Because of COVID-19, it been a long time… too long… since I have had the opportunity to conduct an in-person interview with actors and crew members, my favorite part of this gig. So I was super excited to get the opportunity to discuss Hulu’s upcoming series DOPESICK with members of the cast (Will Poulter, Peter Sarsgaard, and John Hoogenakker), showrunner/writer extraordinaire Danny Strong, and co-writer Beth Macy; Macy also wrote the book Dopesick in 2018, which the series is based on. I learned so much more about the nation’s opioid epidemic through this series, particularly OxyContin’s sinister beginnings under Purdue Pharma, and I was really interested in talking with the people behind DOPESICK to hear what brought them to the project, some of the biggest impacts the issue has had in their own lives, and the difficulties of filming such an important, location-driven series during a pandemic.
DOPESICK follows the cycle of OxyContin’s production and usage, beginning with the powerful Sackler family, led by Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg), and their company Purdue Pharma, who developed OxyContin to fill the gap left by MS Contin as its patent was about to expire. From there, we follow Purdue’s pharmaceutical reps Billy (Poulter) and Amber (Phillipa Soo), who are charged with selling the new drug in small towns, particularly the mining belt in West Virginia and Kentucky where many residents deal with pain from hard labor. This includes mineworker Betsy (Kaitlyn Dever) who is seeking pain relief from her doctor Sam Finnix (Michael Keaton). Finnix is leery to prescribe his patients opioids for moderate pain, but when he hears the FDA approved the claim that OxyContin is not addictive, he decides to let his patients give it a try. And finally, we have the U.S. attorneys Rick and Randy (Saarsgard and Hoogenakker) and DEA agent Meyer (Rosario Dawson), who realize the drug is addictive and are trying to curb the drug’s widespread carnage by utilizing the legal system.
When you read/hear about the opioid epidemic in the news, it seems like such a large, overwhelming issue that is too big to really wrap your mind around. DOPESICK does a tremendous job distilling the complicated and upsetting history of the crisis into a relatable, localized story. Strong explained, “If you had only shown one story, which was the original concept when John Goldwyn came to me with this idea about doing a movie on the Sackler family…when I started researching it I thought this is only one side of the story. What about the victims? You have to have the victims. Then there was this investigation and I thought, ‘How amazing that you can follow these prosecutors putting the case together.’ I quickly realized two hours wasn’t enough to tell something grander that felt more like the totality of what happened. Granted, we don’t cover the totality of the opioid crisis, but we tell this wide swath of it, which gives you a fuller and more truthful look at what happened on so many different levels.”
Poulter described what drew him to the project, “I think when that script came my way, it was impossible to say no for the reason that the epidemic was still claiming so many lives. I think something like just something under 74% of all deaths by overdose were associated with opioids. And even though we were in the middle of a global pandemic, this epidemic was still causing so much devastation in its shadow. The writing of Danny Strong meant that he could put faces to all of these names and individuals, but also humanize each and every one of them, which was very important to understanding the psychology behind these different decisions and just how this epidemic unfolded.”
The opioid crisis hits especially close to home for Sarsgaard, who contributed to a docuseries in 2016 for EPIX on the opioid epidemic called AMERICA DIVIDED. “I went to Dayton, Ohio and that was a real eye-opener just because my own experience with it, with my relative… she wasn’t in an area that seemed it had been decimated [by the opioid crisis] in the same way that a lot of Dayton was. I went through neighborhoods in Dayton and it was unbelievable how brutalized the area had become.”
Macy, who has spent a good portion of her journalist career studying the effects of the opioid crisis on small communities, discussed the elements of her book that she really wanted to see incorporated in the series. “One of the things I really wanted to make sure we did was not stereotype Appalachia. I live on the outskirts of it and know a lot, but we brought someone from a small town in eastern Kentucky [Robert Gipe] who has written a lot about the opioid crisis to help us and make sure we got it right; he even injected some humor. And then I really wanted to get across the fact that these folks have been abandoned by every system imaginable to help them, whether it be their families, the medical system, the law enforcement system.”
Hoogenakker had a similar concern with conveying the truth behind some of the misconceptions surrounding the victims of the opioid crisis, “The idea that people who are given this drug because they trust their healthcare providers, who have trusted the FDA label… that these people who become addicted have been maligned. The storyline that was created and crafted by the drug companies was these ‘poor rednecks’ or ‘poor mountain folk’ were probably going to get addicted to something anyway because there were already incidents of pill abuse in the area. I think that is something that triggered the real life Rick and Randy to go after these companies—this feeling that you are maligning our communities that have been torn apart by this drug and we need to get to the bottom of this.”
The series’ timeline jumps back and forth as we see how the drug begins to ravage these salt of the earth American towns and I was interested to hear how these scenes were filmed from the acting perspective and whether COVID-19 affected the process. Sarsgaard explained, “Michael Keaton shot his whole part in like 6 weeks, so because he needed to shoot it like that due to other commitments, it made it so we had to do a little bit of this and jump to a little bit of that. But the whole thing was written before we started because of COVID. [Strong] was able to write it out, so when we started I had never been around a showrunner that was so relaxed.” Hoogenakker continued, “He was so prepared. That guy was an encyclopedia. We knew we could reach out to Beth as well, but Danny had every answer to every question right off the top of his brain.”
Strong may have had a different perspective than the actors, detailing the difficulty of filming this series during COVID-19, particularly due to the fact they were filming on-location in southern Virginia. I have heard many filmmakers and showrunners speak about the difficulties of filming in a COVID-19 environment, but I hadn’t considered some of the smaller things the production dealt with on a day-to-day basis, such as mask indentions in the faces of actors that Strong had to have CGI’ed out of the final cut. Strong knew the importance of not cutting corners to ensure the final product was era-appropriate and, being an actor himself, that the actors had a good clip for their reel.
The series pulls no punches when detailing the reported corrupt practices of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, so I was interested to know if there were any times that the the corporation tried to stop production and whether the cast or crew were hesitant in getting involved in such a contentious issue. “We got some letters disparaging some of my journalism,” Macy explained, “… and it can be intimidating. That is what those letters were meant to do; they were meant to intimidate us. But this show is so buttoned up. We had a writer in the room, Ben, who was massively fact-checking everything. The legal team fact-checked it. We feel really good about it.” From the acting side, Poulter said, “I trusted in the production and one of the things that Purdue and the Sacklers have weaponized is their wealth and the power of their influence. And they have intimidated people far too long. I think Danny probably told you this, but there is a sense that they got away with it. I think generally speaking people have to, where possible, not allow themselves to be intimidated by these individuals any longer… I am very lucky as an actor that, for a job that doesn’t often extend beyond the entertainment perimeter, that I could really help contribute to affecting some change and hopefully raising some critical awareness.”
With the legal cases against Purdue Pharma ongoing throughout the production process, I was interested in how these fluid developments in the story impacted the script. Strong explained they were, “constantly changing the script with new information and it usually wasn’t that we got something wrong but that we got a deeper understanding. In one case, we had a scene and Beth found the real life person and got her on the phone with us. It was an amazing interview and the scene changed a little bit, but the scene was fundamentally right. I took exact quotes from her and put it into the scene and it was great. She said something that was profound and I put it in verbatim. So stuff like that was happening frequently.”
DOPESICK is an enlightening series with powerhouse performances from an all-star cast. The series expertly takes such a widespread, convoluted crisis and distills it into a local story, enabling you to see the destruction ravage a small town and people who look just like your friends and neighbors. It challenges you to take a harder look at an issue that you may think you know, engenders more sympathy for the victims, and encourages increased advocacy to put a stop to this epidemic. The first three episodes of the eight episode series are now available on Hulu!