Dr. Death, the must-watch limited series based on the hit true-crime podcast, debuts on Showcase in Canada tonight. In addition to telling a chilling story that’s not for the faint-hearted, it has an impressive cast led by Joshua Jackson, Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater.
I spoke with Christian Slater ahead of the Canadian premiere about the series and the role. Here’s what he shared about playing Dr. Randall Kirby, a vascular surgeon and one of the two doctors who helped put an end to Christopher Duntsch’s horrific streak. Slater also discussed his character being the voice of the audience, meeting Dr. Kirby in real life, and working with an all-female directing team on this series.
(You can also read my interview with creator/showrunner Patrick Macmanus here.)
In a lot of ways, your character is the voice of the audience, especially in expressing the frustration regarding the red tape and loopholes that allowed Duntsch to get away with things for so long. Was it clear to you from the beginning that this would be a big part of playing Dr. Kirby?
It’s always fun to get to be the voice of the audience, and for the audience to have somebody they can relate to and understand that the frustrations of what’s going on in this situation. There was something about Dr. Kirby that I gravitated towards. He was a character and a real-life guy that I related to and identified with. The character jumped off the page, and it was one that I really wanted to portray. In the past, people might have seen me playing the Dr. Death character. It’s fun to break it up a bit and be the good guy, and hopefully do a good job with and get the opportunity to do it again in the future.
I was supposed to meet with Dr. Kirby before we started shooting, but then COVID happened and I had to cancel my trip to Dallas. I did get to meet with him recently in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival, and Patrick Macmanus captured who this guy really is within the scripts. And it was fun to play Kirby. He has a lot of energy and passion and enthusiasm, which is true to who the real Dr. Kirby is. I got the opportunity to do a fairly accurate portrayal of who this gentleman is. He’s a character that takes on the system very much like Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I felt that there was a similarity in these characters and the lengths that they were willing to go to in order to take on the system.
How intense was it filming those very realistic-looking surgical scenes? And what type of guidance was provided to help you with that aspect of your role?
We had experts on set and doctors guiding us. As dark as this show is, the humorous part of it is both Josh [Jackson] and I are incredibly inept at being surgeons. There were times where we found ourselves breaking the tension by cracking jokes and having a few laughs. We were operating on dummies; there was never a real person [on the table]. The added sound effects and music accentuated the drama and agony [in the final cut]. Hearing the sound of [Josh as Duntsch] pounding away with that hammer made me cringe.
I was very happy to see that this series had an all-female directorial team. As someone who has been a part of the industry since the 1980s, what are some of the key differences that you’ve noticed overall about having more women behind the camera?
It brings a whole new energy. Between you and me, it’s my preference. I like it this way. Men tend to be posturing, and there’s a level of ego involved at times. I found that this experience [on Dr. Death] lent itself to a more communal atmosphere. I felt freer to experiment and have a lot of fun. And I was encouraged to do that. There wasn’t a huge element of control and trying to rein too much in, and that was very helpful with my character.
Also, both Alec Baldwin and I were able to improvise quite a bit, and it was encouraged not only by the directors but by Patrick Macmanus, too. I’m grateful for that because sometimes, showrunners and creators can be so specific about the lines being exactly like they are on the page. In this circumstance, it made sense that there would be a bit more freedom. It lent itself to having a lot of fun, especially when you have somebody like Alec Baldwin, who’s such a brilliant improviser. It was fun to bounce off of him as well.
When it comes to “villains” on screen, there’s often an added layer so we understand their motivations, or they may have some redeeming qualities. Neither of these is evident to me as a viewer when it comes to Christopher Duntsch. As someone who has played the antagonist on more than one occasion, did you notice this as well?
He’s a narcissist. You could put him in the category of Ted Bundy, another very charming person who did horrible things. It’s extremely difficult to understand the how and why. There’s a mental defect, an arrogance, and that God complex that comes with doctors and saving lives. This guy possessed the ego, but none of the skills to back any of it up.
Dr. Kirby knew the moment that he witnessed Christopher Duntsch in the operating theatre that he was completely in over his head. Duntsch didn’t know what he was doing and never should have moved beyond operating on mice.
We’ve been amid a global pandemic for a while now, with health care workers being applauded as heroes. Does that make playing a hero doctor like Randall Kirby resonate with you even more?
That’s the thing about this story. As much as it’s about a doctor and his sociopathic behaviours and narcissism, it’s also about two other doctors who are willing to stand up, take a great risk, put their careers on the line and do the right thing to stop a madman from doing any more harm. After meeting Dr. Kirby and Dr. Henderson, I can only describe these guys as heroes.
(Images Courtesy of Peacock)