The truth is often stranger than fiction and in the case of Peacock’s Dr. Death, it is much more terrifying than any fictional horror story because it is based on the real-life exploits of Dr. Christopher Duntsch, a rising star in the Dallas medical community, who killed or maimed more than 30 patients while the medical community had very little recourse to stop him.
Dr. Death stars Joshua Jackson as Dr. Duntsch; Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater as neurosurgeon Robert Henderson and vascular surgeon Randall Kirby, respectively, the doctors who tried to get his license revoked; and AnnaSophia Robb as Michelle Shughart, the Dallas prosecutor who took the case to trial.
“Michelle is remarkable,” Robb told Monsters & Critics in this exclusive interview. “She told me she wanted this case because it was unusual. It wasn’t a run-of-the-mill case and she was up for the challenge. She wanted to put the puzzle pieces together. When she started digging even deeper and uncovering how complicated the story was and getting to know the victims as well, she felt a great sense of responsibility for winning this case.”
All eight episodes of Dr. Death are currently streaming on Peacock, and after watching, it is hard to decide whether Duntsch was just a horribly, untrained surgeon or if he was actually a sociopath who intended to maim and kill his patients.
“I’d pick D, all of the above,” Robb says. “There were a couple of surgeries that he performed where they turned out okay. So, that gives me the sense that maybe there were a couple of times where he did know what he was doing. He was constantly on drugs, so he wasn’t a responsible surgeon. I don’t really have a clear answer. I just know that I’m happy that he is in jail.”
One of the surgeries that Duntsch performed was on his best friend, Jerry Summers, who was left a quadriplegic, and died in February 2021, while the limited series was filming. And, as is explained in one of the episodes, the two men had done drugs the night prior to the surgery. Despite Summers being his best friend, that didn’t keep Duntsch from operating the next day.
“Michelle told me she would listen to Duntsch’s phone calls every day,” Robb said. “As a prosecutor, you get an alert. And so, she would listen to his jail calls with his dad and how he would pontificate and how he would manipulate the family. So, he’s definitely a narcissist, but I think that that also gave me some insight into who he is.”
Monsters & Critics: This show is really scary because it’s based on a real-life story. When you were first told about it or when you first got the script, do you remember what you thought?
AnnaSophia Robb: I felt the same way as you. I thought it was absolutely terrifying. I got the audition sides and then they said, “It’s based on a podcast [Wondery podcast].” So, I immediately started listening to the podcast and was shocked that I hadn’t heard this story before, but then I was also just completely devastated. It made me physically ill. I felt so queasy listening to it, knowing that this had transpired.
M&C: You’re playing Michelle Shughart who’s a real-life character. She’s this very powerful woman in the courtroom scenes and she brought this guy to justice. What was it like for you to suit up and be the heroine of the story?
AnnaSophia Robb: It was a blast. She’s such a remarkable woman. I had the pleasure of speaking with her before we started filming and got to know her and understand her spirit and her ethos. Her motto for work is, do the right thing. She has a lovely, positive spirit. And so that was fun to be able to bring that into the set every day.
And then I felt like Patrick Macmanus, our showrunner, and all the writers did such an excellent job of characterizing her. So, I trusted the script completely. It was empowering to put on my suits and go after justice. Her energy is focused on the victims and on the case and not on herself. And that was a really fun energy to play.
M&C: Not that you haven’t worked with great actors before, but you have three heavyweight guys here: Christian Slater, Alec Baldwin, and Joshua Jackson. Any nerves going into it?
AnnaSophia Robb: Definitely, always. They’ve been working for forever and they’re tremendous actors, but they were just lovely. I had a year of waiting through the pandemic to think about, “Oh, God, I hope I don’t mess it up.” But then when I finally got on set, they were so kind and so supportive, and really, they’re actor actors. If I wanted another take, or if we wanted to try something a different way, they’re very collaborative.
M&C: It’s scary because it could still happen.
AnnaSophia Robb: I talked to Dr. Henderson and Dr. Kirby about this, and they said he’s an anomaly. There are bad doctors out there, so that is nerve-wracking, but the heroes of the story are the two doctors who are whistleblowers and a nurse who called him out.
So, what I hope the show leaves people with is the thought that the medical system and hospitals will be more accountable. They’re not just going to ignore bad surgeries or behavior. I think also really valuing nurses because there were the people in the operating room who saw what was happening, but they’re disposable to many hospitals because they don’t bring in money. And so, I think that power dynamic needs to change.
M&C: Can the internet help where doctors get bad reviews?
AnnaSophia Robb: This happened in 2015. He had a whole website that was fake, basically, with good reviews. So, that was misleading. People would research him and there would be all these great reviews that weren’t real. There’s some association that Dr. Henderson was telling me about that the medical review board doesn’t do a good enough job for people who do file a complaint. There are a bunch of different issues.
So, your next project is Rebel Ridge, which is a thriller. What can you share?
AnnaSophia Robb: It’s about another systemic failure. We’re filming that next year.
M&C: You played a young Carrie Bradshaw in The Carrie Diaries. Will you tune into the Sex and the City sequel, And Just Like That to see what it’s about?
AnnaSophia Robb: Completely. I am so excited. I am on pins and needles. Can’t wait to watch. Can’t wait to binge I’m always a Sex and the City fan. It’s perfect. It’s so delicious.
M&C: You’re only 27 years old, but you have something like 17 years of experience because you began when you were what, 11?
AnnaSophia Robb: Nine.
M&C: Even longer. Having grown up in the industry, what’s it like now that you’re getting these great adult roles?
AnnaSophia Robb: It’s been a long haul. That’s for sure. But I really enjoyed every part of it. I wouldn’t necessarily change any of my experiences. I was really blessed and fortunate. I worked with good people, and I don’t feel like I was manipulated. But television has certainly changed. I remember growing up thinking, “I’ll never do TV.” And, of course, now, some of the best stuff out there is television, for sure. Definitely the Golden Age. And there’s just so much. I don’t think people can afford all these different streaming services. So, that is definitely going to have to change. I’m just curious how that’s all going to whittle down.
I think, especially after this year, we want to see more diverse storytelling and different voices. I’ve been fortunate as I’ve grown up and as I was coming of age, the past couple of years, at least since I’ve graduated college, there are a lot more interesting roles for women. Reese Witherspoon has a lot to do with that. I think we want representation in what we’re watching, and there’s such a large audience for so many different stories. That’s really exciting. I want to see more Asian actors, Black actors, First Nations actors, Polynesian actors. I’m looking forward to hearing more of those stories and for it not to be niche or something like, “Ooh, but that’s the norm.”
M&C: So, having been around Reese, Kerry Washington, and all these strong women on the Little Fires Everywhere set, do you want to go behind the scenes and produce stuff yourself?
AnnaSophia Robb: I would love to, yes. That’s definitely in my future and a goal of mine.
Dr. Death is currently streaming on Peacock.