From its opening bloody scene in a 1900-era hospital operating theater, to the drug-addled end of season one, The Knick spared no one—much like the expansive and industrial era in American history that it depicts. At the blackened heart of the Steven Soderbergh-directed series stands Clive Owen as the crazed and brilliant Dr. John Thackery. Taking over as the head of New York City’s Knickerbocker Hospital surgery staff following the suicide of his mentor, Thackery sought to drag the barbarism of medical treatment into the dawn of modern medicine, while trying to wrestle his own demons in what was a true chef d’oeuvre performance by the Children of Men actor. “I got some incredible feedback from friends and peers that liked it or really loved it,” says Owen of his portrayal and the 10-episode first season of the Cinemax series. Not only did The Knick put the premium cabler on the serious drama block, but it also put Owen solidly back on the Emmy contender path just three years after his first nomination in 2012 for HBO’s Hemingway & Gellhorn. With the series renewed for a second season just before its August debut last year, and production on that cycle now recently completed, Owen has become a de facto New Yorker—at least in the NYC of the early 20th century.
The Knick has won a Peabody in its first season and been nominated for Golden Globe and WGA awards. What does Dr. Thackery bring to you?
There’s nothing more exciting for me as an actor than to play this high-wire role. Thackery’s somebody who is challenging, kind of brilliant, but also in some areas, really difficult. In season two of The Knick we definitely continue that high-wire walk but it feels bigger and more epic, too.
From Thackery’s drug habit, to the sex, the cadavers, the changing urban world, race relations, and the violence, The Knick takes place in the opening years of the 20th century but really isn’t your typical white flannel suit period piece, is it?
Well, often in period pieces what we’re looking at is a very polite version of what life might have been like then. In The Knick, I think New York is a really tough place to be. There’s something that I think is so visceral and relatable about this period piece, which is different from a lot of them. There’s this world of medicine, what they were learning, and how they were learning it. They were making huge strides but it’s shocking and wild to think about the things they saw then, and the way they approached treating people.
The fictional Knickerbocker Hospital has become quite bleak by the end of the first season, as has Thackery himself—does he go further into the darkness in season two?
We left him in a pretty desperate state and it’s a question of him picking himself up and trying to get himself back together again. This season we go outside of the hospital much more. He goes off in some very interesting areas but he still tries to tread the line, which is the reason I was sort of attracted to him in the first place.
You’ve said that one of the reasons you were attracted to The Knick was so that you could work with Steven Soderbergh. What was it like for you both, coming back for a second season?
Steven and I got really used to the way each other worked. I’ve gotten much more comfortable and understood the way he did things. So by the time we started again, we’d put so much groundwork into this story, and the characters, and we’ve taken the people quite far enough in that first season to be able to just pick it up and push it further. But we also hit the ground running because there’s a very well organized crew and good way of doing things. So it felt like the first day was just picking up exactly where we left off, and there’s something really great about that.
It sounds like you view the show as a real collaboration with him.
One great thing about Steven is he knows quality when he sees it. And the people he surrounds himself with are of such high quality. Everywhere you look on the show you are dealing with top people. He’s also a brilliant delegator in lots of ways. He lets people who really know what they’re doing do their thing.
Does that include you, too?
For me there is a great feeling that you’re part of something that’s genuinely pushing the boundaries. It’s so exciting to be in something I think is of such high quality. With really great writing, the show goes into dark areas that I think haven’t really been looked into before. Generally, in television at the moment, the potential to do that is there. It’s challenging but I think it’s a pretty bold television show. We really committed and we created something pretty unique.