When Bravo ordered an eight-episode limited scripted series based on the “Dirty John” podcast, the production team had a wealth of material on which to base the show. Beyond Christopher Goffard’s audio telling of the story were numerous LA Times articles. But additionally, the real Debra Newell is still alive and has been a resource for her portrayer, Connie Britton.
“We actually spent a good deal of time together and I really like her a lot, so it’s been such a great experience for me, and new experience for me, to sit down and really get to ask her questions — get to ask the character that I play questions,” Britton said at a Television Critics Assn. set visit for the show Wednesday. “It’s a really unique privilege to experience. And also, it’s helping to give so much insight into the story in a way that maybe we weren’t able to experience in the podcast.”
For Britton, what was key was to conveying Newell’s experience was understanding “how she was pulled in by this guy” because ultimately, she noted, the story the show is telling is “of how a con man can be so effective.”
Britton and executive producer Alexandra Cunningham both pointed out that it will be key for everyone who watches the show to “see ourselves in her” and not judge her or assume her actions are because she is or is not a certain way.
“We cast the spell that John cast over Debra and we’re trying to include the audience in that. We’re trying to sweep the audience off their feet the way John swept Debra off her feet,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham described the show as being centered on “a successful, attractive woman who meets a very charming man on the internet, who sweeps her off her feet and then she discovers the darkness within him and it almost takes down her entire family.”
As the titular John, Eric Bana shared that he finds the character “mysterious” and doesn’t want to know a lot about him because he finds that if you choose to perform the role in a way “that’s 100% traceable to the exact facts, it can be boring.” Instead, he wants to “try and come up with a sense of that person that may be a little more interesting.”
“It’s not him individually that’s fascinating,” he said. “It’s the type of character and his behavior.”
However, he shared that he does think John “genuinely fell for Debra,” which made the early stage of their relationship “passionate and real.”
“At what stage does the acting begin and at what stage does the more dangerous part of his character take over and begin to poison that relationship?” he said. “There’s a lot of scope there to explore internally.”
Britton noted that at this time in history, post-the #MeToo movement, the story’s more relevant than ever.
“It’s very hard for everyone, but women especially to throw off their societal conditioning … with how they behave towards people they are in relationships with,” she said.
The show will touch on multi-generational portrayals of this conundrum through Debra and her mother (played by Jean Smart). The way Debra internalized some of what her mother showed and taught her about trust, Cunningham said, may inform her response to John.
Additionally, though, Cunningham pointed out that the aspect of meeting someone online is more relevant today, as well, given the prevalence of “trolling.”
“[It] is showing us that everybody wants to matter,” she said of the online behavior. “Trying to feel seen and be special and prey on that, that’s not going to stop happening.”
But perhaps most importantly, she said, that “the search for love and the wanting to reinvent yourself through the eyes of someone else” is a key theme of the show.
For the audience that is familiar with the podcast, new perspectives will be granted by watching the show. Whereas the podcast came from the reporter’s (Goffard) point of view, the show will “delve into a lot of different” ones, executive producer and director Jeffrey Reiner said.
“It’s all about, ‘Who is John?'” he said, noting that it starts with Debra but also will expand out to include characters like Tanya and the sisters. “We go back in time [and include] things that were not necessarily in the podcast.”
Added Cunningham: “The framework is the same and a lot of the things that people love about the podcast are still there but within the frame, we go deeper.”
Executive producer Richard Suckle added that with all of the copious amounts of information available, “when you can go down a certain rabbit hole [with the story]…you should go there because there’s a lot of things people don’t know about.”