Take a smart pill? No thanks

Actors Jake McDorman and Jennifer Carpenter do not believe in taking pills for a mental boost, even if it is for research

Jake McDorman
Jennifer Carpenter

What if there was a pill that would let you remember and understand every bit of information you have ever encountered, thereby unlocking whatever untapped potential you might have in your brain?

That was the premise of the 2011 hit movie Limitless, which saw star Bradley Cooper popping the fictional drug NZT and turning into a literary prodigy, financial whiz and virtual superhero as a result.

Now the idea has been spun into a television show executive-produced by Cooper, who will have a recurring role playing the same character.

But although there are real-life "smart pills" that can enhance alertness and concentration, the show's stars - Jake McDorman and Jennifer Carpenter - say they had no desire to experiment with them, not even for the purposes of research.

The series, which debuted in Singapore last Wednesday at 9pm (RTL CBS Entertainment HD, Singtel TV Channel 318 & StarHub TV Channel 509), stars McDorman as the main character, Brian, who in the pilot episode discovers NZT for the first time.

It's not always about being the smartest person in the room. Sometimes, it's about being the most compassionate and the person who is able to have the most honest connection with everybody.

JAKE MCDORMAN , on why he finds it unnecessary to take smart pills. He stars on the TV show Limitless with Jennifer Carpenter

Carpenter plays the federal agent who wants him to use his heightened abilities to help her solve cases and Cooper has a recurring role as a shadowy politician who promises to supply him with a safe form of the drug.

Speaking to Life at a press event in Los Angeles, the show's writer- producer Craig Sweeny admits he has taken the prescription smart drug Modafinil - the use of which is said to be rampant everywhere from Wall Street to top universities in America and Britain, with stockbrokers and students taking it to stay awake and remain focused for longer periods.

But the actors say they have not been tempted to see what such a mental boost might feel like.

McDorman, who appeared in the movie American Sniper (2014), says: "I don't know if I had a reason other than we started shooting very quickly, but also Brian never would have (taken such a drug) at all - his first encounter with NZT was based on having no experience.

"It was not really important to me to take it because the enthusiasm that's unlocked when he's on this drug is so laid out in the writing,'' he says of his character, a failed musician who suddenly becomes a Sherlock Holmes-like sleuth, able to solve crimes and other puzzles with his superior brain power.

The 29-year-old also has a different take on what it might look like being able to use 100 per cent of one's brain rather than just a fraction of it, which is what happens to Brian - even though in real life, scientists have debunked this notion as a fallacy, observing that humans already use almost all of the brain.

"It's not always about being the smartest person in the room. Sometimes, it's about being the most compassionate and the person who is able to have the most honest connection with everybody and really find every person he comes in contact with fascinating," the actor says.

"So it's not always about the intense focus. Brainpower is also about an emotional connection. I mean, 100 per cent means 100 per cent in every aspect."

Carpenter, a 35-year-old actress from the TV show Dexter (2006 to 2013), had a more practical reason for not wanting to dabble in Modafinil when she was filming this new show.

"I was 81/2 months pregnant and I wasn't even taking caffeine. And I wouldn't."

Sweeny, on the other hand, says he has "taken Modafinil for non- research purposes frequently".

"I think that Modafinil is a tool - like if you have a job where you have to work a lot, it just gives you energy, it's basically like a caffeine pill - and I've used it to write scripts.

"And it's entirely legal and you get it prescribed by a doctor,'' says the producer, who has also written for hit TV shows such as Medium (2007-2011) and Elementary (2012-now).

"But I wouldn't compare the effects, unfortunately, with what happens when Brian takes NZT.

"It's important to emphasise that NZT is an entirely fictional drug. We don't consider there to be a one-to-one analogue between NZT and Modafinil or NZT and anti- depressants."

He adds, however, that "some of the metaphors that emerged from" such a comparison "are valid".

"Because I think the ultimate application of this drug would be pharmaceutical, if they could perfect it."

Still, the foundation of Limitless is science fiction rather than science, even though "we have a neuroscientist whom we talk to on the show who just sort of verses us in the language and the jargon - what's possible and how the areas of the brain do, in fact, connect and how they might connect in a more efficient way", Sweeny says.

But "the science isn't there" and this is one reason the story and its premise are so intriguing.

"When I first watched the movie, I received the science as magic - as the cost of doing business to get to these sorts of very extravagant, visual representations of thinking," he says.

Limitless airs on RTL CBS Entertainment HD (Singtel TV Channel 318 & StarHub TV Channel 509) every Wednesday at 9pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2015, with the headline 'Take a smart pill? No thanks'. Subscribe