During her relatively brief career, Kaitlyn Dever has amassed an impressive list of credits on her resume. The 25-year-old first rose to fame for her guest starring role as wayward teenager Loretta McCready on the FX crime drama Justified. She proved her acting skills by playing star Tim Allen’s youngest daughter on the ABC (and later Fox) sitcom Last man standingthen again alongside Beanie Feldstein in the 2019 coming-of-age comedy Library. Her role in the 2019 Netflix limited series Unbelievablein which she played a sexual assault survivor forced to recant, put her on the awards circuit for the first time when she earned a 2020 Golden Globe nomination.
His last performance, on Hulu’s Dope, for which she received her first Emmy nomination, was no less daunting. Dever stars as Betsy Mallum, a closeted lesbian in a small town in Virginia’s Appalachian region who, like many of her neighbors, works as a coal miner. But when a work injury leaves her with chronic pain, she turns to Dr. Samuel Finnix (another Emmy nominee Michael Keaton), who prescribes her OxyContin. With the new wonder drug developed by Purdue Pharma only recently hitting the market, neither Betsy nor Dr. Finnix are aware of its highly addictive properties. As doctor and patient struggle with their own issues of opioid addiction, Betsy’s life spirals out of control as she harms her loved ones as well as herself.
Dever spoke with THR on the responsibility of playing an addiction-ridden character with humanity and nuance, how she managed to follow Betsy’s journey while filming the series out of order, and why the limited series is, in her mind, one of most important projects she has ever worked on.
What drew you to this field?
The role of Betsy struck me immediately. She’s such a powerful character and she’s so resilient in so many ways. The first episode – the whole series, really – broke my heart. When I read the first episode, I fell in love with Betsy, and I had to play her. I felt such a great responsibility there to take on that kind of role. I am eternally grateful to [creator and director] Danny Strong for trusting me and allowing me to take on such an important role. This is such an important story that deserved to be told. And obviously working with Michael Keaton was a dream of mine, and Danny Strong made that dream come true in many ways.
Can you tell me more about the responsibility you felt? It’s already such a difficult role on a show that deals with serious matters. How did you prepare for Betsy’s trip?
I did a ton of research before doing this project, and it impacts your life and completely changes your brain chemistry. What I learned the most about addiction is that it’s different for everyone and it’s not black or white. Betsy is a composite character, so she truly represents all victims of the opioid crisis. Knowing that made me feel even more responsible for making sure every ounce of this character was correct. I had to give this character my all, and I completely forgot how I felt some days because it’s one of the biggest stories impacting our culture right now. And it’s been far too long.
I researched everything I could. There’s a lot of facts you can find on the internet, you know, but there’s also emotionally [getting into] this headspace. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had creating something. I had crew members coming up to me while we were filming, basically opening up to me and being willing to share their own stories similar to Betsy’s – it happened constantly. It was a constant reminder of why we were doing this show.
This work must have been so intense, and I imagine the feedback has really enriched the experience.
It was intense, but that emotion and energy is important – everyone poured [that] in this show. It was totally worth it, because we all knew we were doing something really, really special. And that’s something that I believe has created social change. In general, I feel like we all went to work knowing that we were doing something really, really well, and all the hard work that we put in… You could feel it everywhere, which is an amazing feeling.
I read that you used a spreadsheet to organize your character’s arc. Is this a typical process for you?
There’s no real formula going into a role like this. I had to treat it as a singular thing. I watched as many documentaries as possible, as well as YouTube videos. I read the book [Dopesick by executive producer and writer] Beth Macy, who was super helpful and informative. But we were shooting everywhere, because [with a TV] series, you don’t have the possibility of filming everything in order. There were times when we were shooting episodes two and seven in one day. For Betsy, it’s a big leap – a leap of years. I really wanted to be so specific about every scene I did, so I created a spreadsheet for each episode so I could track her journey and where she was emotionally. Betsy in episode one is so drastically different from Betsy in episode four. Especially keeping track of the level of withdrawals she was going through…it’s such a trip up and down.
Is there a scene that stands out as being particularly difficult to film?
Oh man, there are so many special scenes in the show, [like] in episode five, when Betsy has to steal her mother’s jewelry to sell to get more Oxy. As far as my thoughts on the scene and also what I thought the audience would think of that scene at the time, I just felt like it was going to resonate with a lot of people. It was truly such a heartbreaking time for Betsy and her family, and you realize that person has nowhere to go. She’s tried everything, and it’s literally impossible [for her] Stop [using]. It was the most heartbreaking scene to shoot. This whole sequence where Betsy picks up all her pigtails that she’s spent her life working on, and she’s going to burn them in the yard. This whole sequence with the family was one of the most difficult scenes I had to do. Again, you feel so much for this character and your heart breaks so much for her.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the August 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.