Netflix’s ‘Pain Hustlers’ follows the story of Emily Blunt’s Liza Drake, a single mother who struggles to provide for her daughter, though she convinces herself she is made for bigger things. After spending miserable days working at a strip club, things finally take a turn for her when she meets Pete Brenner, who offers her a job as a pharmaceutical rep. For Liza, this is an opportunity to make enough money to support her family, but she soon discovers that she might have signed up for the things that don’t settle well with her conscience.
Liza is no saint in the story, but she does have a moral compass, which makes her immensely human. Her motivations, actions, and intentions become the turning point in the story, impacting both the rise and the fall of Zanna Therapeutics. Here’s everything you need to know about the real-life people who inspired her role. SPOILERS AHEAD
Liza Drake is a Composite of Insys Therapeutics Sales Reps
‘Pain Hustlers’ loosely adapts Evan Hughes’s New York Times article of the same name and brings its own perspective to the story by adding fictional characters. Liza is one of them. She is not directly based on a real person. At best, she is a mix of several pharma reps who worked for Insys Therapeutics, the company that serves as the inspiration for Zanna.
At the beginning of the movie, Liza works at a strip club. This detail is picked from Hughes’ article that mentions one of the top executives of Insys hired a former exotic dancer named Sunrise Lee to join the team of sales reps. The filmmakers probably found it to be a good opening point for Liza’s arc, which also gave them space to come up with their own story about the character.
Another possible inspiration behind Emily Blunt’s character could be a woman named Tracy Krane, who was employed as a sales rep at Insys and worked with the company’s VP of sales, Alec Burlakoff, who might be the inspiration behind Chris Evans’ character in the movie. One of the instances in the article mentions Krane describing a meeting where she and Burlakoff had to rope in a doctor to prescribe Subsys, which would mark a huge sale that could really make a difference for the company.
We see the same happen with Liza, who is taken by Brenner to meet a big fish in the market, Dr. Lydell. When Brenner comes up with the plan of bribing doctors, Liza warns him he is crossing into illegal territory. Krane, too, questioned Burlakoff’s methods when he proposed this idea and, much like Brenner, is said to have claimed that even if they were caught, the company would get away with paying a settlement, nothing more. Krane was fired from Insys in 2012 due to “poor sales performance.”
As the team of sales representatives at Insys grew, they were allowed to do whatever it took to lock in the doctors in their territories. For their work, they were promised a lot of money. Reportedly, the base salary of a sales rep in Alabama at the time was $40,000, but commissions got them well over $700,000. The reps were told to target specific doctors. In one reported instance, a sales rep described a certain Dr. Paul Madison who was described as “extremely moody, lazy, and inattentive” and running “a very shady pill mill that only accepts cash.”
Allegedly, to rope him in, Burlakoff and then CEO Michael Babich brought in Sunrise Lee (the former exotic dancer mentioned above). She was successful at convincing him to join Insys, and, reportedly, he was behind 58 percent of prescriptions written in Illinois for the three years that he collaborated with the company. Lee eventually became the Regional Sales Director for Insys. She was convicted of racketeering conspiracy and sentenced to a year and a day in prison for bribing doctors to prescribe Subsys. While Liza Drake has some similarities with Lee, the filmmakers chose to take a fictional route sketching Liza’s background.
Liza starts out as a money-hungry sales rep, but she eventually grows a conscience and decides to bring down Zanna’s malpractices. In real life, too, several employees grew tired of Insys’ methods. Six months after the launch of Subsys, a sales rep in Texas went to the authorities and reported about the speaker programs. He worked for a while with them to build the case but eventually had to drop the suit. The same year, Insys received a gain of over 400 percent and was the best-performing IPO. Eventually, however, other employees came out, which led to the arrest and conviction of the company’s top executives.
Considering that a film doesn’t have enough runtime to cover the stories of all these characters, the filmmakers created a blend of them in Liza. Director David Yates said that the character “was made up of young people who were often in over their head and they were hungry for success, and a lot of that is embodied in her. Even if the details come from hither and yon, they’re real.” With this in mind, we can say that Liza Drake is not based on a specific person but is an amalgamation of several people who once worked at Insys, witnessed the greed of its executives, and decided to do something about it.
Read More: Is Pete Brenner Based on a Real Person?