Culture

Love is difficult enough without fearing that your new beau is a psychopathic liar hiding a terrifying past. Unfortunately, thanks to Dirty John, an eyebrow-raising true story of love, far-reaching deception, and danger, that’s a brand new outcome that won’t be forgotten easily. Originally reported and turned into a podcast by Christopher Goffard for the Los Angeles Times, the tale introduces us to the unlucky-in-love Debra Newell, an 59-year-old interior designer whose handsome date, John Meehan, turns out to be nothing like the noble anesthesiologist he purported to be. As he insinuates himself into her life, she—and her daughters—start to look less like a new family and more like targets.

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Famed hair-haver and occupier of full hearts everywhere, Connie Britton, plays Debra in Bravo’s adaptation, Dirty John. ELLE.com talked to her about why the show hits close to home (America and con men, ever seen a connection?), what it was like to meet her IRL counterpart, and why it might not be super wise to see the best in everyone.

ELLE: Dirty John is great, but it’s a creepy thing to watch during holiday season!

Connie Britton: I know.

I’m not very relaxed.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Dirty John podcast was a hit. Do you remember how the Bravo show was pitched to you?

I had heard about it from my friends who were obsessed with the podcast—they were talking about how they had to listen to it straight through. They were teasing me because they were like, We know you’re never gonna listen to it because you don’t even know how to listen to a podcast. But it really struck me as one of those things that’s getting into the zeitgeist. Two days later, I got an email from my agent saying, “Have you heard about this podcast, Dirty John? They’re thinking about making it into a TV show.”

Then he sent me the articles and the podcast. I got so excited because I was like, We were just talking about this! I listened to it and I was totally hooked. I knew right away that I wanted to do it.

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What was your experience listening to the podcast? It’s addictive.

Everybody has a very visceral experience, even if it’s different. For me, as I was listening to it, I had a chill about just how easy it is to fall for a con man. Quite frankly, we’re living in a time and a culture where there is a question about what the truth is, and there could be an argument made that a lot of people have fallen for a con man. I felt the danger of being at the hands of someone who is that good at being manipulative and that much of a sociopath. It really resonated with me.

“There could be an argument made that a lot of people have fallen for a con man.”

The other thing that I think is also very relevant to where we are in the culture was looking at Debra and seeing a woman who is so clearly shaped by her culture, the culture she grew up in, her family value system, her religious value system—all of these very specific things that possibly unbeknownst to her have created her own view of herself as a woman. We’re really in a period where women are looking at themselves and the things that shape them in a different kind of way. The idea of unpacking where her ideas about herself comes from and what has impacted the way she makes choices is fascinating to me and, again, very, very relevant.

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One of the first shots we see of her is at her very successful business, amongst her employees. But when it comes to thinking about her romantic life, she feels inexpert. She’s made some choices that didn’t turn out well.

Yeah, she’s been taught to see the best in everyone, particularly in men, and extend the benefit of the doubt, and take care of men—all of these things that have been imprinted in her. She’s aware that this is her Achilles heel. But when you’ve been conditioned to think in a certain way, that’s a very hard thing to change.

Honestly, it all makes me want to live in a commune with just my friends.

I think it’s time for all of us to really look at our conditioning and maybe question it, ask questions about why we think about each other and ourselves the way we do. That’s how we make a change.

Dirty John Connie Britton Eric Bana

Connie Britton (Debra Newell) and Eric Bana (John Meehan) in Dirty John

Bravo

You had a chance to meet Debra and Terra. What did you glean from spending time with them?

I loved meeting them. They were both very forthcoming and straightforward about their experiences. We went to lunch and I asked them really honest questions about certain moments in the story that I wanted to get more detail about. Because there are a lot of moments in the story that are like, Wait, how did that happen? And I just asked them like that.

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They were really honest about their answers. They remembered things differently—of course, the reality of being human is that when you’re in a heightened moment or a moment of crisis, sometimes we don’t remember it exactly as it happened. The same two people can be there and remember it completely differently.

But one of the things I found so interesting is that Debra’s the first to say, “Well, I always see the best in everyone.” She says it in a bittersweet way, because I think she now realizes that this quality—which you could say is a really excellent and lovely quality—is also one that can be an extremely dangerous and challenging quality. That was something. It was a bit of self-awareness that I found interesting.

What about mannerisms or physical elements?

A couple things: One, her voice and her speech pattern were things I really wanted to try to get close to, because it’s so unique and specific to her. Voice is so much of where everything—all of our choices, and all of who we are—comes from. Her vocal register is actually much higher than mine, so I resolved to create my own version of her voice. She also carries herself in a specific way—she kind of cocks her head to the side a lot. I tried to emulate that a little bit. It was fun kind of getting into her body.

Dirty John Connie Britton Eric Bana

Bravo

You’re also interpreting the material as an actress, and the show is doing that with the source material, too. What do you think the TV show is going to bring to the material that’s different to the podcast and articles?

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My hope was that we would dive deeper into the psychological elements behind what happens in the story. It’s just fascinating—three generations of women [are involved], so we can see how these women and the legacies of these women have impacted each other. Christopher Goffard did such an amazing job on the podcast and on the articles, so we had incredible source material. I felt like dramatizing it could let us go underneath the psychology. I feel like we were able to do that some; I think we probably could’ve gone further, but I hope that at the very least, it gives people imagery when it comes to thinking about the journey and psychology of the story.

Dirty John Connie Britton Eric Bana

Bravo

Eric Bana is terrifying as John.

He’s such a pro, and from the very beginning, he knew exactly how he wanted to play it. All of the different levels of it were very much in his wheelhouse and he was able to subtly walk back and forth between the very, very charming and the very, very sinister in a way that was wonderful and really well calibrated.

I know you were really involved in talking and thinking about the midterms. Now that’s over, what are you thinking about going into the next year, politically speaking?

Getting political felt like a necessity this year. But, I think that as I go forward, I’m focused on what I’ve been focusing on all along—human rights issues, gender equality, and alleviating poverty, and all the things I’ve been doing with the UN, which all feel extremely relevant in the United States as well right now. I’m just going to keep going with that work.

Dirty John airs on Bravo Sunday nights at 10 P.M.

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