Small Screen: Dirty John explores romance with a sociopath

BEVERLY HILLS, California — It was a story too delicious to believe. A wealthy career woman living in Southern California met the man of her dreams on the internet.

Their romance rivalled Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s, though with far less publicity. But the relationship slowly began to unravel when her family noticed disturbing eccentricities in her dashing love.

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The story of the fairy-tale romance and its bloody demise first appeared as a podcast by journalist Christopher Goffard and later ran as a series in the Los Angeles Times.

Now Bravo elevates it to high visual drama when Dirty John premières Sunday. Connie Britton plays the elegant Debra Newell, a single mother with a thriving interior design business. Eric Bana is the enigmatic John Meehan in the eight-part series.

Britton (Nashville, Friday Night Lights) says she got to explore the subject with the real Debra Newell.

“We’ve actually spent a good deal of time together,” she says. “And I really like her a lot. But it’s been such … a new experience for me to sit down and really get to ask her questions and 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, 51, says it was critical that she understand how such an intelligent person as Newell could be flimflammed so easily.

“Ultimately, we’re telling the story of how a con man can be so effective. And so 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’s because she’s that,’ ” she says.

To portray the devious Meehan was another story, says Australian actor Bana, who’s known for movies such as Munich, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Chopper. “Whilst there’s a lot of factual information about John, I actually find him really mysterious,” says Bana.

“And so there’s a lot of stuff about him that I don’t want to know. Because ultimately, I think, when you’re dealing with something that’s based in reality, you can either choose to do something that’s 100 per cent traceable to the exact facts of how they were — which can potentially be a little bit boring to watch — or you can try and come up with something that has a sense of that person, that might be more interesting.”

The challenge he says, is Meehan was not just one guy who told whopping lies, but a “type” that exists all over the world.

“It’s not him individually that’s fascinating. It’s his behaviour and that type of character,” says Bana, 50.

“And I think that’s why people find the podcast so interesting because he’s such an unusual person. So I think there’s some generalities there. And most definitely, studying how sociopaths behave and think and that sort of thing was more important, or as important to me as it was to just focus on specific events that occurred in his life and kind of put them in some sort of memory bank. Because I think it’s important to come up with a character for the show that’s a little bit further developed than what the facts are that are available.”

Coming up with a character like the real John Meehan proved daunting. First of all, the audience had to like him, says director Jeffrey Reiner. “At the start of the production, I would walk around the production office and tell the whole crew that ‘I love John. John’s a great guy.’ And everybody looked at me like I was crazy. But it was our way in, because if we know from the get-go that he’d be smarmy or swarthy or icky, then we don’t have a show,” he says.

“And I really do think that by the first episode, I hope that people are going to root for this couple to work. Because there is this incredible chemistry between them. And so through Connie’s character’s eyes, John … comes across as just a fantastic, lovable guy. And their chemistry is fantastic. And in casting Eric, it’s a really hard role to cast, because you need somebody who can bring that kind of sense of good nature and joy and giving her something that she needs. And then, later on, the Dirty John rears his head.”


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