(Warning: This post, which was first published July 15, contains spoilers through the finale of Peacock’s “Dr. Death.”)
The villain of “Dr. Death,” Joshua Jackson’s Dr. Christopher Duntsch, is in the spotlight for the better part of the based-on-true-events Peacock limited series, maiming and killing patients who go under his knife for routine spinal surgeries. And it’s because we spend so much time in the dark with Duntsch that when our heroine, Dallas assistant district attorney Michelle Shughart (played by AnnaSophia Robb), finally arrives more than halfway through the show, her ultimate courtroom victory against the neurosurgeon feels that much sweeter.
For viewers who have watched through the end of “Dr. Death” and are looking to dive a little deeper into the facts of the case it’s based on, Robb assured TheWrap of one point in particular: Shughart really does have that cheery disposition in court.
Of course, Robb herself didn’t believe that could be possible — until she time spent getting to know the real-life attorney.
“I was in my callback and [‘Dr. Death’ showrunner Patrick Macmanus] told me, ‘Michelle is really kind. She’s just such a sweetheart,” Robb told TheWrap. “I thought, ‘What are you talking about? This woman is a prosecutor. I’m sure she’s kind, but she chose this profession for a reason.’ Then I was able to speak with her before we started filming, and I was just so impressed with her and how she does her job.”
The “Little Fires Everywhere” alum said one of the things she found most endearing about Shughart, who also has a master’s degree in conflict resolution, is how she manages to “treat all of her defendants the same.”
“She’s dealing with murder cases and horrid, horrid crimes. But she has a perky attitude,” Robb explained. “She has this attitude where she wants to protect people. She wants to try to get as much justice as possible for the victims. And she’s constantly asking, what is the appropriate amount of punishment and justice? It’s an unusual position to be in. But she’s just really focused and diligent and kind.”
Robb said Shughart’s kindness streak runs exceptionally deep for someone who is so good at putting bad guys away.
“She told me — it was amazing — I was asking was she raised with a lot of kindness, was her family that way, why is she the way she is? She goes, ‘You know, I try to treat all my defendants the same. They’re people too. But I can be nice to you and still put you in prison,'” Robb said. “She has a lot of manners. She has respect for humans, for everyone she interacts with.”
Duntsch was a young, charismatic and seemingly brilliant Texas neurosurgeon who left may of his patients permanently maimed or dead. With the help of neurosurgeon Robert Henderson (played by Alec Baldwin) and vascular surgeon Randall Kirby (Christian Slater), Shughart got a conviction against Duntsch in February 2017, getting him a life sentence on an injury to an elderly person charge.
Before building the case against Jackson’s Duntsch on screen, Robb was learning about how Shughart painstakingly pieced together the real Duntsch’s crimes against his patients.
“She told me these victims were unusual,” Robb said. “Usually the cases she deals with, there’s some connection. You know, no one is wholly innocent, is what she sort of said. But in this case, these people are just going in to get their backs fixed. They were just going about their daily lives, trying to do their jobs and then horrid things happened to them. And she just told me how she remembers every single one of the families, interviewing every single patient, what it smelled like, how many dogs were running around. It was so heartbreaking. And she still is involved in the medical community. She advises patients and doctors. It’s not like a one-and-done case for her.”
The 27-year-old actress said playing Shughart in “Dr. Death” is the most “empowering” role she’s had so far, particularly because the attorney acknowledged how people underestimated her, but never let that get to her head.
“She knows that she’s good at her job. The second time we meet her, in Episode 5, she goes, ‘I may be a little too young, maybe a little too woman for your liking — but.’ She understands what people’s perceptions of her are and she doesn’t really have a problem with it,” Robb said. “She doesn’t have a hang up. She’s going to keep doing her job and she’s going to do it to her best ability. That was empowering… to have that persona was a treat. I really enjoyed portraying her.”
All eight episodes of “Dr. Death” are streaming now on Peacock.