Michael Keaton thought he knew, but realized that he really didn’t.
“The ease with which it became epidemic kind of knocked me out. It seemed almost too simple that this happened this way,” he says.
He’s talking about the how quickly the opioid epidemic took hold. “After you read Beth Macy’s
Now the Golden Globe-winning Keaton is starring in the eight-episode limited drama Dopesick, based on Macy’s tome Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America.
The through-line of the series examines how one company triggered the worst drug epidemic in American history. The series takes viewers to the epicenter of the country’s struggle with opioid addiction, from the boardrooms of Big Pharma, to a distressed Virginia mining community, to the hallways of the DEA.
Defying all the odds, individual heroes emerge as they work to take down the brazen corporate forces behind the national crisis.
The source material particularly covers the all-out marking campaign to push chemical company Purdue’s supposed miracle drug – the instant pain reliever OxyContin.
Purdue quickly grew Oxy into a billion-dollar drug based on the (false) idea that less than 1% of users would become addicted to the pills, which could make a pain sufferer’s life better in as little as 15 minutes.
Told over a period of ten years, the series highlights the Big Pharma scandal, covering the story not in a just in a clinic retelling, but by presenting the stories of various characters, some involved in selling the drug and others who ended up trapped in a vicious cycle after taking Oxy.
Created by Emmy and Golden Globe winner Danny Strong, the series also features Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Will Poulter, John Hoogenakker, with Kaitlyn Dever and Rosario Dawson.
Keaton portrays small-town physician Samuel Finnix, a trusted figure in the community who’s spent his life treating multiple generations of families. Went Finnix discovers the true danger of Oxycontin, he has to decide how to proceed professionally and personally given this knowledge.
Strong says that he essentially fell down a rabbit hole when he started researching the topic. “I just couldn’t believe what this company did and how they were able to keep doing it over and over and over for years no matter how they were exposed. And then when you find out the actual things they did, the very specifics — the lying, the manipulation, the influence peddling — it’s such a shocking story that I just like couldn’t get it out of my head.”
Adding to this, Dawson says, “I had family members and people in the community who I’ve seen suffer and whose lives have generationally been impacted from opioid addiction.”
Because of this, “It was extremely important to tell multiple angles of the story,” says Strong. “I really wanted to do something that felt like it was telling the totality of [it] because, you know, one story of a doctor or just one story of Purdue Pharma, it didn’t feel like it was as comprehensive or as profound as what happened, which was this unbelievable event. So, the whole intertwining storylines of covering these different bases – the U.S. attorney’s case, the DEA investigation, Purdue Pharma, this coal town – felt as if it [could] really work.”
He admits that he felt going about it this way, ‘could be really interesting or a total disaster,’ and that he was really nervous writing the initial pilot script, which included several time jumps.
“My main goal was to expose what happened, the crimes that were committed by Purdue Pharma, and then to dramatize, in real-time, their victims,” explains Strong. “I thought by going back and forth between the people that are suffering [to] the people that are making these decisions could really shine a lot on what they did and could also give a sense of empathy and understanding to people that are suffering from addiction.“
He says that it took him a year to research and write the pilot and then it took another two years of intensive work to get the series to air.
Playing a dogged DEA agent, Dawson says that the series is not only timely, but extremely universal, pointing out that, “This is affecting people across the world significantly. There’s just no denying how much more connected we all are to this story.”
Hoogenakker, who plays a federal agent, agrees, adding, “People fall prey to pill addiction, and it strikes you as surprising that this person could’ve been so weak.”
But, he says, this isn’t the whole story, that there’s so much more to how addiction occurs, particularly with regard to opioids. “You realize that [there] is a narrative that has been fed and propagated to all of us to protect these companies and to allow them to keep going. So much effort and so much money goes into allowing these companies to keep doing what they’re doing and to keep making money.”
Keaton says that his part of the series is set in an area that’s not too far from where he grew up, and that while he wasn’t necessarily seeking out work as a real-life character, he’s happy this is the way things worked out. “It’s satisfying because what I do for a living affords me an opportunity to possibly change things or affect people in some way. If you’re talking about [the films] Spotlight or Worth or 9/11, these things certainly get my attention.”
While he may have started out primarily working in film, Keaton says that TV has “pound for pound gotten so good over the last 10 years.”
He adds, “When you read something that’s good, it just jumps off the page. I do a lot of different things for different reasons. So, with that, I don’t think [I’m] ever going to go back to ‘I’m only a movie guy’ or ‘I’m only a theater guy’ or ‘I’m only this kind of guy.’”
He says that one big advantage to television is the ability to tell a complete story without the time restrictions of a film. “[It can be hard] to nail something in 90 minutes or two hours or two hours and 20 minutes. The beauty of television is you can drill down and you can develop it over time and that is an advantage.”
Strong agrees, saying, “Yeah, a limited series genre is a great space to work in because it’s still contained – there is an ending, but you get to spend much more time getting to the ending and you can really dig deep in just so many different areas that you couldn’t do [in a film]. So, the event-limited series, which has really taken off in the last few years, [is] an exciting space.”
First three episodes of ‘Dopesick’ premiere Wednesday, Oct. 13, on Hulu. New episodes will then be released weekly through Nov. 17.