When Connie Britton is not working, she’s spending time with her seven-year-old son, Eyob. When she’s not doing either of those things, she’s “usually fast asleep.” Britton pauses as she tells me this over the phone from Los Angeles, before she laughs and delivers her punchline: “Because Mommy’s tired!” It’s a line you could imagine both Tami Taylor (Friday Night Lights) or Rayna James (Nashville) delivering in their signature southern drawls, but Britton isn’t playing a part, she’s just trying to explain to me why she’s a “terrible TV watcher.” Because she’s Connie Britton, the admission comes off as endearing instead of pretentious. She’s just a single mom who's been too busy making great television to binge it. Understandable.
The 51-year-old actress has portrayed multiple beloved characters that will go down in small-screen history, like Taylor and James, but her latest role is her first foray into true crime peak TV, and this character is a Britton we’ve never seen: ingenuous. We’re used to a Connie Britton character that has their sh-t together, at least one that's more wise than the people around her. But in Dirty John, Britton plays Debra Newell, a beautiful, well-to-do interior designer who seemingly has it all, until she meets John (Eric Bana), a charismatic con man.
I talked to Britton about the “unromantic” thriller, Debra’s perceived naivety, and Julia Roberts’ lackluster matchmaking skills.
Dirty John is the perfect show to binge. So, Netflix is the perfect forum for it, but it's interesting to me that they released it on Valentine's Day [Editor's Note: After debuting on Bravo in late 2018, the series hit Netflix Canada on February 14].
I know. How hilarious is that? Isn't that funny? When I saw that, I was like, that's somebody's twisted joke. It's perfect.
Just give a warning for viewers who haven’t seen it yet: This is not a romantic show, right?
Right, right. But listen, if you are just feeling lovey-dovey with your partner and you want to cozy up and watch something super scary, that will make you feel good about your happy relationship, this is the thing for you. [Laughs.]
Good sell. Let's talk about Debra. You say you were drawn to the role because it was a way to explore what makes us tick as women. How does she do that?
I think this is a very interesting moment for women in terms of the #MeToo Movement. Here in the U.S., there's so much conversation now about what it is to feel empowered as a woman. I just think it's always important to look at ourselves honestly and ask difficult questions. In this story, and specifically in getting to know Debra a little bit, I thought this was a really perfect opportunity to ask some of those questions. Debra is an incredibly intelligent, incredibly successful woman. On so many levels, she has what many of us as women strive to have. She's got a successful business that she created on her own, from her own talents. And she has children who she adores, she has a family she adores. And she's financially very successful. But there's this one part of her life that she feels is missing something. I wanted to look at the things that, in her life and in the culture she lives in, shaped her to think that having a man is so important.
I do believe there is a cultural tradition of choosing to see what we want to see for the sake of maintaining our own ideas of ourselves.
One of the hard questions I think you have to ask about Debra is whether she's being willfully ignorant — do you think that's the case? Were there times when that was hard to reconcile?
Yes and no. Because to some degree — I recognize this in a lot of women and in a lot of men — you could call it willful ignorance, you could call it denial, you could call it a survival mechanism. I do believe there is a cultural tradition of choosing to see what we want to see for the sake of maintaining our own ideas of ourselves or maintaining a belief system that we want to have. When we find Debra meeting John, she's kind of at a crossroads where she's trying to move away from some of the history that she has in her family where she doesn't feel like she puts her relationships or herself first. She's always taking care of everybody else. So, it's a kind of weird, twisted situation. The big umbrella of all that for me is that as women, so frequently, we are the nurturers and caretakers and we need to make sure that everybody's happy and everybody's being taken care of. And somewhere in the midst of that, we also want to find our own happiness. Sometimes, that's a messy prospect.
One of the things we’ve written about the show is that it “gives you permission to hate your friend's boyfriend.” There’s so much of it that goes back to trusting your gut and listening to the people around you. Should the takeaway be to listen to your friends and family if they hate your boyfriend?
I would not advise anyone to take their life lessons solely from this story. [Laughs.] My takeaway from this is only to keep asking questions. Just keep asking questions and keep opening your eyes. We can't just listen to our family and friends because they all have their own agendas. And if we as women are so compelled to make sure that everybody's happy, that's not going to be the answer either.
It's a lot easier than anybody thinks for very smart, very capable women to fall into these kinds of relationships because of some of the baggage that we carry.
We shouldn't take life lessons from the show but if I were single, the lesson I would take would be to not online date. At all. Did it make you a little wearier when dating?
Yes and no. I've never been a fan of online dating. What has been interesting to me is the number of women who — people who I've known for years! — have come up and said, "Oh my gosh, I never told you this, but I dated a sociopath once." I have a friend right now, who I think is kind of having a relationship that there are elements of this to it, and she can't say it. She has girlfriends telling her.
What do you say to her?
Well, I think there was a lot of impulse for people after the podcast and even from watching the show, to jump to blame the victim. "Oh my gosh. She's so stupid. She's not listening to everybody." It's blame, blame, blame her. It's her fault. However, look around. This goes back to the whole feminist aspect of it and the whole idea of being a woman. It's a lot easier than anybody thinks for very smart, very capable women to fall into these kinds of relationships because of some of the baggage that we carry as women.
You don’t online date but you do like being set up by friends. Julia Roberts has set you up on a date before but it didn’t work out, right? Are you saying that Julia Roberts is a bad match-maker?
Never. I would never say that, no. [Laughing.] My gosh, first of all, I appreciate any friend who has somebody that they think, "Hey, this might work out with you guys." As far as I'm concerned, nobody's responsible for a good break up or a bad break up. Actually no, I give full credit if it ends up being a good set up. And if it ends up not working out, there's nobody to blame.
I'm a huge Friday Night Lights fan. And Tami Taylor gives incredible advice — probably better advice than any character in the history of television. If Tami were Debra’s friend, what advice do you think she would give her?
I think she would say, "Girlfriend, you deserve better." I think she would be like, "We need to get you a man like Coach."
Everybody needs a man like Coach.
Right. Everybody needs a man like Coach.
I have one rule about the cast of Friday Night Lights, especially you. If anyone from the cast is in anything, I'll watch it. I think, they were in Friday Night Lights, they've got great taste.
That's a good rule.
Do you keep up with the projects of your former cast mates?
I try. I certainly root them on. I'm always enthusiastic and supportive. I did watch Game Night the other day. Of course, Kyle [Chandler, who played Coach Eric Taylor] was in Game Night and Jason Bateman, who I've worked with. And then Jesse Plemons [who played Landry]. I was on a plane and I was like, "Hey! They're my friends!" I'm was like a kid in a candy shop. "There they are!”
You've never been shy about speaking up on issues that are important to you, like gender equality and alleviating poverty. We're living in a time when speaking up doesn't really feel like an option anymore, but a necessity. Do you feel that way?
Yeah, I do. Before I had any kind of career, I was really interested in how you give voice to the voiceless. And part of the reason why I wanted to pursue this career was because I thought it might be an opportunity to do that on a bigger scale. There are those who say, "Oh, shut up and sing." Well, I don't listen to those people because they are clearly misinformed and have agendas. At this point, I think it's about human compassion. I take that on very seriously. I would do that if I wasn't an actor. If I was just in my community, I would still be doing this.
This interview has been edited and condensed.