Matthew Broderick’s last screen performance for the foreseeable future takes place over Zoom from his house in the Hamptons for an audience comprised of a Netflix assistant and me. It’s the day before the Screen Actors Guild goes on strike, shuttering TV shows, feature films, press junkets, the lot. Broderick can’t imagine how this particular drama plays out. He gestures at the clock on the wall and the door to the garden. He says, “Here we are. This scene could be it.”
He’s had a good innings, 61-year-old Broderick, and appears to be ageing at a slower rate than the rest of us. He was already in his mid-20s when he played the truant hero of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, riding his luck in 1980s Chicago. Since then his fanbase has grown old while he’s stayed much the same: fresh-faced and boyish, slightly rounded at the edges. “I always wanted to have a long career,” he says. “And it’s been 40 years, so I guess I must have done something right.”
If Broderick’s screen career is about to go dark, his role in Painkiller provides a rousing parting shot. The six-part Netflix series is a bustling exposé of the US’s opioid crisis, the latest salvo in a burgeoning subgenre which includes Laura Poitras’s award-winning documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Disney+ series Dopesick and Barbara Kingsolver’s bestselling novel Demon Copperhead. Broderick plays Richard Sackler, the disgraced former president of Purdue Pharma. It was Sackler who developed the opium-based OxyContin, engineered its approval by the US Food and Drug Administration and thereby became the nation’s most successful drug dealer. “All human life is a combination of two things,” Sackler (or at least Broderick’s version of him) explains. “Running away from pain and running towards pleasure.” OxyContin completed the circuit, bridged both impulses. It was the full-strength pain relief that became the heartland’s favourite legal high.
Based on work by investigative journalists Barry Meier and Patrick Radden Keefe, Painkiller is a coarse-grained social epic, angry and impassioned, intent on covering all bases. Having introduced us to Sackler in his sterile McMansion, the plot swings out through small-town Appalachia. It spotlights the good-hearted mechanic who’s sliding towards addiction; the “Malibu Barbie” sales reps who target the family GPs; the whole rotten Venn diagram of federal government and big pharma. In the past 20 years an estimated 300,000 Americans have died after overdosing on prescription pain meds. But this is an epidemic largely confined to rural working-class communities. The consequences of OxyContin don’t trouble the Purdue executives up in leafy Connecticut. I’m guessing they haven’t impinged much on Broderick’s life, either.
He shakes his head. “I don’t think I’ve known anyone who’s been on OxyContin. Or who crushed pills and snorted them. Unless they didn’t tell me. But it’s a sprawling, complicated story, and we all have some experience. My mom had very bad pain from cancer. She was on those kinds of drugs for years – not OxyContin, but it was an opioid – and they helped her. So it’s difficult, because I can see the need for painkillers.” He mulls it over. “I think the original intent to develop the drug is not inherently evil. It’s only when you get people hiding the evidence of how addictive it is that it becomes an awful story.”
The deaths may be localised, but the crime scene is vast. Everyone’s implicated and compromised. Who’s the monster, Broderick wonders. “Is it the man who developed OxyContin? Or is it the doctors who prescribed it, or the drugstores that sold it? There are a lot of villains. It’s too simple to blame it all on one person.” He grins, embarrassed. “I’m sounding like Richard Sackler here. But it’s true. A lot of people have done bad things in their life but if you talk to them, they never think they’re doing bad things. That’s what’s really scary: people’s capacity for self-delusion.”
Gracefully, belatedly, Broderick is easing into middle age. He started out playing bumptious princes (grifting Ferris Bueller; the precocious computer hacker from WarGames). For his second act he specialised in thwarted boy-men, most memorably in Alexander Payne’s sublime 1999 comedy Election. It’s only recently that he’s transitioned to flawed patriarchs, cast as the helicopter dad in No Hard Feelings or padding around the corporate boardroom in Painkiller. “Tigers don’t settle,” Sackler roars as his legal troubles close in. He exhibits the unrestrained fury of a pampered house cat.
I suggest that he’s had a charmed career and he hoots with surprise; that’s not how he sees it. “I mean, yeah, I did have nice early success. But it’s not easy to maintain that first flush. It’s always a hard adjustment for child actors, young actors. People see the kid out of Leave It to Beaver grown up and they don’t buy it – they want to see little Beaver.” It was a similar problem for him, he admits. “People associated me with younger roles, but I wanted them to come with me and get used to the fact that I’m wrinkly. And it was hard. The 90s were hard. Lots of ups and downs. But I always tried to keep at it, keep my heart in it. Hopefully that keeps you in the game.”
It is the stage, he explains, which has been the constant in his life. That’s where he began his career and it’s where he’ll most likely end it. It’s also what looks set to keep him busy if the strike rumbles on. This autumn he’s due to star in an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. Next January he and his wife – Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker – are planning a West End production of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite.
The play’s a known quantity – Broderick and Parker performed it on Broadway last year. The collaboration felt pretty good, so why not do it again? “And also I admire her so much,” he adds. “Never mind personally – loving her and all that – but I admire her acting, too. Sarah started her career on the stage as well. So she’s great at handling an audience. She’s as sharp as can be. She’s got real chops.”
Parker and Broderick have been married for 26 years. They’re one of New York’s most high-profile couples. All the same, beyond the most basic biographical details (three kids, a few houses) I don’t know the first thing about their life together. The pair are fire-proofed, fortified – and this, surely, must be by design.
Broderick shrugs. “Well, it’s nothing we ever sat down and discussed. But I think it evolved and I think it’s important. Once you start talking about your relationship and your feelings in public you’re in trouble. Also, we have children. I don’t want to have my kids reading about our relationship. We try to keep some privacy, a circle around the family, so we can all have as normal a life as possible.”
Probably it helps that he’s not a natural extrovert. “I’m known as shy – that’s what people who know me would say. And a lot of actors are like that. They seem kind of shy when you meet them. You expect they’re going to be in your face, but they’re usually quite quiet. I think people get into acting precisely because they’re shy. It’s their chance to let out the stuff they have problems letting out in real life.”
Is that how it was for him? “Yeah, I was a shy, awkward kid. Then I started doing plays in high school and people suddenly liked me. In the play, I mean. Or at least I thought they did. So acting was a way of expressing my clown self. And then because I was getting this positive reinforcement, it made me more comfortable being my real self after the show. The more acting I did, the more I came out of my shell.”
The Sacklers wanted to control their own legacy. The family donated millions to the world’s great cultural institutions, slapping its name on the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim; funding Harvard, Yale and Cornell. But it did this as a means of laundering its tainted reputation, offsetting the grubbier aspects of its business. “Legacy is everything,” Sackler says in the show. “It is what we’ll be remembered for.’”
I wonder what Broderick feels his own legacy is. The actor ponders for about a nanosecond. “What’s my legacy? Well, I’m Ferris Bueller, I suppose. I have to accept it. And I like it. I’ve made my peace with it.”
The very concept seems to trouble him, though. It suggests his career’s over. It’s a death knell; it’s curtains. The other week, a theatre in the Hamptons presented him and his wife with lifetime achievement awards. That was nice, he recalls, but it also felt kind of weird. “So I’m not ready for people to start discussing my legacy,” he says. “And I have this Pollyanna streak that keeps me going. I always like to think there’s something coming that’s better.”
Painkiller premieres on Netflix on 10 August.