Clive Owen on playing a racist, cocaine-injecting surgeon in The Knick

"There’s nothing more boring than a very wholesome, uncomplicated man”

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The Brits have finally conquered every corner of Hollywood. We’ve had the big screen for a good few years now – thanks to Daniel Craig, Robert Pattinson, Andrew Garfield and co. American actors retreated to television to play their trade. But now the small screen has fallen to the Brit onslaught too, from Damian Lewis in Homeland to Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead. Clive Owen is the latest, taking the lead in Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh’s small-screen medical gore-fest The Knick.

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Owen, of course, has been big in LA for years – from Sin City to The Bourne Identity via Duplicity and Children of Men he’s had the pick of the parts. He says it takes a particular kind of lead to pull him in. “There’s nothing more boring than a very wholesome, uncomplicated man.” He gives a slow, wicked grin. “With The Knick, I picked up the script and was in. How can you not want to play a character who injects himself with liquid cocaine in one scene then tries to save someone’s life in the next?” 

Owen plays Dr John Thackery, chief surgeon at New York hospital The Knickerbocker – the Knick of the title – in the early 20th century. Thackery experiments with radical surgical and social innovations – including employing Algernon Edwards, a skilful black doctor.

Thackery, Owen explains, is inspired by a real-life surgeon, William Halsted. “Halsted was at the forefront of
a group of doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. They made unbelievable discoveries, pushed things forward – consuming vast amounts of drugs while doing so.”

Of course, since Breaking Bad, a little light drug use on television isn’t going to bring the roof down (some of the parts of his body where Thackery injects cocaine might, though).Where Owen is leading the way is in the show’s depiction of racist attitudes. When Edwards joins the hospital, seasoned TV viewers might expect Thackery to welcome him with open, liberal arms. Few leading actors would play it any other way. But in The Knick, Thackeray has no interest in working with a black doctor and makes no bones about saying so.

“I’ve been quite surprised at how much I get asked about this in the States,” says Owen. People are quite shocked. But the truth is, there wasn’t a single black doctor working in any hospital in New York at that time. We’d be doing a disservice if Thackery was the liberal guy who said, ‘Hey, he’s very talented, he should work here.’ But I was concerned that the racism had to be based on Thackery’s worry that patients wouldn’t want to be treated by Edwards, rather than being just a dumb racist. I didn’t want him to be blinkered, because he’s not – he’s a bit of a maverick and open to anything.” 

Now 50 – “the big five-o”, he shudders – Owen grew up in Coventry in the depressed 1970s. His dad left home when he was three and he was an unruly kid until acting came along. “The very first part I ever played, the part that made me want to be an actor, was in a school play as the Artful Dodger, and I’m still banging that one out,” he laughs. “In the early days I was an angry kid from Coventry and that was the angle I came in on. I was unemployed for two years before drama school. Then I got lucky.” 

His luck included breaking America quite early on. “Croupier [a 1998 film by Mike Hodges] was the change,” he says. “It gained cult status and a lot of movie-industry people saw it. After that, film-makers wanted to see me and that’s a completely different ball game.” Back then, he points out, “the only chance a British actor had in American movies was to play the European baddie. Now I’m working with people I’m a fan of, like Soderbergh. The only person I’m truly a fan of that I’ve never worked with is David Bowie, and I don’t think he’s doing telly at the moment…” 

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The Knick is on Sky Atlantic tonight at 9:00pm