Hulu’s ‘Dopesick’ creator Danny Strong, star Peter Sarsgaard tackle U.S. opioid epidemic

Listen to Danny Strong and Peter Sarsgaard on today’s “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Dopesick' with Danny Strong (Part 1)

Growing up in Manhattan Beach, California, 11-year-old Danny Strong frequented a local video store to geek out over movies with a local sales clerk named Quentin Tarantino.

“[My mom] started taking me to the avant-garde video store,” Strong told WTOP. “The video store clerk was this really outgoing, quirky, dynamic guy named Quentin and I loved him. … He would recommend all of these crazy movies for me to watch, so I had this warped film school at age 11 from a 24- or 25-year-old Quentin Tarantino.”

Little did he know Quentin would go on to make “Pulp Fiction,” while Strong would create TV’s “Empire,” a career that continues Wednesday with the Hulu miniseries “Dopesick.”

“This is the story of the opioid crisis, but specifically tied into the crimes of Purdue Pharma,” Strong said. “The show follows a U.S. attorney and his prosecutors who built a case against Purdue that was settled in 2007.”

Based on Beth Macy’s 2018 book “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America,” it includes local ties, from D.C. government to Virginia coal miners.

“We’re also following a DEA Agent who’s actively trying to prevent Purdue from selling so many pills on the streets,” Strong said. “We go from their deadly deception to a small Virginia coal town, in which we see a country doctor played by Michael Keaton prescribing oxycontin to his patients because he has been lied to by a Purdue Pharma rep.”

Keaton anchors a deep cast, including Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katilyn Dever, Will Poulter, John Hoogenakker, Rosario Dawson and Philippa Soo.

“They’re truly the best of the best,” Strong said. “They’re so talented. We were so lucky to have all of these incredible actors. … They’re all actors that other actors just admire because they’re at the highest level. One of the reasons we were able to get so many of them is when Michael Keaton said yes. … What wonderful, intelligent, kind people.”

Sarsgaard says it was a dream come true acting with personal heroes like Keaton.

“I only overlapped with Michael Keaton in one scene,” Sarsgaard said. “We were in the same courtroom and we must have glanced at each other once or twice. That was a bit of heartache because I’m really a huge fan and have been since I was a kid. My kids were raised on ‘Beetlejuice.’ What an incredible talent and what an incredible intellect, too.”

His role of Rick Mountcastle is a welcome addition to his “Shattered Glass” filmography.

“I rarely get offered a part like this where it’s David & Goliath,” Sarsgaard said. “I was really flattered that Danny approached me. A lot of the time I would be offered the other part. … Having met Rick Mountcastle, I am flattered to play such an honorable person.”

The roles interweave to paint a sort of mosaic of lawyers and pharmaceutical execs.

“It’s a book filled with all of these multiple narratives, some of which overlap,” Sarsgaard said. “It’s kind of in the model of the movie ‘Traffic’ in the way those narratives interweave. There is to me no finer show runner that I have ever worked with than Danny Strong.”

Several episodes are directed by Barry Levinson (“Diner,” “The Natural,” “Rain Man”).

“We’d never worked together,” Strong said. “He was living in New York City for a long time and we didn’t live that far from each other, so we’d go have breakfast every three or four months. It was magic having breakfast with Barry. … He’s one of the greats of the last 50 years. It’s endless what he’s done. So much sage wisdom. I called him Yoda on set.”

Strong himself has plenty of wisdom on both sides of the camera. He started his career as an actor, playing Jonathan on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Doyle on “Gilmore Girls.”

“It’s so incredible that those shows are so beloved and iconic,” Strong said. “I didn’t see that happening while we were on the air. Neither show was a massive hit at the time. They had pop-culture cred, they were seen as teen shows, then over the years they’ve become beloved pieces of American entertainment and I’m so proud to have been a part of them.”

He even played a film critic on “Seinfeld,” voicing Vincent’s Picks at a video store.

“For some of my relatives, it never got bigger than when I was Vincent on the Vincent’s Picks episode of ‘Seinfeld’ — I’ve never surpassed that,” Strong said. “Maybe I was channeling Quentin Tarantino when I was playing Vincent from my childhood.”

He pivoted to writing with the HBO movie “Recount” about the 2000 presidential election.

“I was so enraged by … the Iraq War,” Strong said. “I felt we were completely lied to; Saddam Hussein clearly had nothing to do with 9/11. … It was Al-Qaeda. … I saw a play about the buildup to the Iraq War [called] ‘Stuff Happens’ by David Hare. I said, ‘That’s what I have to do.’ … The first idea that popped into my head … was the Florida recount.”

After that, he adapted the HBO movie “Game Change” about the 2008 election, followed by a different political take tracking White House butler Cecil Gaines in “The Butler” (2013).

“We were in postproduction on ‘The Butler’ and Lee Daniels kept telling me, ‘What are we doing next? We’re magic together,'” Strong said. “I was driving around and there was a radio piece on a deal Sean [Puffy] Combs just closed. … I immediately thought of this play I loved called ‘The Lion in Winter.’ … Cookie Lyon was inspired by Eleanor of Aquitaine.”

He’ll never forget Daniels’ reaction to his pitch.

“I just pitched him this concept of doing ‘King Lear’ in a hip-hop empire,” Strong said. “He just loved it and the said, ‘Shouldn’t we do this as a TV show instead of a movie?’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s like ‘Black Dynasty.’ He just started screaming, ‘Yes! It’s ‘Black Dynasty,’ darling!'”

More recently, he adapted “Mockingjay,” the two-part finale of “The Hunger Games.”

“They had decided they were going to turn the last book into two movies … ‘Twilight’ had just done it, ‘Harry Potter’ had just done it,” Strong said. “They were on the hunt for a writer and reached out to 10 writers. … I was just flattered to be one of the writers. … I read the book, thought how I would do the two movies and came up with the thematic throughline.”

Of course, heroes don’t only come with a Katniss bow and arrow. Sometimes they come with a lawyer’s briefcase to take down pharmaceutical companies like in “Dopesick.”

“I view the show as the trial that Purdue Pharma never got … so their crimes could be documented in a piece of mainstream entertainment,” Strong said. “It offers paths forward to de-stigmatize medical-assisted treatments that are effective in treating opioid abuse. … That’s what ‘dopesick’ means — the pain you feel when you don’t have the drug.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Dopesick' with Danny Strong (Part 2)

Listen to Danny Strong and Peter Sarsgaard on today’s “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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