DOPESICK Actor, Ian Unterman: The Rise and Fall of the Opioid Crisis in America

DOPESICK Actor, Ian Unterman: The Rise and Fall of the Opioid Crisis in America

Ian Unterman, born in Pittsburgh, yet growing up in Southern California, has made it to the big screen, once again. The DOPESICK actor had gone through various career ventures before acknowledging his passion for acting and directing. “I was really a math science kid all through high school,” Ian remembers. “And then when I started college, I thought I was going to be a bio major, but I wasn’t finding my spot. I took some time off and traveled and then decided to come back and sign up for a business program,”. 

As a way to balance his schedule, and while attending his business program, he decided to balance his schedule by taking acting 101, just to sort of do something fun aside from his accounting classes. Immediately, though, Ian fell in love with acting, which motivated him to start a theatre company with a couple of his friends, and, in turn, stage plays. 

“So from there on out, it was a downhill series of broad choices,” Ian confessed. Above all, “there wasn’t really a picture in my mind of what it would be like for me to be an actor except for I love being on stage and I’m going to go to New York.” He did just that; traveling from Charlottesville, Virginia, which, admittedly, he had thought was “outside the community theatre.” Still, he felt reassured: “I was like, oh, I can compete, and I can perform on this level with these people.  


The summer before his last year of school, Ian spent time in Williamstown, MA, where a group of 75 students had been assigned to work on shows and direct their own little shows, all while supporting the main stage. While there, he had the opportunity to work with movie stars, stage actors, “who I tremendously admire,” Ian says, but “who were all sort of going off into the world and going to New York or LA at the same time.” What seemed like a spark of passion, changed into a relentless drive with which Ian launched his career. With the support of his parents, in particular his mother, Ian expanded his repertoire, noting: “I immediately started to grow into that role a little bit because partially we needed a director and also because my brain does think in that way too. I like to think holistically about production from a director’s point of view.” Since then, he filmed a dance video for a company called Dance Cartel. Above all, he has been working as an associate director on Broadway with Alex Timbers, and in that role, they have directed the Pee-wee Herman show, in Los Angeles, and the Broadway hit ‘Rocky, the musical.’  

Securing the role to be on DOPESICK would soon come, but only in the fall in the middle of COVID. In August, spending a summer in Virginia, Ian points out: “It was a self-tape appointment. I recorded my lines on the phone and read across from myself, which is what I do often. It’s just me and my two phones. I sent off my tape and didn’t hear anything for a bit, but eventually, I got a callback and was told that Danny Strong loves you. I was flabbergasted. Then I didn’t hear back for a while again. As a result, I was sort of getting antsy because I had gotten the positive feedback, so I called to check in and they were like, ‘Yes, you’re in the mix,’ and that ‘they really like you.’ Soon after—and with merit—he received the final confirmation that he had secured his spot to be the brother to Richard Sackler: Jonathan Sackler.  

Working alongside Danny Strong, Barry Levinson, Rosario Dawson, and Michael Keaton, just to name a few, Ian hadn’t shied away from fully embracing the characteristics of Jonathan Sackler. “It’s nice to be able to go in and focus on what you’re bringing to the table, which can be sort of intimidating at that moment, but it was such a kind and generous group that I felt very supported.” It is that support that, with a certain fortitude, depicted the craft of DOPESICK not only as a response to the opioid crisis in the 20th century but as a response to the craftsmanship as a director. 

Ian would agree. “I think it’s the second episode, it’s one of the various episodes and we’re shooting this scene in the boardroom. And in this scene, Richard is walking around and he’s telling us about his plans for the company. And then through this glass panel or all these pharmaceutical representatives, as they all are milling about, but there’s this ping-pong table in the middle of the representatives. And two of them are playing ping pong throughout. It was this choice to have this juxtaposition here of this incredible light for virality. It almost reminds me of the boogie nights, the PT Anderson fireworks on a different level, but this odd juxtaposition sounds against this very scene. And in my mind, I was like, ‘this is such a bold choice.’ If I was seeing someone with less experience, I’d be like, ‘oh, boy. I wonder about that choice.’ And then to see it in the show, it’s credible. And it was cool to see that happening and be witness to see how the payoff works.’ 


Nevertheless, the first two scenes were directed by Barry Levinson, the second two by Michael Cuesta, the third two by Patricia Regan, and finally the last two by Danny Strong. Ian was determined to embody the wholeness of Jonathan Sackler, as the member of a powerful, elitist family and as the brother to Richard Sackler, who, in Ian’s mind, was “somewhere on the ASD spectrum a little bit. He does have a bit of a kind of flat affect, and he’s got this obsessive drive and this intensity. So, we played it in there also, partly because of these depositions of Richard Sackler he has a very odd effect. It’s a slightly suspended effect that he carries. So, for me, and for us, Jonathan is a little bit Richard, you know, the emotional touchstone in like a sidekick sense.” He continued: “And I think Jonathan feels some sort of, even though he’s a younger sibling, some protective instinct for Richard because Richard is very vulnerable as a human being, right? He doesn’t interact with the world. Well, I think that’s something I wanted to bring in. I also wanted to bring in a little bit of sibling rivalry” and in the end, he had to search for the “character’s intention,” and more importantly, “to humanize that person can be scary and threatening, right? If we find that thing where we’re like, ‘oh, I feel some kind of pity or some sort of empathy,’ is important because finding those moments highlights the negative. Finding those polarities, just opens the scene. It was about, for us, this family drive, right, this family expectation, this, ‘you’ve got these precedents who have been very successful in various markets, but we need to prove ourselves and be something bigger. I think Jonathan feels that pressure to a certain extent.”  

Reframing how to view our past is as much a public statement towards America’s dark history with opioids as it is a guidance, a voice to those who suffered, and unfortunately died at the hands of our medical system. Let this be a lesson: not everything you see, hear, or watch is credible. Sadly, toward the end of the show, and in which Ian drilled home, innocent lives were fumbled, only to be dropped and forgotten at the expense of their vulnerability to society at large.

“This company handled this drug. They intentionally started releasing it in West Virginia, Southern Virginia, Maine, Kentucky, and these places were hard labor places that are generally low socio income and, economically, because there’s a history of injury. They also have a history of listening to your doctor and just taking pills because that’s how you get your body through these very difficult manual labor jobs, like mining. They specifically chose not only situations where people would need it more but also where there was a mental capacity or rather a tendency to already be willing to do this, to just take your doctor’s advice.” Now, moving forward, what are you going to do?  

Images By Deborah Lopez