Even though Andre Holland’s life is over a century removed from Dr. Algernon Edwards, the character he plays on Cinemax’s “The Knick,” he says they share a deep connection: “That sense of not quite fitting in necessarily in the white world, but not feeling like I fit in the black world (either) and having to find my own secret place to work or to live in.” For Algernon, that feeling is never more real than in the episode “Get the Rope,” in which a race riot forces him to hide under a gurney while his colleagues sneak him out of the hospital where he serves as a top surgeon. Filming the 10 episode first season was an exhilarating challenge for the thesp, not least of which because he was working with Oscar winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh.
ANDRE HOLLAND: “We got all ten scripts upfront, with maybe a month to prepare; it was pretty daunting. What was great about it is that obviously you’ve got the deep arc of the characters and know where it was all going.
“I grew up in Alabama, in a small town called Bessemer — it’s about half an hour outside of Birmingham — and so (dealing with racism), those circumstances, are pretty familiar to me. Even though it was a very long time ago, and it’s quite different, it’s also the same in a lot of ways. Growing up I, like Algernon, went to mostly white schools for most of my education, but I lived in an all-black neighborhood.
“Even in this industry it’s still very common to be the only one, or one of very few people of color, in a lot of situations. That’s not necessarily any particular person’s fault, and I’m not trying to point to it as like ‘woe is me,’ but that is something that I’m familiar with. Accessing that headspace was probably the easiest thing for me, I’m sad to say.
“Some of (the episodes) we shot in sequence, but a lot of it wasn’t. In the morning we might be in episode one, we might jump to episode six by the afternoon, and then back to three by the end of the day. Episode (seven) we did quite a lot in sequence because we were in a number of different locations. When we went to negro infirmary, for example, we shot all of that stuff in a day. And then we shot the stuff on the street because we had that location for a limited amount of time.
“We had to shoot it so fast, everyone moved so fast, that it feels like your head is spinning. You’re just trying to figure out what’s going on in the scene, and by the time you figure it out, we’re already up and doing it. It forces you to make some quick decisions, and it also weans you off of approval.
“(Soderbergh) isn’t the kind of director who’s going to tell you exactly what to do, or give you a pat on the back, necessarily, if he liked it. If he liked it, he tends to not say anything. That responsibility to make my own decisions, as an actor, and stand behind those, and is definitely something I learned from him.
“The (gurney) scene is a really good example of Steven’s brilliance. On the page, the way the scene was written, I was under the gurney and the scene happened above with people talking to each other. When (Soderbergh) shot it, I remember I was sitting underneath there, they were pushing me along, and then all of a sudden he put the camera down there, and he told the guys above to run the scene.
“I still didn’t understand that that was how he was going to shoot it, so when we were done, and I got out of there, I thought, ‘Okay, now we’re going to shoot the actual dialogue.’ He was like, ‘No. We’re done.’ It’s just the way he sees things, the way he finds those interesting things that are so unique. It’s so him. I read that scene probably 75 times, and I never ever imagined that he was going to shoot it that way.
“Sometimes, as an actor, you look at a certain scene and you think, ‘Okay. Well I’m not going to be featured in this one. I’ll take it easy.’ You don’t get to do that on Steven’s show. You never know. You’ve got to be ready at all times.”