The Good Nurse: real-life medics cast in Eddie Redmayne film to add realism

An Oscar-nominated director has cast two dozen real-life medics in a film that stars Eddie Redmayne and is based on the true story of a nurse who murdered patients in his care.

Tobias Lindholm said he recruited nurses, doctors and paramedics to make the performances of his lead actors, Redmayne and Jessica Chastain, all the more “naturalistic”.

In the Netflix feature The Good Nurse, Redmayne plays Charles Cullen, who used intravenous tubes to poison patients with lethal drugs. Described as an “angel of death”, Cullen is believed to have killed up to 400 people during the 16 years he worked in nine hospitals across New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In 2006, he received 17 life sentences. Chastain depicts Amy Loughren, the fellow nurse who helped bring him to justice.

The Good Nurse is Lindholm’s first English-language feature film. Just as he recruited real-life soldiers for his movie A War, he wanted actual nurses and doctors for this production as they would know “how to move and react” in hospital rooms.

“Instead of hiring actors and training them to do so, we needed to surround our actors with the real McCoys … so that that could rub off on them and make their performances even more naturalistic,” he said, adding: “Actors are about communicating emotions. These real people … were able to be in the moment and do their job without telling us any other story. That’s quite different for an actor [who’s] always aware of [the] story.”

Lindholm singled out, for example, a scene in which Chastain’s character needed emergency medical help: “The nurses that we surrounded Jessica with in that scene are all real nurses. We did that because it looks easy when it’s done correctly, but they know how to do this, how to move around, when to move around … We needed Jessica to be the only one to … communicate emotions in that scene. The rest of them should basically just be fighting for [her] life. These people have done it so many times that for them, it’s like pressing ‘play’ and they just do it, which made Jessica stand out even more.”

While Covid-19 restrictions made filming in hospitals impossible, the medics helped the film-makers to recreate hospital sets with absolute accuracy.

Referring to the pandemic, Scott Franklin, one of the film’s producers, said: “It was also really important to us to get real nurses and real doctors, especially after everything they had just done. We really wanted to give back to that community and use as many of those people as we [could].”

He added that the medics welcomed the fact that the film was critical of the system, rather than individuals. “Cullen is one bad apple in a bunch of amazing, superhero, undervalued and under-appreciated people,” said Franklin.

Redmayne described the film as a “compelling insight” into a system that was broken. “There were things in it that I’ve found extraordinarily eye-opening, the first being that this was allowed to happen, and the second being an insight into what a nurse’s life is like and how one of the reasons this was allowed to happen is because it’s such a brutal, underpaid, under-respected, and understaffed job,” he said.

The Good Nurse premiered at the Toronto international film festival earlier this month, ahead of its cinematic release on 19 October and on Netflix worldwide on 26 October.

The screenplay, which was co-written with the Glaswegian writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is based on Charles Graeber’s book of the same title.