Warning: This article contains spoilers for the Dopesick finale.
Throughout its eight episodes, Dopesick chronicled the start of the opioid epidemic by telling a number of different stories. The series (streaming now Hulu) followed everyone from the Sackler family that founded Purdue Pharma to Michael Keaton's small-town Virginia doctor who prescribed OxyContin to his patients (and even became addicted himself). One of the other key players in the story — and a link between Purdue and Keaton's Dr. Finnix — was Billy (Will Poulter), a medical sales rep. Specifically, Billy was the rep who first sold OxyContin to Dr. Finnix and assured him it was non-addictive (because he'd been promised the same).
In the finale, we watched as Billy slowly realized what he had participated in. And in his final act on the show, he not only left Purdue behind but also played a key part in the first successful case brought against the Sackler family by sending the prosecution copies of the training tapes, which contained proof that the sales reps were told to lie to doctors.
EW spoke with Poulter about his journey on the show and Billy's good-guy ending.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you started this project, you didn't have all the scripts, correct? At what point did you know Billy's ending?
WILL POULTER: I was really fortunate in that, although I only had the one script, I got a chance to speak to [series creator] Danny [Strong] at length about the character's arc. It was really, really informative. Danny was encyclopedic when it came to not only knowledge about the opioid crisis, but all of these characters specifically. I think because he's an actor as well, he was able to offer an especially textured illustration of who Billy was and what he would look like over the course of the eight episodes. I really fell in love with his journey. It was full of gray zone and moral conundrums and will he, won't he. It was so enticing the way that he pitched it. The script surpassed my expectations.
Gene Page/Hulu Will Poulter on 'Dopesick'
Were you hoping that Billy would do the right thing and send in the tapes?
Yeah, I hoped so. I had faith in that, although I certainly didn't want to shy away from the fact that he was engaged in this really duplicitous, fraudulent business and was actively engaging in the bribery and the coercion that Purdue encouraged them to engage in. I didn't want to shy away from that, but certainly the fact that he does end up doing the right thing and he has this kind of moral reckoning was very important to me. I'm very grateful that it was there because of the amount of times I turned to Danny and said, "Oh my gosh. I can't say that. Is there any way you can turn it down?" The amount of times I just felt so ashamed of what I was saying to Finnix or anyone else that Billy lied to in the process. All of that, all of those ugly lumps and bumps are very important to explore and put on display, I think.
Speaking of your scenes with Finnix, I think one of the most devastating scenes of the series was when you visited him in rehab and he asked if you could get him pills.
Absolutely. Michael's awfully heartbreaking in that scene. I think what that speaks to is just how cruel the effects of this drug are on the minds of people who become victims to it. I think in the media and just generally, the prevailing narrative around addiction and addicts is an especially negative one because it seems to point to some kind of moral failing on the part of the person who's become an addict. What this show does is it tries to course-correct the narrative around the aligning of addicts and actually tries to point to the truth of the matter, which is that in the case of opioids and when we're talking about pain relief medication, many, many people are turning to these drugs for exactly that. For pain relief. In the case of OxyContin, a very dangerous and highly addictive narcotic that was quote non-addictive, and unfortunately promoted as such, people were trapped into taking something that they never ought to have been prescribed for moderate pain. What the drug does is it really hijacks people's brains, and they literally have their neurochemistry rewired by this drug. In that scene, you're seeing Finnix act entirely out of character. He no longer is the man that you saw in the first four episodes. He's been fundamentally changed by this drug. Understanding that and not seeing it as a moral failing on his part, I think, is very important and a sentiment that we try to extend to everyone who's become a victim of opioid abuse disorder.
We talk about Billy eventually doing the right thing, which is great. But in the larger scheme of this story, he is in many ways one of the bad guys. What did you do to get into that headspace?
Initially, I saw a kid who was coming into the sales force with noble and fairly honest intentions. He had ambitions to do well and succeed and make money for, ultimately, a benevolent cause. What was particularly interesting to me was to see the choices that he made in spite of the fact that he then learned that what he was doing was not so ethical, and to explore what kind of decisions he would take when presented with information to the contrary of what he first thought. Information that was an indictment of Purdue, of the fact that this was a fraudulent campaign, and of the fact that he was being encouraged and financially incentivized to have doctors prescribe this drug and sell more and more and more in spite of the emerging information that people were becoming addicted. That it was devastating communities. That it was associated with spikes in crime and infant neglect. That people were overdosing and dying. The fact that Purdue along the way was fabricating data to the country and hiding all of the information that was incriminated. It was interesting playing the different shades of gray in that respect.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.