Dr. Death star Christian Slater on queasy surgery scenes and keeping things light on set with Alec Baldwin
The Peacock series tells the terrifying true story of Dr. Christopher Duntsch.
Turns out, when you're working on a very dark show based on a shockingly and unfortunately all too real story, you need to find ways to laugh.
Such was the case for Dr. Death star Christian Slater, who tells EW that, actually, this is a pretty common on-set occurrence. "Even while doing this dark show, there were a lot of laughs, which tends to be the case," he says. "You know, it seems like the darker things that you do, the funnier they can be at times."
In this instance, the grisly subject matter is Dr. Death, an eight-episode drama based on Wondery's hit podcast of the same name, which in turn is based on the terrifying true story of Dr. Christopher Duntsch: Once considered a rising star in the Dallas medical community, he was building a flourishing neurosurgery practice when everything suddenly changed. Patients entered his operating room for complex but routine spinal surgeries and left permanently maimed — or dead.
Neurosurgeon Robert Henderson (played in the show by Alec Baldwin) and vascular surgeon Randall Kirby (Slater), as well as Dallas prosecutor Michelle Shughart (AnnaSophia Robb), teamed up to stop Duntsch (Joshua Jackson). Like the podcast, the series seeks to answer the "why" behind Duntsch's crimes, while peeling back the layers of the broken healthcare system that enabled him to get away with his malpractice for so long.
Ahead of all eight episodes dropping July 15 on Peacock, Slater chatted with EW about how he and Baldwin cultivated their characters' odd-couple dynamic, what the real Dr. Kirby thinks about his portrayal, and how Slater feels about doctors after working on the show.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How familiar were you with the podcast before signing on to the role?
CHRISTIAN SLATER: A friend of mine told me about the podcast — Wondery's hit podcast, it's had 50 million listeners, that thing. So I am one of them. And I just found that it was a frightening story, but definitely one that would be great to tell in a visual art form. So the ball started rolling from there, and Patrick Macmanus came aboard. And he was able to run the show and put the stories together and did a fantastic job.
Did you get to speak with the real Dr. Kirby at all before or after shooting?
I had plans to go and see him before we started shooting, and then COVID hit and I had to cancel my trip. Because if I'd flown to Dallas, I probably wouldn't have been able to get home for a while. So that was unfortunate, but also fortunate. Because I think if I had met him then, I probably would have had an overabundance of ideas and would have come to work thinking that we should do this and we should do that, and if we really want to be authentic and true to this guy I should wear blue contact lenses and actually be six inches taller. I did just meet him recently, at the Tribeca Film Festival, he was there with his family along with Dr. Henderson. I definitely had an immediate connection with the guy, and he told me that I did a great job. He'd seen all the episodes. He was very content and happy, and that's really all I needed to hear. So the idea, I think, was to capture the essence of who this man was. He's an extraordinarily passionate guy who saw something going completely wrong and did everything he possibly could to make sure that a surgeon like that was not allowed to perform in any way shape or form, because he was just an absolute psychopath.
So how did you prepare for the role then? Did you meet with real surgeons?
I was very fortunate that Dr. Kirby is a vascular surgeon, and I have a brother-in-law who happens to practice in Baltimore and he's a vascular surgeon as well. So I was able to go hang out with him and some of his doctor friends and observed, and it was a really fascinating experience to actually get to scrub in, put the gown on, and be a part of that world for a little while and get a glimpse into how these guys operate. I mean, they're like car repair guys. They go in there, and they go under the hood and do some repair, and on to the next patient. So it was a great experience, definitely gave me a great insight. And usually when you watch medical drama shows, there's so much drama going on in the operating room, but in reality, how it is is very organized, very professional, and very cool and calm. We tried to bring that kind of authenticity to our operating segments.
One thing that stands out right off the bat in the show is this sort of odd-couple dynamic between you and Alec Baldwin. How would you describe your two characters and that sort of relationship between them?
Well, like I said, Dr. Kirby is passionate. He is the type of guy that really honestly would have gone to any lengths to make sure that Dr. Duntsch wasn't able to practice. And Henderson I think in reality is a much more laid-back kind of guy. So these two gentlemen were able to inspire each other. Really, they are everyday heroes who went well beyond the call of duty. I felt a very similar chemistry with Alec Baldwin. He is an actor that I've always admired. I just think he's fantastic. So the opportunity for him to play kind of the straight man to my passionate, wild, and crazy sort of character was just a blast every day.
The show is obviously very serious due to the subject matter, but I did find that your interactions provide a necessary bit of comic relief.
Certainly there needed to be lightness in certain places, otherwise it would just be this constantly dark and miserable kind of experience for our viewers. So you get that chance to be the guy who interjects a little bit of levity, and still maintain the passion and the soul of the character. It was a challenge, but that was something we kind of established from the get-go. In order to play this character, there had to be a certain level of looseness, even in so much as the dialogue. So Alec Baldwin and I were given some leeway to create some of our scenes together and really kind of bounce off of each other, which I think led to a very natural vibe, at least that's how it was on the set. I haven't seen any of the show other than the first episode, because I had to watch it at the Tribeca Film Festival. So I really have no idea how it worked, but it felt like it worked.
You talked earlier about the surgery scenes. How did you handle some of the queasier moments on the show?
There were definitely moments in the script when I first read them that I wish I hadn't read them. Because they're just images on the page that were seared into my brain. So in that respect, it was pretty gory and pretty gruesome. I would go through the scripts and read these moments and they'd make me wince, and make me angry, too — angry that this was allowed to go on for so long, and [Duntsch] was able to get away with it for so long.
When I listened to the podcast, I just kept thinking surely this must be fictional. It's so awful.
Right, I know. [Duntsch] was able to take advantage of a part of the healthcare system that's designed not only to protect the patients, but designed to protect the doctors as well. It's very extraordinarily difficult, as you can see in this story, to call out a doctor. I mean, who are we to say that a doctor made a mistake when they're supposed to be the experts, right? So it really took two other experts, these average guys, to really take a stand and do everything they could and put their foot down in order to stop him.
What can fans of the podcast expect from the show?
I think that they'll be pleased with how Patrick Macmanus was able to tell this story through the podcast. I think it's a wild ride. It's a frightening ride, but like you said there are some moments of relaxed levity, which I think are important. I think it's a story that people need to see and should see. And when going to see a practitioner in any circumstance, you should always get a second, maybe even a third opinion before you let one doctor go inside of your body.
Did working on this show make you think twice about going to the doctor?
I think it definitely can. Fortunately, it's not just a story about a bad doctor. It's also a story about two good doctors. So it made me feel scared, and at the same time, hopeful. So I think hopefully that's ultimately what audiences will take away, that there are good doctors out there that will pay attention, and will do what they can to protect the patients at any and all costs.