It is difficult to be a black man and get to play a real person on screen, says American actor Andre Holland. The 42-year-old, whom most of us would remember as Andrew Young from Ava DuVarney’s 2014 political drama Selma, surprised everyone with his restrained and realistic performance as the Harvard-educated surgeon Dr Algernon Edwards in the first season of Steven Soderbergh’s period medical drama The Knick.
Despite having dabbled in theatre right from the age of 11 and having attended drama school at New York University, it is only of late that Holland has been offered such meaty parts. It is both a combination of limited opportunities for black actors and his refusal to take up the stereotypical “black friend” roles, he confesses. As the second season of The Knick is currently being aired in India, Holland speaks to Sunday Herald.
What made you say yes to The Knick?
Well, the first factor is definitely Steven (Soderbergh). The second factor is that Algernon is not a one-tone character. He is a really well-developed, three-dimensional character. It is rare that you get to play a real black person on screen, who has a profession, at which he is really good at; he has a love interest, and he also has an intense emotional life. He is just very human and that’s rare when it comes to characters of colour, even in these times.
What have you picked up during these two seasons of filming The Knick?
So many things. One thing, not medically but historically, that I’ve found interesting is learning about New York. I read a book called Low Life by Luc Sante, which talks all about New York City at that time, and it’s fascinating. For example, Soho, which is where I live, was once called Little Africa. It was the centre of black life in all of New York City. And now I’m probably like one of the five brown people who live in that area! So I have just learned so many fascinating things about this city. Medically, I’ve learned so much too. Like the fact that they didn’t even wear gloves in surgery until much later. There’s a brain surgery that happens this year, one of the first brain surgeries, and to see those instruments they were using… it’s crazy.
How was it working with Steven Soderbergh?
He’s a director who does just about everything. He directs. He’s shooting — literally holding the camera. He’s in control of the lighting. He’s editing it on the way home after work. He does so much of the production. We were able to cover between seven and 10 pages a day and we’re usually done by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. It is nuts, but it’s all because he’s so efficient. He just gets down to the bare essentials of every single scene, of every single moment, of every single take. Working with him feels like a dream.
The surgery scenes look intense. How was the experience of shooting with so much blood and gore?
The way Steven works, he’s so intense, and things change so quickly. When we turn up for a surgery, everybody has to be 100 per cent focused, because he shoots them all differently and he never tells you how he’s going to shoot it until you’re there. First of all, it’s hard enough just to get your mouth around the words and then you have the instruments in your hands, and then there’s blood on the instruments, and then there’s a hundred people in the gallery watching you. And then, you also have to be in contact with other people who you are playing the scene with. You have to be on your game at all times.
What was the kind of research that went into Algernon’s character from your end?
I love doing as much research as I can. We started from this photograph that Burns (Dr Stanley Burns, medical historian) gave us of a black doctor in Paris circa 1901, leading a surgery, and from there we found that there were a number of black doctors working in Europe at the time. So I’ve read about all of them. I read as much as I can.
The Knick’s depiction of racial prejudice, and Algernon’s response to it, is nuanced. Do you see a bit of yourself in him?
I think most black men will relate to and identify with Algernon. Having grown up in a small town like Alabama, I know what it’s like to have to choose your moments and swallow down a lot of things. When I read the script I was like, ‘That’s exactly what it feels like,’ even down to the fighting. I found myself in those similar situations and so would have many others. So I think they do a really good job, the writers, of depicting it accurately and not making him just a noble character. He’s arrogant and he’s angry. He has his own vices, but he’s brilliant.
The Knick airs on HBO Defined at 9 pm, every Saturday.