TV & Movies

Falling into quicksand: Eric Bana on the search for truth in Dirty John

The love story of Debra Newell and John Meehan, documented in the Los Angeles Times' podcast Dirty John, has become a parable for life in the digital age, a cautionary tale about the way social media and online dating can turn quickly into an electronic House of Mirrors.

The podcast, released in 2017 and downloaded more than 10 million times within the first six weeks of its release, told the story of Newell, a businesswoman who met Meehan on an internet dating site; as their relationship progressed, Meehan's darker side emerged and the carefully crafted illusion he had created around himself began to dissolve.

Connie Britton as Debra Newell and Eric Bana as John Meehan in Dirty John.Credit:Bravo

Australian actor Eric Bana, who is playing Meehan in the television adaptation of the podcast, likens the search for the truth to stepping into quicksand.

"Part of the mystery of John is these types of characters may not even know themselves whether it's real, and I think that's really interesting," Bana says. "I do believe the attraction in the early parts of their relationship is real. I don't feel like it's someone who's arriving on a potential crime scene to do a swindle.

Eric Bana as John Meehan.Credit:Bravo

"But at what point did the acting begin and at what stage does the more dangerous elements of his character take over and poison that part of the relationship?" Bana considers. "I really like the idea that John may not even know himself."

The television series was largely written Alexandra Cunningham, who worked with a team of writers and Los Angeles Times journalist Christopher Goffard, who had written and produced the podcast. (Goffard also wrote one of the television episodes).

Although there was a wealth of material about the case to lean into, Bana says he found the character still somewhat elusive.

"When you're dealing with something that's based in reality, you can either choose to do something that's 100 per cent traceable to the fact or you can try and come up with something that has a sense of that person, that might be more interesting," he says.

Eric Bana as John Meehan with Connie Britton as Debra Newell in Dirty John.Credit:Bravo

"It's not him individually that's fascinating. It's his behaviour and that type of character. And I think that's why people find the podcast so interesting, because he's such an unusual person. There are some generalities there."

Bana says studying the general characteristics of sociopaths was as useful to him as focusing on the details of Meehan himself "and putting them in some sort of memory bank. I think it's important to come up with a character for the show that's a little bit further developed than what the facts are that are available."

Eric Bana as master manipulator John Meehan.Credit:Bravo

For co-star Connie Britton, sitting with Bana for interviews on the set of the series in Los Angeles, the process was vastly different. Britton did meet the woman she is playing, the real-life Debra Newell.

"We actually spent a good deal of time together and I really like her a lot," Britton says. "So it's been a new experience for me to sit down and get to ask her questions, and get to ask the character that I'm playing questions. It's very unique.

"It's also helped, and given me given me so much insight into the story in a way that maybe we weren't able to experience in the podcast. For me to have a better understanding of her experience was important, because ultimately we're telling the story of how a conman can be so effective."

It was important, Britton adds, to make Debra relatable. "So we can all see ourselves in her and not just say, oh, well, that's because she's this or that's because she's that. That's my goal."

Perhaps the most complex question at the heart of the story is why did Debra took John back, even as the evidence mounted that everything about him was a carefully constructed illusion.

Bana defends Newell, noting that human being beings are, in the day to day of our lives, far more malleable than any of us care to admit.

"Then something happens between two human beings when you're in a space, I think we're a lot more malleable than we think we are," Bana says. "We think afterwards of the thing we should have said. We think we're so much better than we are.

"We think that we'd be able to rise above this [but] something happens when you're in the company of someone and we just get a whole lot softer and we just get a whole lot more malleable. I can even feel it when we're when we're shooting the scenes.

"In defense of Debra, when you inhabit the space, when you get in there with someone, you can feel the ease of manipulation," Bana says.

For an actor who is largely described as a "Hollywood star" by the media, Bana's personal situation is perhaps unique. He and his family remain Melbourne-based, with the 50-year-old actor effectively commuting to Los Angeles (or other filming locations) for work.

The decision to return to TV after a long career working almost exclusively in film – Black Hawk Down, Munich, The Time Traveler's Wife and others – was not driven either by necessity or the so-called new golden age of scripted TV drama. Bana says simply the role was particularly appealing and the schedule was workable.

"[American] television is something that hasn't really been a viable option for me simply because I live in Australia, so the film landscape has lent itself perfectly to my lifestyle," Bana says. "This was one of the first occasions where something came along that was doable and that was extremely attractive.

"I would never say it's not going to happen again. It doesn't feel that different either, to be honest. The only point of different, which I am loving, is having the writer on the set, as an available part of the shooting process. And that's a real luxury which we sometimes have in film, but not always."

For Bana, the relationship between character and actor remains complex. And John Meehan notably lingered on Bana's mind, even when the cameras had stopped rolling. "It's probably going to be a problem," Bana says.

Then, on a more serious note: "I just I enjoy being in the skin of someone else, and it doesn't bother me if they inhabit me more than they should or stick around for a bit longer than they should.

"I think that's a bit of a privilege. I really like that feeling, you know, at the end of a production when you find yourself still feeling something about who you're playing. So he's welcome to, you know, take over part of my brain for as long as I'm contracted, and hopefully, I can shake him off at the end."

WHAT Dirty John

WHEN Netflix, from February 14

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