Survival Instinct: Interview with The Knick's Chris Sullivan

By , Contributor

Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Chris Sullivan as The Knick's Tom Cleary

Actor Chris Sullivan cannot help but chuckle when asked about his first professional acting job in front of a camera. “I’m pretty sure the first on-camera thing I did of any note was a TV pilot that was never picked up called Pleading Guilty,” says Sullivan. “It starred Jason Isaacs [Malfoy’s father in the Harry Potter feature films] as one of these badass cops/lawyers, and I played a Russian mob member.

“I came to work very, very early in the morning and spent several hours sitting in a make-up chair having Russian mob tattoos applied all over my body. After that, we spent all day shooting in this Russian bathhouse wearing nothing but towels and beating the crap out of each other. I actually ended up getting a stuntman stipend, too, because we took so many hits and were thrown around so much. I’ve never seen the actual pilot and I don’t think anyone else has either, but that was my very first interaction with a director, a camera and having Jason Isaacs kick me in the chest.”

Despite all the bumps and bruises that the actor probably received that day, it did not discourage Sullivan from continuing to pursue an acting career. Having spent six years living in Chicago, Illinois and honing his craft onstage, he went on to do more movie as well as TV work. Currently he can be seen as Tom Cleary in the Cinemax cable TV series The Knick. Directed by Oscar- and Emmy-winner Steven Soderbergh, this period drama is set in 1900 New York City at the fictional Knickerbocker Hospital a.k.a. “The Knick.” Cleary is an ambulance driver who takes a rather enthusiastic approach to his job. This could have something to do the kickbacks he gets for steering wealthy patients to The Knick. While this type of behavior might sound unethical to some people, to this Irishman it is a matter of survival.

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“In one sentence, Tom Cleary is a guy who does bad things for good reasons, and he has a moral flexibility that I think you end up finding in quite a few characters in The Knick,” explains Sullivan. “However, I think one of Tom’s distinguishing characteristics is that he’s one of the few characters who makes no attempt to disguise or hide his moral flexibility. He is what he is and he’s not afraid to show it up front and say it loudly. Tom comes from a place of neglect, abuse and kind of a poor upbringing, so he let that mold his view of the world. Over the course of the show’s first season and through relationships with others that Tom builds, you’ll end up seeing his gruff exterior somewhat chipped away at. As a result of that, you basically discover that at the heart of it, he’s just another person who’s trying to survive in New York in 1900, which at the time was quite a feat if you could manage it.”

They say that “clothes make the man,” and that was certainly part of Sullivan’s creative process when it came to relaxing into and getting under his character’s skin. “I’m more of an outside/in actor as opposed to an inside/out actor,” he says. “I really draw a great deal from the environment around me as well as the costume, but more importantly, and my biggest thing, are the shoes. It doesn’t matter the type of project I’m doing, I always try as soon as possible to get hold of the shoes that my character will be wearing because they inform everything for me.

“A pair of shoes dictates just how fast and how comfortably you move. The same is true of the costume. A number of the characters in The Knick tend to wear high stiff collars and heavy wool clothing, none of which is very conducive to things like free movement. Ellen Mirojnick, our award-winning costume designer, did some incredible work, and Tom’s clothes really informed his posture and overall physical demeanor. The sets, too, were a huge help. The production design on the show is so in-depth and detailed that it makes it incredibly easy to walk onto a set and do your job.

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“I have to mention, too, the tone that Steven Soderbergh established on-set. There’s a sense of calm that I’ve never experienced before and it makes for a very focused work atmosphere. Everyone on Steven’s team has worked together for years and knows exactly what his or her job is. So there’s no running around and raised voices. It all goes back to Steven’s collaborative nature. He’s not a director who seems to feel the need to have a ‘death grip’ on everything. For instance, most of the time before I even got to set, I would talk with the props guys about what I should maybe have with me in a particular scene. I’d then take our ideas to Steven and 95% percent of the time he’d say, ‘Sure, that sounds great.’ He leaves you a lot of room to do what you were hired to do, and just standing there on-set in front of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time was a very humbling experience.”

Off the clock, Tom Cleary likes a drink or two and the occasional fistfight at the local bar. At work, he primarily deals with his assistant driver as well as The Knick’s crooked administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb). Cleary also enjoys trading barbs with Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), who runs the orphanage associated with the hospital.

“In The Knick’s opening episode, ["Method and Madness"], there’s a lot of banter between Sister Harriet and Tom, and I think what you end up seeing with the two of them is that they’re kind of opposites of the same coin,” says Sullivan. “That relationship benefits both of them in many ways other than just emotional and financial. When I initially read the first script for The Knick, I thought Tom was going to be one of the show’s main villains. However, as the episodes go on, you slowly realize that none of these characters are black and white or all good or all bad.

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“That’s part of the brilliance of what the writers [and executive producers] Jack Amiel and Michael Begler have done as far as providing Tom Cleary and the rest of the characters with a number of opportunities to surprise the viewers. Part of the collaborative creative experience for the cast of The Knick is that the writers were on-set every day, working, adjusting and rewriting certain things. Of course we stuck to the scripts, but as the story developed, the writers saw what was going on between the actors in scenes and then sort of bent the river a bit to complement what we were doing.

“So all I have to say is that I think Tom’s and Sister Harriet’s relationship is probably one of the best dramatic and theatrical relationships I’ve ever had the opportunity to perform and be a part of. In particular, there’s a scene in episode four [Where’s the Dignity] that I feel is just a really amazing piece of writing. Cara Seymour and I got to stand there in front of one another and deliver these beautiful words. I haven’t seen all the scenes involving our two characters, but I am especially looking forward to this one and am excited to hear what people think of it.”

In addition to The Knick, Sullivan’s other TV work includes Elementary, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The Americans and the HBO made-for-TV film The Normal Heart. “I only worked one day on The Normal Heart, and had one scene with two or three lines, but obviously the movie as well as the stage play mean a great deal to the gay community, especially in New York City,” notes the actor. “I saw the play around four years ago when I first moved to New York and it was on Broadway, and to then even have one scene in the film was quite an honor. Everyone in New York wanted to be a part of it. I got to face off on-camera with Julia Roberts [Dr. Emma Brooker] and the two of us had this nice little screaming match. That was certainly a new experience for me, and not bad for a day’s work,” he notes with a laugh.

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Although he acted during high school and studied drama in college, Sullivan also pursued another passion of his during that time. The actor spent 13 years training as a competitive tennis player, but when it came time to choose between the two, he knew where his true calling lay.

“I’ve always know that this [acting] is what I’m meant to be doing, and it was the support system I had around me of my parents, my professors and other people like that who never made me feel like this wasn’t a possibility,” he muses. “It never occurred to me that all of this wasn’t going to work out and I’m thrilled it has, but I believe that at our root we all have an artist in us and we all express our creativity in different ways.

“I think the closest I get to a spiritual type of experience is sharing my creative self with other creative people, and when creative individuals get together, whether it’s shooting an episode of The Knick or baking a cake, those are the memories that are always the good ones. The things we remember most fondly are, I feel, when we’re creating something with other people, and I’m just lucky enough to be part of a profession where that’s my main job description. So I always relish any chance to do that, whether it’s through music, theatre or being a part of The Knick and what is turning out to be one of the best shows on TV at the moment.”

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.

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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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