Why Kaitlyn Dever Was Drawn to ‘Dopesick’ – Beyond the ‘Bucket-List’ Chance to Co-Star With Michael Keaton

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A version of this story about “Dopesick” star Kaitlyn Dever first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Drama issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

It’s rare to experience a life-changing epiphany at any age, much less at 15. But that’s how old Kaitlyn Dever was when she played a self-harming young woman in the acclaimed 2013 indie “Short Term 12.” She’d already been acting for several years by then — she was a cast regular on the ABC sitcom “Last Man Standing” and had a recurring role on FX’s “Justified” — but the gritty drama about a group home for troubled teenagers made a lasting impression on her.

“I noticed the weight that a project can have on the audience and how you can really move the needle forward and start meaningful conversations,” Dever said during a recent Zoom interview. She liked the idea that she could help bring awareness to “issues that maybe people weren’t aware of.” And so ever since, she said, “I’ve really wanted to seek out those kinds of projects.”

She met that goal with Netflix’s 2019 miniseries “Unbelievable,” in which she plays a real-life rape survivor, and she did it again with “Dopesick,” Hulu’s drama about America’s opioid crisis that has earned Dever her first Emmy nomination, for best actress in a limited series.

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Dever stars as Betsy, a Virginia miner who, after injuring her back at work, becomes addicted to OxyContin and then heroin. Her story is nothing short of tragic, representing the hundreds of thousands of innocent people whose lives were destroyed because of Purdue Pharma’s greed. Dever tells it to devastating effect. “Just doing [“Dopesick”] and being a part of it was such a rewarding experience,” she said. “And to see how the show affected people in such a deep, meaningful way meant so much. Then to be recognized by the television academy is just really kind of a dream.”

“Dopesick” produced a visceral reaction in Dever from the moment she laid eyes on the first script. Seeing how recklessly Purdue Pharma pushed OxyContin, willfully lying to the public about its addictive nature with help from the FDA (at least according to this telling), was “shocking,” she said. “I was so heartbroken and angry when I first read it. And I really fell in love with my character, Betsy. I just immediately felt connected to her.”

Dever and Michael Keaton in “Dopesick” (Hulu)

Dever’s Betsy, a composite character drawn from Beth Macy’s nonfiction book on which the series is based, is compelling: a hardworking woman from a humble background who is afraid to tell her churchgoing parents that she is a lesbian. The only person she can confide in is Dr. Finnix, the compassionate town doctor who delivered her as a baby and is played by Michael Keaton — another major draw for Dever. “I got my email from my agent and I saw his name there, and I was like, Oh, my God,” she said. “To be associated with him at all would be like, check! on the bucket list.”

The first day they filmed together, Dr. Finnix makes a house call and prescribes OxyContin to help Betsy with her excruciating pain. “It’s a big scene and so obviously I was nervous,” Dever said. “And then it ended up being just so easy and I was smiling from ear to ear after, like, ‘I just did a scene with Michael Keaton!’ He is everything you want him to be — and more. He is so cool and so collaborative and really down-to-earth.”

Given how far-reaching the opioid crisis is — an estimated 10.1 million people had misused them in 2019 — Dever was determined to do justice to Betsy’s story, especially when it came to the intense physicality of withdrawal. She devoured books and documentaries on opioid addiction, made a Google spreadsheet to chart the ups and downs of symptoms, and spoke often with a recovering addict who was on set. The seriousness of the material made for some challenging days, but they were nothing, Dever pointed out, compared to what real addicts went through.

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“I had crew members coming up to me after shooting a scene, thanking me for being a part of the show and sharing their similar stories to Betsy’s. It was just a constant reminder of why we were coming together to make this in the first place. It was definitely a heavy show, but it all felt completely worth it because of that one person that came up to me.”

In a major gear shift, Dever will next appear as Julia Roberts and George Clooney’s daughter in the romantic comedy “Ticket to Paradise,” due in October, and then later this year as the title character in “Rosaline,” a comedic retelling of “Romeo and Juliet.” Tapping back into the funny that she showcased in 2019’s “Booksmart” felt great, and she hopes to continue to mix the two going forward. Still, it’s hard to let go of “Dopesick.” “I think about this job all the time and how amazing it was,” she said. “It genuinely could almost make me cry. It really was so special.”

Read more from the Down to the Wire: Drama issue here.