Against my better judgement, and at the risk of losing any semblance of journalistic objectivity, I start my conversation with Joshua Jackson by effusively telling him what a dream come true it is to be talking to him. See, like many millennial women who grew up watching the late ‘90s and early 2000s teen drama Dawson’s Creek, Jackson’s Pacey Witter means a lot to me. Pacey is one of the rare fictional teen boys of my youth whose adolescent charisma, romantic appeal, and general boyfriend aptitude hold up all these years later (unlike The O.C’s Seth Cohen or Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass) and that is due in large part to the wit, vulnerability, and care Jackson brought to the character.
It’s the same intention he’s afforded all of his famous roles — Peter Bishop in Fringe, Cole Lockhart in The Affair, and even as a 14-year-old in his first acting gig as sweet-faced heartthrob Charlie Conway in The Mighty Ducks. Now, Jackson, 43, has matured into a solid supporting actor (with memorable turns in Little Fires Everywhere and When They See Us) and as a leading man who can draw you into a story with just his voice (Jackson’s latest project is narrating the psychological thriller Oracle for Audible) or find humanity in the most sinister men (he’s currently playing a sociopath with a god complex in Dr. Death). His magnetic pull is as evident as it was when he was the guy you rooted for in a show named after another guy’s creek.
Jackson has never seemed to mind the fact that so many people still bring up Pacey decades later, and that’s part of why as an adult, he’s one of the few childhood crushes I still have on a pedestal.
I tell him just a tiny slice of this, and Jackson graciously sits up straighter and promises to bring his A-game to our Zoom exchange. Jackson is in what appears to be an office, flanked by mess, like a true work-from-home Dad. He and his wife, fellow actor Jodie Turner-Smith, welcomed a daughter in the early days of the pandemic in 2020, and he tells me that fatherhood and marriage are the best decisions he has ever made. Jackson and Turner-Smith are a rare Hollywood couple who choose to let us in on their love, but not obnoxiously — just through flirty Instagram comments and cheeky tweets. Their pairing is part of Jackson’s enduring appeal. It’s nice to think that Pacey Witter grew up to be a doting dad and adoring husband, even if his wife’s name is Jodie, not Joey.
I didn't get married until fairly late in the game. I didn't have a baby 'till very late in the game and they're the two best choices I've ever made in my life.
Jackson is an animated conversationalist, leaning into the camera to emphasize his points — especially when the topic of diversity comes up. White celebs don’t get asked about racism in Hollywood the way their counterparts of colour do, and when they do, they’re usually hesitant at best, and unequipped at worst, to tackle these conversations. Jackson is neither. He’s open, willing, and eager to discuss systemic inequality in the industry he’s grown up in. It’s the bare minimum a straight white man in Hollywood can do, and Jackson seems to know this.
When he ventures briefly into trying to explain to me, a Black woman, the perils of being Black, female, and online, he catches himself and jokes that of course, I don’t need him to tell me the racism that happens in the comment section of his wife’s Instagram. The self-deprecating delivery is one I’m familiar with from watching Jackson onscreen for most of my life, and seeing it in person (virtually) renders me almost unable to form sentences. Jackson’s charm is disarming, but his relaxed Canadian energy is so relatable, I manage to maintain my professionalism long enough to get through our conversation.
Refinery29: Your voice has been in my head for a few days because I've been listening to Oracle. What drew you to this project and especially the medium of audio storytelling?
Joshua Jackson: The book itself is such a page-turner. I also love the idea of those old radio plays. It's like a hybrid between the beauty of reading a book on the page where your imagination does all of it. We craft a little bit of the world, but because this is a noir thriller married with this metaphysical world, there's a lot of dark and creepy places that your imagination gets to fill in for yourself.
I'm noticing a trend in some of the roles you've been taking on lately, with this and Dr. Death, these stories are very dark and creepy. But so many people still think of you as Pacey Witter, or as Charlie Conway, the prototypical good guys of our youth. Are you deliberately trying to kill Pacey and Charlie?
JJ: I'm not trying to kill anybody — except on screen [laughs]. It's funny, I didn't really think of these two things as companion pieces, but I won't deny that there may be something subconscious in this anxiety, stress-filled year that we've all just had. That may be what I was trying to work out was some of that stress, because that's the beauty of my job. Instead of therapy, I just get someone to pay me to say somebody else's words. So, yeah, that could be a thing [but] the thought process that went into them both was very different. Even though this is a dark story, [lead character, police psychic] Nate Russo is still the hero. [Dr. Death’s] Christopher Duntsch very much is not at all. I can't pretend to know my own mind well enough to be able to tell you exactly how [these two roles] happened, but it happened.
That might be something that you should work through with an actual therapist.
JJ: Exactly. Yeah, maybe real therapy is on the docket for me [laughs].
So I was listening to Oracle and you're doing these various creepy voices — I’m sorry the word “creepy” keeps coming up.
JJ: Are you trying to tell me something? You know what? I wanted to skip straight to the creepy old man phase of my career. So, it sounds like I'm doing a good job.
You're doing amazing, sweetie [laughs]. So, I was thinking you must be really good at bedtime stories with your daughter doing all these voices. Or is she still too young for that?
JJ: No! She's all the way into books. Story time is my favorite part of the day because it gives me the opportunity to have that time with her just one-on-one. Her favorite book right now is a book called Bedtime Bonnet. Every night I bring out three books, and she gets to pick one. The other two shift a little bit, but Bedtime Bonnet is every single night.
I love that. Since you're married to a Black woman, you know a thing or two about bonnets.
JJ: Yeah, well I'm getting my bonnet education. And I'm getting my silk sheet education. I'm behind the curve, but I'm figuring it out [laughs].
I wanted to skip straight to the creepy old man phase of my career. So, it sounds like I'm doing a good job.
You said in an interview recently that you are now at the age where the best roles for men are. And I wonder if you can expand on that and whether you think of the fact that the same cannot be said for the majority of women actors in their 40s?
JJ: What's great about the age that I'm at now as a man is that, generally speaking, the characters — even if they're not the central character of this show — are well fleshed out. They're being written from a personal perspective, usually from a writer who has enough lived experience and wants to tell the story of a whole character. Whereas when you're younger — and obviously I was very lucky with some of the characters that I was able to play – you're the son or the boyfriend, or you're a very two-dimensional character. It's gotten better, but still a lot like you're either the precocious child or you're the brooding one.
I will say that while I would agree with you to a certain point for women, I think that this is probably the best era to be a not 25-year-old-woman in certainly the entirety of my career. And it is also the best time to be a Black woman inside of the industry. There's still more opportunity for a 40-year-old white man than there is for a 40-year-old white woman, but it is better now than it has ever been. The roles that women are able to inhabit and occupy and the opportunities that are out there have multiplied. If I started my career in playing two-dimensional roles to get the three-dimensional roles, most women started their career in three-dimensional roles and end up at “wife” or “mom.” And that's just not the case anymore. There's just a lot of broadly diverse stories being told that centre women. So you're right, but in the last five years, six years I would say, there has really been a pretty significant shift.
And I think that shift is happening because who's behind the camera is also changing.
JJ: Right? Who holds the purse strings. That's big. Who gets to green light the show to begin with? You have to have a variety of different faces inside of that room. And then, who's behind the camera. What is the actual perspective that we're telling the story from? The male gaze thing is very real. Dr. Death had three female directors. The central character of Dr. Death is an outrageously toxic male figure. Who knows more about toxic male BS than women? Particularly women who are in a predominantly male work environment. So these directors had a very specific take and came at it with a clarity that potentially a man wouldn't see, because we have blind spots about ourselves. We're in a space where there's a recognition that we've told a very narrow band of what's available in stories. There's so many stories to be told and it's okay for us to broaden out from another white cop.
I hope that momentum continues. Okay, I have to tell you something: I’m a little obsessed with your wife, Jodie Turner-Smith.
JJ: Me too.
As you should be! I love how loudly and publicly you both love on each other. But I need you to set the scene for me. When you are leaving flirty Instagram comments, and she's tweeting thirsty things about you, are you in the same room? Do you know that the other one is tweeting? What's happening?
JJ: We're rarely in the same room [writing] the thirsty comments because that usually just gets said to each other. But, look, if either of us misses a comment, you better believe at night, there's a, "Hey, did you see what I wrote?" One, she's very easy to love out loud and two, she's phenomenal. And I have to say, the love and support that is coming my direction has been a revelation in my life. I've said this often, and it just is the truth: If you ever needed to test whether or not you had chosen the right partner in life, just have a baby at the beginning of a pandemic and then spend a year and a half together. And then you know. And then you absolutely know. I didn't get married until fairly late in the game. I didn't have a baby till very late in the game and they're the two best choices I've ever made in my life.
I'm just going to embarrass you now by reading one of Jodie's thirsty comments to you. She tweeted, “Objectifying my husband on the internet is my kink. I thought you guys knew this by now,” with a gif that said "No shame."
JJ: [laughs] That sounds about right.
She's not the only one though. There's this whole thirst for Joshua Jackson corner of the internet. And it feels like there's been a bit of a heartthrob resurgence for you now at your big age. How do you feel about that?
JJ: I hadn't really put too much thought into it, but I am happy that my wife is thirsty for me.
What about the rest of us?
JJ: That's great for y'all, but it's most important that my wife is thirsty for me.
Good answer. You're good at this husband thing. You recently revealed that Jodie proposed to you. Then it became this big story, and people were so surprised by it. How did you feel about the response?
JJ: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to give context to this story. So I accidentally threw my wife under the bus because that story was told quickly and it didn't give the full context and holy Jesus, the internet is racist and misogynist.
So yes, we were in Nicaragua on a beautiful moonlit night, it could not possibly have been more romantic. And yes, my wife did propose to me and yes, I did say yes, but what I didn't say in that interview was there was a caveat, which is that I'm still old school enough that I said, "This is a yes, but you have to give me the opportunity [to do it too]." She has a biological father and a stepdad, who's the man who raised her. [I said], ‘You have to give me the opportunity to ask both of those men for your hand in marriage.’ And then, ‘I would like the opportunity to re-propose those to you and do it the old fashioned way down on bended knee.’ So, that's actually how the story ended up.
So, there were two proposals. I do feel like that is important context.
JJ: Yes, two proposals. And also for anybody who is freaked out by a woman claiming her own space, shut the fuck up. Good God, you cannot believe the things people were leaving my wife on Instagram. She did it. I said ‘yes.’ We're happy. That's it. That's all you need to know. That has been a real education for me as a white man, truly. The way people get in her comments and the ignorance and ugliness that comes her way is truly shocking. And it has been a necessary, but an unpleasant education in just the way people relate to Black bodies in general, but Black female bodies in specific. It is not okay. We have a long way to go.
Jodie is such an inspiration because it seems like she handles it in stride. She handles it all with humour and with grace.
JJ: She does. And look, I think it's like a golden cage, the concept of the strong Black woman. I would wish for my wife that she would not have to rise above with such amazing strength and grace, above the ugliness that people throw at her on a day to day. I am impressed with her that she does it, but I would wish that that would not be the armour that she has to put on every morning to just navigate being alive.
That's a word. That's a word, Joshua Jackson.
JJ: We started with bonnets, we ended at white supremacy [laughs].
For anybody who is freaked out by a woman claiming her own space, shut the fuck up.
The 13-year-old in me needs to ask this. We are in the era of reboots. If they touched Dawson's Creek — which is a masterpiece that should not be touched — but if they did, what would you want it to look like?
JJ: I think it should look a lot like it looked the first time. To me, what was great about that story was it was set in a not cool place. It wasn't New York, it wasn't LA, it wasn't London. It wasn't like these were kids who were on the cutting edge of culture, but they were kids just dealing with each other and they were also very smart and capable of expressing themselves.
It's something that I loved at that age performing it. And I think that is the reason it has lived on. We have these very reductive ideas of what you're capable of at 16, 17, 18. And my experience of myself at that point was not as a two-dimensional jock or nerd or pretty girl. You are living potentially an even more full life at that point because everything's just so heightened. [Dawson’s Creek] never talked down to the people that it was portraying.
That's one of the things that I loved about it as a book nerd growing up. The vocabulary of Dawson's Creek was always above my level and that was refreshing. To go back to the “diversity” conversation, you can't really make a show with six white leads anymore and that’s a good thing. But I also don't know how I feel about taking a thing, rebooting it, and just throwing Black characters in there.
JJ: I hear that. And there's certain contexts in which it doesn't work unless you're making it a thing about race, right? If you watch Bridgerton, obviously you're living inside of a fantasy world, and so you're bringing Black characters into this traditionally white space and what would historically be a white space. And now you are able to have a conversation about myth-making and inclusion and who gets to say what and who gets to act how. So that's interesting, but I don’t think you’re just throwing in a Black character if you changed Joey to a Black woman [or] Pacey to a Black man. What you're doing is you're enriching the character.
Let's say one of those characters is white and one of those characters is Black. Now, there's a whole rich conversation to be had between these two kids, the political times that we live in, the cultural flow that is going through all of us right now. I think that makes a better story. All these conversations around comic books in particular like, "Well, that's a white character." It's like, Man, shut up. What are you talking about? It is a comic book character! Joey and Pacey don't have to be white. Dawson and Jen don't have to be white. And this is what we were talking about a little bit earlier. We get better the broader our perspective is, both as humans, but also in the entertainment industry. So if you went back to a story like [Dawson’s Creek], what was important in that show was class not race, which I think is true for a lot of small Northeastern towns. They are very white. But if you brought race into that as well, you don't diminish the amount of the stories that you can tell. You enrich the tapestry of that show. So I think that would be a great idea.
Make Pacey Witter a Black man in 2021 is what I just heard from you.
JJ: Hashtag ‘Make Pacey Witter A Black Man’. There we go!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.