Before Connie Britton was formally approached about potentially starring in Bravo's TV series adaptation of "Dirty John," she, like many, was already well aware of the Los Angeles Times podcast and story on which the show is based.
"My agents brought me the material, but what drew me to it was my friends talking about how amazing your podcast was, which coincidentally happened just two days before I got an email from my agents," Britton told Times reporter Christopher Goffard during a recent Envelope Live screening.
"I had already heard about this really interesting story that was creating a lot of conversation, and then when my agents sent me an email about it, I was immediately really excited."
"Dirty John," originally a six-part story and podcast about an Orange County divorcee whose life is put in danger when she meets and falls in love with a mysterious man with a hidden past, launched in October 2017. The podcast quickly amassed more than 30 million downloads, and Bravo announced it was bringing the true-crime story to TV in January.
Britton, joined by fellow series star Julia Garner, creator and showrunner Alexandra Cunningham, executive producer Richard Suckle and director Jeffrey Reiner, screened the first episode of the series at the Montalban in Hollywood two days after its linear premiere. The screening was followed by a discussion with Goffard, who also served as a writer on the series adaptation.
Once she signed to star and serve as executive producer of the series in March, one of Britton's first steps in preparing for the project was to talk to the real Debra Newell.
"But really, the reason I was so deeply drawn to playing Debra was because I actually recognized a lot in her from the standpoint of what it is to be a woman shaped by external circumstances. Her family history, the culture she lives in, her religious beliefs, all these things that I think contributed to the woman she is and the choices that she made," Britton said. "So for me, I found it be a really interesting psychological exploration."
Julia Garner, who plays one of Debra's two daughters Terra, also talked how she came to a better understanding of her character.
"The main thing for Terra is that what I noticed pretty early on was that she gives people chances in a way, and I think that she is like her mother in that sense," she said. "She always hopes. And sometimes it can be to a fault."
Showrunner Alexandra Cunningham was able to find some similarities between the show's central villain, John Meehan, and another infamous bad guy she had previously written for: Charles Manson.
"He was about manipulating other people to do what he wanted and John Meehan did the same thing, but John Meehan was a one-man band," she said. " I guess we can be grateful that there was no Meehan family."
Despite the similarities shared with one of the most notorious criminals in U.S. history, director Jeffrey Reiner emphasized the importance of showing the softer, more humorous side of John, portrayed by Eric Bana.
"I also was looking at it through Connie's eyes and it was very important that we understand that this guy was a living breathing thing, that he was charming … why she fell in love with him. It was just trying to get people to find the other side of him," he said. "If he's just so evil from Episode 1 or Episode 2, then I think the show gets boring. So I wanted to have fun with him, and Eric was really game."
However, playing a real-life figure and retelling a true crime story has its challenges too. Executive producer Richard Suckle talked about the importance of being "respectful" to Newell and her family, especially considering that the events at the center of the series only happened a few years ago.
"We're making a series that's going to ... potentially if not probably stir up a lot of bad memories," Suckle said. "It's important as a producer that you want to make them feel comfortable that you're actually going to be telling their story."
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