Based on the articles and true crime podcast from Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard, the Bravo series Dirty John tells the true story of how the romance between Debra Newell (Connie Britton) and John Meehan (Eric Bana) became one of secrets and manipulation. As Debra’s two daughters, Veronica (Juno Temple) and Terra (Julia Garner), begin to question John’s motives and investigate the man that’s stolen their mother’s heart, what once seemed like an idyllic love story evolves into a family’s fight for survival.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Eric Bana talked about the appeal of a limited series format, playing a sociopathic character, having Connie Britton as a collaborative partner, the biggest challenges in playing John Meehan, why he likes to take his time between projects, and whether he’d consider doing another TV project in the future.
Collider: It’s interesting that TV seems to really be playing with this idea of the great love story. There’s a show on Lifetime, called You, that’s about a guy who stalks a woman, in person and online, to make himself into her perfect boyfriend, and now we have this show, Dirty John, about a guy that’s clearly not who he represents himself to be. Do you think that guys like this, who represent themselves as something they’re not or try to become whatever fits in the moment, are more common than we realize they are?
BANA: I guess it depends on to what degree. I’m sure that shape-shifting sociopathic behavior expresses itself in everything from very low levels to its extreme and most dangerous form. I’m sure a lot of people find themselves doing versions of that behavior. It’s the extremeness that’s compelling and disturbing.
With John, it’s so creepy and unsettling because he just seems like this totally normal, nice guy, until he’s not.
BANA: Right. From that perspective of feeling uncomfortable, it just gets worse and worse, as we go. We culminate at around Episode 7, in terms of revealing exactly what is and has been going on, in the background of the stuff that we’ve already experienced, in present tense, in other episodes. It was very interesting to do because there were also plenty of things that we were tracking, as we were doing it. We filmed most of the series in chronological order, except for the first three episodes We shot those in a block. So, once we got out of that block of three episodes, it became a lot easier to track and regulate some of that behavior, for Episodes 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. And (showrunner) Alexandra [Cunningham], Jeff [Reiner], the director, and I, really enjoyed that part of it, just that notion of how much of John are we showing for the characters that are in the scene, and how much of John are we showing to the audience to pick up on things inside of the moments.
Things get even scarier when you get some of John’s history and realize just how long he’s been doing all of this for. Did you look for answers or reasons, with someone like him? Do you feel like you have to find a way to come to an understanding for the character that you’re playing, or do you not worry about doing that?
BANA: It’s a bit of everything. I think it’s a natural instinct, as an actor, writer or director, to try to come up with some of those answers. We came to a place, early on, where we realized that it was a bit of a waste of time to try to come up with answers and motivations. I came to the conclusion that a large part of it was just to do with always having a plate spinning, and always having the need to wreak havoc and lie, and the need to keep shifting and pivoting. That was his basic make-up. The reasons for that are way too complicated for even a therapist to unpack. I just want to be convincing in getting people to feel like I’m believable as that kind of person. That was my job, rather than trying to diagnose his condition. I just really concentrated on trying to make him as believable as possible, in the doing all of those things. I felt like that was a more interesting pathway. But there were plenty of times where Jeff and I would sit on set and he’d say, “Why is he doing this?” And the answer would always come back to, “Because this is what he does.”
You’ve said that you’ve looked at a lot of TV projects, over the years, but that it really took you reading this script to say yes. Did you ever come close to doing any of those previous projects, or was it always just an automatic no, for whatever reason?
BANA: A lot of them were an automatic no because they were actual series. It got more tempting when they started to come into the limited series space. And then, this one came along and I just really wanted to do it. I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe, so I liked the limited series model. It didn’t feel any different to a movie for me, in terms of the way you go about it.
Had you been familiar with the podcast this series is based on, or did you listen to it, as you were preparing for it?
BANA: That was part of the pitch for the actual project, so I had to listen to it before I could even have a creative conversation. I wanted to know where it was coming from. I just see it as podcast is the new book, in terms of how material gets optioned and valued, and whether there’s potential commercial interest. I think it is quite an easy leap for a lot of producers and studios and executives to make. If a podcast has a big following, maybe there’s potential there. It’s never a guarantee, but I do think there’s something about this storyline that is almost like a horror movie. If it’s a very primal thing, it appeals to people’s egos, in the sense that they think, “This couldn’t possibly happen to me!,” because they think that they would be a better judge of human character.