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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Becoming Betty Broderick: Amanda Peet on her astonishing <i>Dirty John </i>performance

Becoming Betty Broderick: Amanda Peet on her astonishing Dirty John performance

Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Photo: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network

Amanda Peet has been acting onscreen for decades, starting out with small roles in ’90s movies like She’s The One and One Fine Day before making a big splash in 2000’s The Whole Nine Yards. Since then, the actor has starred in rom-coms like A Lot Like Love and TV series like Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip—but the past few years have found Peet doing the most interesting work of her career. She shone as a woman unexpectedly starting her life over while crashing with her sister, her brother-in-law, and their out-of-work actor friend in the Duplass brothers’ Togetherness. After that series’ premature cancellation, Peet was cast as Hank Azaria’s screwball foil in Brockmire, recurring throughout the show’s four-season run as Jules James, a hard-drinking marketing genius who just can’t quit her greatest love: baseball.

But her latest performance is her most impressive yet. As the eponymous lead of The Betty Broderick Story, the second season in the true-crime anthology Dirty John, Peet displays myriad shades of a tabloid fixture that once captivated the nation: from Broderick’s peak as the social queen of Southern California to her tragic decline after her husband Dan (Christian Slater) leaves her for another, younger woman. At the time, Broderick was depicted as the ultimate “woman scorned,” acting out by leaving hours of obscene messages on her husband’s answering machine, driving her car into his house while their kids were inside, and shooting Dan and his new wife, Linda (played in the miniseries by Rachel Keller), to death in their bedroom. It’s difficult to conjure much sympathy for a convicted murderer, but such is the strength of Peet’s performance. It doesn’t justify Betty’s actions, but it gives us an understanding of the woman that moves beyond the headlines and previous made-for-TV depictions. As Betty loses touch with her kids, her friends, and her sense of self, Peet shows us a once-strong woman’s unraveling in chilling fashion.

Dirty John wrapped up last night on USA (and is definitely worth checking out on the channel’s streaming site). We talked to Peet on what it was like to personify such a troubled character, what led to this recent chapter in her career, and how Betty’s situation was likely much more dire in the ’80s than it would have been today.

The A.V. Club: This seems like such a groundbreaking role for you. Was your usual process different for this part? Because it’s just so intense. 

Aanda Peet: Well first of all, thank you. [Laughs.] No. I mean, it was the same as what I always do. I approached it the same way, even though she’s a real person.

AVC: Did you research her at all? Did you read books or see the previous TV movies with Meredith Baxter-Birney? 

AP: I tried to just stay sort of, like, stay behind [showrunner] Alexandra [Cunningham], almost she was like providing a translation for me. Because all the footage we have of Betty Broderick is after the murders. A few pictures and stuff. I guess I felt like that was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Alexandra wanted to explore. She told me that I wasn’t going to do an imitation in any way. It felt important to not try to compile tabloid blips, because Alexandra wanted me to go deep and with more of a complete picture. So I didn’t want to get misled by these blips that were post her psychotic break.

AVC: So you basically crafted your own entire character.

AP: Well, Alexandra’s, yeah. [Laughs.] Not mine. And I think she wrote such a beautiful, compelling portrait. It was really important to me that the script didn’t oversimplify the fact that [Betty] was a victim.

You know, there’s no excuse. She murdered two people. And I don’t think Alexandra is interested in justifying that. I think she was interested in exploring the reasons why, especially now that we know more about mental illness. We know more about the social mores of the ’50s in which Betty and Dan grew up, and divorce law.

I think these things weren’t discussed as much back then. And definitely a case of the scorned woman and her rage. Which was eventually an inappropriately sized rage. But in the beginning, it wasn’t.

AVC: It’s so interesting the way the series is framed. Like, you get that view of her at the beginning. She’s in the midst of that breakup, but she still has her faculties. And everything she went through in the early years of the marriage, and how she ends up at the end. Was that filmed progressively? Even just those clips of those ladies’ lunches with her friends—Betty starts out at the center, and then just gradually devolves from there until she’s obviously ostracized. How did you approach that each time? 

AP: Well, it was so funny because each time I would see those actresses, who I love so much, I was like more and more wrecked as the shoot went on. [Laughs.] It was really funny how my comportment was—sort of as a person was like matched with Betty’s.

Yeah, we shot them pretty much in order. I mean, we started with the timeframe of episode four—obviously when she crashed the car. And then, went back. But then, after episode four, it was in order.

So by the end, they were like peeling me off the floor, those actresses. They were like, “It’s okay! You’re almost at the finish line!” They were incredibly sisterly and awesome.

AVC: Was it hard to shake at the end of the day? Like, you’re going home to your family and your own kids after these really intense days on set.

AP: I’m not really like that. It was hard because we did some 13-page days at the end. It was really just the page count that made me unable to focus on my kids. [Laughs.]

AVC: You and Christian Slater must have been very close to be able to have that kind of honest marital performance.

AP: Yeah, he’s just so generous and thoughtful and incredibly game. It’s very strange that he’s been so famous and successful for so long, because he’s very open and generous. I don’t know if I would have managed to keep my head on straight had I had a career like his, you know?

AVC: Do you have any thoughts about Betty yourself? For example, do you feel sympathy for her? She was denied parole again in 2017 because she apparently still doesn’t display any remorse for what she did. 

AP: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think she is remorseful, and she murdered two people. So there are no two ways about that. But obviously, in order to do the role, I had to try to eliminate the judgmental part of me. And I think anyone who claims someone who has some degree of mental illness has to—I mean, mentally ill is not a playable action. So my job is to find something justifiable beat by beat.

AVC: You go into it thinking, “She murdered these two people. There’s no way I’m going to end up having sympathy for her.” But you kind of do at the end—because of your performance, but also these horrible roles that she was thrown into. When she lost Dan, she felt she had no other options, really. 

AP: Yes. And I think there are a lot of women that maybe through divorces were essentially just having the rug pulled out from under them. Even if they were college-educated, they would sublimate all of their professional ambitions into becoming a wife and a mother. So decades later, when they were left, some of them just didn’t have any recourse. Not only financial recourse, with no skillset to enter the workforce, but also just no knowledge about finances. And no identity outside of being someone’s wife.

AVC: No credit history, no separate bank accounts. There are those great scenes of Betty when she’s defending herself in court, and you think if she had been born a few decades later, who knows what she could have accomplished. 

AP: Yeah. One of my favorite lines in the show is “Everyone wants a kitten. No one wants cat.” That was really an important line to me.

AVC: Our moms just didn’t have the all opportunities that we have now, it’s probably fair to say.

AP: Yeah, no. My mom got divorced—it was 1989. So it was the same. Because she had pursued her career in fits and starts, because my sister and I were young kids. And it was assumed that she would cook dinner and do most of the school runs. And so it took her a really long time to get her master’s in social work—which gets some stars.

So she was financially dependent post-divorce, as well. And didn’t have the kind of recognition you might get if you had dedicated your whole self to a profession.

AVC: Between this and Brockmire, it’s been a pretty intense couple of years for you. Were you looking for projects that were more challenging and complex? Do you want to do a straight-up comedy now?

AP: [Laughs.] I’m probably always looking for something more complex, because I’m a Jewish masochist. But yeah, I was pretty bowled over when I got [the Dirty John offer]. You know, I’m 48, and I guess there’s definitely a part of me that was trying to get used to and accept the idea that my acting career was going to really slow down, and I was trying to embrace that and not be too afraid. And then, when Alexandra picked me, it was like—wow, I’m still really in love with this. Sorry to sound corny, but it was just a massive gift. Her writing—she’s so good at dialogue, and it just wasn’t what I thought of when someone said, “Oh, you’re going to get this true-crime show.” I didn’t know it was going to be all these intense marital scenes. And scenes about aging and being a mother and all sort of things that are probably pretty relevant and moving to me right now, at this point in my life.

AVC: But you could also say that in your 40s, you’ve done the most interesting work of your career. You’re proving that there should not be a time limit on the acting that you’re doing.

AP: Well, thank you. I’ve said it before, but I think in my late-20s and early-30s, I was… more of a state of panic. And my choices reflect that, I think. Some of my choices, anyway. And so I think—when you’re not panicking, and when you’re really thinking of, hey, when my alarm goes of at 5:20 in the morning, “Are these the words that I want to be saying? And is this the story that I want to be telling? And is this the set that I want to be on?” And it eliminates a lot of things. [Laughs.]

AVC: What has it been like for you to see the reaction to The Betty Broderick Story? Do you feel like you’re finally getting the notice for this that you should be getting?

AP: Well, I don’t read stuff because I’m too afraid. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s always really nice to be recognized. Like I said, I was definitely really scared to be handed a lead role at age 48, you know? I wasn’t really used to that. I definitely feel like I’m a better actress now than I was 35. It’s just—it’s harder to find meaningful work, now. It’s so annoying. It’s like that stupid cliché. I feel so frustrated. Sometimes I just want to go back and be like, “Wait for something good! What are you doing?” [Laughs.]