effect on me. It wasn’t until I left Alabama and moved to London and then to New York that I could really reflect on it and say, “Man, that really had an impact on me.” So I just love this character because I feel like he does a wonderful job in precisely picking his moments. He doesn’t just fly off the handle and right away start knocking people out. This is all new to him, so he doesn’t really know how to deal with it. It’s a really fascinating character. I love playing him.

Is it tough to approach playing a character who faces that kind of abuse constantly?
No, not for me. Those are the kind of characters that I am drawn to. I think that’s what makes characters interesting — when you paint a person into a corner and you see what they do to get out of that corner. It’s what makes drama drama.

I am really curious about Algernon’s background, and particularly his rise through medical school and his time in Paris. Are we going to see more of that going forward?
I think that as we continue this season and maybe even into the next season, we will find out more about what his life was like when he was in Paris. But so far, what I know about it, he says he was accepted and treated like an equal there. [Algernon] has more knowledge of recent medical advances than any man in New York. He really is on the cutting edge of medicine and is one of the best surgeons around. So I think that it’s really interesting to me that this black man who was raised in New York goes away, grows up, becomes the best he could be, and comes back to the place that’s meant to be his home, and is sent to the basement. I think we’re going to explore more as the season goes on, about his relationship with his parents, which is interesting. And obviously we see early on, he doesn’t have a connection with other black people in New York. He’s different. He dresses differently; he wears fancy shoes and fancy clothes. He doesn’t quite fit in the Tenderloin, the black district, but then he goes to work and doesn’t quite fit in there. He’s a man who’s caught in between. So yeah, we’re going to dig more into his backstory.

In the beginning, he spoke a little about Paris and how much more integrated it was compared to America. Why do you think he ultimately returned to the States?
That’s a good question, and that’s a question we wrestled a lot with early on. I think there are a couple reasons. I think his family, his mother and father, are there, and he wanted to be closer to them. There’s also a part of him — again going back to that ego thing — that just really wants to go home and practice medicine in his hometown. And I think there’s a little bit of arrogance to him, a bit of naiveté to him. He doesn’t anticipate what that will mean. Also, he and Cornelia were raised right alongside each other. She’s probably the closest person to him in the world, so I think there’s probably a desire on his part to be closer to people he knows and loves. But, at the same time, I feel like there’s probably more to the story that the writers haven’t revealed even to me. So I am eager to find out specifically what that Parisian experience was.

The characters on the show are fictionalized, although I know Clive Owen’s character is loosely based on William Halsted. Is Algernon a composite of a few people from that era?
I don’t think it’s based on anyone in particular. He’s probably pulled from several different sources. I do know that there was a photo of a surgery that was happening in Paris around the same time, where the surgery was very clearly being led by a black doctor, and there were white nurses and white doctors and white medical students who were in the operating theater who were watching him, and I think the writers sort of used that as a jumping-off point for this character. It’s a really stunning photograph. And then I think they pulled from different sources. I know the boxing part of him, I think that was added a little bit later on. But for me, my own personal inspiration for it was ... well, I don’t want to give away all my work [laughs]. I pull from a number of real-life sources. Writers who were writing around that time, thinkers from around that time whose points of view were very similar to Algernon — people who I thought he would have been reading were inspirations for me. 

Some of the surgery scenes in the show are difficult to watch. Is there anything that has grossed you out on set?
I think the first one was pretty gory. The first operating scene was the baby Dr. Christiansen tries [to save]. I remember we rehearsed it the day before. We came in, went through all the paces, figured out who stood where, where the instrument table had to be. It took a long time to figure that out. There is a lot of choreography in it as you can imagine. So we did all of that one day. And then we show up the next day to shoot the scene. The first take we did it and it was fine. But then Steven said, “No, no, no. We need blood — much more blood.” So the guys who were doing the effects, they turned the blood stream up and all of a sudden it was ... flowing. There were literally puddles of blood on the floor when we got done with it. So I think that part grossed us out a little bit. But as it went along we all got used to it and it just became about what your character is doing, what your character is thinking — actually moving the story forward.

With 42Selma, and The Knick, you’re really knocking these period pieces out!
[Laughs.] Yeah, man! I don’t know what that’s about. It’s funny. When I was in school, and even after, I did a lot of classic plays, and I guess it sort of extended into film. But also, the truth is, 42 I think was a great piece of material. Selma was a great piece of material. Same with The Knick. So for me, I am not just targeting period pieces, that’s just what’s happened to come my way. But I really look forward to doing some contemporary stuff too.

Looking ahead to the rest  the season on The Knick, do we have more in store between Thackery and Algernon?
I think at the core of their relationship, there is a mutual respect between the two of them. At the same time, I think that they’re also pretty stubborn men. So I get the feeling that they aren’t going to be besties all of a sudden [laughs]. But I think that relationship is going to evolve and I don’t think it’s going to be all smooth sailing. But it’s rooted in that mutual respect. That scene [in episode six] is a real turning point for them.