John Meehan had a good thing going for a long time. The Southern California anaesthetist had a history of conning women, getting away with his schemes through charisma and sweet-talk.
In 2014, he met Debra Newell, a wealthy divorcée in Newport Beach. They married quickly after a whirlwind two months together. With Debra head over heels in love, she seemed to be just another mark. But then, John's lies started to catch up with him.
The saga of John Meehan would become Dirty John, the wildly popular 2017 podcast from Los Angeles Times journalist Christopher Goffard.
"I've written hundreds and hundreds of stories about very bad people," Christopher told Rolling Stone magazine. "I've been a reporter for 20 years … but there's something about this guy, John Meehan, that chills me, that gets under my skin in a way that nobody else has."
Now, John's shocking true story will play out on screen in a series by the same name, with Aussie star Eric Bana playing the deceptive John, and Emmy-nominated actress Connie Britton as Debra.
"My agent was nervous to bring up the general concept that it was a TV show and a podcast," Eric, 50, tells TV WEEK. "But I love true crime, so I hung up and immediately listened to the podcast, and then started talking to the producers and decided I'd take the leap based on the source material, even though we didn't have a script yet."
That Dirty John would be a short series helped Eric commit too. The actor has remained in Melbourne throughout his career, keeping travel outside the country limited to one film a year so he can be with wife Rebecca and their two children, Klaus, 20, and 16-year-old Sophia.
"TV is something that hasn't really been a viable option for me simply because I live in Australia," Eric explains. "The film landscape has lent itself perfectly to my lifestyle, but this was one of the first occasions where something came along that was doable and extremely attractive. I've looked at a lot of TV stuff over the last 10 years, and this was the one that got me."
Shooting the series got to Connie too, and after spending time with the real Debra, Connie becomes defensive when friends criticise Debra's judgement.
"They were like, 'I wanted to shake her,'" Connie, 51, tells TV WEEK. "But I didn't have that experience because I looked at Debra from the standpoint of all the influences and all the generations of women in her life, and her religious beliefs, and that helped me create someone relatable with a history that impacts the choices she makes."
The actress, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for her role in Dirty John, says she understands Debra's blind spot in relationships.
"She was married four times prior to this, so it's kind of her Achilles heel," she explains. "We all have our flaws, and she has self-awareness about that. After her experience with John, she's also got a great deal more self-awareness now."
Although the podcast was a global phenomenon, producers of Dirty John had to translate the narrative conveyed through conversations and reporting into a television drama.
To help them, Christopher gave them access to every recorded interview he did, as well as all his other research. The result, producers promise, is a resonating, true story told with a lot of depth.
"We had interviews that didn't make it on the podcast, or people he talked to who didn't want to be on the podcast, and about 400 pages of stuff related, so we had a much more complete picture of what happened," co-producer Alexandra Cunningham says. "We could basically go down any road we wanted."
One road they took was to retell events seen from Debra's point of view through John's eyes in the series.
"We get to be with him unfiltered and see how he acts and reacts to certain situations when nobody is watching him," co-producer Richard Suckle teases.
"That's something a lot of people wondered about and it will be compelling to watch, because in the podcast we hear from everyone but John Meehan. In this series, we finally hear from him and see what he was doing all that time Debra thought he was someplace else."
Dirty John premieres on Netflix on February 14th.
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Australian Women's WeeklyJan 23, 2020