Sam Waterston on 'The Dropout' and 'Law & Order' Episode Inspired by Theranos (Exclusive)

'It's a very disturbing story,' Waterston tells ET.

This spring, Sam Waterston returned to TV in a big way. He’s not only reprising his role as District Attorney Jack McCoy on season 21 of Law & Order, but he’s also portraying former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz on The Dropout, a true-crime series depicting the rise and fall of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes

With the former notorious for ripping its stories from the headlines, Waterston says “it’s not surprising” that season 21 included an early episode loosely based on the real-life events surrounding Holmes’ medical technology startup. 

During episode three (“Impossible Dream”), the COO of the biotech company, Hythena, is found murdered in Central Park, leading the authorities to investigate his partner and CEO Nina Ellis (Rachelle Lefevre) and uncover a web of fraudulent practices within the business. It’s eventually revealed an ex-employee was trying to leak the truth about Hythena’s medical tests, which were fabricated by Ellis.

“Well, it’s a big deal, isn’t it? And Law & Order is always taking its subject matter from the front pages of the newspaper,” Waterston tells ET while at the 92Y for their recent Recanati-Kaplan Talks event. “So, it’s not surprising that they would do it. It’s also a very disturbing story about us now. So, it deserves our attention because we need to learn from it.” 


While the real story about Theranos doesn’t include murder, the episode does touch on the broader elements of what happened behind closed doors before Holmes’ deceit was exposed by the press. 

In the case of the medical company, once valued at $10 billion, Holmes, who has since been convicted on charges of fraud, wanted to create a groundbreaking home device that people could use to test their blood for all types of illnesses. Despite her attempts to revolutionize the healthcare industry, her Silicon Valley startup proved to be nothing more than a false promise that cost investors millions.

The Hulu scripted series adapted from an ABC News podcast by executive producer and showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether shows how Holmes convinced high-powered people to buy into her company despite not having a functioning or proven blood sampling device. That includes Shultz, a member of the board of directors who remained a staunch supporter despite mounting evidence that the company was a sham.  


It wasn’t until his grandson, Tyler (Dylan Minnette), who briefly worked at Theranos before being forced out raised concerns that Shultz even realized that there were problems within the company. But even then, Shultz told his grandson to keep quiet, not wanting to believe the truth at the time. All this is depicted in episode six (“Iron Sisters”), which shows Holmes’ intense control of the company starting to unravel.  

When it comes to being part of the series, Waterston says it was a chance to work with Amanda Seyfried. And he, like the rest of the cast, was floored by her portrayal of Holmes. “It was the first scene I was in with her and I thought I was talking to the person,” he recalls. While he has never met her real-life counterpart, he says his co-star was “completely convincing” in the part. 

As for stepping back onto the set of Law & Order, “it was really an extraordinary experience,” Waterston says. “It really was time travel. And the hairs on your arms stand on end, like, ‘Can this be happening, really?’ …It was great.” 

New episodes of The Dropout debut Thursdays on Hulu while Law & Order season 21 airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.