Kaitlyn Dever: “I want to give a voice to the voiceless”

After breaking out in 'Booksmart', the young star is determined to spotlight injustice. Next up? Big Pharma victims in new drug drama 'Dopesick'

Kaitlyn Dever refuses to believe that she’s made it. The 24-year-old actor, musician, producer, Golden Globe nominee, breakout star of Booksmart, scene sharer with Michael Keaton and scene stealer in, well, everything she does, just can’t do it.

“It feels like I’m starting over each time,” she says, beaming across at NME from a posh armchair in Soho’s Corinthia Hotel – her pink trouser suit perfectly in keeping with the snazzy surroundings. “I start from scratch and each experience has its own mindset. I never want to feel like I’ve stopped learning.”

As Betsy Mallum in ‘Dopesick’. CREDIT: Alamy

Making up for lost time – thanks COVID – Dever’s about to enter a jam-packed period. She has four projects currently in production, and a blockbuster musical at cinemas. Her next release is Dopesick – this autumn’s must-watch miniseries, which is all about the US opioid crisis.

“I was infuriated. I was angry. I was heartbroken,” Dever says of first reading the script for the Disney+ show. Based on Beth Macy’s 2018 non-fiction bestseller, Dopesick pulls back the curtain on damning practices used by major pharmaceutical companies, namely Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sackler family. Purdue launched “miracle drug” OxyContin in 1996, which promised to revolutionise the medication of severe pain. Instead, ‘Oxy’ arguably caused the worst drugs disaster America has ever seen – a wave of addiction still wreaking havoc today.

“I’m addicted to acting”

Dever plays Betsy Mallum, a fictional lesbian coal miner living in Virginia who dreams of a bigger life for herself but falls victim to the drug. Betsy is prescribed an ever-increasing dose of Oxy by her doctor Samuel Finnix (Keaton), after he’s assured by pharmaceutical salesmen that this is the wonder-pill his patients have been waiting for. Unfortunately, even bigger problems lie just around the corner.

The series is deeply harrowing – a raw, arresting depiction of these ruined lives. Dever stands out thanks to her vulnerable performance which sensitively depicts Betsy’s trauma. “I didn’t know much about the injustice of the epidemic or how it started,” she says. “I can speak for a lot of my friends, too – we knew the opioid crisis existed but really little beyond that. It’s important that people know the truth.”

She was determined to “shed light on a story that was buried” – and was particularly thankful for all the things this young woman represented. “I was excited we were bringing queer representation to this story. I was excited that she was a female coal miner – that’s not something people necessarily think is a job for a woman,” she adds. Betsy speaks to Dever’s desire to play characters that film and television often overlooks (a queer teen in Booksmart; a rape survivor in Unbelievable; a young woman struggling with addiction in Beautiful Boy). These people, she believes, have important stories to tell – and need a sensitive, fearless performer brave enough to step forward. Why not her?

Alongside BFF Beanie Feldstein in ‘Booksmart’. CREDIT: Alamy

Dever’s rise to the top, while compelling, isn’t all that surprising. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, she’s the eldest of three sisters (and makes music with younger sister Mady, their debut folk-pop EP as Beulahbelle coming very soon). At five, she went to acting school, which she immediately loved. Then the family moved to Dallas after dad Tim got a gig voicing Barney the Purple Dinosaur, at which point Kaitlyn started focusing on the stage. She’d been doing gymnastics, ballet and skating since early childhood, but acting was the thing that really stuck.

“Challenging myself and working a different part of my brain is nerve-wracking,” Dever says, “But I’m addicted to it.” In 2011 she bit the bullet and moved to Los Angeles, picking up her first big-screen credit in Jake Kasdan’s ensemble comedy Bad Teacher, alongside Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake and Jason Segal.

Looking at Dever’s CV, something that jumps out is how lucky she’s been in terms of who she’s worked with. Co-stars include Leonardo DiCaprio (J Edgar), Brie Larson (The Spectacular Now), John Boyega (Detroit) and Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), along with directors Jason Reitman (The Front Runner) and Olivia Wilde (Booksmart). She says soaking up as much as possible from experienced colleagues is a big part of her success: “I become a sponge on each project I do. I tend to study people and take their mannerisms and energy onto the next job.”

“‘Dopesick’ is important – people should know the truth about the opioid crisis”

So we might be seeing some Michael Keaton-style freakouts from Dever very soon? She laughs, before deflecting like a seasoned pro. “Michael is so grounded,” she says. “The baseline of his work is so honest, you can’t help but believe everything he says. And I love Batman, I love Beetlejuice, but more than anything, I love Jack Frost! It was so important to me growing up – I’ve never had the courage to tell him that.”

Another person Dever’s learned a lot from is Booksmart co-conspirator Beanie Feldstein – her Hollywood BFF. Together they blew up the box office with 2019’s surprise summer hit, playing two academic superstars who try to cram in years worth of partying into one, massive night. Kaitlyn and Beanie lived together while shooting the film, and have stayed close even as their lives have changed.

“The friendship is growing every day,” Dever gushes. “I fall in love with Beanie more and more as the years go on.” Booksmart was both actors’ big break – but what came next for Dever was arguably even more important career-wise: a Golden Globe-nominated turn in the 2019 Netflix miniseries Unbelievable.

Kaitlyn Dever
‘Unbelievable’ earned Dever a Golden Globe nomination in 2019. CREDIT: Netflix

It was that gig that made it all click for Dever, in terms of the stories she wants to tell – and how to tell them. In Unbelievable – based on the 2008-2011 Washington and Colorado serial rape cases – she played Marie Adler, a survivor of sexual assault wrongly charged with lying about being raped. Like Dopesick, it’s an often upsetting and maddening watch – but a real testament to Dever’s abilities. “I have a tendency to forget how I’m feeling, to forget myself and pour everything into the role,” she says. “[The story feels] so much bigger than me. Immediately, it just becomes so important.”

She won’t deny how nourished she felt by Booksmart (“I watch it all the time when I’m sad! It’s a time capsule for that time in my life when I was having so much fun”) but wants to fulfil a sense of duty and “give a voice to the voiceless”. She explains: “I realised in the last few years that you can do what you love and be part of projects that are filled with joy – and you can also do what you love on projects that have an impact on the world in dealing with social issues. I really experienced that for the first time with Unbelievable. The aftermath of that show, with people feeling comfortable enough to share their stories with me. It made me want to do more where I could see the impact of a project doing good.

“The #MeToo movement began as we were starting pre-production on Unbelievable, and it’s still going on every day,” she adds. “We need to keep telling these stories and demand change. There is so much we can do – it’s a matter of making conscious choices. I’m learning every day about my voice as a woman in the workplace, learning how to speak up when I see something wrong. Because if you speak up, you do see change.”

“If you speak up, you do see change”

Dever nods to women she’s met at work who continue to galvanise her, including Dopesick co-star Rosario Dawson, who came out as bisexual last year in a bid to express clear, bold allyship with the LGBTQ+ community. “I didn’t work with [Rosario] on set but she’s truly incredible,” Dever says. “I admire her activism and work so much, I really look up to her.

She adds: “I feel so lucky to have worked as much as I have, and I was so aware of that on Dopesick too. Like, I got to work in the middle of a pandemic, we got to tell this really special story, and I’m literally three feet from Michael Keaton?!”

So now that she’s met actual Batman (sorry, Jack Frost) and manifested meaningful social change, what’s next? “I just want to work with good people and continue to be happy,” she says. In the foreseeable future, that’ll involve a revisionist Shakespeare adaptation called Rosaline – retooling Romeo and Juliet by spotlighting the titular character played by Dever, who just so happens to be Juliet’s cousin and Romeo’s ex. Then there’s the six-month trip to Australia to film romantic comedy Ticket to Paradise, playing the daughter of Julia Roberts and George Clooney. Still not made it? Is she sure? “I can’t!” laughs Dever. “I’m going to have to calm down before I meet them – but you’re right, I can probably call it then.” Finally, we’re making progress.

‘Dopesick’ streams on Disney+ from November 12