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Kaitlyn Dever on Becoming a Face of Addiction in ‘Dopesick’

After months of jumping from one shoot to the next, Kaitlyn Dever finally had some downtime. “I just got back from a camping trip with my family,” she said, sinking into a pillowy couch at her home in Los Angeles earlier this month. “I was feeling adventurous, so I decided to sleep on a chair outside.”

She closed her eyes and leaned back, re-enacting her sleeping position, before blinking her eyes open and laughing a little. “It was the coolest,” she said. “I saw three shooting stars.”

Dever had recently arrived home after wrapping the film “No One Will Save You,” an action-thriller written and directed by Brian Duffield. “I was the only actor,” she explained. “It was completely different from anything I’ve ever done.”

That’s saying something. At 25, Dever has already collected a long list of significant roles in television and film, including a breakout part on the FX series “Justified” when she was just 12.

Now, she is up for her first Emmy for her role as Betsy Mallum, a young woman with an opioid addiction, in the Hulu mini-series “Dopesick,” led by Michael Keaton and created by Danny Strong. Set largely in a fictional mining town in rural Virginia, “Dopesick” depicts the beginning of the national opioid crisis and the ensuing investigation into Purdue Pharma, whose aggressive and misleading introduction of the drug OxyContin is viewed as the start of the epidemic.

The series has been widely praised, receiving 14 Emmy nods including one for best limited or anthology series. Dever was at home drinking coffee in her pajamas when she found out about her nomination. Knowing the announcement was imminent, Dever’s sister had pulled up the television academy’s website.

“We saw my photo there and shouted, ‘What?!’” Dever laughed as she recalled the moment

They poured themselves glasses of champagne: “We did a cheers at like, eight o’clock in the morning.”

As we talked, Dever occasionally tugged at strands of her wavy brown hair. In conversation, she laughs easily, and her face is hugely expressive, eyes widening, then narrowing, as she parses a question. Dramatic gestural flourishes animated her responses.

Born in Phoenix, Dever and her family moved to Dallas after her father, previously a figure skating coach with Dever’s mother, accepted a role voicing Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Dever developed an interest in acting herself early on, entering an actors’ studio in Dallas at age 9. A talent agent soon signed her, after witnessing her acting chops at a showcase. Dever’s family moved to Los Angeles in 2007, in part to help her pursue acting.

In 2019, she shared the screen with Beanie Feldstein in “Booksmart,” Olivia Wilde’s critically acclaimed coming-of-age film, and starred in the award-winning mini-series “Unbelievable” with Toni Collette and Merritt Wever — a role that earned Dever a Golden Globe nomination.

With “Dopesick,” Dever had an opportunity to foreground her full dramatic range. At the start of the series, Betsy is hardworking and cleareyed with a face like the moon, pale and luminous, and Dever imbues her with an intelligent watchfulness. It is the mid-1990s, and Betsy is in love with another woman working in the mines, but her attempts to come out to her parents are met in turns with silence and condemnation. (Mare Winningham, utterly convincing as Betsy’s desperate and determined mother, also received a nomination.)

After a mining accident leaves Betsy with a badly injured back, she calls her doctor, Samuel Finnix (a fictional amalgam), played by Keaton. Finnix, like so many real-life doctors from that time, has been misled into thinking he can prescribe OxyContin without risk of addiction. Both patient and doctor become addicted, and their lives quickly spin out of control. (Purdue later pleaded guilty to criminally “misbranding” its powerful drug OxyContin to make it seem less addictive.)

To date, the epidemic has addicted millions and killed more than 500,000 people nationwide. As such, Dever approached the role with the utmost sensitivity.

“Because Betsy represents so many people who were affected by the crisis, I felt an intense responsibility,” Dever said. Television series rarely shoot in chronological order, so she even created a spreadsheet to keep track of Betsy’s withdrawals over the course of the season “and where she was emotionally in each scene.”

“I put so much pressure on myself to get that role right,” she added. She paused, thinking, and leaned her cheek into her palm. “I wanted to make sure I was being as realistic as possible and as honest as I could be.”

Dever said that the series held “a special place” in her heart, in part because many of the crew members were local. Most of the show was filmed on location in towns around Virginia, an early locus of the opioid crisis, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to approach Dever and share the ways the crisis had affected their lives.

“It was a constant reminder of why we do that kind of work,” she said, “and a reminder that I want to continue to seek out those kinds of roles.”

Dever was quick to note that she didn’t prepare for the part on her own. She also leaned on those around her.

“There was someone I met on set who played a huge role in my journey bringing this character to life,” she said slowly. They became friends, and Dever felt comfortable asking specific questions about the experience of addiction.

“My friend allowed me to figure out how it impacts someone on an emotional level.” She paused, then shook her head. “Addiction is not black and white, and it affects people so differently.”

From her perch on the couch, Dever leaned forward when I asked about upcoming work. “I have a new movie with Karen Maine,” she said. “Karen is brilliant.” Maine wrote and directed the critically adored 2019 movie “Yes, God, Yes” and was a writer of “Obvious Child,” starring Jenny Slate. (Dever will play Rosaline, Romeo’s jilted lover, in a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet.”)

“And,” she said, scrunching her nose and smiling widely, “I’m excited to go to the Emmys for the first time!”

Dever said that she felt lucky to act in a range of genres, from sharp comedies to harrowing dramas. While “Booksmart” had offered Dever the chance to show off her quick humor, projects like “Dopesick” had challenge her to hold her character’s life story in every scene. She said her dramatic roles inform her romantic roles, and vice versa.

“Every time, I have the chance to expose myself to something new,” she said. “And I always learn more about myself and work a different part of my brain.”

Each role expands your foundation, I offered. She nodded. “It’s a building block for the next thing.”

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