‘The Knick’: How Clive Owen Became TV’s Biggest Badass
TV’s most gruesome—and beautiful—medical drama, ‘The Knick,’ returns Friday. The star talks about his role as a drug-addicted genius surgeon...and that mustache.
In Season 1 of The Knick, Clive Owen had his penis injected with liquid cocaine. How does one top that? You give him heroin, of course.
Owen, his drug-addicted mad genius of a surgeon Dr. John Thackery, and his positively Selleck-ian mustache all return Friday night for Season 2 of The Knick, Cinemax’s spellbinding and brutal drama about the savage advancements being made in a New York hospital at the turn of the 20th century.
It’s a dark, bloody, explosive drama—the kind we’ve come to expect in the Golden Age of prestige television—but one with the benefit of having every single episode directed by Steven Soderbergh, giving the rock-and-roll, dialed-to-11 slickness of the series a controlled, steady hand.
The show is quite good, and incredibly hard to watch, based on your tolerance for penile drug injections; barbaric experimental surgeries, each staged like an exquisite sanguine ballet; the bleak reality of the sheer carnage that was necessary for modern medicine to exist; and, naturally, the obscuring of Clive Owen’s perfect face by a ghastly painter’s brush mustache.
But, like all the horrifying imagery of The Knick, a deep-dive into the world of the show leaves you rather accustomed to unsightly visuals. So when I arrive in a Midtown conference room to meet Owen to discuss the second season of The Knick, I’m almost missing his character’s signature facial hair.
“I’m not,” he laughs, his clean-shaved smile a veritable weapon of swoon that immediately eradicates any senseless mustache wistfulness I had. “I’ve had it a lot in the last few years. There’s a few characters I played that it felt right to have mustaches. But I’m quite glad to be free of it, I must say.”
In any case, Thackery’s facial hair is immortalized in Season 2 of the show—not to mention on the countless ad posters for Season 2 I passed on the way to meet Owen, each featuring his Dr. Thackery with taglines like “Humanity is hard to cure” and “God has a rival.”
For an actor who was once defined by a suave roguishness that, at one point in his career, placed him in near-annual conversations as a possible James Bond replacement, a mustachioed surgeon with a God complex in a period drama on Cinemax is the best proof yet that there really is no such thing a “Clive Owen Role”—nor is there a branding or word that dutifully defines the specific kinds of characters he excels at playing.
Well, perhaps one works, especially after watching the Season 2 premiere of The Knick. Clive Owen does an excellent badass.
“He’s a risk-taker,” Owen says, when I ask what it is about the mad genius that pop culture has become so obsessed with.
It’s a bit of an understatement to describe a surgeon whose proclivity for performing highly experimental surgeries while high as a kite on drugs, cock-cocaine or otherwise, got him sent off to a rehabilitation center by the end of Season 1, his legacy of bold medical breakthroughs threatened by the embarrassment of it all.
“There’s something about his risk-taking that will benefit people,” Owen says. “Sometimes it’s appalling and sometimes it’s inappropriate and sometimes it doesn’t work. But when it does it’s of huge benefit to everybody in the medical world.”
He points out that Dr. Thackery is loosely based on a real doctor, William Halsted, who worked at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the early 1900s, was absolutely brilliant, and consumed a cray amount of drugs. It’s maybe the most harrowing thing about The Knick, the realization that the behavior of the doctors and the surgeries they performed is not far off from the truth.
“These doctors, if they weren’t pushing the boundaries of the time…we’re still benefiting from the things they discovered then,” Owen says. “There was an element of shooting from the hip. ‘We tried this, it might not work.’” Could you imagine?!
“The one thing that you kind of left Season 1 with is that you wouldn’t want to be wheeled out in an operating theater in 1900.”
But beyond the spectacle of these medical procedures—and they are spectacular, in their audaciousness, their gruesomeness, and, as directed by Soderbergh, their beauty—The Knick is a gripping portrait of addiction.
When we last saw Thackery, there was a rare look of peace on his face. The pacifying agent, however, was cause for great concern. In order to calm Thackery’s crippling case of “cocaine frenzy,” he is administered his first dose of heroin.
A consummate addict, Thackery becomes addicted to the heroin, developing conspiracy theories while in the rehab center about withheld dosages. This leads to a hypnotizing handful of scenes, including one face-off with Eric Johnson’s Dr. Everett Gallinger while Thackery is jonesing for another heroin hit and tweaking, a depiction of human behavior as disturbing as any of the show’s surgery scenes.
Quickly it becomes clear that any tranquility seen in that last frame of Season 1 would be short-lived.
“He is essentially a high-functioning addict,” Owen says. “He’s used to performing these operations high on drugs, and it was very important that when we came to Season 2 that he didn’t recover from that too easily, because as we know addiction is a long, difficult, very hard battle.”
It’s another case of hard-to-stomach history, too. Cocaine was a huge problem at the time, and “cocaine frenzy” was a troubling byproduct of that. In the fallout of this, addicts were treated with heroin, which was used to calm them down.
“I just felt that it was important that when we see him in Season 2 he looks worse than we’ve ever seen,” Owen says. “Because he has an addictive personality and if that is the treatment, then he’s going to embrace it wholeheartedly. That kind of will be a battle throughout the whole season.”
That means as transfixing an acting showcase as it comes for the Oscar nominee, who despite scoring a Golden Globe nomination and being a key figure in The Knick’s Peabody Award, found himself at the mercy of the Emmy Awards’ ceaselessly infuriating wisdom and was snubbed in the Best Actor race. His performance is a high-wire act, teetering between Thackery’s brilliance and his awfulness, managing to keep balance while playing one of the most combustible characters on TV.
“I imagine brilliant, brilliant doctors have huge egos,” he says of the character. “They’re playing God. They’re playing with people’s lives. They’re not all clean, or straightforwardly heroic. They’re going to be complex and difficult and arrogant. And I just love taking that on as an actor.”
It’s certainly interesting to look at Thackery and The Knick as the top acting credit on the body of Owen’s work. It’s a résumé stacked with characters who have all been a little shaken not stirred, performances that in tandem with Owen’s chiseled handsomeness have led to a din of “The Next Bond” talk.
Maybe it was the charm offensive Owen launched while on the awards campaign trail for Closer, or maybe it was the pure sex fired from the guns he’d shoot while rocking a devastatingly tailored suit in movies like Shoot ’Em Up, Inside Man, Sin City, or Derailed. But there was a time when Owen was branded the suave Brit. “There are worse things to be called, for sure,” the actor laughs.
But The Knick undeniably gritties that image up a bit. This is not James Bond.
“Not at all,” Owen says. “But I’d argue that throughout my career, going back to the beginning, I’ve never played that one note. Some actors hone a career out of a particular thing. They go, ‘I want to be that kind of actor in that particular thing.’ I want to try everything.”
It warrants taking a closer look of that body of work. Few leading men are able to shapeshift as often as Owen has—action star (Shoot ’Em Up, King Arthur), prestige thesp (Children of Men, Hemingway & Gellhorn), period drama stalwart (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Gosford Park), and dozens of curios and genre projects in between.
That remarkable variety of his résumé, combined with perhaps an ill-fitting reputation as a Bond type, might be the reason why, just as his work on The Knick, every Clive Owen performance in some ways feels like a surprise.
“There’s something beautiful about the way this came together because I think there’s something in Steven Soderbergh as well that’s a bit fearless,” Owen says about The Knick. “If you look at his career and the things that he does, he does all kinds of different projects. There isn’t a ‘Steven Soderbergh Movie’ or brand. You go from Behind the Candelabra to The Knick. That’s something we connected on, a fearlessness where we said let’s go, let’s see how far we can push it.”
We’ve seen the first four episodes of The Knick Season 2. They push it far.