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Backstage With… the stars and creator of Dopesick – a show about the US opioid crisis

The story of one family behind a pharma group that developed a drug which ultimately led to the opioid crisis which ravaged the US could almost be dismissed as too unbelievable as the basis for a show.

But as is often the case, life can be stranger than fiction, and new drama Dopesick looks at how the Sackler family – who have denied wrongdoing – and their drug OxyContin – came to impact an entire country.

Kaitlyn Dever, who plays a young miner that becomes addicted to the painkiller after injuring her back, told Sky News’ Backstage podcast being on the show is an opportunity to raise awareness of what happened.

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“I do think about the people that deal with addiction themselves and the people that know everything about the Sackler family and want so desperately for that story to be plastered everywhere and for people to really know the truth,” she said.

“And I think about the people that have lost loved ones to overdose, and I’m so glad to be a part of something that might allow somebody to feel seen and heard – that was the most important thing to me.

“It does feel like it’s a really, really, really big deal, and it is.”

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The actress, known for starring in the coming-of-age movie Booksmart, and her award-nominated performance in true crime miniseries Unbelievable, says her role in Dopesick was one of the toughest she’s had – and yet she found herself disappearing in to it.

“Every aspect of it was challenging, I think that each day was really different, but I just felt like I had to do everything I possibly could to do this role right,” Dever said.

Kaitlyn Dever in Dopesick
Image: Kaitlyn Dever plays a miner who becomes addicted to opioids in Dopesick

“I did a lot of research and just really tried to just pour myself into this role, and I sort of ended up just really forgetting how I felt on some days to the point where I just didn’t know, I just truly forgot about how I felt.

“It just sort of just happened, and I think it was because I just cared about this character so much, and I knew that what she represented was extremely important.”

Dever’s co-stars on the show include Michael Keaton, Rosario Dawson and Will Poulter – who plays a salesman for the Sackler family’s pharma company Purdue.

He told Backstage he also found the role tough because of the reality the show is based on.

“I’m also really grateful to many of our Virginian cast and crew members who I think were more likely to have been kind of directly affected or indirectly affected by the crisis,” he said.

“And I think them turning up to work every day and engaging in this story, required in many cases, a lot of courage that was very inspiring.”

Poulter spends some of his scenes chatting with Keaton’s character – a doctor who prescribes the drug to his patients after being told it’s not addictive.

The British actor said it was a dream come true to work with Keaton, saying: “I think he’s just phenomenal, there’s no overstating how good he is, [being] face-to-face in reality and acting opposite him was wild.

Michael Keaton in Dopesick
Image: Michael Keaton returns to the small screen in Dopesick

“I genuinely did have a ton of pinch-myself moments particularly because we got to enjoy so many long, uninterrupted, conversational scenes with one another.

“For a young actor like myself to work opposite someone like that, it’s kind of what dreams are made of.”

It marks a return to the small screen for Keaton, who hasn’t had a recurring TV role since 2007.

Dopesick creator Danny Strong says he came on board with this show because, like so many Americans, the Birdman star has been personally affected by the opioid crisis.

“He said publicly that his nephew passed away from an overdose, and so he was passionate about the subject,” Strong said.

“And he also said that he loved the script and was excited to be a part of the project – we didn’t think we’d be able to get him, especially where he hasn’t done television in many years, and it was an ensemble, it wasn’t even a lead role, although probably the main character, but nonetheless, not a lead.

“But lo and behold, he’s a real artist and a real storyteller, and he just wanted to be a part of it.”

Rosario Dawson in Dopesick
Image: Rosario Dawson in Dopesick

Strong, whose previous writing credits include the final two Hunger Games films and the TV series Empire, says bringing the Sackler story to screen meant taking some artistic licence – but unusually it meant toning down the drama, rather than creating it.

“There was actually even some scenes we shot that were true, that happened within the Sackler family, that were so broad that the studio said, ‘Hey, can you tame that down, it seems fake’.”

“And I said, ‘But it really happened’, and they said ‘Well, it might have really happened, but it’s too big’ and I didn’t disagree with them, I was actually worried about it myself that it might seem too broad.

“So yeah, this story goes to places that is beyond believable, but in fact, it really happened.”

The Sackler family have agreed to pay $4.3bn (£3.2bn) in a settlement that requires they relinquish ownership of Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin painkillers – a deal expected to resolve thousands of lawsuits and protect them from future claims.

Dopesick is out on Disney Plus now. Hear our review in the latest episode of Backstage – the film and TV podcast from Sky News.