Connie Britton Explains Her Plan to Keep You From Screaming at ‘Dirty John’s’ Debra Every Week

A lot of thought went into preventing it from being “so obvious that this guy is a bad guy,” Bravo star tells TheWrap

Last Updated: November 25, 2018 @ 6:48 PM

“Dirty John’s” Debra Newell is dating a very bad man — a fact that viewers should pick up on by the end of the premiere of the new Bravo series, starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana, this Sunday.

Unless, that is, you’ve already listened to the Los Angeles Times true-crime podcast the drama is based on, in which case you know going into the first episode that John Meehan (Bana) is a con man, if ever there was one.

Debra’s (played by Britton) daughters (Julia Garner and Juno Temple) are nervous because their mom is so deeply infatuated with this mysterious doctor (or a man we at least think is a physician) she met online — a man who is prone to random outbursts and creepy tendencies. And they tell her as much over and over and over again.

But the Newport Beach-based interior designer doesn’t realize her new love is a danger to herself (and others) until it’s almost too late — just as the story played out in real life. (We won’t spoil how it all ends for you here. That’s what the podcast — and now the show — is for.)

So how will viewers be able to sit and watch the on-screen version of Debra rationalize the red flags for weeks, without wanting to scream at the ever-forgiving heroine? Britton told TheWrap that she and the “Dirty John” team were concerned about that aspect of the series from the start.

“That’s a really, really interesting point and definitely a tricky one in terms of how we adapted the story to the screen,” Britton told TheWrap in an interview Monday. “I had a lot of conversations with our director [Jeffrey Reiner] and with our showrunner [Alexandra Cunningham] about how. We did a lot of brainstorming about how to try to do that and not just have it be so obvious that this guy is a bad guy. Because then there’s really nowhere to go.”

Dirty John - Season 1

“And the truth of the matter is, at least for me, one of the most important aspects of the story is that this could happen to anyone and, in fact, depending on your point of view, I would argue that we have a country at the moment that’s under the influence of a con man,” Britton continued. “So it’s really, really easy to let this happen, and hindsight is always 20/20. So the challenge is to find the way to tell the story where you’re not already immediately saying, ‘What is she doing? Why doesn’t she walk away from this guy?’ And were we successful at doing that? Maybe sometimes yes, but maybe sometimes no. I think that was the challenge of the storytelling.”

Read more from TheWrap’s interview with Britton below, and find out if (and when) she’ll be returning to Ryan Murphy’s “9-1-1” or “American Horror Story” here. And you can read our interview with Bana about “Dirty John” here.

“Dirty John” premieres Sunday at 10/9c on Bravo.

TheWrap: Were you a fan of the podcast when it first came out or did you listen to it later as preparation for the show?

Connie Britton: I listened to it later. But it was sort of a funny convergence of events, because I had just been with a group of friends who were talking obsessively about this podcast, which I had not listened to and they were actually sort of teasing me cause they were like, “Oh, we know you are never going to listen to this.” Because I don’t listen to anything because I’m a luddite. Then, like, two days later my agent sends me an email, “Have you heard of this podcast? They are thinking of turning it into a TV show.” And I was — it was one of those things where I sort of had shivers go down my spine. I was very excited. So he immediately sent both the L.A. Times articles and the podcast to me and I, that same night, read the articles and listened to the podcast. So I was immediately pulled in once I heard it. But I was already intrigued even before that, because I could see that it was already a story that was bringing up a lot of conversation and felt really relevant and interesting for this period of time.

What was your initial reaction to the story when you finished it?

I had two reactions. The first one was as I was listening, this prevailing chill about listening to a story of a con man and how easy it is to be conned and to fall into the clutches of someone like this. And it felt really relevant right now. It feels really relevant at this time in our country. And then the second thing was really about Debra and how the other thing that I think is happening right now culturally, in terms of the #MeToo movement, is this self-reflection among women of the things that have shaped us. And, really, reflection amongst both women and men in terms of how both genders are shaped by the culture and sometimes very old belief systems of how we’re supposed to relate to each other, how we’re supposed to value ourselves, how we’re supposed to think about each other. And I thought there were so many elements of the story where you can really see how she had been shaped by things in her culture, her environment, things in her family, things from her religious belief system — all of these things that contributed to the woman that she is today and the choices that she’s made.

Dirty John - Season 1

Just watching the first few episodes, it’s very difficult as the audience to watch it and know that something horrible is going on and this is a bad idea and not scream at the TV and tell Debra she needs to end this immediately. So was it frustrating to act out? It’s such a slow burn and there are so many times already where you wonder, “Why is she not ending this?” especially with the daughters chiming in all the time. How did you try to keep that from totally taking over the viewer’s experience?

That’s a really, really interesting point and definitely a tricky one in terms of how we adapted the story to the screen. I had a lot of conversations with our director [Jeffrey Reiner] and with our showrunner [Alexandra Cunningham] about how. We did a lot of brainstorming about how to try to do that and not just have it be so obvious that this guy is a bad guy. Because then there’s really nowhere to go. And the truth of the matter is, at least for me, one of the most important aspects of the story is that this could happen to anyone and, in fact, depending on your point of view, I would argue that we have a country at the moment that’s under the influence of a con man. So it’s really, really easy to let this happen, and hindsight is always 20/20. So the challenge is to find the way to tell the story where you’re not already immediately saying, “What is she doing? Why doesn’t she walk away from this guy?” And were we successful at doing that? Maybe sometimes yes, but maybe sometimes no. I think that was the challenge of the storytelling.

John and Debra’s story is supposed to wrap up in Season 1, but there will be a Season 2 that focuses on a different story, correct? Would you be involved in a different role?

I actually haven’t even really had a conversation about that. But that is going to be completely different story.

How do you think fans of the podcast — and those who haven’t listened to the podcast — will react to the ending when it airs? Because this all comes to a head in a very scary and big way.

It does and I think the twist at the end is just so unexpected, and my hope all along is that people will be sparked to conversation through all of it. And I’m sure the end is going to bring about some interesting reactions, as well. So it will be interesting to see how that all plays out.