Cara Seymour as The Knick's Sister Harriet
Flying nuns, crime-busting nuns, nuns serving as midwives - TV nuns have come a long way over the years on the small screen, and Sister Harriet on The Knick is no exception. An Irish Catholic nun living in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, she runs the orphanage affiliated with the Knickerbocker Hospital or “The Knick,” a medical institution where doctors push the boundaries of their profession in order to save lives. Like today, a persons’ wealth - or lack of it - often determined their lot in life, but illness and death did not discriminate when it came to bank balances. In other ways, though, it was a very different time, and one that actress Cara Seymour, who plays Sister Harriet, found quite easy to dive right into.
“I’ll never forget my first day of work on The Knick,” says Seymour. “We took over a corner of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn for filming and it was just so magical because they [the crew] made it look like it was 1900. It was a very hot day, there was dust on the road — it’s just incredibly intense when you historicize a neighborhood because it feels a little bit spooky, especially when the location still retains much of its original architecture, both exteriors and interiors. You really feel like you’ve gone back in time. I remember poking my head out of my trailer at one point that day and seeing Juliet Rylance [Cornelia Robertson] and Eve Hewson [Lucy Elkins] walking down the street wearing their Edwardian costumes. The sun was setting and that [visual] silhouette was beautiful.
“All the scenes were jumbled up, so we didn’t film episode after episode in order. We shot in relation to when each location was available, so we might shoot scenes from episodes one, four and six all at once in a single location. On one occasion we were filming at a church in Yonkers, which was cool. However, because of the type of shooting schedule we were working to, you really had to be on your toes and read the scripts carefully so you knew what you were doing and where your character was in the story.”
Besides her religious duties, Sister Harriet also works closely with the head of The Knick’s social welfare office, Cornelia Robertson, when it comes to trying to find suitable homes for the orphans in their care. It is a job not without its daily stresses, which is probably why the sister smokes. More likely, though, her nicotine habit is fueled by the fact that Sister Harriet performs secret as well as illegal abortions for women desperately in need of such services. She has not taken on such a task lightly. In fact, the nun donates all the money she makes to the orphanage, but when one of The Knick’s ambulance drivers, Tom Cleary, discovers her “side job,” he wants a 60/40 split of the money, in his favor. The web that Sister Harriet weaves is, indeed, a very tangled albeit well-meaning one, which is precisely what Seymour loves about her character.
“When I read the first few scenes involving Sister Harriet, they leapt off the page for me,” notes the actress. “I’d never felt the spirit of a character as much as I did in just those few scenes. The writers have done an extraordinary job of creating such an unusual character. It was as if I were ‘meeting’ a real person as I read each script, do you know what I mean? It’s so exciting to read about a character that doesn’t follow straight lines and has complexity and humor.
“Sister Harriet is just a very passionate woman who’s driven by her heart, and yet on the surface, she has some spikes. I got the sense that she’s someone who has lived a bit. There was a great deal of story to come out of her, and I guess for me, the acting challenge was to take what came off the page and meet that or match that energy. I respected her, and that’s daunting when you respect a character so much. You don’t want to romanticize them, but rather respect them while still being honest in your performance.
“One of the ways in which Sister Harriet grows as a character is in her relationship with Chris Sullivan’s character of Tom Cleary, and I think their relationship is what helps drive our familiarity with these characters. As season one of The Knick unfolds and as you get to know Cleary, you get to know Harriet, too. At first, they have a wariness of each other, and I’m pretty sure she recognizes that he’s a little dishonest as well,” notes Seymour with a chuckle.
“Someone said to me after they saw the first episode ["Method and Madness"], that you forgive a lot about Tom Cleary because it’s as if he and Harriet are related. They’re almost like distant cousins, and there’s a love or caring there despite any flaws. What Tom has to go through in order to survive doesn’t make for a ‘pretty’ person, but in spite of everything that he has to do to survive, there are moments of real humanity and real heart. He and Harriet spar and she thinks that he could make more quality moral choices, but he can’t. So their relationship is a really fun and interesting one.”
In last week’s The Knick episode "Where’s the Dignity?" (directed by one of the show’s executive producers Steven Soderbergh) Tom Cleary and his assistant arrive at the hospital with a woman who is severely bleeding after trying to abort her pregnancy. Unfortunately, chief surgeon Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) is unable to save her. Cleary asks Sister Harriet to join him when he brings the body to be buried and has her say a few words on behalf of the deceased. This was a particular favorite scene of Seymour’s.
“We shot that scene in the graveyard on, I think, our second day of filming,” she recalls, “and it was one of those times that the confluence of a great director, great writers, brilliant storyline and a wonderful acting partner in Chris Sullivan produced a terrific outcome. It’s one of those situations that you don’t expect, and then when it comes along you think, ‘Wow, thank you very much.’ That was such a wonderful experience, made even more so in having been directed by Steven Soderbergh. He instills in and gives you such confidence that there’s a bigger reason why you’re doing this and to just relax. The one thing Steven said to me was, ‘just be calm,' and that everything would turn out to be impeccable, well-thought out and beautifully realized.”
Born in Essex, England, Seymour made her professional debut onstage as part of a theatrical group that she helped found. “I was at university in England and doing an undergraduate degree in theatre when I got together with some other women and we formed a theatre company,” says the actress. “We raised some money and wrote our own material, which we then took to the Edinburgh Festival. One of our plays about Northern Ireland did really well, and that’s more or less how I got started in the business.”
In addition to her stage work, the actress has appeared in several feature films including You’ve Got Mail, Gangs of New York, Hotel Rwanda, The Notorious Bettie Page, Jack & Diane and I Origins. “My first paid job in front of the camera was in a movie called A Future Gesture [a.k.a. The Break],” says Seymour. “I played a drug addict who goes crazy and stabs Stephen Rea’s character in a room at the Elk Hotel on 42nd Street in New York City, which is still there but all boarded up now. The actor who played my boyfriend had to have his teeth blacked out for the role, and the two of us kept singing, ‘All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth,’" jokes the actress. “Wherever that guy is today, God bless him.
“It’s funny, but I find privileged characters quite difficult to bring to life. I don’t know why, it’s just a general feeling. I find it easier to play characters that have been, perhaps, dealt not such an easy hand of cards in life. So I had a lot of fun with the role in A Future Gesture and it was a good kickoff for me into the world of filmmaking.”
The Knick airs Fridays at 10:00 p.m. EST/PST on Cinemax. Please note, all photos by Mary Cybulski and courtesy/copyright of Cinemax.