Mr Joshua Jackson On Life Down River From Dawson’s Creek
Minutes before Mr Joshua Jackson joins me in a booth for a Friday afternoon drink at a vibey hotel bar in Santa Monica, he’s confronted by his past. Or rather, a woman in her early twenties who is binge-watching Dawson’s Creek, the teen show about a close-knit group of high-school friends coming of age in a sleepy American town, which made Jackson incredibly famous between 1998 and 2003.
The series, which also made household names of Ms Michelle Williams and Ms Katie Holmes, went off air 18 years ago, but is now streaming on Netflix, to the bemusement of Jackson, who played lovable rogue Pacey Witter. “This girl was like, ‘Are you...?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, I am. He got old. I’m sorry to break it to you,’” he says, before ordering an iced tea and a charcuterie board to tide him over until dinner time. “It always surprises me when young people say they’ve just got into Dawson’s Creek. I’m like, ‘Is it a costume drama to you? Do you feel like you’re watching a historical documentary?’”
The idea of a Friends-style reunion episode or a Sex And The City revival feels equally far-fetched to Canadian-born Jackson, now 43 and wearing it well in a pale green linen shirt and tailored linen trousers by Oliver Spencer that complement his fading brown hair and Cali-tanned skin.
“I don’t know why you’d want to [bring it back],” he says. “Nobody needs to know what those characters are doing in middle age. We left them in a nice place. Nobody needs to see that Pacey’s back hurts. I don’t think we need that update.”
And Jackson doesn’t need Dawson’s Creek. From Mr JJ Abrams’ sci-fi series Fringe (2008-2013) to the Golden Globe award-winning The Affair (2014-2019), from Ms Ava DuVernay’s ground-breaking true-crime drama When They See Us (2019) to the recent Ms Reese Witherspoon and Ms Kerry Washington-produced Little Fires Everywhere (2020), he has commanded the small screen – with a collection of dynamic and diverse work – ever since.
His latest role as Mr Christopher Duntsch, the Texas surgeon convicted of gross malpractice when 33 of his patients were left seriously injured after he operated on them and two of them died, in chilling Peacock crime drama Dr Death, is only stepping his career up another gear.
“I’ve never played anyone irredeemable before,” says Jackson, who is joined in the eight-part series (based on the 2018 Wondery podcast of the same name) by Messrs Christian Slater and Alec Baldwin. “He is charming, gregarious and has a high-level intellect, but he’s also a misogynist, probably a sociopath, certainly a narcissist and a complete incompetent who is incapable of seeing himself.”
If Duntsch is terrifying, then Jackson’s portrayal is even more so. The artist formerly known as Pacey is virtually unrecognisable (thanks to prosthetics) in the opening scene, but the real challenge for Jackson was allowing himself to view someone who is so “spectacularly evil” as a human being in order to walk in his shoes. “It’s a more damning portrayal of the man to make him into a human being, rather than just make him the bad guy,” he says. “He really believes he’s the hero, he’s the genius and that he’s the victim, so once I got past my own judgment, all the other things fell into place.”
Jackson might have his pick of stellar roles – and challenges – now, but it has not happened by accident. Take it from someone who has been in the business since landing his first job aged 14 in Disney’s live-action movie series The Mighty Ducks, opposite Brat Pack alumnus Mr Emilio Estevez.
“You try to make it look like it happens accidentally,” he says, “but there is no way to do this and not be ambitious. I’d say I’m extremely ambitious because I’ve been doing this cutthroat job for nearly 30 years. I’m in the pay-off phase of my career now. One of the benefits of surviving for as long as I have is you get to learn from your own mistakes.”
Such as? “I wouldn’t say, ‘I wish I hadn’t done that,’ because it all becomes bricks in a path, but [after Dawson’s Creek] I was not choosy enough about the things I was doing. You get stuck. You start trying to perform the performance you think people are hoping to see you do. I was so used to working all the time that I just worked all the time. There was definitely a conscious moment in my mid-twenties when I realised I wasn’t really enjoying the work that I was doing. My manager at the time just said, ‘Take a breath. You’re burnt out.’”
The turning point came in 2005, when Jackson was offered a role in the two-hander Mr David Mamet play A Life In The Theatre, opposite Sir Patrick Stewart. “God bless him, Patrick could have made my life miserable because I had no idea what I was doing, ” he says. “I hadn’t been on stage since I was a kid and now I was in the West End in over my head. But it reminded me that I actually enjoyed being an actor, that it’s not about the red carpet or travelling around the world. What I really enjoy is working on good material with good people.”
“I’m in the pay-off phase of my career now. One of the benefits of surviving for as long as I have is you get to learn from your own mistakes”
It’s no surprise Jackson’s time on Dawson’s Creek led to a career crisis. From the ages of 19 to 24, he lived with his fellow cast mates in Wilmington, North Carolina, filming day in, day out, in an arrangement he likens to college. “You get to the end and they’re like, ‘Here’s your degree. Go live now. You’re an adult. Go out into the world,’” he says.
But most graduates don’t have to deal with global fame. “It’s transitory. You’re only ever cool for a moment and then you become much less cool. I was always pretty dubious about flatterers,” he says, recalling a time he was stung in London in the mid-2000s. “I went on a date in Hyde Park with a woman whose name I will not use – she was socialite-famous – and she was acting completely bizarre, looking over her shoulder the whole time. I came to find out that she had hired a photographer to follow us through the park and gave a whole story to the tabloids about how I was going to meet her family.”
It was his growing fortune, rather than fame, that caused Jackson the most anxiety. “Suddenly, at 19 years old, I was making more in a week than most of my friends’ parents would make in a year,” he says. “It was lovely to have the money, but it was that feeling of nobody is worth that kind of money. You feel like a fraud and it took me a long time to forgive myself for not being the thing that I was perceived as.”
Born in Vancouver, but raised in Topanga, California, until he was eight (before moving back to Vancouver following his parents’ divorce), Jackson bought his childhood home in 2001 and lives in it today with his wife, British Queen & Slim actor Ms Jodie Turner-Smith, and their 15-month-old daughter.
“My father unfortunately was not a good father or a husband and exited the scene, but that house in Topanga was where everything felt simple, so it was a very healing thing for me to do,” he says. Fast-forward to 2021 and his baby daughter now sleeps in her father’s childhood bedroom. “There was a mural of a dragon on the wall in that room that I couldn’t believe was still there, years later. The owner [who sold him the house] said, ‘I knew it meant a lot to somebody and that they were going to come back for it some day.’”
Becoming a first-time parent during a pandemic sounds stressful, but it afforded Jackson months at home with his wife and child that his normal work schedule wouldn’t have allowed.
“I now recognise how perverse the way that we have set up our society is,” he says. “There is not a father I know who works a regular job who didn’t go back to the office a week later. It’s robbing that man of the opportunity to bond with his child and spend time with his partner.”
Despite his obvious career ambitions, fatherhood has changed Jackson’s priorities in “every possible way”, he says. “It’s 100 per cent changed how I approach my work and my life. That has been made so clear to me in this past year. For me to feel good about what I’m doing day to day, my family has to be the central focus.
“There are plenty of things left for me to do, but now the thing that gets me excited is experiencing the world through my daughter’s eyes. I can’t wait to take her scuba diving. I can’t wait to take her skiing. I can’t wait to read a great book with her. I’m not worried at all she’ll be a wallflower. She’s been a character from the word go.”
Jackson met Turner-Smith, 34, two days after his 40th birthday. He had been single since his 10-year relationship with German actress Ms Diane Kruger ended in 2016. “I was not looking to fall in love again or meet the mother of my child, but life has other plans for you,” he says.
The couple met at a party. Turner-Smith was wearing the same The Future Is Female Ejaculation T-shirt Ms Tessa Thompson’s character, Detroit, wears in the 2018 film Sorry To Bother You. “That’s what I used to break the ice. I shouted, ‘Detroit!’ across the room. Not the smoothest thing I’ve ever done, but it worked. We were pretty much inseparable from the word go. It was a whirlwind romance and I can tell my daughter I literally saw her mother across a room and thought, ‘I have to be next to this woman.’”
“I had to grow up a little bit. We are very much raised in Canada to never, ever show off, so it took me a while to recognise it’s OK to look good when you go out”
A self-confessed “useless” shopper, Jackson gives his wife full credit for his current wardrobe. He is jewellery-free, apart from a wedding band and a gold signet “JJ” ring on his little finger (a present from his wife), and discovered tailored sweatsuits (by Stampd and Reigning Champ) in the pandemic.
“Jodie has influence in the way that a wonderful wife encourages you, through love, to dress well. She was like, ‘We’re going to throw away all the sweatpants from your past and I’m going to get you some that actually make you look like an adult male and you will still feel comfortable around the house,’ and I’m like, ‘What an amazing idea!’ Who knew you could get sweatsuits that actually look good on your body?”
Jackson’s style has evolved, he says, “from slovenly teen to it’s-nice-when-your-clothes-actually-fit-you”. The penny dropped after he auditioned for his former co-star Estevez, who was directing the 2006 Mr Robert Kennedy biopic Bobby. He said to me, ‘You only got this job because I know you. You came in here to play a very well-put together 1960s political operative and you’re wearing jeans and a hoodie.’
“I had to grow up a little bit. We are very much raised in Canada to never, ever show off, so it took me a while to recognise it’s OK to look good when you go out.”
Still, when you’ve grown up in front of the camera, “every pimple literally documented”, and lived (very successfully) to tell the tale, you can probably be forgiven for the odd fashion faux pas.
“I wore a silk Ascot to an event once in Paris and I still have nightmares about it,” he says. “I looked like Fred from Scooby Doo, but you live and learn.”
Dr Death is out now on Peacock (US) and 12 September on StarzPlay (UK)