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'Dopesick' makes opioid addiction understandable, says Michael Keaton

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The Journal’s Bruce Miller talks with actors Phillipa Soo and Will Poulter about their roles in the upcoming Hulu limited series “Dopesick” premiering Oct. 13, 2021.

When Michael Keaton read the script for “Dopesick,” a new Hulu series about the opioid crisis, the words just jumped off the page.

“When you read something that’s good, it gets real clear, real quick,” he says. Never mind that it’s made for television. “It’s 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 develop it over time.”

In the miniseries, Keaton plays a physician who prescribes OxyContin for his patients to help them control pain. This character is an amalgam of three doctors, according to Producer Danny Strong. Combining their stories into one “tells a much truer story because it’s a more universal story.”

Strong, who created the series based on the book, “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America,” by Beth Macy, spent a year researching and writing the first episode, then spent another two years pulling together the rest of the stories.

Like Keaton’s character, Kaitlyn Dever’s is a composite. She plays a coal miner who gets a back injury and is prescribed OxyContin to help her bear the pain. “She is completely unprepared for what is to come in her life and ends up suffering and has no control over it,” she says. “It’s a very devastating and heartbreaking role.”

The miniseries details how manufacturers drove sales by pushing reps to emphasize aspects that weren’t supported by research. To boost sales, those reps told physicians they could double the dose without adverse effects. Addictions became common; investigators started moving in.

In the series, Strong shows how authorities tracked prescribing traits and found where some of the opioid hot spots appeared to be.

“I felt as if one story wasn’t the full story,” Strong says. “It didn’t feel like it was as comprehensive or as profound. 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.”

In “Dopesick,” Strong shows pharmaceutical reps courting doctors just to get them to prescribe OxyContin. Then, he flashes to company meetings where they talk about the profits that are possible if the doses are doubled.

Rosario Dawson, who plays one of the government officials hoping to crack down on the manufacturer, says she was on the edge of her seat when she watched the first three episodes, even though she knew what was going to happen. “It’s so compelling,” she says. Dever’s character was particularly affecting.

The pain chart many hospitals use, for example, got its start during the early days of OxyContin. Raising pain treatment to a “patients’ rights” issue, a study concluded, could lead to an over-reliance on opioids.

Hospitals now, Dawson says, have changed the way they talk about pain and the way they prescribe to manage it.

“But we don’t really know the players and the things behind it and how,” she says. “Being able to story-tell that back to people is going to empower them, hopefully, to make better decisions going forward.”

Keaton says “Dopesick” has a much larger canvas and a bigger story to tell than even “Clean and Sober,” a film he did about addiction.

“The stigma has changed about addiction in general,” he says. “I kind of thought, ‘Well, I played that one time.’ And then, this came up. The information that’s out there now is greater.”

“Dopesick” airs on Hulu.

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