TORONTO – Edmonton-born actor Eric Johnson prepared so intensely for his role in Cinemax’s “The Knick,” as a surgeon at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital in 1900, that he became “strangely confident” in his abilities as a doctor.
Johnson joked that he enjoyed playing doctor so much that his fellow cast members — including Clive Owen, who stars in the new series — poked fun at him.
“They made fun of me, because I got a little too into it,” said Johnson in a phone interview. “I was like, ‘If this was 1900, I’m pretty sure I could pull this off.’ I had no right to be that confident at all, but it was pretty funny. I think I liked playing doctor a little too much.”
Directed by Academy Award-winner Steven Soderbergh and starring Owen as cocaine-addicted surgeon Dr. John Thackery, “The Knick” premieres Friday on HBO Canada. Johnson, who has acted in hit shows including “Orphan Black” and “Rookie Blue,” plays Thackery’s ambitious protege Dr. Everett Gallinger.
The historical drama portrays surgery in gruesome detail as it was performed at the time — without gloves, masks or antibiotics. Doctors had only learned five to 10 years earlier that they should wash their hands, Johnson said.
“That was medical science really in its infancy. So many things we still use today come out of this era. It was like mad scientists at work all trying to invent and discover new ways so that people didn’t die,” he said.
“Infectious diseases at that time killed off half the population… and now that number is about five per cent. You’ve got to think the innovations that happened in this time have affected our lives more directly than the invention of the airplane. We live longer because of the doctors at this time.”
Even for the actors who knew there were prosthetics and fake blood involved, the stakes felt sky-high during the medical scenes, Johnson said. He recalled that after they shot their first surgery, the background actors watching in the operating theatre all stood up to applaud.
“When the scalpel goes across the skin and blood comes out and you open it up and there’s organs inside it, you have the physiological reaction,” he said. “No matter how much you rationalize it, there’s blood pouring out of a human being in front of you so you can’t prevent that reaction from happening.”
Johnson said the actors worked closely with a medical adviser named Dr. Stanley Burns, who taught them how to hold a scalpel and tie sutures. The result is a “very accurate” depiction of 1900-era medical procedures, he said.
“People keep saying, ‘It’s really gory.’ I don’t like the word gory. I think they’re very accurate and I think that’s the most unnerving part of it. It’s not sensational so you can’t write it off. They all come across as very real. I think that’s probably why they’re so hard to watch.”
In the series premiere, Dr. Thackery ascends to the role of chief surgeon after the sudden and unexpected departure of his mentor. Thackery chooses Gallinger to take over the assistant chief position, but the arrival of a talented black surgeon named Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) defeats those plans.
Edwards faces resentment and discrimination from his fellow doctors, especially from Gallinger.
“He and Dr. Algernon clearly do not get along and that continues to rear its head and come to a crescendo in this season,” said Johnson. “It’s a difficult year for Dr. Gallinger, I will say that. But nobody on this show comes out unscathed.”
As Thackery’s protege, Johnson shares many scenes with Owen. He said working with the British actor known for “Children of Men” and “Closer” has been an “amazing” experience.
“He really is the anchor of the show. He really drives it. He was so prepared, so good and so masterful in what he was doing — not only is he doing an accent, but then he’s playing an addict, then there’s medical jargon and doing surgery. There were a lot of demands on him to execute and he just nailed it every single day,” he said.
“Then everybody else brings up their game, because you don’t want to be the guy to screw it up. You don’t want to be the guy that’s a liability. The thing with all the performers is that everyone was so prepared and so good. It was really special to be a part of.”
The buzzed-about series has already been renewed for a second season, even before its first episode is set to air. Johnson said he first saw the news break on Twitter during the Television Critics Association’ Press Tour in mid-July.
“It’s exciting. It gives you an idea of how enthusiastic the network is about the show, how enthusiastic Steven Soderbergh and Clive Owen are to come back and do another season,” he said.
“It speaks to the execution and the compelling nature of the show. So I think it’s a feather in everybody’s cap, but it’s a huge testament to Steven and what he pulled off last year, and how his passion for the project has really come through.”