I'm delighted today to welcome three people: Rosario Dawson, Michael Keaton, and Danny Strong to talk about their work on this compelling series. A very warm welcome to you all.
MR. KEATON: Thank you.
MR. STRONG: Thanks for having us.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Well, thank you. So, this, of course, is a dramatization of a true crisis in which the Sacklers have denied wrongdoing, either ethical or criminal.
And Danny, I'd like to start with you and just to sort of update us, there has been a bankruptcy settlement at the beginning of September. Could you talk about your reaction to what happened?
MR. STRONG: I think my reaction to the bankruptcy settlement is similar to almost everyone in the country, which is disbelief, disbelief that they've been granted immunity to any civil litigation moving forward; disbelief that this settlement will just be a drop in the bucket for them financially. It sounds like a huge settlement, 4.5 billion, but they get to pay it over 9 years. So, in fact, it will be less than the interest payments that they're making--or the interest that they'll be making on their principle each year. So, they'll be coming out with more money after the settlement than when they started. So, it doesn't feel punitive on any level whatsoever.
And ultimately, it goes into sort of everything that I've been feeling about the Sacklers through my entire research process into this crisis, which is that they always get away with it. They just always get away with it. And someone asked me, why is that? You know, how do they always get away with it? And I say, it's very easy. The answer is one word: money. And it just goes to show the ultrawealthy, how they're able to game the system at the highest levels of the American government, and in the Justice Department and in Congress and even in the DEA, they're able to game the system to the point that they're able to sell this drug for as long as they did, lying about it, and then having ultimately no repercussions besides the public shaming that they've taken on.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, Michael, that takes me to a question for you. The Justice Department has intervened to stop this particular settlement. That starts another protracted process going ahead with no resolution for individuals.
Talk to me, in your research and learning about how to portray the character you do in this movie, you're very much a link with the individual, but how do you see the individual coming out of this, this wealth that Danny's talked about they're up against, the FDA and now a legal system that seems to be dragging on.
MR. KEATON: Yeah, I just--Danny and I were talking about that earlier, right? I think it's right now currently--and I'm not up to speed exactly, but I think it’s case of someone--I don't know if--it's a not-so-fast situation, you know, in terms of the immunity. You know, it's a cliched expression but money talks, you know. And it's always shocking to me that it goes on and on and on. And now, you know, this is the micro of the macro. We're talking about Sacklers and Perdue Pharma and imagine all the other large corporations who would be or will be in a similar situation with other--on other issues.
So, you know, what Danny---is so much more educated and informative about all this. To me, what is shocking, and was shocking while we were making it, was how overt the criminal behavior was. I mean, you know, I don't know another--you have to say "criminal behavior," how overt the manipulation of everything was, the manipulation of how you rename pain medication just to--in order to sell it. So, I'm glad--really glad to be part of this and bringing it into awareness. And you know, the thing to be also truthful about it, the thing that I really love about this limited series is not only is it about something important, it plays somewhat as a thriller and avoids being righteous or preachy. And so, happy to be working--
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Thank you. So, Rosario, just one question for you, again, about the settlement. I think there were 130,000 victims claims. If the settlement were to go through, it would be about $5,000 per family.
One of the key things I think I take away from your character is how the hurt spreads way beyond the individual victims. In your character, it's the marriage, but you see that's--talk to me again about the individual up against the system and what you learned through putting together this movie, this series.
MS. DAWSON: I mean, the thing--you know, as Michael was talking about, and Danny, is the money that's here and the narrative that's been pushed. I mean, you have people who are languishing in jail right now because they had a joint in their pocket.
You know, like, when the system is rigged against the poor, it's rigged against minorities, it's rigged against classes. Like, it is a system that is designed to continue perpetuating a narrative that, if you get in trouble, you deserved it; and if you got away with it, then good for you. And the powers that be that you get to see in this represented just the breadth of it and what it really looks like--what does that mean? Like, it's not just someone evilly going, here, I'm going to give you this money and you're going to look out for me, right? It's actually--it's not like that. It's so much more insidious the way that it kind of went down, and that's why this story, I think, is so powerful, because it pushes back on this narrative of blaming the victim and ostracizing and stigmatizing the addict, and hopefully starts building up more humanity and appreciation and compassion to sort of look at just the flaws of human beings, the times in which this happened.
You know, when you have--I keep bringing up--when you have somebody like Rudy Giuliani who was brought on to be the lawyer for Perdue Pharma, right after 9/11. He was the biggest political darling of the time. You weren't going to go against him. He'd had cancer. He was a perfect spokesperson for this.
Like, so, it's really--it's nuanced, the way that they used their privilege. It's the way that they had all of these folks going into each of these doctors--personalizing their relationship with them, you know, getting them gifts and doing all this kind of stuff. How do you push back against a company that has that much money to dominate and create and perpetuate a narrative? You know, and all of these individual victims get silenced because they've already been encapsulated in this story, and their story is that they're just addicts, and you know how we are--we think about addicts. They're just lowly, sad, pathetic people who are the disgrace of our society and should be pushed aside. And it's like, that's absolutely not at all the story, but it's dominated the conversation for so long, and I think is the reason why we're still seeing this unfold in a way that is not truly centered in justice.
And hopefully, a story like this can help shift that narrative, because there is other things we can do, like passing the Sackler Act, that will prevent them from hiding behind Perdue Pharma's bankruptcy and actually hold them accountable. And that could be something legislatively that could be used in the future to prevent a crisis like this getting this out of control. So, there's still stuff that we can do, but we have to have public opinion and the status quo transformed in order to make something like that happen, because people are more--
MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, let's take a--
MS. DAWSON: --bigger than power.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: --look at how this happens in the movie through one of the characters, Dr. Samuel Finnix. He's a smalltown doctor. He gives us an insight into how this plays out in one of the many small towns that were affected by the crisis.
Let's take a look.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, Michael, Finnix is a fictional character, but he really takes us into the lives of doctors prescribing these drugs. Did you, in preparing for the role, talk to doctors in small towns and what did you learn from them? What were those conversations like?
MR. KEATON: Well, just to step back just a little bit for a minute, what Rosario said in an extremely articulate way is all correct. And the thing that I always talk about is--and you see this in the series with my character, but the exponential damage that all this does, that addiction does, but you know, addiction brought on in such an insidious way by this company.
Speaking with doctors, and I was always learning something as we were shooting, because it was, as I said before--it was so overt, the manipulation and the ingenious salesmanship of selling an addictive drug and lying about it, that I couldn't believe--I often would be doing a scene and I'd have to talk to Danny and Barry Levinson or someone else to say, I think this is a little too obvious and too on-the-head and not really believable. And they would inevitably tell me or point to something that was--you know, not word for word, but just factual, just the facts. It seemed impossible that this was occurring and once again comes down to money.
The only doctor I really spoke with was my own doctor. And really, all I wanted to start with was--I'm thinking back. Were there--some other doctors I talked about. Not really. I wanted to start with why does a person become a doctor in the first place. What is it that says, I think I'll choose to be a doctor. So, I started from that. What I wasn't aware of, not that I ever would doubt it, but I wasn't aware of the amount of practitioners or doctors who in fact--without giving too much away--in fact ran into a similar situation that my character does which, if you watch the series, you'll see. But also, who were involved in prescribing pills and knowing what they were doing. I can't remember the name of the town in West Virginia that ultimately this town sued--the amount of pills per person and prescriptions written was an insane amount. I think the town--it's the town of, I think, under a thousand people. And there was an article in The Times today, I can't give you the statistics, in Ohio. So, there are doctors who were cooperating. My character isn't one of those, but he also--his life takes a big turn, which is accurate for some physicians. I'm trying to address it but not give too much away so that you'll follow the episodes.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: But what you say brings exactly to a question for Danny. You talk about being brought back to the facts when you feel as if it's gone too far. Danny, the series comes out of a book--or is related to a book, "Dopesick," written by a journalist. It's a factual account and you decided to dramatize this.
Talk about where you decided to move from fact to fiction in creating characters like Finnix, and why you did so in certain places. What was the power of doing that?
MR. STRONG: Yeah, so, for me, making the town of Finch Creek the coal town that we see is invaded and attacked by OxyContin, a town filled with composite characters. The primary goal of that was because I had, through my research, come across so many different stories--all of these different stories of the journey of addiction, and they're so powerful, all these different tales. And I thought, if I had composite characters, I could use more of these stories in the show, as opposed to being confined the actions of one individual person.
And so, by doing that, it felt like I was actually able to tap into a more universal truth, something that had more--just more facts ingrained into the show. So, it seemed to me that that was the best way to tell this story, because there's just so many different powerful tales, and the more we could get into the show, the better understanding of the totality of the opioid crisis, I felt, the audience could have.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: A portrait--painter once told me that a portrait is a bunch of lies that tells a more telling truth than a photograph. So, that sort of rings true from what you're saying.
MR. STRONG: Well--
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Rosario--oh, go ahead.
MR. STRONG: Well, I was just going to say, Aaron Sorkin, who's the master of nonfiction movies, has this beautiful saying, which is it's a painting, not a photograph, very much along the lines of what you're talking about. And that's what we're doing here. You know, we're not saying this is a word-for-word account of what happened, but by tapping into this more universal truth, you're able to get, like I said, more of a truthful tale of the totality of the event.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Rosario, your character, a Drug Enforcement Agency worker, there's a moment where she talks about the fact that this is a homegrown enemy instead of drugs coming from overseas, which is, I think, one of the most telling moments. How did this sense of a domestic crisis come home to you? What did you learn as you went through preparing for this performance?
MS. DAWSON: Yes. I mean, I grew up in New York in the Lower East Side during the HIV/AIDs, crack/cocaine disparity, heroin crisis. And you know, I saw firsthand the people who were victimized by it, and the stories that--immediately, once they fell into this space, how they were targeted and marginalized.
And you know, she--my character gets a chance--again this--a remarkable composite character, which, after reading "Dopesick" by Beth Macy and "Pain Killer" and a lot of other things that Danny recommended for me to do my research, you know, you see, like, it's just--there's so many stories. And to be able to play a character like Bridget Meyer, who's a composite of multiple different people so that you can--each scene is hitting on something very truthful and very real. And actually, some scenes are actually word-for-word for some of the characters that my character is--some of the people that my character is composited for. But I just loved that because of this character being a character, she could--there could be a gradient of information that could be given. So, there was a time where I'm doing research as this DEA agent and looking and seeing how there's lines down the block outside of pharmaceutical places. And she interrupts a robbery and it turns out to be, like, a child. And it's a huge moment for her, and revelation, about like just how, like, deeply insidious and profound this crisis is.
And in that, she gets to speak to why she became a DEA agent, you know, because she grew up in a community very much like mine and saw the problems of that community and wanted to be someone who was a stand for it.
And I grew up in a community where it was radical organizers, community organizers and activists, who were doing things like handing out clean needles so as to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS because of heroin usage, which was very looked down upon and frowned upon then. But now, as the years go on, we recognize it as incredible and very useful tactics for harm reduction, because now there's language for that.
But you know, for her, the only thing that she could really think of to do that is be the person in the DEA that would encounter these people and these situations with more humanity than normally is the case. And so, it was just really profound and powerful to see that toll on her, to know that that was her history, to know that that was her impulse and push, even as she was put down for being a woman in the job and not having the gift of gab and humor and grace to be able to navigate these spaces in a way that would have been maybe more palatable for her male colleagues. She was just very fervent and very passionate about this. And it cost her personally. It cost her her mental health and emotional health.
And you can see why a lot of people choose not necessarily to stand up for the right causes, because it's a toll. It's a real toll. And it's really gratifying to be able to expose that element in this story and hopefully gain more of an audience so that there is more of an army to combat this particular war that we're in, which is not the war on drugs. It's the criminality of homegrown cartels that--
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Rosario, I would love to take a look at Bridget Meyer in action. Let's go to a short clip from the movie and see her performing just the way you said she does.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, Danny, the kinds of scenes we see portrayed so powerfully in this series are ongoing and particularly now we have this bankruptcy case. Do you see yourself doing episodes 9, 10, 11, 12 of this drama?
MR. STRONG: Yeah, we certainly talked about it. The show basically ends in 2007. And I'm sad to say that the amount of criminal behavior from 2007 to 2020 was so staggering that Perdue Pharma had to plead guilty again in 2020 to two more felonies, and I believe it was $8.5 billion in fines. So, that's a lot of criminal behavior that they have, you know, conducted in order to get fines that high. So, yeah, maybe there is a potential season two from 2007 to 2020, in which we once again, sadly, expose Perdue's ongoing criminal behavior.
And part of the 2007 settlement that we dramatize in the show is that there were safeguards put in place. There was an oversight that was put in place for Perdue Pharma moving on post the settlement. And, surprise surprise, they completely ignored those safeguards and they continued their same deceptive tactics. They started pushing their sales even harder in more reckless, dangerous ways, even though the amount of information that was now out there by 2007 and what Perdue itself had pled guilty to in a statement of facts is incredibly damning what they pled guilty to, but they did not care. They did not care of what they'd previously done.
All they cared about was sell, sell, sell, and that's exactly what they did and why there was a second guilty plea in 2020 and why now the company is--essentially, it's out of business. The Sackler family has no involvement in it, and now it's this strange situation where it's now government owned, so profits from OxyContin will now go to the victims of OxyContin, and that makes a lot of activists really uncomfortable that this drug that got themselves or their family members, you know, addicted and, in many cases, people overdosed, people passed away--that those sales are continuing and that the money to it is now coming back to them.
It's--you know, there's a very, very sort of strange and dark irony to what's going to be happening moving forward.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Well, we've talked many times about the human toll, the breadth of it, and that's generated a lot of audience questions.
I'd like to raise one. This, Michael, will come to you, and the question comes from--I'm going to read it to you--Don in Maryland, and he asks, "How can those of us in recovery help the general public understand that most people with opioid use disorder continue to use just to avoid getting sick rather than getting high? How can we reverse this stigma?"
And Michael, maybe you can talk about the role of an art form like this in reversing stigma.
MR. KEATON: Boy, that's really--I'm so glad he mentioned that. I was just speaking with Danny about someone who has an issue, you know, has admitted to his condition and he's facing now--is experiencing pain and he's trying to figure out how to properly take medication with a doctor and not, you know, fall back in deeper. And he's doing fine. He's very, very successful. It was an addiction to something else.
Boy, I really want to really, really think about this. This is such a great--first of all, here's what I really think: I do think that the stigma has been eased a little bit and maybe a lot. Years ago, I did a movie called "Clean and Sober." So, I had to meet many people who were dependent on drugs and alcohol, drugs and/or alcohol, and you learn so, so much. And the first thing you learn is, for me, anyway, you know, it's probable that I got lucky. You know, I didn't get whatever that thing is, that chemical imbalance or whatever it is, because it could have easily been me. Fortunately, it's not. And while I think the stigma is better than it was, I really do think--and this is why this question is so good, I'm thinking about it. I really do think there needs to be some sort of campaign--I hadn't thought of this, frankly--that does explain to people--because you think we understand but we really still don’t--that this is a disease. And I don't know what the campaign would be, but I really do believe now the next thing to be done--I'm thinking--is to explain to people that this could be anyone and all the damage it does, and people shouldn’t be viewed as less than. And it's almost always poor people. It's almost always poor people. And so, people easily point to them and say, well, see, there you go. You know, very often, there's a real reason--an inequity that was created that made someone poor in the first place. So, you have to get to the root of the cause.
But that definitely should be addressed, the stigma attached.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: I have time for just one more--
MR. STRONG: [Unclear] something there. Well, just to--
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Go ahead.
MR. STRONG: It was a beautiful question, and I'll answer it real quickly. We hit that head on in the show. I think it's a major concept in the show exactly what that question was, and I think audiences will see it dramatized exactly what that person so beautifully asked, that in an opioid use disorder, your brain chemistry has been changed so that you are in so much pain without you think you're going to die. And that's where the word "dopesick" comes from. That's what being dopesick is. So, in many ways, let your questioner know that that is something we discuss extensively over the course of the season.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: I think our questioner is going to be listening in. And I really wish we had more time. We haven't got more time with you. Thank you so much for this powerful discussion and also for finishing with this important notion of overcoming stigma. It's so important.
Rosario, Michael, Danny, thank you for joining us today.
MR. KEATON: Thank you.
MR. STRONG: Thank you for having us.
MS. DAWSON: Thank you.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Thank you, everyone else, for joining Washington Post Live. If you would like to know more about our upcoming programming, it’s on WashingtonPostLive.com.
I'm Frances Stead Sellers. Thank you for being with us, today.
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