TV
08/07/2014 02:28 EDT | Updated 08/07/2014 02:59 EDT

Eric Johnson On 'The Knick,' Graphic Surgery Scenes And Why You'll Probably Hate Him

HBO Canada

Eric Johnson knows he's not exactly beloved by TV fans. According to the actor's Twitter account, he's "that guy you hate on 'Rookie Blue,' used to hate on 'Smallville' and other things you may not hate me for." And after his new show, a Steven Soderbergh-directed medical drama set in a 1900 New York City hospital, premieres on August 8, Johnson should be able to add "The Knick" to that list too.

That's because he plays Dr. Everett Gallinger, protégé to Clive Owen's Dr. Thackery, the brilliant but troubled (to put it mildly) head of surgery at the Knickerbocker. But when Gallinger is passed over for a promotion in favor of Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) thanks to the insistence of the hospital's main benefactor, he doesn't exactly take the news well.

That combination of showing a turn-of-the-century hospital being pushed into the future, both medically and culturally, along with Soderbergh's involvement (he directed all 10 episodes) is promising enough that "The Knick" was already renewed for a second season during the Television Critics Association summer press tour last month, with Soderbergh returning to the director's chair.

With the show premiering Friday night at 11 p.m. ET/MT on HBO Canada, HuffPost Canada TV sat down with Johnson to talk about how it's not so bad to be hated, why he couldn't be happier that Soderbergh didn't make good on his retirement threats, and getting a little too confident in his newfound medical skills.

HuffPost Canada TV: I've only gotten to watch a couple episodes so far, but this show is intense...

Eric Johnson: It gets even more intense as it goes along. It's kind of amazing how it just keeps ramping up. It's definitely got a lot going on. Episode 7, things get a little bit crazy, and then they get really crazy. [Laughs] It's a good binge-watch, I think. It was certainly like that when I was reading it. It was just: next script, next script, next script. It's a page-turner, and hopefully people will be waiting every week, anticipating it.

What was your reaction when you got that first script? Was this something you knew you wanted to do right away?

The writing was so clear, it was so rich. It felt very tactile, you could feel the time period. It was a very visceral sense that you got from the page, which was incredible. And then to know who was behind it, you're like, this is gonna be awesome. So I was happy to just read the script; it's a rare thing when you're reading something and you're like, Wow, this is really good. You dream about getting to be a part of really solid projects. And then getting the job and getting the rest of the scripts, I was pinching myself really, because it's such strong material. It's such a rich tapestry.

There's so many interesting elements going on, and every character, it's all shades of grey. It lives in this moral grey area that at times, just reading it, you feel conflicted. You're rooting for somebody, but then they do horrible things. And you're like, "Aw! But they're also a good person." So it's very much this exploration of human morals in a different time. So much television can be like, "This is the good guy, this is the bad guy." So many movies are like "Good guy, bad guy," and we shy away from that complexity. And this was nothing but complexity.

Do you think it can be a trap for actors to try to make a character likable, as opposed to just making sure they can be understood?

One of things that drives me nuts is you rarely get bad guys who are written very well. They can be so arch and you don't understand why they're doing the things they do, whereas in the bad guy's mind, it's all perfectly reasonable and logical. So the more you can explore that, the more empathy I think an audience can bring to a character, where they don't necessarily have to like them, but they can understand. And so instead of trying to make somebody likable, if you can make them somewhat empathetic, and I think that's something that the creators on this show [Jack Amiel and Michael Begler] were really trying to do, show all the sides of this scenario, understanding why somebody's a certain way, or somebody that you're rooting for doing something not very good that you then question their moral character.

I noticed that you call yourself "that guy you hate on 'Rookie Blue' and 'Smallville' " on your Twitter bio. Are you expecting some hate from people on this one too?

[Laughs] Oh my God, I think that's my lot in life now. I'm resigned to the fact that I'm gonna be the person in shows that people hate and dislike and root against. And I'm OK with it. But this is one-upping it I think. [Laughs] I'm going into a whole other territory of being an absolute racist. I'll have to add "That guy you hate on 'The Knick.' " Maybe I'll just have to balance it out, playing a good guy, a guy who takes care of animals. Like super kind and nice, and just loves animals and wants the world to be a happy place.

How much research did you have to do to prepare for the role, and how many of those period medical photographs were you forced to look at?

There's some wild ones, eh? There are some good ones. For me, the thing that I really wanted to understand was medical history, because that's a whole other world that I know nothing about. It's not like you're covering that in school, so it was just medical history books and stuff like that, which I found fascinating actually. I got maybe a little too into that. I felt a little too confident in my abilities after this. [Laughs] There was a point where, and they made fun of me too, but I was fairly confident afterwards that I could remove somebody's gallbladder. I'm like, "Well, this all makes sense. It's all pretty logical." And our medical advisor and historian, Dr. Stanley Burns, he's like, "Yeah, it's pretty much that simple." I was like, I'm getting way too much confidence out of this. I have no right to be this confident in my doctoring abilities after three months of research. [Laughs] There's a reason that medical school is a long process.

You also did a couple episodes on "Saving Hope" this year too, right? That had to be a weird transition.

It was immediate too! It was like back-to-back. And what's crazy is, one of the problems that I dealt with on "Saving Hope" was a case of placenta previa, which is what we're dealing with in the first episode of "The Knick." And I'm like, I know all about this! It works out a lot better in modern times than it does back then, but yeah, I knew all about it, it was great. It saved one little piece of research.

What's harder to get down, the medical jargon or making sure that your technique is correct and you look like you know what you're doing?

I was more concerned about doing things correctly, in terms of, is this going in the right way? Am I holding this in the right way? I spent a lot of time practicing my sutures. Because my big fear was that we're going have this great scene, it's going to be awesome, it's this six-page massive surgery and then you're going to cut to me and I'm looking like an idiot. So I spent probably too much time working on my sutures. I don't even know if you really see me doing any. [Laughs] But for me, I didn't want to be the guy that f**ked that up.

We didn't do a surgery until we were maybe a month-and-a-half into shooting. That's when we did our first surgical scene. And I think we were all a little nervous, because now it's for real. We gotta actually be doctors. We've been standing around talking about being doctors and doing all sorts of other fun stuff, but it went incredibly well. We finished it, and our background performers, who were all in the gallery, stood up and clapped. It was crazy. Because, you see it in the first episode, it's a very intense scene, and there's so much going on, it becomes this great choreographed dance. And it was amazing how intuitive it started to become. It just became very natural. We designed it the way they did surgeries and it worked for them, so it was like you were following a playbook from 110 years ago.

With those surgery scenes though, you can kind of see the press coming about how graphic the show can get at times...

Yeah, I see people are using words like "gory" and stuff like that, and when I think of the word "gory," it feels more sensationalized or exploitative. It's honest, is what I would say. It's not in any sense trying to shock people or be provocative, it's very honest. You remember that show, they used to have it on TLC, "The Operation?" You'd be watching it and you'd be like, "Aw, man!" Because it was honest and it was real.

And even when we were shooting it, you'd see the scalpel run across the prosthetic, and you know it's prosthetic and you know the guy's fine, and you know it's not an issue. And then the blood starts coming out because of how they rigged it, and your brain goes, "Oh, that's real! That person's bleeding! This is a problem!" You get a little lightheaded. It's real for us, and we know it's fake, and when you're watching it on television, it's even more so. So I can imagine that part of the audience is going to be watching it through their fingers, but it's great, because then you watch it for the second time, you'll see things you didn't see before. [Laughs] It's good for repeat viewing.

I still think that squeaking blood pump is going to give me nightmares though.

Yeah! So many people mention that, and I didn't realize, because you know, I'm cranking it and I didn't realize how creepy that would be to people. Because it's not like they made it squeak, it just squeaks! It's just what it was. But I guess it's a little unnerving. I mean, that's the thing, it was a very different time medically. You think about why medical shows work, why we've seen them for so long, we all like to believe that when we're sick and you're really sick, you go to the hospital and there's a very well-accomplished person who knows everything and can fix you. And what's unnerving about this show is that they don't know everything. Like, they just figured out washing your hands is a good idea before you do these things.

Obviously it's not the norm for a TV show to have one director for an entire season.

No... [Laughs]

And one set of writers for all 10 episodes too. What does having that consistent vision do?

I think it's huge, especially for something like this. I mean, we shot it like a 10-hour movie; we didn't shoot it week to week to week. We all knew where the characters were going, we all knew what the bigger plan is, so it's like you could all get on board this bigger vision. So much of your prep work has to be done beforehand, for them too. You can't feel your way through it. You've got to hit the ground at 100 percent. There was one day I think I shot in either six or seven different episodes. But it was all the stuff that I have with my wife in our apartment, and we covered everything in a day and a half. It's covering the breadth of the entire show, from Episode 2 to Episode 10, so you have to really be aware of what you're doing. So having a singular vision, it was crucial. And I actually think it was fiscally responsible too. But it was great. It was an incredible experience, and I think it pays off. I mean, "True Detective" was the same thing.

And you're already renewed for Season 2, which has to be a nice vote of confidence.

I think I heard that's the first time that HBO has ever done that before it aired. I think when Steven was going into it, he said he was only going to do the first season. And thankfully he really enjoyed himself and he enjoyed the challenge -- because it is a challenge -- and he's happily signed up for another one. We all loved that, because he's such a great person to work for. His team is incredible. So I think when you have that kind of pedigree and he wants to do it and he's motivated, it's so much of his unique vision in how he shoots things and distills the narrative of a scene, that we're pretty excited to be going back.

So it's a good thing he didn't retire after all.

It's really good! It's funny, I was thinking about directors I would love to work with, and his name's at the top of the list. And then I read the article that he retired, and was like, Well, f**k! [Laughs] Just scratch that off. That's never going to happen. I'm never going to get to work with Steven Soderbergh. And like a year later ... It was a little surreal that first day on set, a little wild. [Laughs]

"The Knick" premieres on Friday, August 8 at 11 p.m. ET on HBO Canada and HBO.

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