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home bird Joshua Jackson 'was always running around with the neighbourhood kids’ in Ballyfermot

He burst on to our screens as lovable Pacey in Dawson’s Creek, now Joshua Jackson is taking a darker turn in new series Dr Death. The new dad opens up about how his Irish mum and acting saved him — and why he’s considering moving his family to Ireland

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Actor Joshua Jackson. Photo: George Pimentel/Shutterstock

Actor Joshua Jackson. Photo: George Pimentel/Shutterstock

Jackson as Dr Christopher Duntsch in Dr Death

Jackson as Dr Christopher Duntsch in Dr Death

Joshua Jackson and Jodie Turner-Smith. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

Joshua Jackson and Jodie Turner-Smith. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

Joshua and his Irish mum, Fiona. Photo: Bruce Glikas/WireImage

Joshua and his Irish mum, Fiona. Photo: Bruce Glikas/WireImage

The cast of Dawson's Creek

The cast of Dawson's Creek

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Actor Joshua Jackson. Photo: George Pimentel/Shutterstock

It was during a childhood visit to his granny’s house in Dublin’s Ballyfermot that Joshua Jackson smoked his first cigarette.

“My memories of those visits to Ballyfermot are quite sweet really,” the Dawson’s Creek actor recalls. “I was always running around with the neighbourhood kids, getting into trouble. Not bad trouble, just little-kid trouble. Although, technically it’s where I smoked my first cigarette, so that in itself isn’t the sweetest memory.”

Jackson’s handsome face surges with deep laughter lines and quiet dimples at the mention of mum Fiona’s home turf. “She might prefer I’d say she was from Chapelizod”, he jokes, before proudly pinning his mum’s allegiance to “Ballyer”.

Was the young Canadian treated like a shiny, exotic object by the local kids? “I was a bit, but I became less exotic the older I got. Culturally, I was so far away from an Irish kid but in a little pack of children, everyone finds their level. It also helped that I had my own cousins, my own blood, around with us. I had that family connection so I never felt too exoticised.”

An entry on his IMDb profile suggests his late grandparents Rosemary and Patrick were opera singers in Dublin, indicating that performance runs in the genes. The actor seems unaware. “Mum tells me they used to sing to each other a lot. My grandparents lived in council housing with a little kitchen out the back, garden right outside, and they would sing to each other through the window as he was out pottering about while she was cooking.

“But he was known more as a snooker shark around Ballyfermot. And my grandmother, she was known as a sainted mother of seven.”

Having welcomed his first child, Janie, with his wife, the actor Jodie Turner-Smith, last year, it’s obvious family is paramount for 43-year-old Jackson, as he Zoom-calls from a rich hotel suite with dark wallpaper and plump cushions in the background. It stems from an evident bond with his mum, whose presence lovingly peppers our conversation. Just 16 when she left Dublin, Fiona Jackson travelled through Paris, Amsterdam and Geneva before embracing the vibrancy of London’s Swinging Sixties and ultimately making for Vancouver in her early twenties.

In an entry on her blog, she speaks of falling for “the spectacular beauty of snow-capped mountains and the Pacific Ocean” and ultimately scoring an entry-level position at a Canadian talent agency. It led to a career as a successful casting agent, working on film classics including Carnal Knowledge with Jack Nicholson and McCabe & Mrs Miller with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.

She met and married Joshua’s father, John Carter, and the young family moved to Los Angeles. Sister Aisleagh was born shortly before John walked out on the family, leaving a profound effect.

“My father, unfortunately, was not a good father or husband and exited the scene,” the actor disclosed last year, before adding it’s something he “will never get over”.

Young infants in tow, Fiona returned to Vancouver and, having found early success in casting, helped contribute to the foundation of the burgeoning “Hollywood North” industry on the Canadian west coast.

Accompanying his mum on set, young Joshua’s interests were piqued. “She introduced me to this world and saw from a young age that I enjoyed performing in a way that kids do. She allowed me the opportunity to step into her work world, but it was also very clear that it was work.”

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Joshua and his Irish mum, Fiona. Photo: Bruce Glikas/WireImage

Joshua and his Irish mum, Fiona. Photo: Bruce Glikas/WireImage

Joshua and his Irish mum, Fiona. Photo: Bruce Glikas/WireImage

He appeared as an extra on MacGyver and as a child actor’s double in The Fly II, and Fiona could see her son’s talent and genuine desire to impress. So she allowed him to audition. However, permission came with strict caveats.

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“I don’t think my mum would have ever put me anywhere near the entertainment industry if I didn’t have something to offer to it. And not just for myself; she’s a prideful woman and didn’t want to be embarrassed by her kid.”

Casting 1991 melodrama Crooked Hearts with ER’s Noah Wyle, Fiona gave Joshua a chance to shine. Impressing the filmmakers, the then-12-year-old secured the part, setting him not only on a path to stardom but away from the troubles of his teen years.

“My mother gave me the guard rails I needed at that time and also recognised, being a working single mum and with me a young boy, transitioning into a teenager, I needed structure in my life. I needed something that I was passionate about and had a respect for, because I was kind of a typical teenage disaster.

“I look back on those times in my life and the two parallel tracks I was running on. On the one hand, getting into all sorts of trouble and, on the other hand, my professional life, where I showed up and learned my lines and did my job in order to be respected by the adults I was around. If I hadn’t had that professional side of my life, the other side would have taken over, and Mum saw that. Who knows where I would have ended up?”

So Jackson was a full-on teen delinquent? “Yeah, I was, to a certain extent. It was relatively innocent — nobody died — but I was a teenage boy who didn’t have a father in the home, didn’t have a man to be scared of, frankly, and as a teenage boy, I think that helps. My mum had to work and she wasn’t always in the house so I learned to get into more and more trouble. I got into just enough trouble to have a good time and learn some lessons but if I hadn’t had my work life, I might have tipped over into the kind of trouble that you don’t come back from.”

Three decades in and Jackson remains one of the hardest-working, most recognisable actors in the game. Hitting pay dirt at 18 as Dawson’s Creek’s Pacey Witter — the wisecracking, teacher-bedding antithesis to James Van Der Beek’s beleaguered titular drip — the actor was a revelation: the soul and bite of a seasoned character performer in the guise of relatable poster-boy idol.

Teens swooned, so did the industry, and alongside Van Der Beek, Michelle Williams and Katie Holmes, Jackson had Hollywood at his feet.

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The cast of Dawson's Creek

The cast of Dawson's Creek

The cast of Dawson's Creek

A string of popcorn offerings followed — Cruel Intentions, Gossip, Shutter, Cursed — some quality, others derivative, with the small screen ultimately best utilising his skills. A five-season run on sci-fi series Fringe was followed by an outstanding turn on Showtime’s The Affair. Last year, he maintained a brooding presence opposite Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington in Little Fires Everywhere. And this year, he takes on arguably his darkest work yet in Dr Death.

The new miniseries is based on the non-fiction podcast of the same name, and Jackson portrays Christopher Duntsch, a former spinal surgeon who maimed 33 patients owing to gross malpractice while operating in hospitals in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. Two of these patients lost their lives. Convicted in 2017, Duntsch is currently in prison and serving life imprisonment. He still maintains his innocence, with his defence arguing that he was merely a bad surgeon, not a criminal.

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Jackson as Dr Christopher Duntsch in Dr Death

Jackson as Dr Christopher Duntsch in Dr Death

Jackson as Dr Christopher Duntsch in Dr Death

Exuding a simmering malevolence, the actor showcases Duntsch’s disturbing complexities and terrifying behaviour as a narcissist and sociopath with a keen insight. Did Jackson meet with Duntsch? “I wanted to, but that was going to be really difficult because he’s appealing his case and his lawyers would’ve advised against it. And as I got deeper into the materials and podcast, and got a better understanding of the man, I don’t think it would’ve helped because he still really believes he’s the victim of his own patients, and the lawyers and the legal system. I’m not sure asking a liar for the truth gets you any closer to the truth.”

When it came to the victims, Jackson wanted to maintain a respectful distance. “I didn’t need to drag them through those awful memories again and I’m always a little dubious about asking people to delve into the worst moments of their life just to satisfy my curiosity. The questions had already been asked thanks to the podcast.”

Dr Death came at the right time in the actor’s life. New baby daughter Janie offered a crucial respite from the intense, and often dark, six-month foray into Duntsch’s malignant psyche.

“Inhabiting Mr Duntsch was an ugly space to live in for six months. If I’d been coming home to an empty house every night, it would have been a pretty bleak existence. It was so much better to come back to a loving home. My one-year-old doesn’t give a damn what I was doing that day. She just wants to be loved and hugged and cuddled, and it was the perfect antidote when some days were particularly heavy.”

Recently Jackson confessed that the Dawson’s Creek cast won’t be returning for a retrospective reunion like the Friends stars did earlier this year. “If you put our mid-forties selves together on a couch now, with our creaking backs, it might shock people.”

Quizzed on an actual reboot of the drama, Joshua reckons he’s simply too old to replicate the iconic rapid exchanges of dialogue between the garrulous young characters. “We were like The West Wing for teenagers,” he laughs, referencing Aaron Sorkin’s hit political TV series, also infamous for speedy script delivery. “My 43-year-old brain couldn’t do a show at that pace. Back then, we were doing seven, 10 pages a day and, to deliver dialogue at that speed, you have to have a certain mental capacity for that, and I don’t have it anymore. That’s the real reason why we’re not doing a reunion — I’ve become too dumb to keep up with that script.”

He remains in touch with his DC co-stars, including Holmes, his one-time girlfriend of two years. There’s even a text chain. “It goes through spurts every once in a while. I’ll have a bunch of messages on it and then it’ll go dormant. We’re like college friends — there are moments we’re all in contact and then long, fallow periods as we get on with our lives.”

While maintaining a busy slate, Jackson’s overwhelming purpose continues to circle the women in his life. Turner-Smith is currently shooting a new movie with Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, so he’s assuming full-time dad duties. It’s an equitable arrangement given the flexible needs of their individual commitments, and one he appears content with.

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Joshua Jackson and Jodie Turner-Smith. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

Joshua Jackson and Jodie Turner-Smith. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

Joshua Jackson and Jodie Turner-Smith. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

They’re based in America for now but, considering the turbulent societal climate, he admits that could change, citing the recent passing of medieval laws on women’s rights in Texas. “They’ve basically put out bounties on those who want to control their own reproductive freedoms. I’m the son of a single mum, who’s a feminist, and I’m a feminist. I believe my mum’s right to choose her path in life is instrumental in my right to choose mine. A woman’s bodily autonomy is very important to me.”

In the lead-up to the 2018 referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment, which restricted Irish women’s reproductive rights, Jackson took to Instagram with a post declaring, “I stand with the women of Ireland.” With the legislation now passed to allow abortions, Jackson says this increasing liberalisation of Irish society — including the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2015 — has made his mother’s homeland an attractive relocation prospect.

“We’ve seriously spoken about it, for a number of reasons. My wife did a show there a few years ago and fell in love with the place, so she’s on board. And actually, I’ve never done a job there... how’d that happen?”

The move might push things in the right direction, I suggest. “I hope so. If anyone’s looking, I’m here. I’m free.”

‘Dr Death’ airs Sundays on STARZPLAY.

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