Kaitlyn Dever On Her Striking New TV Series Laying The American Opioid Crisis Bare

A new series explores how Big Pharma’s lies and manipulation got America addicted to legal drugs. The 'Dopesick' star explains all to Karl Puschmann

Kaitlyn Dever. Photo / Getty Images

The premise behind Kaitlyn Dever’s new premium series Dopesick sounds like the kind of thing a person with wild eyes and a tinfoil hat perched on their head might shout at you as you strolled down the high street: Big Pharma is turning people into drug addicts by selling non-addictive pain medicine knowing full well that it’s 100 per cent addictive.

It sounds too crazy to be true. There are checks and balances, hoops to jump through, government approvals to obtain and all sorts of bureaucracy to work through before a medicine can be prescribed to the general public. A blatant lie of that magnitude would get busted almost immediately, right?
Wrong.

“We uncover a lot in this show, all of the lies and manipulation that was going on,” Kaitlyn says of Dopesick which includes cast members Michael Keaton and Will Poulter.

“The main thing is that they were essentially selling people on the fact that it was a non-addictive drug when it clearly wasn’t. That’s just the most infuriating thing.”

The drug in question is OxyContin, aka Oxy, which is prescribed to treat chronic pain. It was developed by Purdue Pharma, a huge pharmaceutical company founded and owned by the American Sackler family.

Upon its release in 1996, Purdue Pharma spent millions of dollars aggressively marketing the benefits of the opioid to doctors and the public advising that Oxy was a safe, effective and, importantly, non-addictive pain treatment.

That was a lie, but their huge spending worked. Doctors began prescribing Oxy for all manner of pains, inadvertently creating hundreds of thousands of drug addicts in the process. These legal prescriptions kickstarted America’s opioid epidemic, which has ruined countless lives and is still responsible for nearly 50,000 deaths a year in the country.

“Overdose deaths were at their highest number in 2020. Seventy-five per cent of those were caused by opioids. Just in 2020! That really gives you an idea that this is still very much an issue and is still very much going on,” Kaitlyn explains.

“Hopefully with this show we can create some change. There’s so much that was infuriating to me when I was reading the [scripts of the] episodes. It made me very, very angry.”

Watching Dopesick elicits that same reaction. It’s impossible to not feel your blood boil as you see the bigwigs at Purdue Pharma ruthlessly put profits over people as they cheat their way through the system, blatantly deceive doctors and push their drug out into the world.

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You also can’t help but feel for people like Kaitlyn’s character, Betsy, a young coal miner working in a small blue-collar town. While a fictional character, she’s nevertheless an amalgamation of people that Purdue shamelessly targeted with Oxy and a portrayal of the average American who woke up one day and, through no fault of their own, found themselves a drug addict.

“It was a role that I wanted so badly. My immediate reaction was, ‘I have to be a part of this, if they’ll let me,’” she says. “But when you’re given that opportunity the first thought I had was, ‘I literally have to give my everything to this role.’ It’s so valuable and [Betsy] represents so many victims. I put that pressure on myself because it’s so much bigger than me. I had to almost forget about how I felt some days. If it was an exhausting, emotional day I was constantly reminding myself of the fact that whatever I’m going through right now is nothing in comparison to what real victims go through.”

She says many aspects of Betsy’s character appealed to her, like that she was dedicated to her work in the coal mine and that she’s an example of queer representation in a major series. But mostly it was the character’s strength.

“She has so much resilience in her story and her journey, I find it very inspiring and I knew she’d be inspiring for many people watching,” she says.

It was a very taxing role to take on. “I do take some of it with me. I think I subconsciously do — and don’t even realise it — but it feels worth it. Doing these projects and taking that emotion with you for a little bit, I think it’s okay.”

Not that you can tell, but Dopesick was filmed during America’s lockdown, and her audition for Betsy was one of the first roles she went for in the pandemic. She says it changed her outlook and led to a realisation.

“Looking back on 2021, I’m so grateful that I was able to work as much as I did. I also had a lot of family time. I think I realised that I want to get as much family time as I possibly can in my life. It’s ultimately the most important thing,” she smiles.

“And because I genuinely love my job so much I want to focus on continuing to find projects that I’m really passionate about, that speak on social issues, and finding characters for myself that are strong female characters. Yeah.”

‘Dopesick’ is streaming on Star on Disney+ from today, Friday November 12.

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