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.
You obviously couldn’t talk to John himself prior to this project. Did you do much research other than the podcast?
I wasn’t really super-interested in John, per se. I was more interested in the behavior of that type of person, so I didn’t want to do a facsimile of him, I didn’t wanna come up with all these facts and anecdotes and stories that were gonna enable me to bring him back to life, so to speak, I was interested in, “What is this type of personality?” What he engages in, what makes him tick, and how they are perceived from the other person’s perspective. I think sometimes when you’re playing a real person, the danger is that you can get really bogged down, and if that person’s not very interesting, you’re really hamstrung. Their behavior might be interesting, but they might be quite boring. So I kind of divorced myself from that, and through Jeffrey [Reiner] and Alex, the writer and director and myself, we agreed that the best thing for me to do would be to try and come up with an interpretation of that type of character that was close to John but wasn’t precisely him. Because I didn’t think he would really be as interesting.
Well, I found it intriguing that Debra was quick to overlook discrepancies in John’s backstory until things get really bad. Do you think that says more about John’s methods or Debra’s psychology?
Definitely both. I think he definitely knew how to pick his targets, and he definitely honed in on Debra once he learned more about her and saw that forgiving side, and saw the little gap in her life that he could fit into, and he was very well-trained and self-taught, and shape-shifting into all those things that someone wants. In many ways, it’s kind of not a fair fight when that occurs.
Did you draw upon your comedy background in scenes like John showing up to an event in his scrubs, like, ‘Hey, I’m really a doctor!’?
For sure, Jeffrey and I [knew] there would be potential for black humor as the season progresses, and sometimes, it’s a good thing to not shy away from those things when you’re dealing with serious subjects. Part of the challenge when one navigates the world is by being somewhat ridiculous, and we didn’t wanna — I don’t want to give too much away — but it’s not something that we overplayed, but we were definitely aware of some of the bizarre situations.
This show is, of course, being marketed as a cautionary tale. Will people find lessons in the show that they didn’t find in the podcast?
Possibly. Look, we had the luxury of really exploring the backstory, which people will get a sense of [in the first few episodes]. One thing that the podcast couldn’t do was explore the backstory in the same way, eight hours, rather than referring to it in a narrative sense. We go and experience the flashbacks in first-person, so that was a good tool that we had that we really wanted to make the most of. So I think the show will be a lot more unsettling than the podcast.
The flashbacks, from the first few episodes, with John’s previous wife — those were really frightening. Are we going to see any flashbacks with a different woman in the future?
Yes, you’re highly likely to see more flashbacks as you go forward. And maybe different time periods that it will flash to.
What do you believe is the most disturbing that John does in this series, other than his most desperate actions toward the end?
It’s all so terrible and pathetic. I think the big warning sign is people saying that they have family and friends, who just never, ever appear. There was a real mysteriousness to him when I listened to the podcast. It’s like he was there, but he wasn’t there. It just goes to the fear, that he wreaked all this havoc, but we didn’t really know him. We didn’t know much about him at all. And that’s what made it scary.
‘Dirty John’ debuts on Sunday, November 25 at 10 p.m. on Bravo. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.