Joshua Jackson: ‘Patrick Stewart relit my fire’

The Canadian-American actor Joshua Jackson, 43, made his name playing Pacey Witter in teen drama Dawson’s Creek. Subsequent TV shows include Fringe, The Affair, When They See Us and Little Fires Everywhere. He now stars in fact-based miniseries Dr Death, based on the podcast of the same name, about Texas neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch, who was convicted in 2017 of intentionally maiming his patients.

Were you a fan of the Dr Death true crime podcast before playing him on screen?
No, I came in tabula rasa. [Writer and showrunner] Patrick Macmanus gave me a broad overview of Duntsch’s story, then said: “Go listen to the podcast so you understand who we’re dealing with.” I binged the whole thing in a day. I found myself not only gripped by the story but the question of how this man happened, how he became so troubled and dark. A pit opened up in my stomach, but it was way too good to pass up.

Is it fun to play an out-and-out villain for a change, albeit a charming one?
I’ve played flawed characters before, but never anything close to this. We didn’t want to turn Duntsch into a moustache-twirling bad guy. It’s more compelling and truer to real life if the audience empathise with him at times. You glimpse pieces of humanity in him and go: “Gosh, did he really do this stuff? He couldn’t possibly. He doesn’t seem that bad.” But eventually it’s undeniable. None of us is completely evil or completely good. We’re all fascinating, complex creatures. Duntsch is no different. It’s a case of finding sympathy for the devil.

Duntsch’s age and weight fluctuate throughout the series. Did you go full Raging Bull and gain it all yourself?
I got around halfway there, then we let prosthetics finish the job. It was a challenge physically, but it’s also a great tool as an actor because it’s like Duntsch is carrying the burden of his crimes.

Was it the US healthcare system’s fault that he got away with thosecrimes for so long?
Well, he had the right pieces of paper and the right bearing. As a tall, handsome, erudite, blue-eyed white man in America, he checked all the boxes. Once he chose to work at the highest-level hospitals in Texas, which has incredibly regressive civil liability laws, those institutions protected this man above his patients. Inside a profit-driven system, he was more valuable than the patients he lost. That’s what it boiled down to, scary as it is.

Has the show changed the way you look at doctors?
I’d certainly get a second opinion now. The Duntsch side of the story is creepy and horrifying but Dr Randall Kirby and Dr Robert Henderson [the whistleblowers, played by Christian Slater and Alec Baldwin] are exactly who you want them to be. It galvanised my feeling that the American system is truly perverse but also full of well-intentioned people. You don’t do all those years of training and accrue unbelievable debt without being driven by a deep sense of altruism.

You and your wife, the actor Jodie Turner-Smith, had a baby last year. What was it like becoming a first-time parent during a pandemic?
First-time parenting is a raft of anxieties you never knew existed. During a pandemic those worries are magnified. But lockdown also forced me to stop and be with my family. I haven’t taken a six-month break in the last 30 years, but I spent every day with my wife and infant daughter. So in many ways I’m thankful for the world pausing, awful as it sounds. Many new fathers don’t get that opportunity.

Jodie just played Anne Boleyn on TV. How is being married to a queen?
An actual queen! I always had the feeling she was a queen but now it’s on camera, so it must be true.

Is there any chance of a Dawson’s Creek reunion like the recent Friends one?
I think because the Friends cast were already adults when they were doing the show, it’s less jarring to see them now. If you put our mid-40s selves together on a couch now, with our creaking backs, it might shock people. Nobody needs to hear Pacey grunting when he gets out of a chair.

Is it true that Patrick Stewart helped you fall back in love with acting?
Absolutely. Many moons ago we did a David Mamet two-hander in the West End. It was about a year after Dawson’s Creek. I was creatively burnt out and having a career crisis, wondering if I was any good at this and whether I was enjoying it any more. Then this play came along, working on great material with a world-class actor. Patrick was so gracious to me as I bumbled around, knocking over the furniture. I was way out of my depth but it relit my fire and put me back on the path. God bless him, he’s a lovely dude.

Any more plans for theatre work?
I’d go back on stage in a second. What I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter if it’s big screen, small screen or stage. The process is more important to me than the result. When I’m old and grey I won’t look back and lament levels of success. I’ll lament the opportunities not taken, the challenges not accepted, because that’s what keeps it fresh.

What projects are in the pipeline for you?
Right now, my wife is in Ohio working [on Noah Baumbach’s film adaptation of White Noise by Don DeLillo] and I’m the “manny”. My work schedule is free and clear. I’m in the process of looking but in no particular hurry. The good jobs don’t come along all that often. When they do, you have to jump at them.

Is it true your mother took you to your first audition in a bid to discourage you from pursuing an acting career?
Pretty much. She made the mistake of telling me very young that the kids playing with toys in commercials were getting paid. Her message was the toys aren’t really that great. What I heard was: “Wait a minute, you can get paid to play with toys?” She was trying to put me off because it’s a grind, but I loved it. And if I’d been put off I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here, married to Anne Boleyn.

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