It’s a weeknight in central London, but work is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
As electronic music pumps through the speakers in a penthouse apartment overflowing with expensive modern art, a couple dozen guests dance and sip from oversize champagne bottles. On the marble coffee table before them, baggies of white powder are scattered, while someone has used a credit card to cut a few lines. A man puts a small spoon beneath a woman’s nose as they grind on the dance floor, and she sniffs away.
“I overdid it,” one woman later says as the party winds down and the reality of an early morning commute to the office starts to sneak in.
“No such thing,” her colleague responds.
The party scene played out in the filming of a recent episode of Industry, the HBO and BBC show following young finance workers in London. But when the director finally yelled cut, the background actors breathed a sigh of relief. It meant no one would have to keep snorting the fake cocaine that the prop master had thrown around the set with abandon.
“It's sort of like milk powder, which the actors tell me is actually horrible to snort after a while,” said Mickey Down, who created Industry along with fellow ex–banking world colleague Konrad Kay.
“There were a couple of people we knew being extras and then they were like, ‘Really, do I have to do this again? Because it's really, really quite horrible,’” Down added. “So the fact that the [featured] actors haven't really complained about it that much, I think, is a testament to their professionalism.”
The young stars of Industry may indeed be stoic as they are doing more fake drugs than any other actors on television right now. The show, which is about to wrap its second season, takes viewers inside the high-stress, high-paid, and high-on-drugs world of young bankers, who party just as hard as they work.
To watch an average episode of Industry is to feel almost nauseous as you follow characters who arrive bleary-eyed at the office after extensive and expensive benders. One scene might show two characters with coke-dusted noses snorting bumps from each other’s hands in a pub toilet. Another might show a woman rubbing some on her gums in the bathroom at an afternoon networking event. At least one character has done a line or two of coke while staying at home for a (relatively) quiet night.
If audiences feel sick, said Down, that’s exactly the point.
“It’s kind of what we were going for,” he said. “[We were] trying to capture that sense of being up all night and going to work and having the worst day of work you ever had in your life happening. I feel like the anxiety that induces was kind of the point.”
Down and Kay both abandoned fledgling careers in the world of finance for entertainment, and the pair drew on their own experiences when imagining the world of Pierpoint & Co., the fictional bank where the main characters spent the first season as graduates fighting for permanent employment.
The creative duo had originally wanted to make a show about young people in London but said they used the banking setting as a sort of Trojan horse to tell that story. Depicting drug use was never in question.
“We always strive for authenticity, and it felt like the most authentic depiction of that kind of young life in London,” Kay told BuzzFeed News in a joint Zoom interview with Down earlier this month. “You know, drugs are always just around the corner, really, in terms of people's nights and people's weekends.”
“It's a contemporary show set in the city through the lens of these kinds of people and this kind of environment and this kind of industry,” Down said. “There's no way that there wouldn’t be any drug-taking, and to not have it would have felt just totally weird.”
The drug use in Industry — save for one sequence in the first season where a character has cocaine blown up his butthole at a work holiday party — is never really played for laughs. But it’s also rarely a focal point for concern, either. What’s remarkable about the prolific drug use on the show is the cumulative extent to which it almost fades into the background, like watching characters light a cigarette or sip a drink.
“The casualness of it makes it feel more shocking than even we intended,” Down conceded. “The fact that everyone’s doing it and it’s as casual as drinking a pint in a pub, I think to some people feels really quite shocking.”
In this manner, the show bears many similarities to Mad Men, which shocked viewers in its early seasons with depictions of near-constant smoking and drinking in 1960s advertising culture. But Industry, of course, isn’t a period show. It’s aiming for a naturalistic depiction of how many young people are using hard drugs today to party or to escape their demons. In that sense, it shares a bit in common with its HBO neighbor Euphoria, although that show is much more explicitly about drugs and addiction.
But gradually over its second season, which concludes on Monday, Industry has started to force some of its characters to grapple with their drug use. Even Mad Men protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) could only stave off an alcoholism storyline for so long.
“The cocaine and all that stuff, it was almost an accessory in Season 1 because it was for social authenticity,” said Kay, “but in Season 2 it became very much part of the wider theme of the show.”
From the season’s first episode, two male characters — Robert (Harry Lawtey) and Kenny (Connor MacNeill) — are attempting differing versions of sobriety, while their posh coworker Yasmin (Marisa Abela) is beginning to spiral. Down and Kay said that when Abela first received scripts for the second season, she was slightly alarmed by the amount of drugs her character would be doing. It culminates in a wild night out with colleague Harper (Bodies Bodies Bodies star Myha'la Herrold) in Berlin in Episode 5 when the two leave a wine-soaked work dinner for a crowded techno club where Yasmin buzzes on a combination of ecstasy and acid. Never mind the big client meeting the next day.
This is the same episode where Robert lapses dramatically, getting drunk after meeting his estranged father in Oxford, where he has been sent by his bosses to woo future grads. Struggling to stand, he snorts coke before a dinner with star college students and then delivers manic and cocky spiels that only drugs can fuel. He later wakes up in the street covered in his own vomit.
If the depiction of drugs in Industry is slowly changing, that’s because its characters are too.
“In Season 1, it's a pretty consequence-free thing, the drug-taking, which I think reflects the way people take drugs at that early part of their lives or careers,” Down said. “In your early 20s, hard partying is something you don’t think you’re actually going to have to reckon with when you’re in your early 30s.
“We start to think of more consequences really near the end of the first season,” he added.
It’s by that point that at least one character has been fired for their drug-fueled behavior — at first amusing, then deeply disturbing — at the company holiday party, while another older man with a habit of nodding off at his desk has been revealed as having a heroin addiction.
And while not every actor is tasked with taking drugs in Industry — one older character, Eric (Ken Leung), seemed this season to only grapple with the vice of smoking cigarettes — the vast majority are.
The advice they receive from directors on how to pull it off authentically? “Less is more. Less is always more,” Kay said. “No one should ever do ‘drunk or drug acting.’ They should just play it almost straight.”
“I think on some level it’s actually a skill,” Kay added.
Still, the creators believe that despite the widespread drug use their show depicts, it doesn’t mean you should judge the financial industry as some sort of uniquely debaucherous aberration.
“Obviously, finance has this stigma and this sort of hard-drug-taking, hard-partying thing attached to it,” Down said. “That's obviously because that exists within the industry, but I think it exists in any kind of high-achieving, high-powered industry, especially in London.
“I honestly think it's everywhere,” Down said. “I think it's across all socioeconomic classes, it’s across all races. There is always someone of every color, creed, persuasion, that is doing drugs in the UK.”
“It’s the great unifier,” Kay added.