Connie Britton's Role Reversal

Known for playing feisty, not-to-be-messed-with women, in Britton's latest project, "Dirty John", she plays the patsy

WORDS Phoebe Reilly
October 2018

Photography by Jeff Lipsky

Connie Britton’s trailer smells amazing, like summer and sophistication (or, more precisely, a tuberose-scented candle). We’re on set in Burbank, California, where she has just wrapped a day of shooting the new Bravo series Dirty John, which will introduce audiences to a radically different side of the 51-year-old actress. While Britton is best known for playing take-charge women like the flinty “queen of country” in Nashville, or the forthright football coach’s wife in Friday Night Lights, her latest character is more vulnerable, the story murkier. And this is precisely why she took on the role. 

Wearing a purple floral-print dress and tortoise-shell glasses, her strawberry-blonde hair shrouding her shoulders, Britton cuts a rather formidable figure. The woman she plays in Dirty John, however, is anything but. The new series is based on the true-crime podcast of the same name, which premiered last October to popular and critical acclaim. The story line revolves around Debra Newell, a successful interior designer and four-time divorcée from Orange County, who begins dating fellow Christian John Meehan (Eric Bana), ignoring all number of telltale signs that her new boyfriend is, in fact, a dangerous con man. Ultimately, Newell puts her family’s lives at risk for what she thinks is love. 

“I definitely had friends who were screaming at the radio, saying, ‘How can you be so stupid?’” says Britton, referring to the original podcast and its depiction of the real-life Newell. She had been following their group text thread about Dirty John when she first heard she was being considered for the TV adaptation. “I am not really up with the times in terms of podcasts and such things,” she says with a wry smile. “But I was excited about it right off the bat, because I knew already that it was in the zeitgeist, and as soon as I listened, I understood why.”

Britton didn’t have the aversion to Newell that a lot of listeners did, many of whom lit up social media with invective about her insecurity and lack of intelligence. “I actually heard her story as one that is reflective of what it is to be a woman shaped by her history, the values of her family, the values of her religion and who the culture tells her she’s supposed to be,” Britton says. 

“What was so chilling to me was less the bizarreness of the relationship, but how easy it is to be fooled by someone who is so evil.” With this, she opens the refrigerator, revealing an array of carbonated beverages. “Would you like a LaCroix?” 

Over the course of her career, Britton has proven adept at fully inhabiting her characters, whether as the paramour of a younger man in This Is Where I Leave You, a limousine liberal in Beatriz at Dinner, or a shallow Kardashian associate in The People v. O.J. Simpson. She’s also been known to push back when she feels her characters aren’t getting a fair shake. 

When director Peter Berg took his 2004 film, Friday Night Lights, to the small screen, Britton (whose part in the movie was largely uxorial) insisted that her TV incarnation have a meaningful personal and professional life, too. And when Nashville debuted in 2012, she was adamant that her 40-year-old country star wasn’t framed as being washed-up or needy. All of which suggests that the real-life Newell is in good hands. 

“To me, it’s more important to tell the story of Debra as someone who could be any one of us,” Britton says. “I have a personal belief that every woman is trying to empower herself. We just do it within whatever limitations we have in our lives.”

As executive producer, Britton helped stack the show with talent, including Jean Smart as Newell’s devout mother, Julia Garner and Juno Temple as her daughters, and, of course, Bana. The Australian actor is the ideal choice to launch Meehan’s sinister charm offensive, but not everyone was convinced at first. “Before I stepped on set with him, somebody said, ‘I heard Eric is really Method, and he doesn’t want anyone with an Australian accent anywhere around him,’” she recalls, laughing. “Well, he’s not. We have a great time. He’s really become an amazing partner on this.” 

She also spent time in the writers’ room before shooting commenced. “I was a little concerned,” she says, sipping a pamplemousse soda. “In the history of Debra’s relationship with her daughters, there were some, you know, complexities. There were reasons why she didn’t just jump to believe [their misgivings about Meehan] right away. I felt we had a real opportunity to tell that story, which wasn’t really told in the podcast.” 

That said, Britton had lingering questions of her own. While preparing for a scene in which her character ignores Meehan’s increasingly suspicious behavior, she reached out directly to Newell, who has since left California in the wake of all this publicity, to ask why. “Debra gave me a really honest answer,” she says, remaining circumspect about their discussion. “I feel very fortunate to get into her brain about it. I never judge my characters, [but] playing somebody who is alive and whom I am working with adds another layer of challenge. I want to make sure I’m doing her justice.” 

As a child, Constance Womack (Britton is her ex-husband’s surname, which she kept after their four-year marriage ended in 1995) would not have been pegged as star material. She grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, alongside her physicist-turned-businessman dad, her teacher/homemaker mom and her fraternal twin sister, Cynthia. She spent a lot of her childhood watching TV shows like Happy Days, as well as Goldie Hawn movies like Foul Play. “My dream was to be on a sitcom,” she says, “but there was no thinking that I would ever become an actor.” When she landed the lead part in a high school production of Hello, Dolly!, her parents assumed that she’d reached her theatrical peak. 

But Britton had other ideas. In 1989, after graduating from Dartmouth with a degree in Asian studies, she moved to New York City, where she became intimately acquainted with church basements and regional theaters. The professional offers that did come her way tended to be variations on the heart-of-gold hooker or the tough New York broad. “They were the sidekicks, the ‘Oh, honey’ characters,” she says. “From very early on, I had this mind-set that it was my job to make them real.”

Between jobs, she scoured trade magazines and sent out CVs, until one day she auditioned for a small part in a low-budget indie film, thinking it would add up to little more than some valuable experience and a few industry contacts. “There was never even a conversation about getting paid,” she says. The Brothers McMullen, director Edward Burns’ debut feature, went on to win the 1995 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and Britton got her first taste of the big time. “That was literally night and day,” she says. “My life was completely different after that.” 

A year later, she came close to starring opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. “I was the biggest deer in the headlights,” she recalls of her audition with Cruise and director Cameron Crowe. “To be reading these scenes with Tom Cruise, and then in between just chatting it up about his life with Nicole Kidman­—I remember being incredibly intimidated. But also I had to pinch myself because he was being lovely.” The role, of course, went to Renée Zellweger, and shortly afterwards Britton moved to L.A., where she landed the part of a half-woman, half-washing machine in a never-aired pilot. Luckily, the Michael J. Fox sitcom Spin City came along, and Britton spent four seasons as a wisecracking accountant and Fox’s occasional love interest. 

Her career gradually gained momentum, with stints on popular shows like The West Wing and 24, but it wasn’t until Friday Night Lights premiered in 2006 that Britton, at 39, finally commanded the level of respect that allowed her to have a real say in story lines and bring a little more depth to her character. The show, for which she scored the first two of her four Emmy nominations to date, also substantially expanded her fan base. She recalls meeting an admirer in 2012, who greeted her with the rallying cry of the fictional Dillon Panthers football team: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” The person issuing the quote was President Barack Obama. “I almost fainted,” she says.

Sadly, this career breakthrough occurred a year after Britton lost her mother, Linda, to breast cancer. In many ways, Tami Taylor, her character in Friday Night Lights, was an homage to her mom: a mix of Southern charm, savvy and disarming candor. In one memorable scene, Tami gives “the talk” to her on-screen daughter, Julie. Midway through, to the daughter’s confusion, Tami begins to cry. “I wanted you to wait,” she says. “But that’s just because I want to protect you, because I love you, and I want to make sure nothing bad ever happens to you.” 

“My mom would have loved the show,” Britton says. “We lived on a cul-de-sac in Virginia, and in the afternoons the ladies would come over and chitchat and have a glass of wine, which is where the famous Amy Schumer sketch came from.” (During a spoof on Inside Amy Schumer, the coach’s wife is seen with comically larger and larger glasses of white wine.) “Some of the feistiest, smartest women I ever met were living within the confines of a pretty traditional environment,” she continues. “They were very feminine and lovely and well-mannered­—but do not mess with them.” 

Three years later, in 2008, Britton lost her father, Allen, to a rare type of blood cancer. “That was a rough period,” she says. “But you know what? I feel really fortunate that I was able to be with them when they died.” She pauses, nods. “I was maybe able to better understand who they were to me.”

At around the same time, Britton went to Ethiopia to shoot a documentary about orphans there. “It was overwhelming, and I was a little paralyzed,” she recalls. “I didn’t know how one little me could ever do anything within the framework of what I was seeing.” This feeling of helplessness, coupled with the death of her mom and dad, led her to consider adoption. “It’s not a perfect parallel,” she says, “but when you lose both your parents, there is a strange relatability to feeling orphaned—no matter how old you are.” In 2011, Britton adopted her son Eyob, now 7, and is raising him by herself. “I’m so sad that they are not here to meet him,” she says of her parents. “There are so many questions that it never occurred to me to ask.” 

October—Breast Cancer Awareness Month—is a particularly poignant time for Britton, though the disease has long been a year-round concern for the actress. “Even before my mother was diagnosed, I was trying to create awareness, particularly among young women, to do self-exams, to have mammograms and sonograms,” she says. “It can be so preventable if you find it early on.” Meanwhile, in her role as a U.N. Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador, Britton frequently stresses the connection between substandard health care and other global problems like poverty and sexism. 

At the same time, she hasn’t had to look much further than her own industry to find glaring examples of inequality and abuse—although Hollywood, she says, is undergoing incremental improvements in this regard. “We really wanted a woman director on Dirty John and we couldn’t find one­—they were all booked,” she recalls with a smile. “That was very telling.” 

The hope now is that Dirty John, in its own small way, will address some of the issues facing women beyond the confines of Hollywood. “We’re in a time when we are observing ourselves and who we think we’re supposed to be to other people,” Britton says. “We’re supposed to be the nurturers. We’re supposed to give everybody the benefit of the doubt.” She shakes her head. “My hope is that people who watch the show are going to recognize some of the things that have been holding them back from valuing themselves.”  

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