Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) is a poor Irish immigrant who spends his days chasing down mangled bodies as an ambulance driver for the Knickerbocker hospital. He spend his nights carrying out money making schemes, including assisting a nun, Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), in providing illegal abortions and stomping on rats for some quick cash. In the world of "The Knick," that makes Cleary the comic relief of the dark Cinemax series.
However, to relegate Cleary to comic relief would be a gross disservice. "The Knick," which is currently airing its acclaimed second season, has an almost unmatched scope in the world of television. While many shows focus on just a handful of characters, "The Knick" has fleshed out character arcs for almost a dozen, vibrantly bringing to life turn-of-the-century New York City. Tom Cleary is survivor and is in many ways the working class heart of a show more often concerned with the politics of the wealthy and the battleground of modern medicine than the common man. Plus, his complex relationship with fellow Irish immigrant Sister Harriet -- he calls her Harry -- is worthy of its own spinoff.
In Season 2, Cleary faces more challenges, with Harry in prison and a new scheme involving an electric ambulance in the works. Chris Sullivan spoke with International Business Times about his character, his chemistry with Seymour, and being directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh. Read the full interview below:
International Business Times: Episode 2 was the most of Cleary fans have ever seen in one episode. Is that a sign of things to come?
Chris Sullivan: Yeah, [the writers] definitely upped my participation in Season 2. I think you will be seeing a lot more of Cleary this season.
IBTimes: Cleary is nowhere near the top billed character on the show, but he is still so fleshed out and has such a complex character arc. How does that speak to the quality of the show and how rewarding is that as an actor?
Sullivan: I think it speaks mostly to the teamwork that [series creators] Jack Amiel and Michael Begler have with Steven Soderbergh. They refuse to let any part of the show be underdeveloped. So, whether or not they have anything to do with the hospital or the main plotlines, the fleshing out of the supporting characters on this show gives you a well-rounded idea of what the world was like outside of the hospital in 1900 and I think by developing those storylines it only acts to better develop the main storylines.
That's the writers and Steven. They are constantly collaborating. They also write all 10 episodes of the season before we start shooting, which is kind of a new trend. That gives them a chance to be concise and succinct with the storytelling while still developing all of the storylines.
IBTimes: So, getting all the scripts ahead of time, you always knew that Cleary would not be just some utility character.
Sullivan: Yeah, it was the same in Season 1. I knew the whole arc before we even started with myself and Cara Seymour -- I attribute every success of Tom Cleary's character to her performance in the show. She and I spent weeks before we even started shooting breaking down the character development and the plot arcs and deciding what we wanted to do so that when we showed up on set we had ideas and we had stuff to work with because I knew everyone else had already expressed their ideas. To the show's credit this is the most collaborative project I've ever worked on. Our ideas were always listened to regardless of whether they were accepted.
IBTimes: What kinds of things did you flesh out with Cara, because your chemistry on the show is so great?
Sullivan: You know we really focused on the emotional arc of Season 1 and Season 2, you know, how far did we want to push things in any given scene so that by the time we reached the peak of our seasonal arc we had somewhere to go. We did not want to peak too soon or peak too late and we did not want to be doing the same things over and over again, so we mapped our different options, without giving too much away. We had a pretty good road map of what we wanted to try. Now when we got to set -- sometimes the set looks nothing like what you though it was going to look like or Steven is shooting us in a way that prevents us from doing it the way we originally thought, which is great, but at least we had a road map.
Watch a Season 1 scene featuring Sullivan and Seymour below:
IBTimes: One of my favorite scenes from episode 2 was Cleary's conversation with Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) while digging up Inspector Speight's (David Fierro) grave. We have seen Cleary in plenty of scenes with Sister Harriet, but we have never seen Cleary talk about her so much in the third person like that, with so much respect and affection. What is the emotional core of that relationship at this point?
Sullivan: In 1900 in New York City the life expectancy was 47 years old. The only way to survive longer was to have money and companionship was also a way to kind of prolong things. It was a very lonely place and a very isolating city. For as "civilized" as it was it was about as Wild West as it could be in terms of survival. So, for two people who are about isolated as they could be in different ways, at this point Cleary is a bit of a life raft for Harry and Harry is a but of a life raft for Cleary. They are keeping each other afloat, which is why he has vowed, whether he is successful or not, to get her out of this prison situation. I think it's almost more metaphorical than a brother/sister relationship or anything like that. It's literally a lifeline. They are symbols of hope for each other that they will be able to survive all of this.
IBTimes: Cleary employs a lot of strategies to get Sister Harriet out of prison -- he tracks down the fancy lawyer, he has the wrestling scheme to try and get extra money, but he eventually asks Cornelia to pay for the lawyer. Is that kind of a defeat for him or is it just his next best move?
Sullivan: I think Tom, for being a big, uneducated fella is pretty smart when it comes to jockeying certain situations and I don't know if it is a defeat. It certainly doesn't help his pride any, but he plays his game very well. As much as Harry and Cleary did something for Cornelia with the abortion, he overcharged her quite a bit for it. Now she has come back and asked him for a very big favor -- to rob a grave -- and he has bided his time. He didn't have to go crawling to her. He waited for the favor swing to swing back in his direction.
IBTimes: Just visually it was an interesting arc in the episode for him. He begins it sitting beside the fancy lawyer very pridefully and even thinking he knows more than the lawyer in some instances, and ends the episode literally in a hole asking this wealthy socialite for money.
Sullivan: Yeah, he towers over people on land and ends up literally in a grave.
IBTimes: You said yourself that Cleary is pretty intelligent. He does not fit any of the oaf stereotypes some shows might stick on the character. What ambitions does he have? He has this forward-thinking ambulance scheme going this season. What kind of future does he imagine for himself?
Sullivan: The writers have developed a guy that is solely focused on survival. Everything he does is survival based. I was talking to them on this "Knick" podcast that we have now and we were talking about how Cleary is the only person on the whole show who appears to have no sex drive. There is almost an intelligence to that. He knows that in his situation that only leads to illness, sickness, and death. It is also a bit of a luxury and a comfort that he does not have time for. If it is not about survival he does not have time for it. You have to have some semblance of intelligence to be able to survive New York City in 1900.
IBTimes: It's no coincidence that his closest friend is a nun.
IBTimes: The ambulance almost seems like a bad idea right now, though. We know from the perspective of the audience that betting on cars is going to eventually pay off, but where he is sitting, this almost seems like a mistake as far as survival is concerned. What does that say about him that he is so committed to it?
Sullivan: I think it's a matter of schemes. He is always scheming. He's always trying to figure out how to make money. Even though there are some apparent hitches in the "giddy up" of this electric ambulance, it's a money making scheme. He will eventually make his money back from Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), and then it's all profit. A lot of his schemes don't work out though, as we see with Harriet in prison.
IBTimes: The wrestling scheme has been a fun one to watch, especially that wild sequence in the premiere. This show has a lot of dark humor, but you are often the closest thing to true comic relief in the series. Do you enjoy those scenes?
Sullivan: I do! That may be me leaning more into the comedy that was originally intended. Jack and Michael both have a very dark sense of humor that I certainly enjoy indulging as well. It certainly is nice to be given those scenes with a little bit of levity.
Those wrestling scenes were amazing to shoot. We were out in a warehouse in Brooklyn and that day I smoked three cigars before 9 a.m. Other than that it was a bunch of background actors and these wrestling stunt guys that they brought in who were just fantastic. Everybody was smoking. It was like the Season 1 rat stomping scene. It reminds you of everything else that is going on in the world outside of the hospital. You see all these patients at the Knick, but you hardly ever see how they get there, they just show up with illnesses or injuries. When they cut to Cleary it's almost like, "these are the people who are getting sick and hurt. Let's show you where all these patients come from."
IBTimes: When you shoot a scene like that, a lot of what the audience ends up seeing, especially with Soderbergh, is dependent on the editing and the music and other elements of post-production. Do you have a sense on set what it is going to look like?
Sullivan: Absolutely not. I had no idea. That first scene has no sound. I almost lost my voice that day smoking cigars and screaming on set and then you see it and realize there is no sound at all. It was the same thing with the rat stomping scene in Season 1. We had all these people screaming and making noise and then it was just score.
Steven does not take any time to explain to you what he is thinking about doing, which I appreciate. I would rather not know.
"The Knick" airs Fridays at 10 p.m. EDT on Cinemax. Watch the promo for Season 2, episode 3 below: