Joshua Jackson is no stranger to television, spending most of his life on screen. If you were a kid of the 90s, odds are the actor has a place in your own pop culture frame of reference. After beginning his film career in The Mighty Ducks franchise as captain Charlie Conway, he became a household name as the hopelessly romantic black sheep Pacey Witter in the hit teen drama Dawson’s Creek. In between seasons, he starred in popular films Cruel Intentions, The Skulls, and Urban Legend. The actor swiftly moved onto adult roles in television, playing FBI consultant Peter Bishop on Fringe, and then as Cole Lockhart, a salt of the earth man whose life is upended by the sudden death of his young son, in Showtime’s The Affair.
Jackson’s next role is his most challenging one to date as he steps into the shoes of a real-life sociopath-neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch. The true story of the former doctor who killed two patients and harmed so many others gained prominence in the podcast series “Dr. Death” and is now examined from a different lens in the Peacock series of the same name. Unlike most thrillers, the most interesting part of the series is not the story behind Duntsch’s crimes, but it’s how creator Patrick Macmanus tracks backward to explore how a man became a monster and the healthcare system that failed his patients. At the center of the show is Jackson’s brilliantly layered and chilling performance. For the actor, the origin story was an irresistible opportunity to take on.
“It’s an interesting thing that Patrick did which was to decide to go back and tell an origin story for the devil,” said Jackson.
“[The college years] really show that he was a sweet, nerdy, goofy, innocent, awkward guy. There’s nothing so broken in him at that point that he’s monstrous but if we stay with him long enough, the outcome is monstrous and scary. What is the path from the mixed up innocent sweet kid to the monster we know at the end? I found that so compelling as an actor to dive into telling the totality of that story.”
Awards Radar spoke to the actor about becoming Christopher Duntsch.
Niki Cruz: It sounds odd to say but I really love this show.
Joshua Jackson: [Laughs] I get that, yeah.
NC: It balances that tricky tone of being a thriller and also bringing to light just how broken the healthcare system is.
JJ: Yeah, if you say to somebody, it’s a show about the American medical system, I feel like most people would be like “borrriiiinngg” and so it’s a really tricky thing that Patrick [Macmanus] pulled off, which is telling a story that’s compelling inside of that and horrific while at the same time revealing a truth about the system, that we all put so much faith in.
NC: You’ve had such memorable roles on TV. What drew you to such a dark role?
JJ: I entered into this job through a conversation with Patrick. I didn’t know anything about it — somehow, I missed the story and the podcast. So I listened to the podcast, and the podcast is so good, creepy, and makes you feel so uncomfortable, and gives you a good idea of the “what.” It didn’t satisfy the “why” or the “how,” and that’s what our show gets into. I was so curious about the why, and the how Christopher Duntsch came to be, was supported, kept on moving, and ultimately it took truly heroic efforts — not from the people who were supposed to protect his patients, but from other people who just couldn’t let this injustice carry on. It’s super compelling. I was reading the script going, “I would like to see this show, and since I would like to see this show, that means I would like to be in this show.”
NC: Psychologically how was the experience of playing a man who’s so tormented on the inside and is outwardly horrific?
JJ: The hardest thing with Christopher Duntsch was to stop judging him. He’s very easy to judge because you know where he ends up, [it’s easy to say] “Well, you’re a monster,” and now that I don’t have to play him anymore, I agree with that, he is a monster, but the story tries to get you inside that monster. How does this man come to be? What are the influences in a life that get you this outcome? It’s very unusual to ask an audience to have that much sympathy for the devil.
NC: I did wonder if you reserved judgment when you were playing him or if that would’ve made him such a hard person to tackle?
JJ: I reserved judgment when I was playing him because I don’t know — I think it would’ve broken the performance. The more comfortable place for me as a person is to stand in judgment because the man is so bad, so terrible, and what he did is so terrible, but as an actor to truly believe in the things he’s saying in the scenes, I had to believe as Duntsch that I’m the hero of the story. I’m the victim of other people. I’m a lonely genius trying to drag a cruel and stupid world into the light, and if these peons would stop dragging me down, everything would be okay.
NC: And you could see how he would think that especially exploring the earlier years, where you see the perfect storm stirring up inside of him to make him who he is.
JJ: Right, and the podcast gives you one take on the story, but because we had more time we took a different take which is to build the argument of how the man comes to be, and I find that fascinating. We know where he ends up, we know how awful it is towards the end, but what are the things that lead you to this man? I’ve never been given the opportunity to dive that deep into somebody like that, so for me, it was just difficult, and wonderful, and hard, and I’m glad it’s behind me because it wasn’t easy to live with this man for six months.
NC: How much did you get to build on in terms of the earlier years? Did you have a lot of information?
JJ: I had a lot of information. Patrick had been working on this project for two full years before I came to it. So, the part that’s usually the actor’s job, the research, had already been done for me, which is great! [Laughs] But the research they had — not from just the arrest and the trial — but also his medical records, school records, interviews with people from the various stages of his life, built this pretty detailed picture of who this man was. Inside of that, we had our scripts which take portions of that story and refined down pieces we think are important to tell…You never know if it’s going to come together, but it allowed freedom inside of this specific story to take the time to tell this story right.
NC: With those college years, we see you at 19 again. I haven’t seen you look 19 since Dawson’s Creek. How was it to physically get to play that age again?
JJ: [Laughs] Well, some of the inspiration behind that is not from my own life of being on camera…I was so impressed by Leonardo DiCaprio’s take on playing a young version. It felt to me of being perfectly in the pocket of being free, youthful, exuberance without being the caricature of being a young person. Maybe I should’ve gone back and watched myself — because I literally have a historical document throughout the years, but I took more from him. There’s a lightness to being that age that you don’t recognize at that time. Everything had the possibility of turning out for Duntsch at that point. You could see all of the pieces that were going to go wrong, but if he had just been nudged in a different direction, we wouldn’t be telling this story because his life outcome would’ve been completely different.
NC: What would you like people to take away from the show?
JJ: First, I’d like them to take away a really compelling story because I don’t think you get anything else unless you are drawn into the story itself. I hope people are freaked out and creeped out, and angry, and at the end, feel some sense of vindication. Then when they really sit back with it, I would want them to really think about their own interactions with the medical system and think about how that system that we put so much faith and trust in treats us.
“Dr. Death” is currently available to stream on Peacock.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]