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'Dopesick': Michael Keaton, Kaitlyn Dever on Hulu's heartbreaking tale of crippling addiction

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Spoiler alert: This story contains details from the first three episodes of "Dopesick," now streaming on Hulu.

"Dopesick" star Michael Keaton knows the heartbreak of addiction all too well. A nephew, also named Michael, died in 2016 following an accidental overdose of heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl. The loss was a source of motivation for the Oscar-nominated actor to join the adaption of Beth Macy's book of the same name that chronicles the country's opioid crisis and the irresponsible marketing of Purdue Pharma's addictive painkiller OxyContin.

"As I tell everyone, if the writing wasn't good and the quality of the people involved wasn't as high, I can't guarantee that I'd have done it, just based on losing Michael," says Keaton, 70.

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Michael Keaton stars in the adaptation of Beth Macy's book "Dopesick" as Dr. Samuel Finnix, a physician who is initially skeptical of Purdue Pharma's new painkiller OxyContin.
Michael Keaton stars in the adaptation of Beth Macy's book "Dopesick" as Dr. Samuel Finnix, a physician who is initially skeptical of Purdue Pharma's new painkiller OxyContin.

In the eight-part series created by Danny Strong (first three episodes now streaming on Hulu, then weekly on Wednesdays), Keaton plays Dr. Samuel Finnix, the caring physician in a small Appalachian mining town.

Kaitlyn Dever plays Betsy Mallum, a closeted miner whom Dr. Finnix prescribes OxyContin to in good faith, trusting the misinformation Purdue Pharma and reps were spewing, mainly that the drug was safe and that fewer than 1% of patients became addicted. Peter Sarsgaard, as U.S. attorney Rick Mountcastle, and Rosario Dawson, as DEA agent Bridget Meyer, attempt to quell the crisis and hold Purdue accountable. Michael Stuhlbarg portrays Richard Sackler, former Purdue Pharma president, who champions the drug.

Finnix's storyline threw Keaton, who joined the series after reading the pilot script and a draft of another episode or two: "I didn't really see where the character was headed." But "by that time, I was all in and I thought, 'Oh boy, I got my work cut out for me in this one.'"

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The series opens in 1986, when Sackler expresses his desire to create an opioid designed for long-term use to treat moderate pain. When a colleague objects, predicting physicians would never prescribe an opioid for continuing pain. Richard's uncle Arthur responds, "You don't chase a market. You create it."

And create it they did. The series spans decades, depicting the drug's rise and fall. Sales reps bribe receptionists and take physicians to nice dinners to persuade them to prescribe Oxy.

Finnix, convinced the drug is safe, prescribes it to Betsy after she injures her back on the job. Sackler, convinced he'd created "the greatest painkiller in the history of human civilization," longs to "figure out a medical condition that would require an OxyContin patient to double their dose." Thus, a condition dubbed "breakthrough pain" is born, describing discomfort experienced before the end of a 12-hour dose.

Betsy becomes dependent on the drug. "I don't understand what's happening to me," she says, teeth chattering in a hospital.

Following a car accident that lands him in the hospital, Finnix is also prescribed Oxy.

Kaitlyn Dever's Betsy is prescribed OxyContin after she is injured while working in a mine.
Kaitlyn Dever's Betsy is prescribed OxyContin after she is injured while working in a mine.

Dever, 24, who starred in Tim Allen sitcom "Last Man Standing" before breaking out in "Booksmart" and earning a Golden Globe nod for her performance as a rape survivor in Netflix's "Unbelievable," says Keaton delivers in "Dopesick." She calls her co-star a "bucket list actor" and says his 1998 film "Jack Frost," in which he plays a deceased father who returns to his son in the form of a snowman, "truly shaped" her.

"I just really admire him so much," Dever says. "When I had my first scene with Michael, I had to catch myself a bunch because I realized that all of a sudden I was, like, Kaitlyn watching Michael.

"I was truly mind-blown by what he does. Because when you're with him, and when you're watching him, and when you're doing a scene with him, you can't believe anything else other than what he's saying, and that's how good he is. He is so real, and he is so honest, and I think he is the perfect person to play this this role."

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Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton) pays a home visit to his patient Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever) in the Hulu limited series "Dopesick."
Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton) pays a home visit to his patient Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever) in the Hulu limited series "Dopesick."

Dever's Betsy unravels as she becomes addicted to Oxy, which had no intentions of abusing.

"It's an arc of resilience and a lot of pain and a lot of suffering," she says of her character's journey. "We begin with her in this world that she loves so much: She loves being a miner, and she loves her girlfriend. She has plans to move away and start a life with her, and she has big dreams and big hopes. And she has a little setback, and she thinks that she's getting medicine to make her feel better, and then it just truly all goes downhill from there.

"What happens to her is very unexpected and so out of her control," Dever adds. "It is definitely a tragic and heartbreaking story, but I think her arc is a really, really powerful one, and I hope that people, when they watch it, that it'll just be eye-opening, or that they'll be able to better understand what addiction does and what effect it has on people."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hulu's 'Dopesick': Michael Keaton, Kaitlyn Dever on tale of addiction