TV

Dopesick star Kaitlyn Dever: 'I realised I can create change with the roles I choose'

Dopesick, Unbelievable and Booksmart star Kaitlyn Dever is changing the world – one vital, socially conscious role at a time.

Kaitlyn Dever stars in BBC2's Dopesicl. Image: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Dopesick, which is now airing on Sundays on BBC TWO, is one of those IMPORTANT television shows. Yes, it has a big budget and star names, but it’s the vital storytelling that stands out.

The series shines a light on the opioid scandal in the US – a scandal in which a single powerful pharmaceutical company, Purdue, triggered a catastrophic epidemic of drug addiction across the country.

A scandal for which no one among its owners, the Sackler family (you may know the name from their reputation-washing arts philanthropy, including huge donations to the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate) has yet faced justice.

Kaitlyn Dever has spent half her life in show business. The actor from Phoenix, Arizona knows the power of good television and film.

“It’s really, really, really inspiring to be a part of projects that discuss social issues in a way that allows us to get inside of these characters’ heads and go through the journey with them when you’re watching it,” Dever (then aged 24) told the Big Issue, during a flying visit to the London Film festival ahead of the show’s international premiere on Disney+ in 2021. 

Early roles hinted at her compelling screen presence and range, but two projects stand out.

Booksmart, released to great acclaim in 2019, saw Dever in the greatest coming-of-age story of recent times as a teenage outsider navigating the end of school life. Warm, inclusive, hopeful and extremely funny, it is a portrayal of teen female friendship to savour.

And in Netflix series Unbelievable, released the same year, Dever plays Marie Adler, a victim of rape the police refuse to believe, pressure into retracting her story and charge with lying. Dever’s performance is astonishing, and the fact-based drama devastating to watch. 

“I really saw the impact Unbelievable had on people,” says Dever.

Kaitlyn Dever plays miner Betsy Mallum in Dopesick

“Since then I realised I can do what I love – character work, be a part of projects that have actors that inspire me – but can also create change with the roles that I choose. I can be strategic and seek out stories that deserve to be told. 

“When I did Unbelievable people were coming up to me, feeling moved enough by the story to feel comfortable to share their own experiences. I feel so grateful to be part of something that does that for one person, let alone millions. These stories are so vital.” 

Her performance in Dopesick also made an impact, helping marginalised and maligned people feel seen. “I read it and was shocked by the injustice of the Purdue pharma story,” she said.

“It is mindblowing – and it’s true. I couldn’t believe it. Because my knowledge of the opioid epidemic was literally just that it existed, I didn’t know much beyond that. I was born in 1996, which is when it really started. And the truth is buried.” 

What’s so great about Dopesick is that we see the cause and effect – the origin of where this all began and how it affected the people who were addicted,” said Kaitlyn Dever

Not any more. In Dopesick, based on Beth Macy’s exposé of the opioid crisis, we see the scandal from all sides. We are inside the board meetings at Purdue as they cynically target their so-called miracle drug OxyContin in towns that are centres of the mining, farming and logging industries. “These people are in pain. They have hard lives and we have the cure,” one Purdue official tells the salesforce. 

We follow the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) investigation into OxyContin – including finding one doctor, who subsequently thanked them for arresting him, selling the pills from the back of his car to an 11-year-old girl. 

Most importantly, we see the devastation that OxyContin brought to communities. The addiction, the crime, the social dysfunction, the broken lives. And this is where we meet Betsy Mallum, the first female coal miner in her small Virginia town.  

“She’s an awesome character,” Dever said. “Hers is a heartbreaking, tragic journey but at the same time, it’s a story of resilience and strength. And I love powerful female roles.

“So she is a dream job for me. She represents so much. I felt a really big responsibility.

“What she has to go through is unthinkable. Truly unimaginable. She’s a person that had big plans for her life. She had dreams. She had hopes.” 

Betsy’s relationship with Dr Samuel Finnix (played by Birdman star Michael Keaton) is a close one. And it is mirrored off-screen. “I love him,” grins Dever, when talk turns to Keaton. “He’s truly a legend.” 

The doctor is a pillar of the local community, its eyes and ears, a steadfast and scrupulous medical professional. And like so many others, he was wooed by the Purdue salesforce and convinced – against his better judgement – that this opioid, unlike other similarly strong painkillers on the market, was not addictive. So, like thousands of doctors across the country, Finnix prescribed it. Repeatedly. And, like millions of people across the country, Betsy became addicted as use of the drug spread like wildfire through her community. 

“She was just going to see her doctor for some back pain, to make the pain go away so she could continue going to work,” said Dever. “It’s just heartbreaking. I really did feel a desperate need to really dive into all of it and make sure I was giving my everything to her. Because she deserved it. 

“What’s so great about Dopesick is that we see the cause and effect. We see the origin of where this all began and how it affected the people who were addicted, how it affected their families.

“It genuinely changes your brain chemistry. It changes how you interact with people. And it changes your life completely. It completely ruined Betsy’s life.  

“The number one goal was for people to learn more about this epidemic and hopefully have more empathy. Everybody knows someone dealing with addiction or has lost loved ones to this drug. I definitely know a couple of people who have. A lot of people are going to feel seen by this.” 

Dopesick now airs on iPlayer and on BBC2, Sunday nights from 28 April 2024. It originally aired in the UK on Disney+

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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