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Here's How Playing a Sociopath on Dirty John Totally Messed With Eric Bana's Head

How he became a man you wouldn't like when he's angry again

Malcolm Venable

Eric Bana played a narcissistic, toxically masculine, manipulative, violent sociopath in Dirty Johnand, given that Bana is also known for becoming the Hulk in the 2003 superhero movie, it's not unreasonable to wonder if the actor has some special connection to the minds of men nobody likes when they're angry.

"Zero," he says via phone from Australia, his home country and where he spends most of his time when not working. In real life, he's usually Zen'd out from his main pastime -- restoring old bikes and cars -- that he's too calm to be anything like John Meehan, the man he portrays in Dirty John who becomes a nightmare for Debra Newell (Connie Britton). "It's very therapeutic," he says. Right now he's tinkering with a 1954 Ford 4-100, a three-speed with a manual transmission and no heat or stereo (Bana says takes a bit of effort to maneuver in traffic). Working on old automobiles, he says, "keeps me engaged with a vast array of different people from different walks of life, and introduces me to people with all different types of skill sets."

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But even having an array of encounters with diverse people couldn't prepare Bana for becoming Meehan in the Bravo series, a performance that earned him praise -- not least for holding his own alongside Connie Britton. Meehan was, of course, a real person, a man who died at the hands of Newell's daughter before he could harass and threaten any other women. To get inside his mind took real work for Bana, who looked both to Meehan and the news for inspiration.


Eric Bana, Dirty John

Bravo, Nicole Wilder/Bravo

"Sociopathic behavior fascinates me," he says. "When I see a person in the media or politicians -- I think part of the job as an actor is to always have antennae up when not working, stockpiling personality traits, thoughts and ideas. I haven't met people as abusive as [John] but I've met many people who tick the boxes of that dual personality sociopathic person description."

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What made his approach to playing Bana so intoxicating was the calm current of likability underneath the pathology. For most of the series, Bana makes John charming, affectionate, supportive and affable, especially with Debra. But it's a long con, and the minute Debra's children express their reservations about him to their mom or to him directly, he becomes frighteningly sinister. Bana very rarely employs the trope of the sneering, wide-eyed crazy man a la Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Instead, he informs John's way of psychologically tormenting people, especially women, with subtlety. "You spend so long with a character like this," he says, "it heightens your awareness of things. It made me question good deeds with people you question, 'Was that a good deed or someone performing that or trying to achieve something on another level?' That's something a sociopath would do. I was constantly looking out for that. Because with John every action piece of dialogue was laying of the foundation, setting a trap, making himself look better. It was a sharpened tool."

Eric Bana as John Meehan, Connie Britton as Debra Newell, Dirty John

Eric Bana as John Meehan, Connie Britton as Debra Newell, Dirty John

Bravo, Adam Rose/Bravo

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Should he get an Emmy nomination for the depiction he'd naturally be pleased, but if he doesn't, the autophile would be able to find peace. Judging by the way he spends his days -- before Dirty John he hadn't shot in Los Angeles in seven or eight years -- he already has solace, and getting juicy roles like this one are simply the special sheen on an already great ride of life. "In LA, there's always a meeting... here it's the exact opposite. Generally, I'm very disconnected. I really love it when I'm there [in Hollywood]; I can go engage heavily. Then I get on a plane and I'm gone."

Dirty John aired on Bravo; check your provider for on-demand availabitly.