Michael Keaton is taking on a more formidable foe than the Joker in the 1989 film “Batman.”
Hulu’s “Dopesick” is an eight-episode limited series that depicts the rise and fall of the opioid epidemic, which has raved millions of Americans since a group of powerful painkillers became widely prescribed starting in the 1990s. The series from 20th Television and the Littlefield Co., is headlined by Keaton, who said he believes the series will enlighten viewers on the deadly epidemic.
“I think people are hipper and smarter about it now, but I think they’re gonna get even wiser,” Keaton told Variety on Monday at the “Dopesick” red carpet premiere held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “I definitely think it will enlighten some folks.”
Keaton plays Samuel Finnix, an old-school doctor from a small mining town in Virginia who begins prescribing his patients OxyContin to relieve pain.
“He’s a really decent human being and he carries you through the story,” Keaton said. “They put it on your back, and as an actor, you go, ‘alright, I got big shoulders.’”
Much of Keaton’s screentime is shared with Will Poulter, who plays a Purdue salesman who convinces Dr. Finnix that OxyConton is essentially “nonaddictive” by following the company’s emotionally manipulative approach.
“There was a culture of deceit, bribery and fraud that ran through Purdue,” Poulter said. “To play a character who engages in all of that was actually disturbing but absolutely necessary if we’re going to speak truth to what went on there.”
John Hoogenakker and Peter Sarsgaard portray federal prosecutors who set out to expose Purdue Pharma’s deceitful marketing of OxyContin. Sarsgaard, who attended the red carpet event with his wife, actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, praised Hoogenakker and expressed interest in keeping their on-screen dynamic alive in a comedy series.
“[John] is one of my favorite actors I’ve ever acted with,” Sarsgaard said. “I think we’re due for our own show. I think we need like an ‘Odd Couple’ type show.”
“Dopesick” personalizes the drug epidemic by highlighting five distinct storylines, some of which take place across different time periods. Writer-director Danny Strong said this lead him to abandon a traditional structure for a more ambitious one.
“Telling these storylines chronologically, I couldn’t get to the investigators until episode five,” Strong said. “I thought that the investigation should be the spine of the story, so I thought it could be really dynamic to go in and out of time and tell the story in almost a puzzle-like way.”
The Sackler family ran Purdue Pharma for over a century before exiting the company amid a series of lawsuits relating to the fraudulent marketing of OxyContin. While the family paid an estimated $4.5 billion in settlements, they were absolved from serving any prison time and remain one of the wealthiest families in America. “If an individual is not put in jail, no one will ever feel it,” Sarsgaard said. “You’re taking money from a company, something that is not a human. So nobody is suffering financially. I think they have to suffer in the way like the guy slinging dope on the corner would.”
The “Shattered Glass” actor then compared the situation to Martha Stewart’s conviction, which saw the television personality serve five months in prison after being found guilty of insider stock trading.
“Listen, I think if we can put Martha Stewart in jail for something like what she did, which every man in New York who works in that sector has done, then we can put one of these people in jail for slinging dope,” Sarsgaard said.
“Dopesick” is set to premiere Oct. 13 on Hulu.
(Pictured top: Hulu/ABC Entertainment’s Craig Erwich, ‘Dopesick’ star Peter Sarsgaard and wife, actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, and executive producers Warren Littlefield and Beth Macy.)