In her latest project, Dr. Death on Peacock, AnnaSophia Robb takes to the courtroom — and the basketball court — as the spunky young assistant district attorney Michelle Shughart. Shughart is the real life prosecutor largely responsible for putting doctor Christopher Duntsch behind bars with help from surgeons Randall Kirby and Robert Henderson, played in the series by Christian Slater and Alec Baldwin.
Peacock’s Dr. Death is the true story of medical malpractice of the most sinister sort. Duntsch spent years botching nearly 40 relatively simple spinal surgeries, maiming, permanently injuring and even causing the deaths of patients along the way. Some justice was dealt, with Duntsch serving out a life sentence, but the story also exposes the greed and deeper systemic issues in the healthcare industry.
If you grew up watching her as Violet Beauregarde in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or a younger Carrie Bradshaw in The Carrie Diaries, then this will be a very different Robb than you may be used to, but it’s a role for which she’s clearly well-equipped. The actor chats with us about child stardom, learning to shoot hoops during the pandemic and her favourite role she’s portrayed.
Hello! It’s so nice to connect. This series can get pretty technical — how did you get comfortable with all of the legal and medical jargon your character has to reference?
A lot of Googling! My boyfriend is also a lawyer, so I utilised him as a consultant. For the direct examinations in episode eight, I Googled each surgery and looked at photos of the spine, the tools used and watched youtube videos to make sure I understood each procedure. It was terrifying to learn what the correct surgical procedures should look like versus what Duntsch actually did to his patients.
Were you able to consult with the real-life Michelle Shughart to help you bring the role to life? What was the most useful insight that she gave you?
We were scheduled to have an in-person visit before the pandemic, but due to COVID Michelle and I had a good long FaceTime chat. She was incredibly open with me, helped me to better understand the case, gave me further insight into her relationship with the real-life Henderson and Kirby, and shared her candid thoughts about Duntsch. I definitely used our conversation as a foundation to build upon. When playing a real person, my goal is to capture their essence and bring their energy and ethos to my performance. Patrick Macmanus, our showrunner, and the incredible team of writers he assembled, truly captured Michelle’s positive and tenacious spirit in the scripts. Since her early days as an ADA, her motto has been: “Do the right thing” — she told me she always asks herself, what is the appropriate amount of punishment, and how can she help the victims to the best of her abilities? I truly admire her positivity and extraordinary efforts on behalf of all the victims.
What was the most difficult scene to film?
The courtroom scenes were my most challenging work on the show because I’d never before filmed a proper court scene. It can be tedious and slightly redundant because you’re limited in terms of movement. Also, audiences are familiar with court procedurals, and there is a framework to the scenes. I felt a need to balance ‘what is most authentic’ versus ‘what builds the drama?’ It’s a fine line. Also, the scheduling for the episode was crazy due to COVID. One day we filmed 30 pages of dialogue, all the victim testimonies, and it was a complete whirlwind, but fun. It felt more theatrical shooting back to back to back. And, it was emotional. All of the actors are representing real people, real injuries and real pain. Many of the victims are still alive today. So, it was a meta and sobering experience to reenact their trial.
What was your initial reaction after having read the script? What about it struck you the most?
I was horrified after reading the script! I also couldn’t believe I wasn’t formally familiar with the story. Once I read the first script I was hungry for more, but I had to wait months to get all the episodes.
In the series, Michelle shoots hoops to blow off steam. Did you already have some prior basketball experience, or did you have to train for the role?
Once I saw they changed Michelle playing video games to basketball, I found a coach through some friends and we started working together. It was fall/winter, and because of COVID none of the indoor courts were available! So Coach Coburn, who’s now the head of the women’s basketball team at Wagner College, and I would train outside. He was so incredibly patient with me. I couldn’t even dribble when we started! He truly is a miracle worker. And now I love basketball! Who knows, maybe I’ll join an amateur women’s league.
Your character’s goal was to prove intent behind Dr. Duntsch’s actions. Outside of the series, what are your thoughts on the events depicted in the series?
It’s shocking and disheartening to see how the system failed to hold this doctor accountable sooner. But unfortunately, it’s not surprising in light of the frequency with which we’ve seen our systems fail people repeatedly, prioritising profit over people, whether it’s healthcare, the justice system, government — you name it. It’s clear we have a long way to go in holding our systems accountable and how necessary and valuable whistle-blowers, like Dr. Henderson and Dr. Kirby, are to keep the systems in check.
Have you felt more wary of medical professionals after learning about this real-life horror story?
Of course! The next time I’m looking for a doctor, I will 100% get three references. However, Dr. Duntsch is an anomaly, and I treasure the heroic work nurses and doctors do. Personally, I am wearier of the healthcare system not showing enough oversight than over the doctors themselves.
Your character has a lot to prove as a young assistant district attorney assigned to a high profile case. Do you feel you had to work harder to prove your acting chops as a former child star in order to land the darker, more mature roles you’ve had recently?
I feel like I’ve been building towards this role for a long time. It feels good to be recognised at the age I am and play age-appropriate roles. We’ve also really sought them out. I say we because it’s a whole team behind me. I’m really careful in the roles I go for and wanting to build a career that is thoughtful and one that tells a story. I think storytelling is one of our most powerful agents of change, and I want my work to reflect my values.
Having gone into the industry at such a young age, was there ever a moment you questioned whether this was the path meant for you? How did you deal with those feelings?
Yes and no. Once I got to college I started to realise my deeper passion for storytelling. I became fascinated with Greek tragedies and the whole idea of the polis (democratic body/citizens) going to see performances. It was a way to learn their ethics, morals, histories and myths. This industry has its ups and downs, but I’m never bored, and there are always new stories on the horizon and fantastic people along the way. I’m trying to enjoy the ride rather than the destination.
You’ve played some really beloved characters in your career, but do you have a personal favourite?
I feel extremely blessed to have had the career I’ve had, especially as a young person. When I was a kid, I don’t think I understood how fortunate I was, but I’m glad I was unaware because I simply enjoyed it, enjoyed life, work, and school — the stakes didn’t feel high. Now they do! No, I’m kidding, sort of. Favourite characters… Bethany Hamilton was a life-changing role for me. I loved the physicality and mental stamina of the role. I love playing real people — I get to study how they live and pack those nuggets into myself. I felt stronger after playing Bethany. And, she’s still a friend I admire.
You graduated from NYU in 2018! What major did you create at Gallatin?
My ‘major’ was Dramatic Rehearsal, based on a compilation of my studies, and I stole the name from the philosopher John Dewey. It’s basically about imagining different realities and ways of being through performance — essentially, storytelling!
You’ve got some major projects coming up — what can you tell us about them?
I’ll be working on Rebel Ridge next year. I’m extremely excited about that project. Again, it’s about systemic failures, this time in a small town. Jeremy Saulnier is one of my favorite directors, so I’m looking forward to bringing his vision to life!
Dr. Death is currently streaming on Peacock.
direction + photography. Mynxii White @ Exclusive Artists
fashion. Thomas Christos Kikis @ The Wall Group
talent. AnnaSophia Robb
hair. Cristin Armstrong
make up. Fiona Stiles @ A-Frame Agency
executive production + casting. Alabama Blonde
production. Craig Bullock
photography assistant. Tavis Johnson
words. Henry Lifshits