Holland Makes History in ‘The Knick’

As Dr. Algernon Edwards, André Holland has proven quite the formidable surgeon opposite Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery in Steven Soderbergh’s turn-of-the-century New York medical drama, The Knick. The just-ended 10-episode Cinemax series, which begins season-two production in early 2015, marks the third time in as many years that the ascending actor has traveled back in time — on screen, of course: First, to 1940s Brooklyn as sportswriter Wendell Smith, the chronicler of Jackie Robinson’s barrier-breaking ascent in Major League Baseball (42); next, to 1965 Alabama as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s coadjutant, Andrew Young, during the landmark voting-rights campaign (Selma, opening Christmas Day). Holland spoke with Multichannel News contributor Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn near poolside at the Beverly Hilton Hotel at the summer Television Critics Association press tour about his passion for history, and why it’s become so personal for him.

MCN: Talk about the research you did for your work onThe Knick.

André Holland: I read this book, Low Life, by Luc Sante, which really just talked about New York at that particular time, and all the different immigrant groups that were coming in, and what day-to-day life was like. I read a lot of W.E.B. Du Bois. The Souls of Black Folk is a book that I carried around with me just about every day on set, which surprised me, because I’d read it before. Then something just told me to pick it up again and have a look.

MCN: What were you able to draw from it?

AH: One of the things about the character that fascinated me was the fact that he’s this black man who’s extremely successful, has done everything right — he’s been educated, not gotten himself in trouble — [and] he has a successful career internationally. Yet he still finds himself on an island in this place that’s meant to be his home. And I really relate to that.

MCN: How do you mean?

AH: I think part of it comes from growing up in the rural south in Alabama and going to New York and then this place [Los Angeles]. I often feel like a fish out of water; not always feeling like I quite fit. Then I go back home sometimes, and it’s difficult for me to connect with the people I grew up with, which breaks my heart. That is exactly what I felt when reading the script. What does it cost a person to be constantly in search of that, of assimilation and not wanting to lose myself, but yet I kinda have to in order to be part of this thing, and yet, why? Why do I have to do this? Why can’t I just show up and be André and that be enough?

MCN: Judging from your steady stream of work on-screen lately — the hype surroundingThe KnickandSelmathis December — maybe you’re fitting into this Hollywood thing better than you think.

AH: (Laughs.) Think so?

MCN: Maybe. But if so, are you ready for that spotlight glare?

AH: I’ll tell you what I’m ready for — I’m ready to have some real choices. After working on this thing with Clive and with Steven, I feel like I’m ready to challenge myself. ‘Cause there were some things in my career early on, some choices that I made that were cool, but it wasn’t quite right for me. I feel like now I’ve kind of turned a corner in terms of being really specific about the kinds of things I want to do, and I want to do things that really speak to me.

MCN: You’ve had a run on period pieces lately. Do you enjoy stepping back in time?

AH: I think Lupita [Nyong’o] said in one of her many interviews that it gives you a chance to take history really personally, which really spoke to me.

MCN: And being from the South yourself, didSelmahave a personal impact on you?

AH: It really did. Andrew Young, in his book, said two of the high schools that were turned out [for the Birmingham, Ala., voter-registration movement] were Parker High School and Brighton High School. My mother went to Brighton. And when I read that, my eyes welled up and I started crying.

I called her, and I said, “Mama, I read this thing and it said, Brighton High School!” And she said, “Oh yeah, we did that.”

So that’s what they were doing. My mother. It’s like, it’s history, but it’s family history for me.