Clive Owen may be back home in London now but he is still the king of New York City. Well, at least the Gotham of 1900 and the fictional Knickerboker Hospital. In his first U.S. TV series, Owen plays the ambitious, eccentric and acerbic chief surgeon John Thackery in the freshman season of Cinemax’s The Knick. It’s a role he drilled into like a doctor in the operating theatre. “What I found really thrilling about the whole thing is it was hugely entertaining, but also incredibly informative and well researched,” he says of the 10-episode period drama directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh. Owen says he “wasn’t looking for a T.V. series,” but the high quality of The Knick’s first script from Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, plus the chance to work with Soderbergh, was something he couldn’t turn down. With The Knick renewed for a second season before it even debuted—it will start production early next year—there’ll be a lot T.V. in Owen’s future. Not that there hasn’t been in his past. Before big screen leads in Croupier and Children of Men, Owen actually came to fame in the U.K. in early 1990s as the conman Stephen Crane in ITV’s Chancer. He also appeared as the lead in the BBC’s Second Sight in 2000 and, of course, he garnered Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his performance as the great American writer in HBO’s 2012 T.V. movie Hemingway & Gellhorn. However, for Owen, who has played physicians before in films such as 1993’s Century and the Mike Nichols-directed Closer from 2004, the role of Thackery and The Knick was something both familiar and very new.
Going from the big screen to your first stateside T.V. series, what was different?
Not much. To be honest with you, it just felt like shooting a long movie. Because of the way Steven works he brought the same intensity and preparation to The Knick that he does when he’s doing a film. If I was to find one major difference it was that it just felt like it was more intense because we were shooting more each day. There’s a lot to keep on top of, but otherwise it didn’t feel any different from shooting a movie.
On this side of the Atlantic, you aren’t as well known for your T.V. work. With your feature projects, plus the long-term commitment on a series, what attracted you to doing The Knick?
I committed to the whole thing after only reading the first script, but I also had some very long discussions with the writers and with Steven about the series and the character. They already had a very clear overview about where they wanted to take Thackery and where they wanted to take the whole thing. It became very clear to me that they’d done a really tremendous amount of research, which I liked. Every time they talked about the series, it was flooded with details unearthed about New York at that time. And then more scripts came and they just were as good, if not better, than the first one. It was really, really creative and precise at the same time.
You could say the same thing about the character of Thackery, even with the rather dark aspects of his personality, to put it mildly.
Yes, you could. Thackery is magical, maniacal and a genius. I’ve never read a lead part in which a guy has all those qualities in equal measure. Yet, he’s such an unlikable person in many ways. He’s an out-and-out racist in the early part of the series; he’s an addict. He’s trying to push forward the whole world of medicine, even if he would potentially destroy people around him or kill patients in the process. As an actor, that makes it awfully difficult and challenging. So, it really felt like playing the part was kind of a high-wire act. There’s something very exciting about doing that and seeing how far you can take that.
You guys took it pretty far.
Yeah, there were times where I thought we pushed pretty far, but that was the exciting thing. To take a character like Thackery, the changing world of New York in 1900—to take that on and tell that story—is not easy. For me, when it’s not easy it’s more exciting.
What excited you about the series being set in the early 1900s?
Having the opportunity to look at what was going on in New York at that time. Not just in the world of medicine, where they were learning things that we still benefit from today, but to spread out to look at politics and the social world of the society.
You see that in almost every scene, from when the lights come on in the hospital, to the class and racial divisions, to Thackery’s desire for an x-ray machine.
It was an intense time.
Working with Steven Soderbergh probably was equally as intense.
The one thing you need to do when you’re doing a project like this is you need to be prepared. You won’t find any director more prepared than Steven Soderbergh. And I like that. I also knew I had to be prepared, too, and I knew the challenges going in. I could see how many pages sometimes we’d shoot in a day. It went up to 13 pages of dialogue some days, and Steven doesn’t do many takes. This is the way Steven worked and this is the pace he works at and you better have your stuff ready. You better come ready to work. I tend to like that intense environment.