One of the more unexpected story lines on Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick is that of Cornelia. On paper, she seems rather ordinary — the daughter of a wealthy shipping magnate who enjoys going to the opera. But that doesn’t stop her from getting her hands dirty as she tries to prevent a potential typhoid outbreak among Manhattan’s elite, going so far as to tackle the carrier of the disease. As actress Juliet Rylance tells Vulture, that’s one of her favorite things about playing the character: Cornelia is someone who understands her place in the world and how she can help change it. Combine that with the relationship she’s having with Algernon (André Holland), one of the few black surgeons in the country, and you get a fascinating portrait of an individual looking to break out of the mold that has been placed on women of her time period. Below, Rylance talks about what Cornelia’s ultimate goals are, standing against injustice, and the surprising comfort level of the show’s turn-of-the-century costumes.
Cornelia is one of the most interesting characters on the show, which you wouldn’t expect from the outset. She grew up wealthy in Manhattan, the daughter of a shipping tycoon.
Yeah, sort of everything on the surface with Cornelia feels like it should be such a cliché, but I love the fact that [writers] Michael [Belger] and Jack [Amiel] and Steven [Katz], in the way that they’ve portrayed her, have made her anything but a cliché. Just in the way she deals with certain circumstances and the situations they put her in. I just love playing her.
And you should be: You even get to tackle someone in an episode!
[Laughs.] The amount of comments I’ve had from friends and on Twitter that Cornelia must have been a linebacker in a previous incarnation ...
Well, Cornelia is very adventurous, determined — all things women weren’t expected to be in that time period.
Cornelia and Algernon have been brought up together side-by-side, and they both have a lot of characteristics in common with each other. They both are high achievers, they’re deep thinkers, they’re intelligent. Also, Captain Robertson, her father, I don’t think is aware [that] that simple act of having them grow up side-by-side has actually deepened and widened the way they view and think about the world. Often when I am thinking about Cornelia and how she’s made, and the way in which she was brought up, I think about Algernon, too, because I think they both share this sort of idea of how the world should be, and about changing it for the better — almost idealistically. So I think she’s grown up with this strange mix of feeling like she has the capability to do a lot but in reality being confined to the social mores of being a woman from that period and actually not being able to do nearly as much as she believes she could.
Her family and father in particular seem pretty progressive for that era. Like you said, he allowed her to grow up beside Algernon.
Yeah, again, it’s very contradictory in one sense. Captain Robertson gives Cornelia this extraordinary upbringing. I think he says to Cornelia at some point that she reminds him of himself, which is very unusual for a father of that period to say about his daughter rather than his son. So he’s given her this belief that she can break through and she can achieve everything she wants to achieve. But in the next breath, he wants her married off and he wants her bringing up his grandchildren at home, looking after her future husband. It is progressive in one sense and rather blinkered and ignorant in another, which I think is what makes her such an interesting character.
I also find her fascinating because she represents this connection between uptown and downtown culture in New York City at that period, and how disparate they were.
Yes, I think she’s coming across for the first time in her life how the other half lives. She’s obviously been very sheltered up until this point, and working in the hospital, particularly with Sister Harriet, and then obviously trying to get to the bottom of this whole typhoid epidemic. She encounters this whole other side of society that I think is new to her. So it’s a fascinating place for a woman of that standing to be in the situation she is working in that hospital downtown, which is surrounded by the poor, working-class immigrant population of New York.
She’s also trying to fight a typhoid outbreak. It almost feels like she has a responsibility to take on that situation.
I sort of identify with that a little bit, this idea that you see an injustice — and I hate injustice, and I think Cornelia does too — and there’s this almost very naïve response of, “I can change it!” And I love that side of her, I love that part of her. She almost takes it completely on herself to change it for the better.
What do you think her ultimate goals are? Does she want to run the hospital?
Well, she’s obviously seen her father as a philanthropist, which was something that at that period in New York was a huge part of upper-class society and what kind of standing you have in your social spheres. So she’s seen that side of the work growing up. And I think, like many next generations of families do, she wants to take that a step further and actually be the work. So I think that’s the big difference between her and her father. There’s that wonderful scene where he’s furious that Rockefeller is in the papers again for having made the biggest donation of the year, and I think Cornelia sees the futility of that kind of [competition] of doing good for social gain that she’s not interested in. So I think it’s an interesting question. She probably does want to run the hospital and change as much as she can — definitely not just disappear and do charity work with the ladies who lunch.
You mentioned Algernon earlier. What is it about him that allows her to risk some of the things she’s accomplished so far at the hospital?
Well, from the [start], Algernon and Cornelia have this intimate and close connection that goes beyond just working at the hospital, which I think is evident in the first few episodes. They connect on many levels. They were raised, as I said, almost as brother and sister, side by side; they’re both driven. But moreover, they’re crusaders in their own right. Algernon fights for racial equality and inclusion, and Cornelia for women’s rights and inclusion. And they’re both isolated and confined by the social situations they’re in. They have to work very hard in the fields that interest them. So that’s a major factor of two people who share almost the exact same feelings of the situation, even though Algernon’s is magnified a hundredfold. So in a different setting, it would be entirely natural for that relationship to deepen into something profound and beautiful. I think that’s a large part of the connection. And I think, more than that, on a very personal level, a lot of these things stand for André himself, whom I absolutely adore working with. There’s a gentleness about André and also this intense fight for his rights as a human being, which I think is very attractive to her. He’s very gracious and thoughtful and a real gentleman in the true sense of the word. And I think the other aspects of his personality that Cornelia really doesn’t know — fighting and all of the rage that is going on behind closed doors — is really a result of the situation he’s in. So ultimately, I think ... I probably said enough [laughs]. That’s quite a few reasons!
Have you been watching the show as its been airing on TV?
I am, although I was in England for the first four, so I was lucky enough to be able to see it on DVD before I left. But coming back and watching it live is really fantastic. And I had never seen episode seven until seeing it live. The last three episodes really hurdle toward the climactic episode ten. I think now, after setting the scene so carefully and introducing everyone to these characters, the whole story just picks up pace and really just hurdles like a freight train toward the end. I am really excited to see how Steven [Soderbergh] has put it together.
As an actor, I assume it helps having Steven on set for everything — he’s not only directing every single episode, he’s shooting it and editing it.
It’s so unique to have that one person, and that one person being Steven, at the helm of everything. He’s just extraordinary to watch as he works through each scene every day, and then editing at the lunch break, and then editing at night. As I am watching it, I keep seeing choices that he makes, like this one scene in one of the earlier episodes when all the doctors are standing discussion a patient, and he decides just to follow Barrow closing the blinds as he walks around the room. It’s such brave storytelling, and [it's] fascinating. You see something you never normally would get to see and the reactions of people like you do in this. I love that. Just seeing the way people are reacting from the information they’re being told, rather than the audience watching the information being told. I think that’s such a wonderful skill of Steven’s. He’s just brilliant.
From the audience view, it almost feels like you’re watching something onstage. There’s so much going on and so many long takes.
Yeah, that’s a really good analogy. I never thought of it like that. It’s true. In fact, it’s very true in terms of when you are onstage, you can watch whoever you want to. You’re not being told by the camera to focus on one moment, and I think Steven does do that a lot. He chooses the unexpected.
One thing I have always been curious about: The costumes are gorgeous, but are they comfortable to wear? Women’s clothing from that era was notoriously painful. It played into the whole “This is what women should be doing and looking like.”
[Laughs.] Well, I love a good corset. I sort of [grew] up doing a lot of Shakespeare and a lot of Chekhov and period stuff, so I love being in corsets. But I have to say, all my costumes [on The Knick] were made and built for me, so they are incredibly comfortable. Obviously, if you try and be [in the year] 2014 and be in your dressing room, slouching and eating whatever you want to eat, it can be uncomfortable very quickly. As long as you stand up straight …
Okay, so no broken ribs?
No [laughs]. I am happy to report. Actually, the only thing that’s straining is the jawbone, the pieces I wear around my neck. The corset, no problem, but it’s very strange wearing something that’s so restrictive on the neck. I am just not used to that. So that was the one thing I wasn’t quite prepared for.
Looking ahead to season two, which has already been announced, do you have scripts yet or know when it’s going to shoot?
Well, Steven is pretty sure it’s going to shoot in February. I did hear that he’s also going to try and do it in much less time than we shot the first one.
Wait, wasn’t the first one shot super quickly?
It was shot very, very quickly, over five months — which I think, for the amount of work in it, was very short. But Steven is always trying to beat himself at his own game. I think he’s his own competition. He has said we are going to do it even faster. We’re already texting each other saying, “Okay, we are going to have to be more prepared this time.”