David Yates is trading Harry Potter for painkillers.
The director of the final four movies in that fantastical franchise, as well as all three Fantastic Beasts films, is taking on the pharmaceutical industry for Pain Hustlers, his upcoming Netflix feature inspired by Evan Hughes' newly retitled book, Pain Hustlers: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup. EW has an exclusive look inside the movie, which stars Chris Evans as Zanna Therapeutics sales rep Pete Brenner and Emily Blunt as Liza Drake, a desperate but business-savvy single mom who weasels her way into a job at the company, peddling its pain medication designed for cancer patients to doctors.
And there's not a spell or potion to be found. Which is exactly what Yates was looking for. "I spent such a long time on green-screen studios creating these massive environments and these crazy creatures. So, it was really going back to my roots. It's going way back," Yates tells EW ahead of the movie's debut this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, citing his pre-Potter work in TV period dramas and thrillers for getting the attention of Hollywood. "There wasn't a visual effect in sight [in those television series]. So the beauty of Pain Hustlers for me was to come back to those roots, to come back to where the most exciting thing in a scene is an authentic moment between two actors rather than a big special effect. It was a welcome return to doing things that I'd done a lot of previous to entering the Harry Potter world."
Brian Douglas/Netflix Emily Blunt and Chris Evans in 'Pain Hustlers'
Where recent limited series Dopesick and Painkiller offered fictionalized versions of Purdue Pharma executives, the Sackler family, and the company's infamous drug OxyContin, Pain Hustlers focuses on "the people on the front line."
"I've always been fascinated by salespeople and what they do and the moral side of the pharma industry when they're hustling to make money," explains Yates. "Elements of the story are obviously consistent to what Evan Hughes documented in his book, but we created Liza Drake, we created the relationship she has with her daughter, Phoebe, just as a way of allowing the audience to connect with a single character and carry us through the story."
Liza is without question a good mother, a fierce protector of and provider for her teenage daughter who has a medical condition of her own. That mama bear mentality means Liza is resourceful and tenacious — she's the one who convinces a doctor to prescribe Zanna's drug, to huge gains — but also flawed to a fault in this anti-hero's journey.
"Emily loved the character and she loved the idea of this story. I think what appealed to her more than anything was the fact that we were not taking a very straightforward approach to the story. It's a bit subversive, it's a bit naughty, it's got some humor at play," Yates recalls of the Oppenheimer and A Quiet Place star's interest in the movie. (Blunt is also one of Pain Hustlers' executive producers). "She said, 'You know what, David? I'm so sick of seeing leading female characters who have to be so honorable and straightforward.' What she loved about Liza is she's sometimes a little bit shady to get the deal done and fulfill her ambition, and she gets taken up by the whole rollercoaster of it. And I think what we both love about that character is the fact that Liza is fallible, ultimately, and she sort of loses her way a little bit in the moral maze of it all. And I think Emily was excited by creating that character for the audience to see a woman who's fallible and culpable and accountable for her actions."
Guiding Liza through the ins and outs of their job is Evans' Brenner. Equally driven by the money, he's a far cry from the good-guy superhero Evans portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
"I love whenever you take an actor who's known for a certain body of work and you invert and turn it upside down," says Yates. "I know he's been working to subvert that in other roles. So for me, it was just too much of a delight not to bring him in. [Turning] the guy who plays Captain America so beautifully... into a sleepy pharma rep was tempting, and I think he really enjoyed that journey. I think he really relished it and leaned into it and found layers and levels in it that were quite fun."
Brian Douglas/Netflix Andy Garcia and Chris Evans in 'Pain Hustlers'
But there's no fun to be had where Andy Garcia's billionaire doctor Jack Neel is concerned. He developed Lonafan, the pain medication that Zanna is trying to break into the marketplace. Acutely focused on the business, he's also paranoid about keeping his hands clean of any dirty behind-the-scenes deeds.
"He's slightly unpredictable. He's kind of oddly fragile, but he's quite explosive and people are very wary of him," Yates says of the doctor. "He's the boss and people are very, very aware that he's eccentric and you have to sort of tiptoe around him a wee bit, and he can go off like a volcano at any point. And Andy loved doing that."
Brian Douglas/Netflix Catherine O'Hara and Emily Blunt in 'Pain Hustlers'
Catherine O'Hara, on the other hand, injects the movie with some of its lighter moments as Liza's mom Jackie, who also becomes a Zanna sales rep.
"She's such a gifted comedian, and given that the tone of the movie required that skill set, it was great to have her as part of the troop and the company. She sort of helps enormously bring that element of humor into our story," Yates says of the Schitt's Creek Emmy winner. "Whenever you cast something, you're always looking to bring someone in that people don't expect. It's a drama about the opioid crisis. So the last person you'd expect to cast is Catherine O'Hara."
Pain Hustlers opens in select theaters on Oct. 20 and will be available to stream Oct. 27 on Netflix.
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