True-crime podcasts have exploded in popularity over the past few years, due to audiences who are eager to bury themselves in tales that often seem more fantastical than true, and TV networks are now embracing the trend. HBO will soon bring Serial to life on the small-screen, and Bravo has now risen to the challenge by adapting the Dirty John podcast — which has been downloaded an estimated 30 million times — from journalist Christopher Goffard of the Los Angeles Times. Listeners gobbled up the cautionary tale about Debra Newell, whose life and family are upended by the charismatic John Meehan, an anesthesiologist who seems to be the ideal catch but soon casts an intricate web of con-man tactics.
For Bravo, Eric Bana (The Castle, Black Hawk Down) plays the manipulative John, who sweeps Connie Britton’s Debra into a whirlwind of deception. After the two meet on a dating site, her otherwise perfect life now suddenly seems complete, so the two quickly marry, much to the disapproval of her daughters. Piece by piece, however, John’s backstory begins to disintegrate, and throughout, Bana terrorizes those who challenge him. In fact, his take on the character might make you feel better about your own sketchy dating choices because damn, his John is dirty.
Bana was gracious enough to speak with us about his role and the mindset that he adopted to play a psychopath.
Dirty John often feels stranger than fiction. When you took on this project, was it difficult to wrap your head around John Meehan being a real person who did these monstrous things?
Well, fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve played a little worse, so it wasn’t that impossible, but I guess the story, it is quite unbelievable, and I was as transfixed as anyone when I listened to the podcast and was considering getting involved in the production. So it always felt like a story that shouldn’t be consumed on one’s own, and people feel then need to talk to others about, which is kind of interesting. So I was astonished as anyone else.
Why do you think the podcast was so appealing to the masses?
I guess the true story element, but I think people like to think that something can’t happen to them, and maybe it makes them feel as though they have better instincts than other people by listening to it, but it definitely hits people somewhere, and I’m not sure where or why it hits them.
Clearly, this isn’t the first villain that you’ve played. Do you enjoy being the bad guy, every so often?
Yeah. It’s nice that I’m holding the moral compass for a story. There’s a freedom that comes with that. There’s a real danger as well, if you get it wrong. They can be really interesting if they’re well-written, for sure.
I imagine the process here was different than playing Nero in Star Trek. Was it harder to play evil while you looked like yourself, as opposed to wearing all that Nero makeup?
I hadn’t really thought of that, actually. I thought it was important that we had the material underneath. The one thing that you don’t want to do when you’re playing a psychopath is play a psychopath, so you really need material underneath you to support who and what the character is, and I always felt comfortable with the direction where we were heading and with what Alexandra [Cunningham], our head writer, was doing. It gave me a lot of confidence.