Hulu’s limited series Dopesick, centered on the opioid epidemic in America and the pharmaceutical companies behind it, made a splash on the morning of the Emmys nominations announcement when it picked up six noms, including for outstanding limited series and lead actor. For THR Presents, powered by Vision Media, creator Danny Strong, writer and executive producer Beth Macy and cast members Katelyn Dever and Peter Sarsgaard (all of whom are Emmy nominees this year) spoke about the production and reception of this gargantuan project.
Strong, a previous Emmy winner for writing and producing 2012’s Game Change, was approached to tackle this story of the opioid crisis by fellow producer John Goldwyn. “I started researching it — there have been a number of articles written on it, a big New Yorker profile,” he recalls. “Once I started dipping my toe in the water, it goes from, like, a swimming pool to a black hole that you can never get out of. The story is so disturbing, and the information — it just keeps going and going and going. You just can’t believe what this company did, and how they got away with it, and how they got away with it for so long.”
Eventually, Strong would cross paths with journalist and author Beth Macy, who had written the nonfiction book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, which would become the source material for Strong’s television adaptation. “I read her book and thought it was just absolutely beautiful,” explains Strong. “We met, and she really wanted to be in the writers’ room. I thought, ‘Wow, having an expert on the opioid crisis in the writers’ room. That sounds pretty good to me.’ So then we teamed up and that was how it all began. It really stemmed from shock, horror and rage at the actions of Purdue Pharma and how their allies had created so much destruction across the country for so few people to profit.”
“I really liked his vision for it,” adds Macy. “He’s taking this really dark story, almost dystopian, and he’s casting it in such a way that it’s entertaining, but also, it’s a super complicated story that he manages to winnow down into eight hours of really riveting TV.” Macy had a few goals entering the project, namely: “That we not stereotype Appalachia, but most importantly that we show the viewer how hard it is for folks to access treatment. So that’s why you see the great Michael Keaton having trouble getting on methadone, having trouble getting on buprenorphine. [My goal was] if the reader can leave the show and understand that it’s not the fault of the folks that got addicted, many of them initially overprescribed because of produced lies, and that we’ve been blaming the wrong people, and that we really need to extend grace and treatment to the folks who were targeted by Purdue.”
Dever was taken with her character, Betsy, a composite of the countless real people affected by Purdue Pharma’s corruption, from her first read of the script. “I connected with her in such a deep way that I was so grateful to Danny for allowing me to take that kind of role on,” she explains. “But I immediately felt the pressure of that, because she is a composite character of the millions of people affected by the opioid crisis, and her journey is so up and down and heartbreaking — getting to play her has been truly one of the greatest honors of my life.” She emphasizes the passion for getting this story right that she shared with all of the cast and crew: “When we were on set our crew was coming up to me, basically thanking me for being a part of this, and being open and willing to share their own stories and how they relate to Betsy, which is so beautiful. It just was a constant reminder of why we came together in the first place to make this.”
Sarsgaard’s character, Rick Mountcastle, is based on a real character, unlike Dever’s. Mountcastle is a federal prosecutor with the Office of the Attorney General who aims to hold Purdue Pharma accountable for their corrupt actions surrounding the distribution of OxyContin. “I’m not used to playing people that are so dedicated to a higher cause, and in service of something bigger than themselves,” Sarsgaard says. “It was a real honor to do that. But I didn’t even meet Rick before we started, because I’ve played a number of characters that were based off real people, and I’ve even had it where the person I was playing was on set while I was playing them. In a way, if I get too involved with them beforehand, I feel like I start worrying about them and dedicating too much of my performance to pleasing them. Really, I just followed what was on the page.”
The story of Purdue Pharma is one of such enormous scope, narrowing it down to a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end presented an interesting challenge for Dopesick’s creators. “When I started working on this in 2018, there was a sense that Purdue Pharma had basically gotten away with it. And they were just making more money, more money, more money, and that there wasn’t a reckoning for them,” Strong explains. “That reckoning started happening over the course of the few years when I was writing, and although we certainly haven’t had a full reckoning whatsoever, nonetheless, it became a nonstop news story, particularly in the last year of the process. One of the ways that we avoided having to be so concerned about what was happening day by day was the mere fact that the show basically ended in 2007. It was the origin story of the opioid crisis, and basically this phase one in which this crime had occurred, and there were two different sets of investigators, DOJ prosecutors and a DEA agent, that went after Purdue. But I still wanted to have this coda at the end of the last episode that would catch us up to what was happening, and literally that coda was changing every day. It was crazy because I had to lock picture, and I was still waiting on the results of the bankruptcy.”
Getting the story right and telling it authentically was crucial to the entire team: “Some of what we did is we hired an Appalachian consultant, a novelist named Robert Guy who’s written a ton about the opioid crisis in the same region,” explains Macy.
By the end of the production, Strong had been galvanized into activism around the issue, even penning an op-ed in that vein for THR. He explains: “I’ve worked on a lot of projects that I was so passionate abou t… but there was something about this story that I find so disturbing and upsetting on so many different levels, and when I realized I could execute it in a way that could work as mainstream entertainment, by making it a thriller and exciting, and that we could also then get the disturbing nature of what happened within that framework … That’s when I had this instant commitment to telling the story. I felt in some ways it was almost like an obligation to do this, because people didn’t understand what had happened here. We’re blaming the victims for what had occurred. And I thought we need to redefine that, we need for people to understand who the villains are and how these crimes were committed. Because they’re so shocking. And because they involved collusion with the highest levels of US government, the institutions that are supposed to protect us from criminals, like Purdue Pharma, in fact enabled Purdue Pharma. And then at the same time, the people that were the victims of Purdue were so stigmatized, and I had that bias as well. That’s how I viewed addiction, the way most people view addiction, before I dove in into this project, which is that it was a moral failure. It was people wanting to get high. I blamed people that were addicted for their addiction. When I came across the story and realized, ‘No, the opioid crisis, the heroin epidemic, 80% of those people started with prescription pain pills.’ That was, to me, such a tragedy.”
This edition of THR Presents is sponsored by Hulu.