Trouble in Paradise—The State of Addiction in Hollywood

By John Lavitt 03/06/15

The industry makes it harder for them to recover by coddling talent so they keep working. Everyone wants the next cut of a check, everyone wants the project to succeed.


On February 27, Conscious Recovery by CLARE hosted a panel discussion entitled, "State Of Addiction: Hollywood" in Santa Monica. Mirroring the rest of the country, the state of addiction in Hollywood is grim. Given the passion of the panel participants for the subject, the conclusions presented during the discussion were both hopeful and brutally realistic. 

Moderated by Hollywood Reporter journalist Chris Gardner and held at the Conscious Recovery treatment facility in Santa Monica, the panelists also included True Blood star Stephen Moyer, MusiCares director Harold Owens, Actor’s Fund Employee Assistance Director Dae Medman, former William Morris Agency talent department co-head Brian Gersh, Sober Coach Kevin McLaughlin, and Jennifer Musselman, a former Nickelodeon executive who shifted careers to become a Senior Director of Strategy for the CLARE Foundation and oversees the program treatment services at Conscious Recovery.

In an interview right before the start of the event, Dae Medman helped to frame the challenge of the overall problem of addiction in Hollywood. As the EA Director of the Actor’s Fund and the former director of the Entertainment Industry Referral & Assistance Center, Dae Medman has worked on the front lines. She has seen many talented people ripped apart by alcoholism and addiction, desperate for help in the face of an uncaring industry town of tinsel and glitter. 

Describing what she experienced in her solo interview with The Fix, Medman explained the challenges in-depth:

“There’s a major addiction problem throughout the country. Hollywood is a microcosm of that macrocosm, but the backbone of the industry has always been the creatives. The personality types of such people seem to have a propensity to abuse substances. The pressure to succeed, an underlying need for money and a diet of constant rejection exacerbates the problem. 

When they reach out for help today, the restrictions of the insurance companies often hinder them from getting the extent of the help that is required to achieve sustainable recovery. The problem with managed care is it really should be described as managed costs. Facing a $10,000 deductible, very few people are able to access the help they need.” 

Frances Iacuzzi/CLARE

Before the panel began, California Assembly Member Richard Bloom offered a litany of bleak statistics about the state of addiction in Hollywood and beyond. The very fact that his 50th District includes Beverly Hills, Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and Hollywood makes Richard Bloom the key political face in the California State Assembly for the addiction problem in the entertainment industry. 

Afterwards, in a private interview, Richard Bloom expressed his perspective as a representative of the entertainment industry in Sacramento, “The problem is much broader than the industry, but it’s a particularly pernicious problem in the entertainment industry. Part of the whole ethos of the industry is communicating. The industry should do more to communicate a message of recovery.”

During the actual panel, three of the highlight moments were quite different, but equally impactful. When discussing what the entertainment industry can do to combat addiction among the rank and file, Harold Owens made a powerful point that seems obvious, but is never discussed. Commenting on the responsibility of everyone involved, Owens declared, “We need to get the union bosses on board with recovery. After all, sobriety leads to very, very productive workers, saving the industry money and removing headaches.” 

In contrast to the emphasis of Harold Owens on after-the-fact help, Conscious Recovery’s Jennifer Musselman was all about stopping the problem of addiction before it starts. Based on her experience as Senior Director of Communications at MTV Networks' Kids and Family Entertainment for Nickelodeon, Musselman proposed that a therapeutic professional should always be present on the set when underage kids are working. Musselman stated strongly, “Prevention should be one of Hollywood’s responsibilities because prevention works. Before you have to intervene, you need to prevent.”  

Finally, perhaps the highlight of the entire panel discussion was the contribution of actor Stephen Moyer, the former star of True Blood and husband of actress Anna Paquin. Proving he’s not a vampire, Moyer appeared during the day to take part in the panel as a sober CLARE Foundation board member. Offering subjective insight into why young actors, in particular, and artists, in general, are so susceptible to substance abuse problems, Stephen Moyer provided a behind-the-scenes look into the creative process:

“Once you finish work and the high of being on stage or in front of the camera is over, you want to continue the buzz of what you feel on the job…The ongoing challenge is the duality of desire; the yin and yang of being attracted to having a great life and a successful career while also being attracted to being wild and extreme like the legendary figures of the past. Like so many young actors, I was attracted to the dark stories. My heroes were Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris and Oliver Reed, and I wanted to be like them. They partied and drank and seemed to be celebrated for it. Is it any wonder that actors choose to drink and drug?” 

What is amazing is how sobriety shifts the focus as the dark and wild stories of the past become tinged with the truth of tragedy as the subsequent hope of a different life arises. There is a reason why alcoholism is called a disease of perception. Once your perception shifts, the perception of you shifts as well. People see you in a fresh light, the promise of success blossoms into the garden of your new reality, and people recognize how much you have changed. 

Frances Iacuzzi/CLARE

Stephen Moyer subtly illuminated this revolutionary transformation by humorously revealing a quiet shift in his everyday life, “I can go to almost any restaurant in Santa Monica and there is no way the waiter is going to bring me the wine list. Instead, there tends to be a Diet Coke waiting for me. The Diet Coke is the patron saint of drinks for alcoholics.” 

When it comes to understanding the problem of addiction in Hollywood, perhaps no panel member had as much personal and business experience at the very heart of the industry than former co-head of the William Morris Agency's motion picture talent department, Brian Gersh. Today, a movie producer with a strong dedication to his long-term recovery, Brian Gersh courageously reveals an incredible story of Hollywood success imploding into a public fall from grace. 

As the former agent of Robert Downey Jr. and Drew Barrymore during their public battles with substance abuse, Brian Gersh was asked by The Fix what he did to help the high-profile actors in crisis:

“It was complicated by the fact that I was using as well. The bottom line for me is that talent generally wins out. When circumstances and desperation collide for talent, they have a greater chance to overcome their difficulties and succeed. They tend to be well supported, and their people are willing to sacrifice a lot to ensure their continued success. Despite the public lighthouse beamed on the high-profile celebrity deaths and overdoses, in most cases, talent seems to win out.”

Pushed to reveal what he would do to help such a high-profile client in need, Brian Gersh admitted an ugly truth without flinching:

“When you are an agent, business is operating on a hyper speed. It’s hard to invest in anybody because the focus is always on what’s next, the next deal. It’s kind of like the nature of the beast. I loved the talented people I worked with, but if they’re not ready, you have to move on.”

When asked about his personal experience with addiction, Brian Gersh smiled and said that he was not worried about telling his story to a member of the media. After all, everyone in town knew about his downfall, dragged to the depths by the disease of addiction:

“The reason that I’m sober is because my circumstances led me to desperation. I had moved from a 5-bedroom, 5-bathroom house into my brother’s office, and that was just the beginning of the slide. It was only when it became unbearably awful, when I hit my bottom that I had that moment of clarity… 

…Addiction is a beast. It’s horrifying. But we need to encourage people to the point of desperation. We need to let them hit bottom. We can’t keep hugging them and preventing that moment of clarity from happening. We as an industry have expressed too much tolerance. We make it harder for them to recover by coddling talent so they keep working. Everyone wants the next cut of a check, everyone wants the project to succeed. So we keep them working and cover up whatever happens, protecting their reputations. If I’m saving their face, however, they are going to lose their ass.”  

Frances Iacuzzi/CLARE

During the panel discussion, Brian Gersh made the point that recovery is gaining steam in the entertainment industry when he said, “It’s become really hip in this part of the country to be sober.” Even if sobriety is hip in Hollywood, the challenge is opening the door for industry insiders to become sober in the first place. When it comes to the industry, such chances are not always readily available. People are scared to reveal both their own problems and the challenges being faced by their loved ones and friends.

As a former Hollywood executive who left the bright lights behind to become a therapist, Conscious Recovery’s Jennifer Musselman described to The Fix what happened after her life change when people in the industry realized they could speak honestly to her, “Making the switch from entertainment to treatment, suddenly everyone wanted to talk to me. They wanted to tell me about substance abuse and their personal problems with friends and family. Before the switch, nobody ever talked about such things unless they were asking for my help to keep it out of the media.”

Returning to Jennifer Musselman’s point during the panel discussion, prevention should be a primary goal. The entertainment industry tends to wait too long to reach out to those in need. Wanting to keep the party going, or, perhaps more to the point, the production moving forward and on schedule, the disease of alcoholism and addiction is too often ignored until it’s too late. 

At the end of the panel discussion, there was a question and answer period. The writer of this piece, John Lavitt, asked the last question:

“A few nights ago, during the Academy Awards, there was the annual ‘In Memoriam’ video. During this segment, well-known industry professionals who died in the past year were remembered. It lasted about three-to-four minutes. Most awards shows, including the Grammys, the Emmys and the Tonys, have similar such segments. Why can’t those shows also have a moment where the subject of alcoholism and addiction is raised? It is not necessary to point out the tragic deaths of professionals in those industries who died from this disease. Instead, couldn’t awareness be raised by simply stating: 

‘We in Hollywood face the battle against alcoholism and drug addiction every day. We see too many lives lost that could have been prevented. We know that you face it as well. If you or a friend or a loved one or a colleague is battling this disease, please ask for help or help them. If we promise to do this in Hollywood, will you please do it as well?’ 

Why can’t a minute be spared during these widely viewed awards ceremonies to raise awareness about such an important issue? Wouldn’t it really help by connecting to such large audiences that are potentially struggling with these issues?”

The panel agreed it would be an effective option, but the problem would be how to accomplish it. How do you get the networks airing the shows to agree to such a message? How do you take time away from shining stars to broach such a serious issue? How do you address the competition of other worthy causes like AIDS and Breast Cancer and PETA? Don’t they deserve announcements as well? 

Despite universal agreement by the Conscious Recovery panel about the severity of the state of addiction in Hollywood and across the country as a whole, it was hard to come up with answers to such an intractable problem. Without a major shift in insurance policies, without a dedication of public or private funding, the money and resources are not there to help those in need. Like the dark shadow creeping across the American landscape, the specter of addiction in Hollywood cannot be ignored, but can it be stopped or even slowed? 

What do you think? Do you have any good ideas? 

John Lavitt is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last interviewed author David Sheff and intoxication coach Doc Wilmot.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.