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Peacock’s true-crime thriller Dr. Death might seem somewhat ill-timed, hitting the streamer at the tail end of a pandemic in which the medical community has been celebrated for treating the flood of patients who came down with COVID-19, not to mention the scientists who developed the vaccines helping people return to normal.
But the team behind the limited series, based on the hit Wondery podcast of the same name, stresses that their show is based on a specific, true story, that of Dr. Christopher Duntsch (Joshua Jackson) a rising neurosurgeon in the Dallas medical community whose patients ended up seriously injured or dead. And, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter at the Tribeca Festival, they argue that it’s the series’ storyline about the other doctors, played by Christian Slater and Alec Baldwin, who worked to stop Duntsch that speaks to this time in which physicians have been hailed as heroes.
“Yes, the scientists, the doctors, they are heroes without a doubt,” Slater told THR. “This was a very particular case. I think it speaks to a lot of people—it scares a lot of people. I’m not too concerned. This is its own individual story and we also have to be careful and remember that they’re human beings and my character, Dr. Randall Kirby, hilarious guy and extraordinarily passionate. I think what’s nice is Alec Baldwin and myself, [our characters] are, to a certain degree, trying to do the right thing. Particularly Dr. Kirby. Henderson (Baldwin) is a much more laid-back kind of guy, but Dr. Kirby is extraordinarily passionate about fighting the system and doing the right thing. It’s those kinds of doctors that we’re really trying to highlight here and not glorify Dr. Death and make sure that these guys that did stand up and fight the system that he was taking advantage of, that we shine a light on them too.”
Macmanus added that he hopes viewers come away from the series appreciating “good doctors” like those portrayed by Slater and Baldwin.
“Doctors Henderson and Kirby were the ones who stopped him,” Macmanus said. “While patient safety is something we really have to be focused on, while something like this absolutely could happen again, there are a lot of good doctors out there, more good doctors than bad. And what I hope people take away from this show is that Dr. Christopher Duntsch was stopped by two of his own. While I hope that people educate themselves and go for second and third opinions because that’s what you should do regardless, the overall takeaway should be that we’ve got good doctors out there.”
But AnnaSophia Robb, who plays young Assistant District Attorney Michelle Shughart, who also worked to stop Duntsch, points out that the medical industry isn’t immune from scrutiny.
“We’re scrutinizing systems and all sorts of institutions and that needs to be done—people need to be held accountable for their actions,” Robb said. “The legal system failed in many ways, the health care system failed in many ways [in this case]—he’s an outlier, he’s a bad doctor, but these were institutions more concerned with their own profit and protecting themselves than helping the people that they were set up to help, so I think that’s a theme that we were experiencing in our country and the world at large and this is just one such example.”
Jackson was a late addition to the cast, replacing Jamie Dornan, who had been set to star in the series but had to drop out when production was delayed by the pandemic.
Macmanus said he thought of Jackson for Dornan’s part after watching the actor in When They See Us.
“It was such a simple, smaller role, there was a simplicity to his performance, a depth to his performance that for me personally I hadn’t seen from Josh before,” Macmanus said of Jackson’s work on the Emmy-winning limited series. “His performance [in Dr. Death] is unlike anything he’s done in the past. The nuance that he finds in this performance, I think audiences are going to be blown away by what they see.”
And though he signed on a few months after Dornan, Jackson said he still had sufficient time to prepare for his role, aided largely by Macmanus’ research.
“It certainly made my learning curve more intense but there was certainly a decent enough amount of time before we started principal photography that I was able to get into it,” Jackson told THR of his late arrival. “Quite a bit of the legwork, the research legwork, had already been done for me. Patrick and his writing staff had put together a very, very, very intense and broad dossier on the story and Christopher Duntsch, so once I had the materials, I was able to dive right in.”
Beyond Macmanus’ research, Jackson said he tried not to judge the man he was playing.
“He’s so on the surface evil and so outrageously evil that it was hard to allow myself to find human connection with him, but once I did that, it all unlocked from there,” Jackson said.
Both Slater and Robb educated themselves about their characters’ real-life counterparts and their professions.
Slater was able to observe some procedures performed by his vascular surgeon brother-in-law.
Robb, who said she spoke to Shughart and is “always attracted to playing real people,” revealed she “learned a lot.”
“I learned about the case and neuroscience, and I had to give these speeches and make these arguments but I had to know what I was talking about,” she said.
And Slater got the stamp of approval from the real Dr. Kirby, who he met for the first time the day of the Tribeca premiere, with a pre-production trip canceled by the pandemic.
“After just speaking to Dr. Kirby today, he said we did a really good job,” Slater said.
All eight episodes of Dr. Death will be streaming on Peacock on July 15, with the streamer releasing the below trailer for the series just hours after the Tribeca premiere.
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