The Knick’s Chris Sullivan on Ambulance Drivers and Rat Stomping

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Photo: HBO

One of the most delightful characters in Steven Soderbergh’s show The Knick is Tom Cleary, a boozy, foulmouthed, pipe-smoking ambulance driver. Played with aplomb by Chris Sullivan, Cleary engages in some of the more memorable sequences of the show, insulting nuns or stomping rats or trying to weasel more money out of the hospital. But he isn’t a villain, exactly. He may be greedy and selfish, but he’s also willing to help out Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) with her illegal abortion practice, just so the girls get the care they deserve (well, that and to make a little extra scratch on the side). Sullivan rang up Vulture to discuss the fun of playing Cleary, the fascinating relationship between his character and Sister Harriet, and Cleary’s heroic actions during the riot. [Note: This interview contains spoilers through episode seven of The Knick.]

You pulled that ambulance all by yourself in the middle of a riot.
Yeah! I did some brute force. We all knew it was coming, and I hadn’t really thought much about it until the day it arrived. The wagon itself wasn’t too heavy, but after about ten or 12 takes it definitely takes a toll [laughs]. I needed a little personal training on the back end of that. But the majority of that scene was happening about 30 yards behind the trailer, so I wasn’t sure how much of it was going to show up. But it was a fun day.

You mentioned you knew it was coming. The cast got every script before the show started even shooting, right?
Yeah, it was a unique situation. They had all their ducks in a row and we got all ten scripts about three weeks before we started shooting, maybe more, along with our entire shooting schedule. It was pretty great.

I assume that helps when approaching a character, so you’re not necessarily waiting to see what happens.
Yeah, it was really good. I just finished having lunch with Cara Seymour [who plays Sister Harriet], and we were talking about how beneficial it was to have the script ahead of time, because she and I got together and did some rehearsing on our own before we got to the set. So it kind of allowed us to develop a little bit more of a partnership than would normally be allotted for walking on the set cold having not met necessarily or hung out with the people you’re about to work with.

The relationship between Cleary and Sister Harriet is one of the best of the show.
Thank you very much. We were talking about how lucky we felt over lunch. We really have been given two really great characters to play with. 

Can you talk a little bit how that relationship has evolved? It started with you making fun of this nun, and it took a bit of an unexpected turn where they’re now partners.
Yeah, the writers, Jack [Amiel] and Michael [Begler] and Steven [Katz], put together a really evolved relationship. I think it was a relationship maybe that people didn’t see coming. When a show starts out, you’re immediately trying to identify your goodies and baddies, and trying to place people in your mind where you think they belong. I think Cleary ended up being a lot better of a person than people initially expected, and Harriet ended up being a little bit more suspect than people anticipated.

Were you surprised Cleary made the deal with Harriet to perform the abortions?
Yes and no. I’ve said before, he’s a guy who ends up doing good things for bad reasons. He’s definitely also profiting from it, so there is that aspect of it, which kind of leaves it ambiguous as to why he’s doing it. But I think good, bad, or otherwise, the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference, so there’s kind of a connection between him and Harriet. He’s investing energy in her from the very beginning, even if it is negative or hateful, which kind of ends up pulling them closer together.

Some of that negative energy seems to stem from his upbringing, being abused at an orphanage, which he briefly discusses with Sister Harriet. 
Yeah, the way the Catholic Church was formed, and as it evolves even today, there’s a lot of people who hold some pretty serious grudges towards the church, and I think that actually continues well into modern times, especially people who were quote-unquote raised by the church. So I don’t think [Cleary’s situation] is uncommon. We as maybe people who are not Catholic or who are not involved in the church kind of have this weird, holy impression of the people who are involved in the church. But there’s a lot of business involved, and as we see with Harriet, she’s not this saint walking around in robes, she’s a skilled medical professional and she runs an orphanage, she drinks a little, she smokes a little. I didn’t grow up in the Catholic church, but I went to a Catholic high school and a Catholic college, and the Jesuit priests are not saints floating around campus. They smoke cigars, they have a drink. They were amazing educators on top of that. So a lot of times, the position in the church also goes along with a pretty evolved profession outside the church.

One of the scenes I wanted to ask you about is the rat-stomping scene. 
Yeah! 

What was it like shooting that scene?
We started out with an actual bag of rats, and the rat wrangler showed up with her boxes full of live rats. There was a lot of initial apprehension from a lot of people on set, but I was alright with it. Obviously none of the real rats were stomped. That’s one of those things that is not that far gone in our history. I had never heard of it before, and I think the reason it got the reaction it did was because everybody, as it was happening, realized it was real. It was something that we were making up. It was pretty brutal. The initial way it was done was with dogs, so they would put a dog in there with the rats, and the betting was based on how many rats the dog could kill before the rats overtook the dog. But if you didn’t have a dog you used a human. It was probably a little easier for us to shoot it with a human.

In general, it seems like you’re having a ton of fun with this role. Cleary gets so many good one-liners. He gets to fight, too.
I’ve already many times thanked Jack and Michael for all of the great words they have put in my mouth. I think because he is such an outgoing character, and because he is what he is, there is no real clandestine nature about him, he’s really not trying to hide anything about himself. That leaves him — for me and the character — kind of wide open for bigger, louder choices. And it is just fun. The people I am surrounded with, the other actors, and the vibe Steven sets up on set, makes for a very playful, easy place to work.

How much history did you do in terms of ambulance drivers in the 1900s?
Steven gave us all a book to read before we got into it called Low Life, and it was a bit about the evolution of New York City, almost as an evolving, living thing. Ambulance drivers back then were not medical professionals in any way. They were not able to provide any kind of help or first aid. They were more trained horseman who picked people up. A trip to the hospital in 1900 was pretty much a death sentence. If you were going to the hospital, it wasn’t to get better, it was to obtain drugs to ease your pain, or for these surgeons to attempt procedures that were brand new and untested. It was almost like donating your body to science.

So what do we have to look forward to from Cleary over the last couple of episodes?
Well, there’s the business that he and Harriet have set up. It certainly takes an interesting turn over the next couple episodes. You’ll be getting a little glimpse as to what’s ahead for Cleary in season two.