Independent Spirit: Interview with The Knick's Juliet Rylance

By , Contributor

Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Juliet Rylance as Cornelia Robertson in The Knick

At the turn of the 20th century, there were all types of advancements being made around the world, including social, technological and medical. Women’s rights, however, were among those advancements lagging behind. Back then, the so-called “fairer sex” had a ways to go if they hoped to be respected and treated as equals by their male counterparts. Women of wealth and privilege had it a bit easier, but some of them still faced struggles relating to their gender. The Knick’s Cornelia Robertson is one such individual.

Set in 1900, this new Cinemax period drama unfolds in and around New York City’s fictional Knickerbocker Hospital (a.k.a The Knick), a medical facility where the staff is dedicated to finding new and revolutionary methods to treat patients and save lives at a time when mortality rates were high. Cornelia not only serves as head of the hospital’s welfare office, but also chairs the hospital’s board of trustees as proxy for her father, shipping tycoon Captain August Robertson. Every morning, she wakes up in the surroundings of a genteel lady and, after breakfasting with her parents and being dressed by her maids, ventures out into the real world. In that environment, Cornelia is not one to be easily brushed aside or dismissed, as the actress who plays her, Juliet Rylance, explains.

“Cornelia is a very strong-willed, headstrong, determined young woman,” says the actress. “She’s a force to be reckoned with, and for a woman living in 1900 America has considerable sway. However, Cornelia is still very restricted by the so-called glass ceiling of that time for women. So there’s a wonderful duality about her role in the story, and sort of treading this thin line between two worlds, the worlds of the hospital and then that of her family and what’s expected of a young woman of that time. Acting-wise, some of the challenges for me with this character were trying to realistically portray a woman of that period, along with learning as much as possible about women’s etiquette back then, and pinning down her accent. I worked with a wonderful dialect coach, Tim Monich, who really helped me find my way into the story and into Cornelia.

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“As the first season goes on, my character is faced with more and more difficult choices to make. We find out just how far she’s willing to step out of the bounds of what’s considered the correct way to behave, and how much she’s willing to fight for her freedom and independence from that. Cornelia is forced to make some pretty tough decisions, and they aren’t always the right ones. So as the episodes unfold, things become increasingly complex for Cornelia, and as an actress, I enjoyed making that journey with her.”

The opening teaser of The Knick’s first episode "Method and Madness" introduces audiences to the show’s lead protagonist, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), and his brick and mortar world of the Knickerbocker Hospital. A brilliant, innovative surgeon, he depends on regular, and carefully measured, injections of cocaine to get him through the day. Rylance was immediately drawn to the story and had no trouble assimilating herself into that world.

“My agent sent me the first script and information on the project, and once I saw Steven Soderbergh’s [Oscar-and Emmy-winning director of and an executive producer on The Knick] and Clive Owen’s names, I was pretty much sold,” recalls the actress. “Then I read the script and was completely riveted and couldn’t put it down. I knew then that I had to do it. So I sent an audition tape in and ended up having a meeting with Steven. We talked about everything other than the piece, and that was it. Before long, I was in New York and starting work.

“What stands out for me the most about the first day of filming is how true the world of The Knick felt when I walked onto the set and saw all the incredible work by production designer Howard Cummings. From there I dressed up in this extraordinary period costume designed by Ellen Mirojnick. It’s amazing how half of the work already felt like it was done for us because the world around us seemed so real. It literally felt like we were stepping back in time. It was so incredible.

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“The other thing that struck me right from the start was, again, walking onto set and experiencing how thoughtful Steven Soderbergh’s approach was to how he planned to shoot this without big lighting set-ups. The whole process was just so fluid. My first scene was, I believe, with Clive, and Steven allowed the two of us to rehearse the material and figure out what the feel of the scene would be. Then he just shot it. It felt very simple, in a sense, and it’s quite easy to do your work in that type of environment. I think everyone worked incredibly hard, too, because we believed in the project so much, and Steven seemed to be working harder than anyone, which really made us try and keep up as much as possible.”

Even more professional demands are heaped upon Thackery’s already over-burdened shoulders when he is appointed the Knickerbocker’s new chief surgeon following the suicide of his mentor, Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer). Thackery and Cornelia first butt heads when it comes to appointing someone to replace him as assistant chief. He wants his own protégé, Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson), to take over, but Cornelia, whose father is one of the hospital’s major financial contributors, wants Thackery to hire Algernon Edwards [Andre Holland], a talented black doctor who trained in London and Paris. Ultimately, Thackery is forced to bring Edwards on board, which pleases Captain Robertson and sets the stage for further clashes between the surgeon and Cornelia.

“My character has known John Thackery for a while through her family and his relationship with her father,” says Rylance. “Cornelia obviously recognizes that he’s a brilliant, extraordinary doctor and really a genius in his field, but she cannot stand his arrogance and the dismissive nature with which he deals with people around him. I think that really drives her crazy. Cornelia goes head-to-head with Thackery on a number of occasions, particularly in the first episode, and there’s definitely a journey that the two of them take together.

“When it comes to Cornelia’s relationship with her father, it’s quite a complex one. She is, in one sense, the apple of her father’s eye and definitely daddy’s little girl. He’s given her a great deal of freedom growing up, and she grew up side by side with Algernon, which was very unusual during that period. On the other hand, Cornelia’s father has expectations of his daughter to marry, to do charity work, to not be difficult, to fit in and to toe the line. Not surprisingly, that all becomes more difficult for her as the season goes on.

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“There are two other relationships between Cornelia and two other characters that really develop and that I loved working on, the first one being with her and Algernon. They have a very long and deep bond with each other, having grown up in the same household. Cornelia witnessed him going off to school at Harvard and sees the incredible talent he has. I think she feels really protective of Algernon and that further develops as the season continues.

“The other relationship I especially enjoyed was with Sister Harriet [Cara Seymour], the only other woman who Cornelia really interacts with, other than her mother, on a more equal basis. Sister Harriet and Cornelia are both involved in the social welfare aspect of the hospital and work on placing orphan children. The two of them have a close bond and share a similar sense of humor, too. They’re also both carrying secrets, so I found that relationship really fascinating to delve into,” enthuses the actress.

Getting Algernon onto the Knickerbocker staff is just the first of many hurdles facing Cornelia in season one of The Knick. In the aforementioned "Method and Madness," she shows her softer side when comforting a little girl whose mother is dying from an advanced and incurable case of tuberculosis. In the next episode, "Mr. Paris Shoes," Cornelia confronts the hospital’s corrupt superintendent Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), who hired a slipshod electrician to install the hospital’s new electrical system paid for by her father. She also has to deal with a potential typhoid fever outbreak. Can Rylance hint at what else might be ahead for her character in the show’s first season?

“My favorite episode overall would be episode seven, because it’s one where the entire cast got to work with one another in almost every scene,” she reveals. “Something happens at the start of the episode and the whole hospital has to come together. It was thrilling to film, and it actually drove us a little crazy at the same time. We shot The Knick as if we were shooting a ten-hour film, so we would shoot every scene that happened in one location over a period sometimes of a couple of days. So we would be jumping from episode to episode with each of the scenes that happened in that location, but every day there would be a scene from episode seven on our shooting schedule.

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So it was the episode that never seemed to go away,” jokes the actress. “Naturally, it became the one I’m most excited to see, and then, of course, the last three episodes of the season are really quite extraordinary. Everything has been building up very carefully and by episodes eight, nine and ten, all the characters have revealed so many different sides of themselves that, hopefully, you will feel really connected to all of them.”

Born in Hammersmith, London, England, the congenial and thoughtful actress once had several career paths in mind before one day finally figuring out a way not to have to choose just one. “Growing up, I wanted to be everything from a lawyer to a human rights activist,” she says, “and then I put it together that if I was an actor, it would give me a chance to play all these different professions. Apparently, my parents used to say that I always wanted to act, and I think I always was acting when I was little. At the weekends, for example, I’d gather all my friends, we would write a play and then perform it for our parents. So, again, it [acting] was something that I was unaware of, but always doing.”

Shortly after graduating from London’s RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in 2002, Rylance made her professional debut in the feature film Animal. “I had to fly to France and then Portugal and play a ballerina who had lost her sight, so I had a lot to do for my first job,” notes the actress. “Prior to going to Portugal to shoot my scenes, I studied at a blind dancing school, which was just fascinating. Filmmaking was and is so different from what I grew up with in the theatre, so it was a very exciting experience. I really love the challenge of how different both mediums are and being able to move between the two.”

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In 2009, the actress was nominated for a Lucille Lortell Award for Best Actress, playing Desdemona in Theatre for a New Audience’s Othello. A year later, she won a Best Actress OBIE Award (Off Broadway Theatre Awards) for her portrayal of Rosalind in The Bridge Project’s production of As You Like It, directed by Sam Mendes. Her other film credits include Sinister, Frances Ha and the upcoming Days and Nights, which has its New York premiere in September.

Days and Nights is a modern day retelling of Anton Chekov’s The Seagull and was directed [and written] by Christian Camargo,” says Rylance. “It has an extraordinary cast including William Hurt, Allison Janney, Katie Holmes, Ben Whishaw, Jean Reno and Michael Nyqvist, just to name a few. I think Christian did a wonderful job with the film. It’s delicately as well as beautifully shot, and I’m very proud of and excited about it.

“As an actor, it’s very easy just to say, ‘Oh, I have to keep working,’ and sort of just do anything that comes along. However, I think what makes this work fulfilling is when you read a script and get that feeling of oh, I have to be a part of this. I seem to be happiest when I’m doing that. If you ask any actor why do we act, I feel that it mainly has to do with the love of storytelling, being a part of the story and getting lost in it. So when it comes to picking projects, it helps that you really believe in the material and want to help tell that story.”

The Knick airs Fridays at 10:00 p.m. EST on Cinemax. Please note, all photos from the series by Mary Cybulski and courtesy/copyright of Cinemax.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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