West Duchovny “Saw A Lot Of” Herself In Painkiller’s Shannon Schaeffer

Her sales rep character represents OxyContin’s “many adjacent victims.”

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West Duchovny plays Shannon Shaeffer in 'Painkiller' Episode 3, via Netflix's press site
Keri Anderson/Netflix

A fictionalized retelling of events, Netflix’s Painkiller explores some of the origins and aftermath of the opioid crisis in America, following the perpetrators, victims, and truth-seekers whose lives are altered by the invention of OxyContin. While researching the limited series, executive producer Alex Gibney discovered videotapes of sales reps for the drug’s manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, singing about selling OxyContin to the tune of “Shout” by the Isley Brothers. “The level of pride taken in selling all of these opioids to so many people, so rapaciously, was a shocker,” he said in a promotional interview. To portray that side of the story, the team created the character Shannon Schaeffer (West Duchovny), an ex-college athlete and new recruit to the Purdue sales team.

“Shannon is representative of the many adjacent victims of OxyContin who never even took it, and I think that’s an important story to tell,” executive producer Eric Newman explained. “To get a true sense of the destructive power of opioids, you have to go beyond just the number of deaths. You must imagine not only all the people whose lives have been touched by those deaths, but also the many unwitting players who took part in the opioid machine and must live with that.”

Keri Anderson/Netflix

Though Shannon initially finds ways to justify her increasingly lucrative job with Purdue Pharma, her conscience eventually takes over, and she provides evidence to attorney Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba). “I think Shannon’s a really relatable character, and I saw a lot of myself in her,” West, whose parents are actors David Duchovny and Téa Leoni, added. “I think a theme for her is recognition for success and just trying to do good and grappling with the pressures of money and how that changes you, but ultimately really wanting to do good and make a difference in the world.”

Though Duchovny’s character is fictional, there were several whistleblowers in real-life. After starting work as a Purdue Pharma sales rep in 1999, Steven May, for example, later alleged fraud against Purdue as a participant in a whistleblower lawsuit. “At the time, we felt like we were doing a righteous thing,” May shared in Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2017 The New Yorker article, “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain,” on which the Netflix series is partly based, adding that he used to tell himself, “There’s millions of people in pain, and we have the solution.” Years after he left the company, May initiated a whistleblower suit, which was dismissed, on procedural grounds.

Another former Purdue Pharma employee, Carol Panara, also claimed to CBS News in 2018 that she was trained to address doctors’ concerns about addiction by suggesting patients could be experiencing “pseudoaddiction,” meaning that the person might only appear to be addicted, when in fact they're just in pain. "We had no studies,” Panara, who joined the company in 2008, claimed. “That's the thing that was kind of disturbing, was that we didn't have studies to present to the doctors.”

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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