No wonder people have been racing home Sunday nights to watch Connie Britton in Bravo’s Dirty John. Her nuanced acting is riveting to watch, which is why the veteran actress’s portrayal in the chilling crime anthology series has garnered her nominations for both a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award.
Dirty John brings to life the chilling events that lead up to the murder of John Meehan (Eric Bana), a surgeon who, in actuality, was an evil con man. He becomes romantically involved with interior designer Debra Newell (Britton) after meeting via an Internet dating site.
The Bravo series is based on the work of Los Angeles Times’ reporter Christopher Goffard who became so fascinated with the crime that he created the popular Dirty John podcast.
Beyond the Podcast
Britton, who is a co-executive producer on the series, spent a good deal of time with the real life Newell, exploring how the suave Meehan deviously seduced her into marriage.
“I really like her a lot,” she said at the Television Critics Press Tour. “It’s been such a great experience for me to sit down and really get to ask the character that I’m playing questions. It’s a very unique, privileged experience. And, also, it’s helping give so much insight into the story in a way that maybe we weren’t able to experience in the podcast.”
Britton has spent a good deal of time with the real life Newell, exploring how the suave Meehan deviously seduced her into marriage.
For Britton, it was important to have a better understanding of what Newell’s life was like and how she was lured in, with deadly consequences.
“Because, ultimately, we’re telling the story of how a con man can be so effective. It’s important to make Debra relatable so that we can all see ourselves in her and not just say, ‘Oh, well, that’s because she’s this or that.’ So that’s my goal. And she’s been really wonderful and helpful with that,” she explained.
Britton said it had been fun to talk to Newell and hear her speak honestly about her life, describing her as a self made woman, an “exceptional” businesswoman.
“She was married four times prior to this, which is her cross to bear. It’s kind of her Achilles’ heel,” said Britton. Newell had children from her first marriage and ended up as a single mom. After her interior design business became successful, she started hiring single moms as employees. “She was really dedicated to helping/employing them. She knew what that struggle was.”
Hitting Close to Home
Britton has been shocked by how many women relate to Newell’s character. “There are people in my life who have come out of the woodwork, that I’ve known for years, who have been like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Yeah, I was in a relationship with a sociopath.’ And I’m like, ‘Really!?’”
It’s the manipulation that jarred Britton. “The one thing that they say is ‘They [sociopaths] can say anything to get you to stay.’ That’s amazing. And it’s also coercive control, which is a really viable thing that happens particularly to women,” she acknowledged.
“And so we’re being able to show what that looks like and that it’s really about John and what he’s capable of doing. Because that’s how his brain works.”
There are people in my life who have been like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I was in a relationship with a sociopath.’
If you haven’t heard the podcast, you may not know how much Newell’s daughters tried to persuade their mom that Meehan was a dangerous character. Unfortunately, Newell was perhaps too much in love to listen to reason, much to their disappointment.
“We have three generations of women being represented in this story,” Britton said. “And so in as much as we do say, ‘How could she fall for that guy?’ We can actually explore the familial history, the cultural history that impacts her generationally and otherwise, that this is why she is available for him.”
A Real Life Character
Britton, who is known for her iconic roles in Friday Night Lights and Nashville, finds that playing a real life character is much more challenging. “You really feel like you’ve got to study inside and out and figure out how close you think you want to get to that, and what license to take.”
Executive producer/director Jeffrey Reiner loves the experience of working with Britton. “We’ve worked together a lot,” he said. “She will ask me a thousand questions before we do a scene, very pointedly. Sometimes I want to just run away. But they’re all smart. And I knew that she would bring that intellectualness to the role of Debra,” Reiner explained.
Julia tried to set me up with somebody. It hasn’t worked out yet. But at least mama tried.”
So when Newell makes these misguided relationship decisions, they’re coming from a woman who’s playing her who as “incredibly intelligent,” Reiner said.
“So you’re finding the logic. I knew that that would be a real saving grace, that Connie’s intelligence would propel the character to make decisions, and they wouldn’t be just, like, blind ambitions. Her motors, her brain is always moving and always thinking. And I think it really gives this character a three dimensionality, and you understand a lot of the chess moves from her part.”
The Dating Game
When it comes to her own dating life, Britton actually has help from Julia Roberts. On E!’s Busy Tonight with host Busy Philipps, she talked about her famous matchmaking friend.
“I’ve gotten to be friends with Julia Roberts,” she enthused. “She’s a real girl’s girl. She tried to set me up with somebody. It hasn’t worked out yet. But at least mama tried!”
We give Britton kudos for even thinking about dating after diving deep into Debra Newell’s frightening story.
Susan L. Hornik is a veteran entertainment and lifestyle journalist. She is an expert at making lemonade from lemons.