Vulture Festival 2018: Connie Britton and Eric Bana Talk Dirty John
True crime continues to be all the rage. Dirty John, the popular podcast created by the Los Angeles Times and Wondry, has made it to a screen. Bravo’s event series tells the true story of how a romance between Debra Newell and the charismatic John Meehan spiraled into secrets, denial, manipulation, and ultimately, a fight for survival for an entire family.
Their fast-tracked romance creates tension between Debra and her two daughters Terra and Veronica, leaving the girls no choice but to investigate the man who has swept their mother off her feet, while the backstory of Debra and her mother Arlane provides insight into why Debra was so vulnerable to John in the first place.
At the Vulture Festival panel for the show, the audience screened the first episode before we had a chance to listen to stars Connie Britton and Eric Bana talk about how they became involved in the series, doing research about their characters and more.
On how familiar they were with the LA Times story and the podcast
Connie Britton: “I was factually familiar with it because I have friends who were obsessing over it. I hadn’t heard it because I’m not good like that with podcasts. My agents sent me an emailing saying, ‘Hey, have you heard of this podcast?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I have because my friends were talking about it.’
And so then I immediately figured out how to listen to a podcast; well, no. First I read the LA Times articles, which were so good. And then I listed to the podcast because I figured it out. And I was immediately hooked in. I thought the story is so fascinating.”
On if Connie had any interactions with the real Debra
Connie: “Yes. I have. I’ve had several interactions with her. We went to lunch at The Ivy; I thought that seemed like a good idea. And she brought Terra, her daughter, so it was like a double whammy. It was really, really amazing to meet them and to see them interact with each other and to see their relationship and also to see how they remembered things differently, as we do. It was really, really helpful and great.”
On John Meehan is not participating in this project
Connie: “He just doesn’t feel like participating. He’s not into it.” [Audience laughs.]
On how that affected Eric
Eric Bana: “For me, it was kinda great because it gave me some freedom. It always cuts both ways, I think, when you’re playing real people. Sometimes you feel the urge or want to get in contact and find out more information or find out firsthand information. And other times, it can be very freeing not taking that path.
For me, either way, because I was basically preparing from home in Australia, it wouldn’t have been really practical anyway. So I took the attitude and I was gonna to try and come up with a version of John for myself rather than a facsimile of all the quotes and so forth.
‘Cause I was more interested in his behavior than I was in him, if that makes sense. I think what we’re fascinated by that personality type and that predator type, so it was easier for me to do research on that and come up with a character that didn’t want to make people run 20 minutes into the first episode.”
On if Connie did research or relied on her instincts in preparing for the role
Connie: “I wanted to use Debra as a baseline, obviously, but I was also really interested in — as I am with pretty much any character that I play — her as a representation of every woman. Looking at her as a product of her environment and her history and her culture, all of those things that contribute to who she is as a woman and how she thinks about herself as a woman and the choices that she makes.
That set of circumstances is true for everyone, in particular for every woman, so in that way I wanted to really use Debra and be as true to her as I could, and at the same time let there be an availability to her that makes her a little bit more tangible to everyone.”
On how Debra was affected by her background/upbringing
Connie: “I think she was affected in a lot of ways. One of the things that I love about this story is that there are three generations of women that we get to meet in this family.
Our family systems influence so much about who we are and who we become. In Debra’s case, her mother has very specific belief systems. There’s an incident that happens in their lives that you’ll find out about later in the [series] and a choice that her mother makes, that will really impacts Debra.
If we all think about our families, we can probably think about ways in which, very specifically, our families have shaped how we think and the choices we make. We either are not very aware of those choices because they’re just a part of us or we’re really aware of them and we try to something different, or somewhere in between.”
On playing a guy who can be utterly charming to utterly terrifying
Eric: “I didn’t find that part very hard. [Audience laughs.] For whatever reason, I don’t know why, I didn’t find that difficult.
I know a lot of actors who would be excited. ‘I’m playing a psychopath.’ The problem with that is it could be really, really dangerous and it’s more important that you’ve got behavior underpinning that diagnosis that makes him that person.
So, therefore, you’re completely relying on the material. In 8 episodes we had incredible scope and liberty to exhibit that. So I was always conscious of the fact that I was really gonna need enough meat on the bone, enough happening on the page to indicate how interesting and crazy he was. And there was loads of it, so that made my job easy.”
On the most fascinating aspect of his behavior
Eric: “I think these people must be exhausted. To me, the thing that fascinates me is the effort that it must take to keep up the facade for people, especially when they’re living together.
Also, we played with the times we would calibrate, allow the mask to slip and flashes of the real human to appear to the members of Debra’s family, except for the mother. That sort of stuff was really interesting to play.”
On if it took any convincing for Connie to play this part
Connie: “Well, [EP Alexandra Cunningham] knows how much I love sociopaths. [Audience laughs]. I didn’t need to be convinced at all.I really was pulled in by the story.
And I was also really intrigued that it had already gotten into the zeitgeist, the enthusiasm that I was seeing from my friends and from people out in the world who were already really fascinated by the story and talking about it. It was creating conversation, which I always love.”
On if Debra feels close to her
Connie: “Not really, and yet there are qualities — and this is how I always approach any character — that I think we do share and these qualities about her that I think I have an understanding about. That’s where I tend to try to live when I’m performing the character.”
On playing this archetype more than once
Connie: “With Beatriz at Dinner and with [Debra], characters like that are particularly interesting to me. I think that we’re in this place in our culture that feels a little different where there’s a lot of denial going on. A lot of people either really starting to question what their belief systems are or not question and consciously not question what their belief systems are.
So I’m particularly interested right now in people who are more entrenched in what they know and the ways in which they’ve plunked themselves in their ideas and values and they’re not able to see beyond that. To me that’s very interesting because I think that there’s a cultural resonance to that right now.”
Condensed and edited for space and content.
Dirty John premieres Sunday, November 25th at 10/9c on Bravo.
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