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Acting Up: Will Poulter


Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.

 

The Snapshot:

Will Poulter plays a money-hungry pharmaceutical rep pushing OxyContin for diabolical drug company Purdue Pharma in the highly addictive Hulu limited series Dopesick.

(The series premiered in late October on Hulu and all eight episodes are now streaming.)

 

The Performance:

In the powerful limited series created by Danny Strong (based on the book by journalist Beth Macy), Dopesick gives an up-close look at the opioid crisis that’s plagued our country for too long. One where prescription pain pills (synthetic opioids) contribute to roughly 70 percent of overdose deaths in the United States — a staggering number that could’ve easily been avoided. 

For those who don’t know the story about how America got hooked, Dopesick is the best way to swallow the problem whole, in drama form, by way of a brilliant ensemble of actors.

In the first episode, we meet twenty-something pharmaceutical sales rep Billy Cutler (Will Poulter). He’s been hired to be part of “the largest sales force in pharmaceutical history.” As he sits in a sales training meeting designed to teach (or brainwash) reps on how to sell Purdue Pharma’s newest “miracle drug” OxyContin, we hear too-good-to-be-true claims touted that would make anyone take pause. Namely, that this time-release “magic pill” starring oxycodone as its primary ingredient can be used to treat “moderate pain” — from backaches to toothaches to hangovers.

That’s before the most damaging of bogus claims gets declared, courtesy of FDA-approved language. And that is — that less than 1% of people become addicted to OxyContin.

Billy is mildly skeptical at first, but eventually buys into the science and accepts gospel as truth, despite his conscience acting up from time to time. His soulless pursuit of money overwhelms his desire to pursue a line of questioning that nobody at Purdue wants to hear — especially Purdue President Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is agonizingly deceptive in his depiction.

Ultimately, that intoxicating claim about being non-addictive is what Billy (and other reps) hit the streets with and the trickle-down effect of these misbranded claims leads to a sobering reality where hardworking people and pharmacies get hooked on taking and selling opioids respectively. Then there are the doctors who put too much trust in Big Pharma’s claims. One of them is Dr. Samuel Finnix — a fictional character played adeptly by Michael Keaton (who’s already received several award noms for the role.) In these heartbreaking scenes, a father/son relationship dynamic forms between Billy and Finnix once he lets the devil walk in the door.

In a scene that likely represents how thousands of doctor/drug rep interactions go on a weekly basis, Billy shows up at Dr. Finnix’s office with a bucket of KFC (having intel that he is “a breast man”) asking if he “could take a few moments over Kentucky’s finest to tell [him] about a drug that is gonna change this mountain forever.” But since there’s no such thing as a free lunch, Billy finds his opening as they break bread — before introducing OxyContin as a narcotic that can cure moderate pain. After Finnix says he would never prescribe a narcotic for moderate pain, Billy persists with the FDA claim. That gets Finnix’s attention and becomes a pivotal moment in the series. As things play out in their relationship, Poulter continues to feed Finnix Purdue’s misguided science as his own moral compass struggles with the evidence of what’s playing out.

It doesn’t help that the woman he’s pursuing almost as aggressively as Finnix — a greedy Harvard-grad sales rep named Amber (played by Phillipa Soo) — keeps Billy’s heart on a string.

But even as the relationship with Amber seems harmless as a plot device, the damage he’s doing to Finnix is very real as he continues to dispense questionable Purdue science like “upping the dose” to defeat “breakthrough pain.” It sends Finnix to dark places and we start to see where this whole opioid thing has gone so wrong.

Through all of it, Poulter humanizes Billy’s moral dilemma, giving us a layered character that feels unquestionably American — even though Poulter the actor is actually not. As a result, we wonder how far a seemingly good human would go to dispense lies about a drug that’s killing people in large numbers, wrecking the lives of their families along the way. Ultimately, it’s all hard to watch — but it’s important to see — if just to learn how to avoid this tragedy in the future.

 

The Career:

When you first see the 28-year-old Poulter appear on screen, you might have the same first reaction I had: Hey, that’s the kid from We’re the Millers (2013). After all, this fresh and funny American comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis about a fake family that takes a road trip to Mexico to steal drugs from a cartel is one of my favorite comedies of the past decade.

In it, Poulter played the role of Kenny Rossmore, who comes into his own as an adolescent, a kisser, a drug mule, and all the other stuff that tends to affect teenage boys.

What you may not know about Poulter is that he’s British and has done many films over the years that have played across the pond. After reportedly training in the same drama program as Robert Pattinson at South London’s Harrodian School, Poulter gained notice for playing Eustace Scrubb in the fantasy adventure The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 2010 (the third film in the anthology). Amongst other notable projects, he’s also appeared in two Maze Runner movies (2014 & 2018), The Revenant (2015), Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018) and twisted folk horror flick Midsommar (2019) over the past decade. You may also remember Poulter for his chilling turn as a racist cop during the 1967 Detroit riots in Detroit (2017).

As for Dopesick, Poulter originally landed the role of Billy not knowing much about America’s opioid crisis, as he says in this interview. But thanks to Billy, he will inevitably become one of the faces people will remember for it — since he nails the role and accent so well.

As for the future, it looks like Poulter’s career is poised to take the next step as he is apparently “killing it” during the shooting of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, according to director James Gunn. Much like the tarantula bite Kenny sustains to his nether regions in We’re the Millers, it’s quite possible Poulter’s career will be swelling up before our very eyes in the years to come.

 
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Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.