The Friday Night Lights alum digs deep to play a man addicted to opioids in the new limited series.
For Taylor Kitsch, joining the cast of the scripted limited series Painkiller was a “no-brainer” for several personal reasons. One, it was another chance to collaborate with executive producer and director Pete Berg, who worked with Kitsch on his breakout role as Tim Riggins in the 2006 football drama Friday Night Lights.
“He’s like an older brother to me,” Kitsch said of Berg on the set of Painkiller in early 2022, prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike. “We’ve been through a lot, and when I got this call, it was quite simple, to be honest.” After Friday Night Lights, Kitsch and Berg teamed up on the 2012 blockbuster Battleship and again on 2013’s Lone Survivor. “You already have that trust,” said Kitsch, “and the shorthand is really important as well.”
That trust was necessary in grappling with the heavy subject matter of Painkiller, a fictionalized retelling of some of the origins of the opioid epidemic that is believed to have caused over 300,000 American overdose deaths over the last two decades. The six-episode series hones in on an ensemble of characters to tell a broader story: Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick), the billionaire senior executive at Purdue Pharma who pushes the wide distribution of opiates for profit; Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba), an investigator at the US Attorney’s office who chases down answers about OxyContin; Shannon Schaeffer (West Duchovny), a recent college grad who’s recruited to Purdue to sell the drugs directly to doctors; and Glen Kryger (Kitsch), a mechanic who, after getting injured on the job, is prescribed OxyContin, which traps him in a vicious cycle of addiction.
Although Glen is a wholly fictional character, he’s the series’ main face of OxyContin’s devastating effects — another reason why Kitsch felt a personal responsibility in portraying Glen’s struggle. Kitsch has watched people close to him fight addiction. “Man, it’s pretty close to me, this thing,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think we’re all one degree away from someone who’s an addict.”
Authentically capturing Glen’s attempts at detoxing as he hides the seriousness of his addiction from his wife Lily (Carolina Bartczak) and stepson Tyler (Jack Mulhern) required some creative risk-taking from both Kitsch and Berg. Berg’s directing style, which Kitsch knows well, is dynamic and at times improvisational to keep the performances raw and real. “Sometimes he tries to get you out of your own head or your own way,” said Kitsch. “You don’t get faulted for mistakes — he just pushes you left or right. He keeps the set very alive and you move quick.”
The conversation about the opioid epidemic is far from over, as everyone involved in Painkiller understands, and Kitsch hopes his portrayal of Glen helps continue the conversation and remove some of the stigma and shame about addiction. “I’m very lucky to have served a lot of true stories and heavy things,” said Kitsch. “And this is right up there for me in the sense of purpose, of why I get to do what I do.”
Painkiller is now streaming on Netflix.