Painkiller‘s West Duchovny Wanted to Do Shannon Schaeffer Justice, Even If She Wasn’t Real
In Painkiller, Netflix’s new opioid epidemic drama, West Duchovny isn’t portraying a real person. But in a sense, she is. Her role of Shannon Schaeffer, an eager young sales rep for Purdue Pharma, is fictionalized but based on the real experiences of representatives who sold OxyContin to doctors. What’s also real is the harm they were complicit in. In this multifaceted ensemble saga—which follows a range of perspectives, from former Purdue Pharma president Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick) to an injured mechanic battling addiction (Taylor Kitsch)—Shannon offers a newcomer’s look inside the billion-dollar business that destroyed thousands of lives. And it’s not pretty.
Duchovny (yes, David is her dad; Téa Leoni is her mom) was fittingly cast. As an up-and-coming actor, she imbued the character with her own curiosity, even though Shannon’s situation is far more extreme. A fresh recruit from college, Shannon is naive and impressionable; she masters manipulation tactics quickly when Britt (Dina Shihabi), a more experienced rep, mentors her. For example, scenes in Painkiller show, as Patrick Radden Keefe reported in The New Yorker, that “Purdue instructed sales representatives to assure doctors—repeatedly and without evidence—that ‘fewer than one percent’ of patients who took OxyContin became addicted.” This stat proved to be dangerously wrong. Still, Shannon is removed enough to clock when something feels unethical. The rest of her colleagues are in too deep.
“That was a huge part of why I wanted to do her justice,” Duchonvy says of Shannon. “I think that she’s a really good person, and I also was super drawn to her power and her work ethic and her tenacity. And she wants so badly to do well, and I think that’s really honorable. And also, she wasn’t just that. There are ugly moments, and there are uncomfortable moments, and you’re disappointed by her at the same time.”
More From ELLE
Duchovny herself was “forced to reconcile” with the “mental gymnastics” Shannon went through to convince herself that she’s doing good in the world (and that her big bonus checks are justified). “I just think it’s such a lesson in the stories, and narratives, that we make up to let ourselves go to sleep at night.”
Duchovny didn’t think she would get cast. Even when she got her audition, she doubted she’d land the job “because I had really nothing to show for myself at that point, and I was like, it just feels out of the realm of possibility for me.” After sending in a tape, she expected multiple callbacks (“which I’d been through before to no avail,” she admits), but director Pete Berg invited her to lunch, during which he picked her brain about the character. Duchovny came prepared with ideas; she was “so obsessed” with Shannon. A week later, the role was hers. “I was with my mom, and my managers called me to tell me, and I was heaving, I was hyperventilating,” she says.
That phone call was in June of 2021, about two months before the shoot. She worked with her acting coach Warner Loughlin to “feel secure in the character,” but she strategically held back from research. (The script is adapted from the book Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic by Barry Meier and the New Yorker article “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe.) Barring what she’d heard about the Sackler family and the opioid crisis in the news, she wanted Shannon’s discoveries, and discomfort, to be as genuine as her own.
“I knew that there was material out there that I could look at, and I purposely chose not to, because my character is learning as she’s going, and I felt like, to have the evils in the back of my mind from the beginning—I’d just rather not. A lot of the nitty-gritty facts that I was learning through the scenes were so surprising, which felt really cool to be able to have a more authentic reaction.”
It was only afterwards that she dove into the source material and other data. “The reality of the situation is so unbelievable, and the more you find out about it, the more you learn about the details, the more unbelievable it becomes. So, it’s fascinating in a really horrific way.”
While Painkiller dramatizes and even satirizes parts of the opioid crisis, real people bring it back down to earth. Each episode begins with a disclaimer read by the family members of real victims who died due to OxyContin addiction and abuse. They then go on to commemorate their loved ones with photos and personal stories, often through tears. Duchovny says those scenes weren’t in the script; she didn’t know they would be added until she watched the episodes herself. “It’s an unavoidable reminder that this is happening to real people.”
And if anyone else was going to remind viewers that, it’s Uzo Aduba’s Edie Flowers, a no-B.S. lawyer at the U.S. attorney’s office tirelessly investigating OxyContin. Duchovny fawned at the prospect of sharing scenes with the Emmy winner. “I was so scared, and she gave me no reason to be scared as a human being. She’s so warm and so lovely, but I just have so much respect for her as an actor that obviously acting with her, [I was] so intimidated. And I think it, luckily, works for my character, because most of the scenes that I have with her, that’s the dynamic.”
A Netflix series is a major turning point for Duchovny, who previously appeared in SyFy’s The Magicians and Hulu’s Saint X earlier this year. Looking ahead, she hopes to play “female characters that are true to the human experience” and “that all their complexities are taken seriously, and they’re hard to figure out.” Her many dream collaborators include Sam Rockwell and Meryl Streep.
Given her name, Duchovny is clearly no stranger to the entertainment business, but she didn’t think she would follow in her parents’ acting footsteps. When she would visit them on sets as a kid, she and her brother cared more about the junk food that they weren’t allowed to eat in their healthy household. “We would just always raid craft service and then go to the trailer, and just eat,” she laughs, seated in the attic of her mom’s Connecticut home. “Maybe I watched a take here and there, but that was so not interesting.”
She was considering going pre-med before becoming an English major at Brown University, from which she graduated in December. But a play she did before college put her onto the whole acting thing. “I stayed so far away from acting for most of my life…I did a play right before college just for fun and was so confused. I’ve never felt this way about anything. I never felt so effortlessly passionate about something. I had all these things and endeavors that I was pursuing, but it didn’t feel natural in the way that it did when I acted. My parents were shocked. They were like, did not see it coming.”
Then came the challenge of juggling school and working as an actor—“it was definitely tough to balance the two.” Duchvony was at Brown when she filmed both Painkiller and Saint X. “I was taking reduced course loads, which is why it took me so long [to graduate], but I would go back to my trailer and do some work on my essay and then go to work. It was stressful, but I think it makes it more fulfilling to be like, ‘Oh, I did that.’”
Of course, it helps to have veteran actors in the family for guidance, and Duchovny knows how lucky she is. “It’s such a privilege to have two people that have been in the industry for so long to consult and ask questions,” she says, wearing a button-down handed down from her father. “And it’s scary. It’s a scary job, and so, to have people who know it so well, it’s really nice, but they totally stay out of my business and let me do my own thing…” Mom and dad are there for advice when she needs it, she says, “but they’re really respectful of letting me figure it out on my own.”
One thing she has figured out is that she wants to keep going. “I feel I’m new, and I’m so hungry for more, and I just want to keep working and being able to honor these stories that really make people feel.”
This interview was conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike.
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now.