Clive Owen on 'The Knick,' complicated roles and that mustache

Clive Owen on 'The Knick': 'There's something exciting in seeing how bold you can be'

Pinning down what constitutes a "Clive Owen project" isn't easy. He has caromed from such indie films as 1998's "Croupier" to dystopic features (2006's "Children of Men") to period ensembles (2001's "Gosford Park"). So playing a self-centered cocaine addict (who's also a brilliant physician) in the 1900s for Cinemax's "The Knick" was something akin to catnip for the actor born in Coventry, England. Chatting on the set of his character Dr. John Thackery's office during the filming of Season 2, Owen talked about doing what scares him, appearing on Broadway and that rakish mustache.

What's been the most unique aspect to making "The Knick" with director and executive producer Steven Soderbergh?

He doesn't shoot episodically. I'm used to shooting out of sequence on movies, but the reality of shooting [10 hours for Season 1] is — I had to steal this idea from him: I have a big whiteboard at home to keep things in order.

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What drew you to working on the show?

It was just one of those scripts. It didn't feel like any other period thing I'd read before. [Thackery] is so out there. He's not a lead character who takes people by the hand and brings them around. And both Steve and I clicked because he's brave in the way he shoots and wants to push things, and I felt we were both fearless in how far we wanted to push it. There's something exciting in seeing how bold you can be.

Speaking of bold, whose idea was the mustache — and do you keep it between seasons?

I'd read in a book about the doctors of the time where a woman describes kissing a guy and notes how strange it was that he didn't have facial hair. Everybody had it. I chose this [narrow] shape because I wanted something a little arrogant, because he's got a very big ego. As for keeping it, in the old days you'd have to wait for rushes clearance, but now that there's digital, the minute we wrapped — the second — I went upstairs and shaved it off. It's a passage of something in me to get rid of it.

It's reductive to suggest Thackery is "good" or "bad," but as a lead character it makes a statement that he can be so off-putting and so admirable at the same time, doesn't it?

That's music to my ears. It is a high-wire act at times. The one thing Steven said to me is: "We don't want to be nostalgic." It was tough to live in those times. The past is often done in a polite version of it, but for a lot of people life was extremely tough.

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Yes, most TV shows that take place in the past, even when they're "gritty," soften characters so that they often seem oh, so progressive, in the name of making them likable.

When we did the press for the first season, the one thing everyone wanted to talk to me about was [racism]. "How can you say those lines?" What's important is to represent it properly, the way people would. The easiest thing in the world would be for me to be the most forward-thinking, liberal guy, but that's not real. What I did say was, "Let's not make him a stupid, dumb racist." It is shocking, but it should be shocking.

You're going to make your Broadway debut in Harold Pinter's 1971 play, "Old Times." Nervous?

It's the first play in over a decade I'm doing, so I'm a little scared. Terrified, and excited, but that's a good way to be.

You don't seem to have shaped a career in a plotted-out way. Have you ever considered getting mercenary about the roles you choose to further your career?

No. I've always just run along with my instincts, really. I'm often very excited if it's different from anything I've ever done, or it's a particularly challenging thing or an area I haven't explored. I get excited by things that are not necessarily the safe option. The best career move is really to just try and be good.

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