Connie Britton Explains the Challenge and Appeal of Adapting 'Dirty John' for TV (Exclusive)

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Connie Britton delivered one of ET's Standout Performances of the season for her role as Debra Newell on Dirty John.

Connie Britton likes playing real people. And if they aren't based on real-life, then they better feel real -- as real as three roles, Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights, Viven Harmon on American Horror Story: Murder House or Rayna James on Nashville, that have earned her four Emmy nominations in her celebrated acting career.

Her latest, however, successful interior designer and mother of two Debra Newell, who gets scammed into a marriage, is as real as they get. "Our world is becoming increasingly bizarre, so a lot of the interesting stories are the true ones," Britton says of the true-crime podcast turned Bravo series, Dirty John, during a phone conversation with ET.

"It felt like I was playing somebody that people had a relationship with," the actress shares, noting the challenge -- and appeal -- of portraying Newell’s life on camera. In fact, she repeatedly met with Debra while preparing for the limited series and it was Debra’s straightforwardness about how she fell for a conman that Britton credits for helping her “do justice” to this story.

"Knowing that she is alive and well, and this experience happened to her, I wanted to be really respectful of that because it really gave me some very specific guidelines to go by," Britton says. "It was challenging, but it also made the role so unique and special to me."

Once she carved that connection to Newell, it became harder for Britton to stray from the truth, like a scene from episode five, in which John (Eric Bana) commits to rehab and Debra takes him back that pushed her performance. As an actress, she had to find a balance between what happened in reality and her desire to do right by the character she was ultimately portraying on TV. "I found that to be a real challenge, because I actually wanted to have just an in-depth exploration of why Debra chose to take him back, even without the idea of, 'Oh, well, he's going through rehab,’” recalls Britton, who also served as executive producer on the series. “I wanted to make sure that it felt like it was truly authentic to the experience that Debra had and the experience of these characters. So, we worked truly hard on those scenes."

That kind of nuanced thinking is perhaps why Britton has earned her previous Emmy nominations as well as two Golden Globe nods. While she humbly says the accolades were earned through "fairy dust," in reality, she just knows how to pick 'em.

While she had a string of successful runs on shows like Spin City and 24, it wasn’t until she starred as Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights that put her on the map. After five seasons of living in the mindset of the character -- who was lauded by millions for her marriage with coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) years before #relationshipgoals was a thing -- Britton recalls hitting a crossroads. "What will I do after Tami Taylor?" she remembers asking herself.

Then came Ryan Murphy. "He kind of spelled it out,'" Britton says. "He said, 'This is what you're going to want to do. You're going to want to do something that's totally different from anything you've been doing for the last five years.'" American Horror Story was a chance for Britton to recalibrate herself as an actress. "I'm not comfortable in the horror genre at all, so it felt very challenging to me. But it did sort of set the tone," she shares. By "tone," she means what she wanted out of her career.

After AHS, Britton tried to capitalize on having that impact on viewers. Playing a relatable character is equally as important to Britton as a project that feels like "I'm going to be in a world, in a wheelhouse, where I haven't been before," she says. As "immediate and accessible" as her characters might be, she wanted them to challenge the audience and make them "really think about themselves, about their relationships, about the culture that we live in," she insists. It's become a prerequisite when picking parts now.

Britton's keen eye for selecting roles has also created a sense of when to walk away from a project. She left Nashville after four-and-a-half seasons in 2017 and opted not to renew her one-year contract for 9-1-1, which reunited her with Murphy. Part of those choices was a desire to constantly be challenged, and the other part is just making sure "it's a great fit all around, for everyone involved," she notes, without getting into specifics.

Regardless of how long she plays them, all of her characters stay with her, Britton says. She finds bits of Tami or Debra in her roles as Beth Ailes, in the untitled Roger Ailes film also starring Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron; or as Lola Bell, the real-life mother of a 15-year-old gay teen who took his own life, in the upcoming Good Joe Bell. "They almost become parts of me -- like people that I know, who I value, and always can reference back to," Britton says.

They sound like her friends, the way she describes them -- and they kind of are. Britton admits to learning something from each role she takes on. With Debra, she learned a lot about what it means to be a woman.

"[Dirty John] was really a story about women, and there was a lot of what Debra did, that I could really relate to, as a woman," Britton confesses. "She was living a version of who she thought she was supposed to be, to be a truly successful woman -- so that meant even though she was incredibly, largely successful, she was a mother, she didn't have a man. And she put so much value on that, and in taking care of everybody and in making sure that he was OK. That's something that's very relatable to a lot of women."

It's being trusted to offer that insight through her work that she values over awards recognition. "Whenever I'm playing a character, I'm not thinking like, 'Ooh, you're going to love this!'" Britton says, making herself laugh. "It's never like that. I just try to stay so true to the integrity of what I'm trying to create, and it's just interesting to see that the people really respond to that."

 

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