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TV

Eric Bana on why he's returning to TV after 20 years in new Netflix series Dirty John

The actor reveals why the role of John Meehan was a perfect fit

By Jenny Cooney Carrillo
To transform into Mark "Chopper" Read in the 2000 movie which launched his Hollywood career, Eric Bana gained 13 kilos and spent hours each day in the make-up chair, replicating the hitman's extensive body tattoos.
But all he needs to feel like he's truly walking in the shoes of the man he plays in his latest role is a pair of scruffy cargo pants.
"That was the key to this character," the 50-year-old actor explains from the set of upcoming six-part Netflix series Dirty John, which launches on February 14.
"The first time I put the cargo pants on was my happy place for John. That's when I felt like I'd found him."
Those camel-coloured trousers, topped with a T-shirt and seen-better-days sneakers – along with a tatty pair of doctor's scrubs – were the staple wardrobe of real-life sociopathic swindler John Meehan.
Eric Bana and Connie Britton in Dirty John. (Image: Getty)
Posing as an anesthesiologist, in 2014 the handsome 55-year-old wooed wealthy Californian divorcee Debra Newell after meeting her through an over-50s online dating site.
Despite the dishevelled wardrobe, jarring inconsistencies in his tale and increasingly erratic behaviour, Debra, 59, was soon swept off her feet by the handsome "doctor", who proclaimed his love before the end of their third date, and within two months the pair wed.
Not so charmed were Debra's two suspicious daughters, whose hostilities with their newfound stepfather gradually became so intense it led to an astonishing fight for survival.
The events were first chronicled in US investigative journalist Christopher Goffard's 2017's hit podcast Dirty John, on which the series is based.
What at first seemed like a classic con quickly spiralled with each instalment uncovering more horrifying information about John, who was revealed not only to have lied about his medical qualifications, but also hid the fact he'd spent time in prison for drug theft and, post his release in 2005, had seduced, swindled and terrorised multiple women.
The real life John and Debra (Image: Supplied)
It defied logic that Debra, an intelligent, successful woman who ran a thriving interior design business, could have ignored the multiple warning signs, along with the desperate pleas of her daughters to leave the man who was destroying their family and bleeding her dry.
Connie Britton, who plays Debra in the TV series, leaps to her character's defence when asked how she not only fell for John's charms but took him back time and again, despite fearing her own life was in danger.
"One thing that pains me is when people say, 'How could Debra be so stupid'," Connie, 51, says.
"I actually think that's a defence mechanism because women would like to believe that this wouldn't happen to them but it happens all the time. It's been amazing since I started working on this series, people in my life have come out of the woodwork and said they were in a relationship with a sociopath and the one thing they all say is, 'But they can say anything to get you to stay.'"
For Eric, having been happily married for 21 years to his former TV publicist wife Rebecca, the world of online dating and its dangers is as far removed as he himself is from the manipulative character he plays.
"I think I just got lucky and we found each other at the right time so it's been wonderful," he says fondly of the mother of his two children – Klaus, 19, and Sophia, 16.
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Still, he's heard plenty of stories.
"I do know people who partake in online dating and I've known people my parents' age who do it and my kids' age, too," Eric continues.
"We've seen it happen plenty of times; people get swindled, people send money to people that they've never met, so I guess it says as much about our need to be heard and have voids filled in ourselves as it does about technology."
When his children were born, Eric says he made a pact not to take on more than one project a year, and he makes every job count. Dirty John took him to Los Angeles for four months but he jokes that he "escaped a Melbourne winter" and allows that time away from family made it easier for him to focus on the research about what drives a sociopath.
"Imagine the energy it takes to have a different mask for every single person that you interact with," he marvels of John's psychological manipulations not just of his wife Debra, but her friends and family.
Connie Britton with Debra Newell. (Image: Getty)
"In some episodes you see times when the mask drops and John is unable to maintain each mask with every person, so I remember thinking during my research, 'At what point and for whom does John not bother to hold the mask up?'"
Asked if he'd ever met someone he later realised might be a sociopath himself, Eric bursts into spontaneous laughter.
"Absolutely," he says. "Come on, I work in this business so it's more unusual to go through a production having not met one!"
But he quickly adds he's been lucky he's never been swindled by one. "I've always been a very instinctual person and my wife's even better, so we're very good at reading people," he says.
"My wife and my kids will confess the fact that they can tell I'm about to lie before I even open my mouth, so I'm glad I'm not depending on that skill to survive."
Eric as John, who posed as an anaesthesiologist.(Image: Getty)
"In some episodes you see times when the mask drops and John is unable to maintain each mask with every person, so I remember thinking during my research, 'At what point and for whom does John not bother to hold the mask up?'"
Asked if he'd ever met someone he later realised might be a sociopath himself, Eric bursts into spontaneous laughter.
"Absolutely," he says. "Come on, I work in this business so it's more unusual to go through a production having not met one!"
But he quickly adds he's been lucky he's never been swindled by one. "I've always been a very instinctual person and my wife's even better, so we're very good at reading people," he says.
"My wife and my kids will confess the fact that they can tell I'm about to lie before I even open my mouth, so I'm glad I'm not depending on that skill to survive."
Dirty John will launch on Netflix on February 14

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