Rosario Dawson on DOPESICK, the Opioid Crisis and Representing – Leslie Combemale interviews.

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The new limited series Dopesick focuses on the early days of the opioid crisis in America, spurred on by the release of OxyContin into the marketplace by Purdue Pharma, a company privately owned by the Sackler family. Nearly all the characters are created as amalgams of real life people. Rosario Dawson plays DEA agent Bridget Meyer, who is working to get Oxycontin more tightly controlled. Purdue falsely promoted the drug as addictive to only 1% of the population, then sent it into targeted regions filled with working class laborers with physically demanding and pain inducing jobs. Though the show is a narrative drama with fictional characters, Dopesick illuminates the real-world consequences of criminal behavior by both Purdue and the Sackler family. I spoke to Rosario Dawson about her character, on who is definitely badass, opinionated, and dogged in her pursuit of justice, but also a great representation of a Latina in the corporate world.

Leslie Combemale: Your character Bridget Meyer is absolutely 100% determined and tenacious, which I think will resonate with lots of viewers. Did you have any role models for your portrayal?

Rosario Dawson: Very much so. I was thinking about my grandmother. There’s a scene a couple of episodes in where she’s really making some headway. She’s been promoted. She’s gotten the Sacklers to actually sit down at a meeting. She gets this information though, while she’s being berated for being ‘too much’. She’s told she’s too difficult, that she doesn’t have the gift of gab, and doesn’t know how to finesse a room. She’s being put down because she’s a woman. She’s doing things differently than the powers-that-be, and now that she’s getting some success, the guys are ready to swoop, take control, and say, ‘Maybe you need to sit this one out’. There’s this moment where you get to see how much that emotionally affects her. We did the shot, which is directed by Patricia Riggen, and Bridget is walking in and crying in the bathroom. And she just takes a moment, to just let out the frustration and disappointment and the hurt, and then she wipes her tears away, and she goes back in, and she makes her decision. She goes into that meeting that she was told not to go into. She goes in anyway. But it just made me think of all the different times for my grandmother, who was the secretary to the Vice President of Swiss Bank Corporation in the World Trade Center. She would have to commute all the way from deep Brooklyn. I mean, talk about trains and buses. She got up super early in the morning, she dressed impeccably, and she was from Puerto Rico, so she had a very thick accent, and she was beloved there. The people she was translating and doing materials for made the company look so good, and she was integral to that. She was really well-loved. She told me how many times she had to just say, ‘I may speak with an accent, but I don’t think with one.’ She would tell me how much she was put down, and how much she just had to fight and bring dignity to spaces that refused to dignify her. That’s what I felt in that room, as I’m walking in this power suit and thinking, ‘I just feel like I’ve been made small for no reason of my own.’ This is the greater world that I have to deal with, so I’m going to let that frustration wash over me, then I’m going to keep pushing.

LC: You really couldn’t ask for better inspiration than your grandmother, it sounds like.

RD: Yes. Thank God for those people who are human, feel that pain, and persevere anyway. Those are the types of women, like Dolores Huerta and Jane Fonda, those women you think about who just really broke through barriers that made people very uncomfortable, until they stopped being so uncomfortable, because it became more and more normalized. Bridget was representing that figure. I’m sure there are a lot more women in those offices and spaces now, and the Overton Window is shifting, especially after Time’s Up and the #MeToo movements have just led to such incredible organizing. There’s just a space, a narrative, a communication, and a language now that really puts women in a position to fight back in a way that they were having to do solely on their own in the past. There were just moments like that, that I kept feeding into how solitary her experience was, even in the midst of working with all these colleagues, because her particular position, and how she was treated in it, was very specific to the fact that she was a woman. They didn’t like being called out by a woman, but she just had to stomach that and say, ‘Well, that’s too bad, because someone’s got to say it, and you’re not, so it’s gonna be me’.

LC: Before we move on, what is your grandmother’s name so we can give her due credit?

RD: Isabel.

LC: Thank you, Isabel! Bridget is definitely a strong female character, and yet she sacrifices so much. She has this really important mission that she feels so strongly about that’s so much bigger than her. I wish it was outdated, but there are a lot of parallels between her experience and what’s happening now in many facets of society. Women, and even more-so women of color, have been disproportionately affected by the COVID pandemic. What kind of discussions were there, even if it was inside your head, about that part of her story, and how it paralleled what’s happening now?

RD: There are so many parallels to now, and there are so many parallels to the past. I was grateful that I had at least the one scene where I got to allude to the very failed war on drugs that specifically targeted Black and Brown communities, with just incarceration, aggression, and a hostile system. It was the Three Strikes rule. This has had a generational impact.

LC: Absolutely.

RD: Now, that’s what’s happening right now with this crisis, when we’re not addressing helping specific essential workers, who disproportionately are Black and Brown and women, because they can’t socially distance, because they don’t have a living wage, from which they can have a space in their home that’s big enough to make sure that their family members can be safe. They can’t take time off of work. They can’t work remotely. All of these different institutionalized and systemic issues of racism, prejudice, discrimination, and misogyny, when a crisis like this happens, it just explodes the disparity, and makes it even worse as the generations move on. That’s what we’re seeing when you’re looking at the numbers of people lost to COVID, when you’re looking at the people lost to these Three Strike rules, and to the crack cocaine epidemic that was not treated like how we’re treating this moment with the opioid crisis. We are failing on the opioid crisis, but it’s definitely a lot better conversationally then we saw with the complete lack of compassion and full aggression during the 80s and 90s. To see how that was compounded and brought us to this moment, it’s stunning.

LC: There have always been people trying to make a difference, but unfortunately there are folks like the Sacklers.

RD: Yes. Thank God for the activists and the organizers of that time, who were doing harm reduction practices. They were saying, ‘The government and all of these entities are very slow to address this HIV/AIDS epidemic, but we are going to figure out ways of protecting our community, and we’re going to do things that maybe don’t make people comfortable, like handing out clean needles, and making sure that people have certain kinds of housing, and not putting people down for doing sex work, which is so much more in the conversation now, but I knew those activists and organizers back then who were doing it, because they saw that no one was going to come to the rescue. If they didn’t figure out a solution, they were just going to keep burying their friends.

LC: It’s always the activists making people uncomfortable, but also making change.

RD: To see that build up, you know, the response to crises, generation after generation, when you’re seeing the powers-that-be just not care, and not prioritize very vulnerable communities, and actually only continuing to add to the stresses and the issues by not doing better with legislation, it puts us in this moment again. The veil is lifted back not just on this show and in this crisis, but during COVID, to remind us we have not figured it out. We can’t start clapping for essential workers at 7pm, and then not fight for them to get a living wage and health care and housing. All those dots need to be connected. It’s so powerful for a story like this to show it within this crisis, and allude to some of those other ones, but definitely, I felt like for my character, and what I brought to the show, was really wanting to bring that narrative to it, and not letting anyone off the hook or forget people’s responsibility and accountability in making things better.

LC: Apart from the issue around the disparity between white folks and Black and Brown folks, you’re also talking about class, and the wealthy and poor having a deeper and deeper chasm between each other. In Dopesick, it shows Purdue targeting working class parts of the country, and, from their perspective, when those targeted folks get addicted and die, it’s not a big deal. The same thing is happening now with COVID. Working class people who can’t afford to stay socially distanced, working on the front lines, while meanwhile the wealthy are becoming wealthier, because they’re benefiting from all the opportunities, like remote work, that some had during COVID.

RD: Now we’re seeing people voting against themselves and their best interests because of misinformation and disinformation online. It just shows you how important a narrative is. It’s interesting to see communities that actually have a lot in common, and could be working together as working class, lower income, fighting-for-a-living-wage workers. That’s the march that Martin Luther King was wanting to do on Washington. It was the poor people’s march. He was allowed to tell his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, but when he started trying to get Black, white and Brown people together, and get a real class fight, he was assassinated. It’s so important to really see the history and really see what the narrative was at the time, and see who benefited from having that voice and that type of organizing not go forward. Even now, when you try to galvanize all of us together, which inevitably would start a class war, so many people in power do not want that to happen.

LC: Shows like Dopesick can have an impact on this, or at least I hope so.

RD: Exactly. That’s why I think something like this show is even more profound. Not only is it showing the gap between those in power and those being taken advantage of, engendering more humanity and compassion and empathy, and exposing and holding people accountable and celebrating true heroes, it also comes at a time when we have the Sackler Act that could pass in Congress. That could actually legislatively change the game, so folks can’t just hide behind their company’s bankruptcies and not be held accountable. That would be hugely powerful. So I really hope that people watch this, and they get outraged, in a way that is informed and intentional. A show like this helps to do that. Otherwise, what is the counter narrative? A podcast? A letter to the editor? They don’t give you the full breadth of what’s happening. I think this show, and why we’re in DC pushing it, is about the fact that we are not just trying to entertain people with this. We really care, and want this to be something that profoundly changes the game. You could feel it from every single person in the crew, because I have family and friends who have succumbed to the opioid crisis. 2020 had a record high of overdoses, and 75% of those overdoses were opioids. So this is an ongoing thing, and we need to do something about it, and hopefully the show motivates people to do just that.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dopesick is streaming on Hulu. Produxed and created by Danny /strong, it stars Michael Keaton, Peter Saarsgard, Will Poulter, Kaitlyn Dever, Michael Stuhlbarg and Rosario Dawson.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.