Will Poulter on Dopesick’s strong medicine

London Film Festival: the Londoner is starring in the other must-watch TV drama of the season (the other being Succession) (you knew that).

Will Poulter is a real smoothie.

I know THE FACE well because, in one of my favourite songs ever, P’s and Q’s by Kano, he mentions the magazine. Ever since he did that, I’ve always wanted to be in THE FACE. So I feel very honoured and thrilled to be speaking to you.”

Well, thank you, Mr Poulter. We’re equally privileged to be talking to you. The 28-year-old Londoner – who beat George MacKay, Lea Séydoux and Lupita Nyong’o to win the publicly-voted BAFTA Rising Star Award 2014 – has appeared in some of our favourite films, from his 2007 breakthrough Son of Rambow, which he made when he was 13, to Dexter Fletcher’s brilliant Wild Bill (2012) and chilly thriller The Revenant (2015) alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. He was also in 2018’s divisive interactive Black Mirror film Bandersnatch – negative reactions to which, and attendant personal attacks, led to Poulter quitting Twitter for a while in the interest of my mental health”.

We’re still laughing at his unfortunate virgin in 2013’s We’re the Millers (gets bitten in the nutsack by a tarantula), reeling from his racist cop in 2017’s Detroit (gets off scot-free for brutal murders), freaked by his fate in 2019’s Midsommar (gets his face turned into a mask) and bummed that scheduling conflicts meant he couldn’t play Pennywise the Clown in 2017’s monumental It (gets replaced by Bill Skarsgård).

And now he’s in the prestige TV drama of the season. What Mare of Easttown was to spring and The White Lotus was to summer, Dopesick will be to autumn. The eight-part series is scripted by Danny Strong, who wrote based-on-fact political thrillers Game Change and Recount, and is inspired by Beth Macy’s non-fiction book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America.

Poulter plays a pushy drugs rep employed by Purdue Pharma. Owned by the Sackler family, the company are the producers of OxyContin, the ruinously addictive painkiller prescribed in good faith by Michael Keaton’s doctor to Betsy, an injured young Appalachian coalminer played by Kaitlyn Dever.

Soon, Betsy spirals into addiction, threatening to become another statistic in an American opioid epidemic that has killed some 500,000 people. As Keaton’s Dr Finnix says to Poulter’s Billy: I think maybe the medicine might be just a tad more addictive than you said.” Told you he was a smoothie.

Dopesick is particularly meaningful to Poulter, an actor whose Twitter feed is devoted to activism and causes he holds dear. As he describes it, this is a show that does feel like a very socially responsible piece of material”. And a timely one, too: in September, the Sackler family dissolved Purdue Pharma in a bankruptcy settlement and agreed to hand over $4.5 billion to fund drug addiction treatment and education programmes.

Also a meaningful honour to the Hammersmith native: the fact that Dopesick is premiering at the London Film Festival.

I’ve got a lot of great memories attached to the London Film Festival,” he tells me over Zoom from his London kitchen, on a rainy autumn morning. The South Bank [the base of LFF] is still my favourite area in London, and the idea of the series being celebrated there is very exciting.”

WILL POULTER

What was your first experience of LFF?

I can remember me and [co-star] Bill Milner going there together for Son of Rambow, and Wild Bill played there as well. So, yeah, a lot of good memories. When it was me and Bill, it was absolutely mad. We got shot out of a cannon together with that film. We made a little indie over eight weeks in our summer holidays from school. The next thing, it was going worldwide, playing in places like South Korea. Crazy.

How did you come to be involved in Dopesick?

It came across my desk midway through the lockdown period. The opioid epidemic in the States is something that always interested me, and concerned me from afar. It was the sort of story that I wanted to learn more about, and participate in somehow. So when I first read the script, it was spooky.

I read the book by Beth Macy, and thought it was absolutely stunning and amazingly informative. Then I had a chance to Zoom with Danny Strong, and I’ve been a fan of his – he’s a writer who really uses his pen to the max. He’s thinking very carefully about what sort of societal issues he can comment on, and how it can contribute to important conversations regarding social action and societal change. So just to be working with a dude like that, and to have a small role in shining a light on this kind of issue, is a real honour more than anything else.

Without giving away too much, is it right that Billy begins to doubt the ethics of what he’s doing?

Certainly that was something that interested me about the character – there was a crisis of conscience. He wrestles with the moral challenges that arise as he progresses through the ranks of Purdue. He goes in with honest intentions, but the interesting thing is how he wrestles with the moral conundrum of fulfilling a role in that company with everything that’s going on… with the turbulence thrown up by this drug and the fact it flips lives upside down. On the one hand you’ve got people benefitting from it hugely. And on the other you’ve got communities being decimated.

Why was Purdue able to implant OxyContin so effectively in communities like the Appalachians, and why did it have such a ruinous impact on people like Betsy?

They were able, as a company and a family, to collaborate with the FDA to have it approved as a non-addictive” drug, when it was highly addictive. That meant they were able to engage in activity in a way that appeared to [present] hardworking doctors, people with the best of intentions, people looking for non-addictive forms of pain relief, with a legal miracle drug. And there was no real reason to question that initially.

But of course, underneath the surface, the motivations were far less noble. They were driven by greed, dressed up as a genuine attempt to revolutionise pain relief. So it was a cloak and dagger move from Purdue, in my opinion.

What’s the importance of Betsy’s story?

First of all, Kaitlyn Dever’s one of my favourite actors on the planet. It’s the second time I’ve worked with her, although unfortunately I didn’t get to do any scenes with her.

One thing Betsy represents is the sort of person that was worse affected by this drug: hardworking, working class people from the Appalachians who were targeted and taken advantage of. Manual labourers really are dependent on pain relief because of the risk they’re at of injury through their jobs. They’re the folk who’d be going to their local doctors in need of medication – and would very quickly get addicted to a drug that should never have been on the market and being prescribed in the way it was.

You support the Anti Bullying Programme. How does that relate to your experiences on social media after the broadcast of Bandersnatch?

I’ve been involved with anti-bullying organisations since 2010. It’s close to my heart because I went to a school where probably the majority of people – and local government polls back this – had some experience with bullying while in education. It’s something I witnessed a lot of.

And it was really inspiring to see an organisation that was looking to make a cultural change to schools and impact the lives of so many young people at a young age, and address a very real problem of people assuming bullying has to be a part of your experience growing up – that it’s character-building stuff, that it’s something you just to need to endure. That’s a really archaic attitude.

WILL POULTER

Bullying obviously goes beyond the classroom and into the bedroom via social media. When you had your social media reset, how did you come back onto Twitter and make sure it was a safer place for you?

I take my hat off to anyone who’s able to manage social media in that regard – not dwell on the negative comments, not develop an overinflated sense of self from positive comments. So, yeah, I had a slight reset on that basis, and I decided to focus it solely on social action work and supporting organisations that I’m lucky to be affiliated with: The Black Curriculum, Anti Bullying Programme, Blueprint Theatre Group and a few others.

That provided a focus and it silo’d my engagement with social media in a way that felt healthy, and in a way that was maximising its potential. There was no waste product to it.

You’ve finished filming The Score, which is a heist musical”… which is what, exactly?

It’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever read, but I cannot pitch this thing for love nor money, without potentially sending everyone running! It’s such a hard thing to describe, and it is so many things at once, an amalgam of all these different genres. But, yes, certainly some heist‑y elements, quite comical, and then there’s the musical elements, too ­– but then it’s a romantic drama at the same time as well.

And a great cast, too.

Right. Naomi Ackie is one of my favourite human beings, as is Johnny Flynn, and we had a blast shooting it. And it features some already established Johnny Flynn tracks, and some new things he’s written. And I am singing in it, although quietly underneath Naomi – she’s very much lead vocals!

What do you want viewers to take from Dopesick?

Anyone watching this will probably feel righteous indignation at the injustice of it. And I really hope it reframes people’s perception of addicts. Particularly because if you look at the rate at which people are addicted to heroin and stronger opioids in America, and the rate of overdose, and you consider that in the context of the number of people who went to their doctors for pain relief, became addicted to Oxycontin and it escalated towards harder drugs… I hope that translates into some empathy for people who battle with addiction.

I hope the show will enhance that, because the numbers are really quite frightening. Every 15 minutes in America, a child is born with withdrawals to opioids. That gives you an idea just how many people have been affected by these drugs.

The first two episodes of Dopesick screen at the London Film Festival on 13th October, and the series launches on Disney+ on 12th November

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