Eric Bana is truly one of the more versatile actors in Hollywood who is willing to transform himself for a role as in “Chopper,” and the Australian actor is now bringing the wildly popular true crime podcast “Dirty John” to TV with a weekly series on Bravo. He won’t be chasing down Chris Pine in “Star Trek,” but instead, looking like his very handsome self and manipulating Connie Britton. Fans of Ryan Murphy’s “911” won’t be seeing her returning to the show anytime soon as this actress is always busy.
Bana plays John Meehan and Connie Britton plays Debra Newell, a couple in California who met online and fell in love. John claimed to be a doctor, just back from volunteering his services for Doctors Without Borders in Iraq.
Newell, who had already been married multiple times and had grown children, thought John was the man she had always been looking for. Her kids, however, immediately didn’t trust him. As they make their concerns known, John succeeded in driving a wedge through Debra’s family.
A Los Angeles Times reporter, Christopher Goffard, covered the story and turned it into a wildly successful, addictive podcast. Bana didn’t tune in until he heard of the TV project.
“I downloaded and listened to all six very quickly and loved it,” he said. “There were parts that I couldn’t quite believe really happened.”
While Britton spoke to the real Newell to play the part, Bana didn’t have the opportunity to contact Meehan. He said he was fine with that and didn’t go looking for ways to exactly replicate the man. He said he was most concerned with portraying how Debra could fall for him, and why it would be so hard for her to walk away.
“We need to see what Debra saw, we need to get a sense that the attraction and the relationship was real and genuine and wasn’t a caricature so that was the tricky part, I think,” he said.
Bana also thinks people will be drawn to the conflict between Debra and her family, because of Meehan.
“It plays into relationship dynamics within families, what advice we take and listen to and clashes we can have.”
He said manipulators like Meehan are very calculated.
“These guys know what they’re doing. This is not like a normal relationship. He’s picking on his prey deliberately and targeting a particular type of personality. It’s never a fair match and it’s simple to judge for a lot of people, but I think the more research you do, the more you understand how someone stays with a person like that.”
Dirty John proves that truth is always stranger than fiction. How hard was it 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.
What do think make the podcast got the interest of so many people?
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.
Playing villains isn’t anything new to you like Chopper, one of my personal favorites. Do you enjoy getting to be 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 would imagine the process with Dirty John was much 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 or the massive body transformation in Chopper?
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.
Since you weren’t able to talk to the real John, 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.
It was interesting 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? Or does it say more about the things we overlook for love?
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.
I’m sure your comedy background came in handy for 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.
Bravo is pushing this 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 showing John’s previous wife were actually rather chilling. Will we be seeing 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 was the most disturbing thing that John does in this series for you, 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.