Joshua Jackson Hopes ‘Dr. Death’ Makes You Mad as Hell
The podcast Dr. Death, preceded by an in-depth feature in the Texas Observer, recounts the story of neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch, who maimed nearly three dozen patients, two of whom died, before being charged with five counts of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury and one count of injury to an elderly person. He was sentenced to life in prison. Peacock’s miniseries adaptation was created by Patrick Macmanus (previously a consulting producer on Amazon Prime Video’s Homecoming, another podcast turned TV series): It tells the story of how Duntsch arrived at his lofty position and remained there despite all evidence that he had no business wielding a scalpel.
The series stars Alec Baldwin and Dirty John alumnus Christian Slater as two surgeons who crossed paths with Duntsch and strove to end his surgical career for the sake of the community; AnnaSophia Robb (The Act) as the prosecutor who took the case to trial; and, as Duntsch, Joshua Jackson, who stepped into the role after Jamie Dornan left the project.
I spoke with Jackson last week, the morning after the show’s premiere in Los Angeles—an event he left only to be prevented from returning to his house due to wildfires. Fortunately, the disruption to his household was minimal, as Jackson’s wife, actor Jodie Turner-Smith, had brought their daughter with her to Cannes (where she became part of a true-crime story herself). “They’re saying it’s mostly contained, but I mean, I’m having a very California day today,” said the Vancouver-born Jackson. “It’s hot and sunny and on fire.”
Vanity Fair: What drew you to this story?
Joshua Jackson: The entrance into the story for me was my first conversation with Patrick Macmanus. I had somehow just missed [the case] when it happened, and wasn’t familiar with the podcast. So he sketched the broad overview, but said, basically, Go listen to the podcast and then let’s talk again. And that podcast is both just really well done as a story, but also puts you into this world that my brain simultaneously wants to reject and put a pretty bow on. It’s so awful. [Christopher Duntsch] is so awful. The systemic failures that created and supported him are so awful that I found myself wanting the easy answer. Like, he’s just a psychopath, right? And so we’re all safe and this can never happen again.
And then when I had a follow-up conversation with Patrick, he told me how he wanted to put Duntsch at the center of this story, give his backstory, and bring you into his world and the world that created him.
I imagine a villain role can be fun in a fictional context, but how does the process of developing a “character” like this change when he’s based on a real person? How do you do it in a way that also honors the experiences of the people he affected?
Well, I think in some ways it makes it easier, because there are boundaries and parameters that are laid down by the documentary evidence of this person’s life. And those limitations can actually be liberating in that you don’t have to start from a completely blank slate. Across the board, everybody certainly felt the weight of honoring the story, of telling the worst moments of people’s lives without being exploitative. And that is undoubtedly the psychological burden of playing these scenes from Duntsch’s perspective.
It’s just hard…. It’s hard to not feel guilt for the effect of his actions in the world. And particularly, as we got into the latter stages of filming Duntsch at his absolute worst as a sociopathic narcissist, playing those scenes where you are just completely disconnected from the effect that he had was not a pleasant psychological space to live in for six months.
I’m sure. Even good, ethical doctors can project a sense of infallibility. Your costar Alec Baldwin’s “I am God” monologue from Malice—it hits for a reason. What conversations did you have with the creative team about calibrating that tendency, so that we believe Duntsch was convincing even knowing what we know about him?
I think to get into that calling, you have to have at least some piece of the God complex, right? For you to say to yourself, “I am going to be able to heal a human body.” It’s an absurd thing to say, right? “I know better. I’ll learn how to cheat nature and death and fix you.” And I think that God complex gets more intense the higher-leverage the specialty is, so spinal surgeons tend to be very much in the God complex.
Speaking of spinal surgery, when I mentioned to a critic friend of mine that I was interviewing you, she told me to ask you about your back: You have a ruptured disc of the sort that Duntsch operated on. How is it feeling these days?
Well—probably unsurprisingly—I have done everything that I can to avoid surgery. No offense to the spinal surgeons of the world. The universe has a sense of humor: Yes, I have an extruded disc at the L5-S1 that has been impinging the S1 nerve at its root. Unfortunately, I now really understand what that means, where I probably wouldn’t have a year ago. But I am now up and walking again and look like I’m going to, with the treatments that I’ve been getting, avoid surgery, which is good. And thank you for asking.
I’m glad to hear it. After When They See Us, this is your second true-crime miniseries, although When They See Us and Dr. Death come at the justice system from completely opposite perspectives. How was it for you shifting modes from When They See Us—which, of course, takes an adversarial position—to Dr. Death, which aims to put the audience on the prosecutor’s side?