Whether or not you were familiar with Christopher Duntsch, there’s one adjective that accurately describes the dramatised miniseries Dr Death: Creepy.
Based on the real-life American doctor who killed two of his patients and maimed dozens more, Dr Death is infused with dread.
It’s deeply unsettling to watch someone repeatedly harm so many humans, his delusions of grandeur and enormous ego unable to fathom any wrongdoing.
And maddening when that person is protected and enabled, time and again, by an industry more concerned about money and arse-covering than patients and care.
Joshua Jackson, who had to slip into Duntsch’s metaphorical skin across eight episodes of Dr Death, knows all too well what monster the man is.
Over Zoom, the Dawson’s Creek, The Affair and Fringe star talked to news.com.au about confronting Duntsch’s horrific legacy, Hollywood narcissists and outgrowing the teen heart-throb label.
Dr Death is seriously creepy. Is that what you were hoping the reaction would be?
If you don’t think it’s creepy, something’s very wrong with you. It’s horrifying from the first episode, all the way to the eighth, as you start to peel back the layers of this story.
Both the man himself, which is creepy and terrifying, and the situation that created the man is infuriating. There are lots of layers to it, but creeped out is the right reaction.
Are you someone who likes to delve into the real-life part of it or do you stick to what’s in the script?
The scripts were very, very detailed, so they were an amazing jumping off point and he’s such a fantastically evil character that I needed to delve into. There were reams and reams of research that had already been done by the time I came to the project.
There was a dropbox with hundreds of hours of depositions and interviews, everything an actor could want. And I needed all of that stuff to try and give myself context.
Do you think your version of him is pretty close to the actual person?
I think, yes. There are certain differences. Like, he has a slight lisp and we didn’t want to put the lisp in because when we were working with it, it actually made him too sympathetic. And when he’s younger, he’s quite a burly dude but I wanted to start skinny so that by the time I get to the end, there’s a visual distinction between the two bodies.
So, there’s little surface things like that. From the research and documentary evidence that I had available to me, I think I did a pretty faithful interpretation of who the man is.
Were you ever tempted to meet him and look him in the eye?
We talked about it in the beginning. Duntsch was unavailable because he was in prison and because he’s currently appealing his conviction, his lawyers, even if we had wanted to go down that route, wouldn’t have made him available.
But before we even got to that level, I came to the opinion that I didn’t need to ask a liar what the truth was.
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There was so much documentary evidence that I had access to that I felt like I had a pretty detailed sketch of who the man was. And I don’t know that I would have found out anymore, maybe in just mannerisms or affectations.
I don’t know that I would have found out any additional truth from asking a very, very delusional man what his version of the truth is.
Is it harder to get into his head knowing he is a real person?
Yes, because it’s hard for me to understand, just as a human, the things that make up a personality type like Christopher Duntsch.
It’s hard for me to understand, as an empathetic person, how he finished his second surgery and had done terrible harm to another human body and woke up the next day right as rain, booked his next surgery, went to work like a cock of the walk and just thought everything about himself was great.
It’s difficult to wrap your head around the enormity of that ego, and really what narcissistic personality disorder does to people. I’m not a doctor, I can’t diagnose that, but it certainly seems to be he is a narcissistic personality and potentially a sociopath, and how that blocks out empathy, human connection and when you can only see the world as it reflects you.
Surely, you’ve met people like that in your industry?
I’ve met people who are narcissists but I don’t know that I’ve ever met anybody who has narcissistic personality disorder, that’s a different level.
At some point, in my line of work, no matter how deep somebody’s bulls**t is, you can usually find a way through it to be like, ‘Come on.’ Frankly, I’m guilty of it myself, it’s part of an actor’s job to believe things about oneself that are just not true – we fake it until we make it.
I understand that at a certain point, my humanity meets my ego and I have to check myself. When Duntsch’s humanity met his ego, the humanity just went away, and he carried on unchecked.
You’ve been really busy recently, with Little Fires Everywhere, The Affair and now this. Actors who’ve played two iconic characters before they’re 20 [Pacey in Dawson’s Creek and Charlie in The Mighty Ducks] often struggle to shake off that teen heart-throb label. Did you make a conscious decision to distance yourself from those earlier roles in your career?
The benefit or the detriment of having those characters when I was so young is that there’s not the opportunity to stay there, even if I wanted to. You get old. The grey hairs start the overwhelm the rest of them and that’s that.
So, it’s never a conscious choice to run from those characters, but even I wanted to play those characters over and over again, I got older, so it doesn’t exist. And there’s no fun in that.
The fun part of my job, every time I do it, is sometimes it’s a real leap, like Christopher Duntsch.
That’s a very big bite and not an opportunity that I’ve had much of over the course of my career. But every single job presents a completely different opportunity to dive into a character.
Little Fires – I’ve never played the middle-aged dad in the gilded cage of his own creation. The Affair – you take that guy from the worst loss a person can imagine through his middle age. Frankly, there’s a lot of great characters to be played at my age. So these are the good years.
And there are so many great TV projects out there.
Yes. I like making films too but I’ve done all my work in the past several years in television. And I really enjoyed long form storytelling where you have three, four, five or eight hours to tell a story.
Do you ever miss the network model of 22 episodes a year, for five years?
The pay cheques are nice, not going to lie! But it’s such an unbelievable grind at work. Some people [might miss it], I don’t know, I’ve never talked to any [one who does].
I’m in an alumnus of a very small group of people who’ve done multiple shows that gone on for five years, and I’ve never spoken to anyone [who’s] been on any one of those shows that once they were finished they were like, ‘Man, I wish I was still doing that.’
Edited and condensed for clarity.
Dr Death is streaming now on Stan
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