Michael Stuhlbarg turns real people into the stuff of rich performances, often behind-the-scenes players we may not have any preconceived notions about — mobster Arnold Rothstein (“Boardwalk Empire”), software innovator Andy Hertzfeld (“Steve Jobs”), expert on Counter Terrorism Richard Clarke (“The Looming Tower”) – until Stuhlbarg dimensioned them. Thanks to the Hulu limited series Dopesick, we can now add Purdue Pharma President and son of a family, Richard Sackler, to Stuhlbarg’s list of notables that have been brought to light.
The Juilliard-educated actor’s performance is a minor Emmy nominee, but his turbulent, poised performance shows who was the key player in turning the addictive opiate OxyContin into both a billion-dollar drug and a deadly nationwide scourge Has. Recently, via Zoom from New Orleans, where he’s filming the second season of Showtime’s You Honor, Stuhlbarg contemplated finding the private keys to a now-public villain.
Do you have a foolproof way to break into a real person?
It’s like a big lump of marble, and you just start chipping. Hopefully, with every thing you learn, it will inform how to proceed. It learns as you do it. There was a deposition video with very revealing moments. Then, if you’re lucky, you have someone like you [showrunner] Danny Strong at the helm, who knows his stuff inside out and has the wherewithal to track down things he doesn’t know. It grew and changed over the months we worked on it. That was exciting.
Richard’s uncle was pharmaceutical marketing pioneer Arthur Sackler. What about the family dynamics helped you in your portrayal?
That Arthur and his brothers Mortimer and Raymond were poor grocers in Brooklyn. Her father was a lovely guy with a big heart who would help anyone and lost his business as a result. Arthur had to help out, made tons of money and brought his brothers into the pharmaceutical business. The shadow he cast was that undeniable thing for Richard, who grew up trying to find his own way in the world. I think it was important for him to make a name for himself.
Richard Sackler expresses the need to rid the world of pain. What do you think was his own special pain?
He felt like a lone wolf. And that he had something big to prove. He went as far as he could to prove it over and over again [a family] who didn’t think much of him. There is something in our story that is reminiscent of Richard III, of “I will do what I do”. He has his ambitions and he’s more successful than he ever thought possible. But I don’t know if it makes him happier.
Did Richard Sackler equate self-esteem with acceptance of his “miracle drug”?
Yes. He felt that if used as directed by a doctor, it would heal someone’s pain. The problem is the blind spot that it was addictive and they lied about it and he just stuck to his guns when it came to blaming people who abused them for every addiction. He took no responsibility for it.
A hallmark of your accomplishments is Sackler’s lack of enthusiasm for success. There’s an attitude of you looking at a vacation website and your expression is, “Why am I doing this?”
He was so excited about going through with this idea that it put his entire other life on hold indefinitely. “I can’t go on vacation. I can never go on vacation. I do not have time for that. I have to let this go because no one else is able to.”
He won’t even bother to remove a despised piece of art from his Uncle Arthur’s collection that’s hanging on the bedroom wall and put up something he has himself does how.
Right, because it feeds him. This is the person who texted Danny, the guy who puts a multimillion dollar thing on his wall because it annoys him. He hates it every day and it allows him to wake up in the morning and remember why he’s here, what he’s trying to do, who he wants to be. That was taller than Arthur.
Have you ever heard of a member of the Sackler family playing him?
One of their lawyers reached out to us to discuss their perspective on the project. But I was told that it would be best if our legal department met with them. So I never had a face-to-face interaction with any of them. It would have been fascinating, I’m sure. And I haven’t heard anything [since], and I don’t expect it. And that’s okay. Other times when I’ve played real people, I’ve met them, and most of the time it’s really wonderful. But it can also get complicated.
“Dopesick” left a deep impression on viewers. If you didn’t already know the Sackler family from news reports or Beth Macy’s source book or Patrick Radden Keefe’s exposé “Empire of Pain,” this show was an eye-opener. Did you feel this effect?
When something strikes a chord with people, they’re happy to have been there. And in my experience they are rare. What I keep learning is what a profound effect this drug has had on so many lives, ruining people, their families and the lives of friends. what addiction is. In a way, I hope that no one feels alone anymore going through these circumstances. It’s a beast. And I’m just grateful to have been a part of it.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-08-16/michael-stuhlbarg-richard-sackler-dopesick The actor behind the guy you hated on ‘Dopesick’