EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: 'The Knick' Star André Holland Talks Algernon Edwards & Cornelia Robertson's Relationship, Race Issues & More About New Cinemax Series

By Jon Niles | Aug 15, 2014 10:00 PM EDT
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Steven Soderbergh's new series based on a New York City hospital in 1900 showcases progressiveness in the operating room while staying conservative on other matters such as race. At the center if this issue is Dr. Algernon Edwards, a Harvard educated, European trained surgeon that is offered a high position at the Knickerbocker Hospital, but is met by opposition from Chief Surgeon John Thackery (Clive Owen). The talented André Holland portrays this important role of Edwards.

Holland recently spoke with us about how he landed this important role on the Cinemax drama, what we can expect from Algernon and the relationships he forges, and why an early second season order for The Knick is surely something fans can be excited about.

How did you get involved with The Knick?

Well, my agent sent me this script. I read it and right away I was blown away by the material, as I think everyone else was. When I read the character, I thought, Jesus he's such a complex and beautifully drawn character. I couldn't not be involved. I put myself on tape -I was in Europe at the time actually - and then I sent it out. I ended up sending out a couple of other tapes subsequently, and then I met with Steven. We had lunch together, then the writers came, and we all talked for a little while and the next day I got the offer. I was blown away! It felt so great to get a chance to work with these guys.

How did you approach a character that is challenged in pretty much every scene?

I think that's really what made it so appealing. I think it would've been very easy for this character to be presented as a noble black character who is always doing the right thing. But, I think that the story that we're telling is actually more complex than that. I think that the things that Algernon is pushing and fighting against are big things. It's not just that I have an angry redneck guy who doesn't like me because I'm black. It's actually, Clive Owens' character Dr Thackery's point of view is: "I'm not interested in leading the charge to social change." Meanwhile, the hospital is on the verge of financial ruin. In the second episode, no white patient would agree to be operated on by a black surgeon. That's his point of view, so I think that makes it that much more complicated than "oh he doesn't like me because I'm black." You know what I mean? For me, it was really exciting to figure out exactly what the nuances of that relationship was, which is different from the challenges that he faces in dealing with the relationship with Cornelia, which you will find out later. All the relationships are challenging in a slightly different way, which is really quite cool.

Can you elaborate a little more on Algernon's relationship with Cornelia?

Algernon's parents work in the household where Cornelia lives, the Robertson family. His mother is the cook, and his father is the driver. Algernon and Cornelia were raised almost as brother and sister, side-by-side. Because, Cornelia's father Captain Robertson, saw great promise in Algernon as an academic and he was quite a smart kid, he got into the best schools right alongside Cornelia, and really allowed them to grow up as brother and sister.

First of all, they are very intelligent people; they're crusaders in their own right. She's for women's rights and he's for racial equality and inclusion. They really connect in that way, and as you find out throughout the course of the first few episodes that relationship is like a very, very intimate one - a very personal relationship that goes beyond just working at the hospital. So, it just was a very beautiful relationship.

Juliet and I both being actors who kind of came from the theater, there are many times outside of set, rehearsing on our own in a coffee shop, or her apartment, or wherever; we kind of made sure exactly what the trajectory of that relationship was. I don't want to ruin it for you, but it's a very beautiful relationship. It's one of my favorite one's in the whole series.

Does Dr. Edwards create any bonds or, probably more likely, any bad blood with other characters?

It gets more complicated. Algernon and Eric Johnson's character, Dr. Gallinger, they definitely have a very contentious relationship, which just gets worse and worse. Basically the only person in the hospital that seems to have any love for Algernon is Juliet's character obviously, but then there's also Michael Angarano's character, "Bertie," who seems to be like this really young guy who's just open to whatever. He doesn't really seem to be bothered by the fact that Algernon's there.

But aside from that the patients give Algernon a hard time. The black patients who end up coming to see him in the shadow infirmary downstairs, they give him a difficult time. The nursing staff, the black people who he lives with in the rooming house in the black neighborhood - which is one of the really interesting things about Algernon; he goes home to the tenderloin district where it's an all black neighborhood. He doesn't fit in there. He's picked on because of the way he dresses and ends up getting into a fight at the place he's staying then he comes to work and doesn't quite fit in there because of the color of his skin. He's sort of caught in between these two worlds and kind of on an island which is again all the more reason why I think that relationship with Cornelia is all the more important to him.

What's so amazing about the show is that the characters that they created and the situations that they created are really interesting but they're also rooted in reality. If there's one thing that I think, you have to say that this show is incredibly well researched. Everything that we do, everything is so deeply rooted in reality that it just makes it all the more amazing. Yeah, it's really quite a special thing.

What's it like to go head to head with Clive Owen, an Academy Award nominated movie star coming to television?

It was great, man! I First of all, it didn't really feel like TV; it didn't feel episodic. Basically, we shot it like a 10-hour movie. There were 73 shooting days and we shot 10 hours of material so it really just felt like it was an epic film. Yeah, it did feel like a big deal with Clive doing TV, but it didn't really feel like TV. When you add to it that it's from Steven Soderbergh, that he's shooting all of the episodes - it doesn't really feel like TV, it feels like its own thing. It's just a film that happened to be aired on a television channel.

But, going head to head with Clive was a treat because he's one of my favorite actors. He's fantastic and he's always looking for the truth, he's always looking for the reality of the situation. He really listens to the nuance of what you're saying, and not all actors do that. So every time we did a scene or take, it was always, I felt, like slightly different and alive in a really great way. The scenes that I have with him are my favorite. I'm hoping and praying that we get to do much, much more together next time around.

The Knick already received a second season order before the pilot even aired. How did that feel?

This is first time Hbo/Cinemax picked up a show before it aired. I think it just speaks for the enormous amount of faith they have in Steven and in Clive, and in the whole team. For me, it's like really exciting. For one, I have a little bit of job security, which is not common as an actor. But then also, it's really cool because now we will get the chance to get the scripts ahead of time so we can have some time to get it all in our bodies and in our mouths so when we get back to work in February. It will be even better than this season was.

Do you have any more projects you are working on or have coming up that you'd like to talk about for a little bit?

I just finished a movie called Selma, which we shot this summer down in Atlanta and Alabama about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I play Andrew Young, a former mayor of Atlanta and Ambassador of the United States, but at the time was one of Martin Luther King's right hand men. He was really important in negotiating the passing of the Voting Rights Act. It's really, beautiful film. Ava DuVernay directed it; she's one of those directors that people like me are going to look back and go "yup, I got a chance to work with her really early in her career." She's that good. The script was really amazing and it comes out Christmas day. I can't wait to see it, and I don't always feel that way about productions that I am in but this one I am really excited about.

Other than that, the only thing I really have going is getting geared up for the next season of The Knick, which I am excited to get going on.

Make sure to check out our interview with Juliet Rylance here!

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