It’s not easy to take a buzzy, must-listen podcast and turn it into a buzzy, must-watch television series, but somehow Dirty John pulled it off—thanks in large part to Connie Britton. On the show, Britton portrayed Debra Newell, a successful interior designer who begins dating a man who turns out to be different than she thought, in a stranger than fiction real life story. “The character was really a great exploration for me, because I never judge my characters, and I wanted to really look at playing Debra as almost a women’s study,” said Britton. “Because I actually could understand a lot of where she was coming from. I actually see her as a pretty fierce woman.” Of course, it’s the latest in a long list of fierce women that Britton has portrayed on-screen, the most famous of which is her role as Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights. Here, the actress talks about her most iconic roles, bringing Dirty John to life, and her celebrity crushes.
Had you heard the Dirty John podcast before you got the part?
When I got offered the show Dirty John, I had not heard the podcast yet, but I had heard friends talking about it obsessively. Then literally two days later, my agent sent me an email saying, “Have you heard of Dirty John?” And I was like, “That’s crazy. They were just talking about that.” So, that was exciting to me, because I love things that are creating conversation in the culture. There was no script. They were literally just developing this idea. So then I immediately read the L.A. Times articles and then listened to the podcast right away. And I was hooked.
This character was a different side of you we haven’t seen before.
The character was really a great exploration for me, because I never judge my characters, and I wanted to really look at playing Debra as almost a women’s study. Because I actually could understand a lot of where she was coming from. I actually see her as a pretty fierce woman. I mean, she is self made, she created her own business. She has raised a family on her own. But she had this achilles hill, which is she didn’t have a man in her life and that was something that she put a lot of value on. So I understand all of those things, and wanted to try to access her fierceness, even within the framework of this kind of massive vulnerability that she kind of found herself in.
Did you pick the wardrobe intentionally?
The wardrobe was really intentional. Susie DeSanto, who also did my wardrobe on Nashville, is my dream. I love her so much. So we had her come in, and she just did such an exceptional job. We started off in the beginning of the series with the very sort of pinks and hopeful colors, and then, as the show went on, we got darker. It was all very detailed and very well thought out.
There were so many moments when I wanted your character to just hit him over the head.
Debra would never hit anybody over the head. She just wouldn’t do it. But, you know, she also was raised with such a sense of needing to give people the benefit of the doubt, seeing the best in everybody, thinking that she can handle and change and nurture the person who needs that in their life. And so she wasn’t go to hit him. Even when things got really dark, she probably would have hit him over the head then.
Is this the first real life person you’ve played?
No, I played Faye Resnick. That was a different experience for me because I actually didn’t sit down and talk to Faye, so I just really did a ton of research on that. But then also, she has a lot of projection aimed at her as well, and I wanted to kind of push that all to the side so that I could just see what was motivating her and who she really is. That was an interesting experience, too.
When I met you, you were doing indie films. And then you started doing TV before TV was the cool place to be. Was that a big decision for you to go to TV at that point?
First of all, let’s be clear. I had dreamed of being an actress since childhood, but never imagined that it would be anything close to a reality. Then I went to college, you know. I went to an Ivy League college and I was like, “Okay, that was child’s play, now it’s time to grow up and do something.” Then I kept dreaming. I grew up watching television. I loved TV. I Love Lucy, Mary Tyler Moore. As I got older, Happy Days. A lot of sitcoms. Laverne and Shirley, Eight is Enough.
I had the great fortune of being able to do The Brother McMullen, which was kind of my big break. That went to Sundance. There was a certain snobbery at that time about TV versus film. I went through a whole thing where I was, for quite a period of time, very close to playing opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. And then that didn’t happen, which was quite the heartbreak at that time. But right on the heels of that, Spin City came along. That was really my first big job. So I was in no position to say, “I’m not doing television.” I was thrilled. I was doing television. I was doing a sitcom with Michael J. Fox.
Natasha Lyonne, Michelle Williams, Billy Porter, and More Stars Bringing Television To New Heights
The working title of our show was not Fosse/Verdon—it was just Fosse, but then the producers got smart. They realized that Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse were romantic and creative partners who remained entangled until the end of his life. It was the right time, in 2019, to make a show about a partnership. It was also the first time that I’ve had pay parity with a male costar and equal space to voice my thoughts. I’d never experienced anything like it. Since I felt completely supported, I could jump higher and take more risks.
You started acting as a child. Did you find that people treated you—and continue to treat you—in a diminishing way?
Absolutely. When you’re physically small, when men hug you, they pick you up off the floor. That doesn’t happen anymore.
What’s your favorite Fosse musical?
Cabaret. When I performed the song “Maybe This Time” [on Broadway, in 2014], it never didn’t get to me. I’m sad that I’ll never sing it again. Musicals are deep in me: When I did a tap dance for Fosse/Verdon, I realized it returned me to this very primal love, before anything negative was associated with acting, work, or identity. I felt like I was a little girl. It was a genuine moment of joy.
Williams wears a Louis Vuitton turtleneck, skirt, belt, and boots.
I started out doing stand-up comedy at U.C. Davis and then moved to San Francisco, which has one of the most interesting comedy scenes in the country. In comedy, we’re all mutants and we share these different superpowers. Early on, I learned that humor is a way to break tension. It’s a very powerful tool.
Is it easier for you to be autobiographical or political?
I came from The Daily Show, where you are steeped in politics and the news. It’s your life, day in and day out. But for me, as an Indian-American Muslim, I always felt this insider/outsider relationship with America. And because of my background, at this moment in time, the personal and the political merged.
Do your parents worry when your show takes on Saudi Arabia?
Sure. That episode was banned in Saudi Arabia, and my parents said, “We don’t want you causing international outrage and controversy.” They said, “Please just tell embarrassing stories about your childhood.”
Minhaj wears a Prada jacket, pants, and belt; Jil Sander shirt; Shinola bracelet; Dior Men boots.
I honestly didn’t know much about witchcraft before starting on Sabrina, but now I realize it’s just dudes being scared of women and their power.
You were a child on Mad Men. Have you finally seen the episodes you were too young to watch?
I have now seen Mad Men. I can say I’m a fan, but it’s weird to watch your 6-year-old self. Oftentimes, while I was watching, I’d forget that I was in the show. So many things happened to Sally on Mad Men before they happened in my real life: My first kiss was onscreen; I got my TV period before my real period. I was prepared for everything because on Mad Men Sally was a little ahead of me. She taught me the ways of the world.
Shipka wears a Chloé dress; Isabel Marant belt; Cartier ring.
Tell me about kissing Chris Hemsworth.
I was on the shoot for Bad Times at the El Royale, and I still hadn’t met Chris. He played a cult leader, and I was his devoted follower. I knew he was on set, and I wanted to meet him because we had a kissing scene that day. At the last minute—we still hadn’t met—we were about to make out, and I’m like, “How many kids do you have? Oh, you have three kids,” and then—“Action!” He was really nice, but it was super-awkward, and they ended up dropping the scene from the film.
You cut your hair very short for Devs. Is androgyny part of your character?
Yes. The show has to do with a tech company. Secret stuff. My character is really smart and knows quantum physics, so that’s kind of like a superpower. I was supposed to shave my head for the part, and I was always down for that. I think I’m going to shave it all off anyway: I’m so into being bald.
Spaeny wears a Bottega Veneta sweater; Sophie Buhai earrings; Tiffany & Co. ring (right hand); Cartier ring (left hand); Manolo Blahnik shoes.
My first part was in a film called Complicity. I played a boy who gets raped and then kills his rapist. I was 11 years old. It was baptism by fire.
In your TV projects, you seem to undergo torture or get killed a lot.
I love a good death, and I’ve had a few really good demises in my time. On Game of Thrones, I was killed at the Red Wedding. That was my favorite death: full of arrows and then they cut off my head. I was covered in blood and my limbs were hanging off.
Do you have any surprising secret skills?
No. I went to drama school to learn all those skills, and then I was like, “I ain’t going to sing or dance in films, so I’m not going to singing or dancing class. And I can’t be bothered with the fencing class, because I won’t be fencing.” Cut to: I have been sword fighting for half my life and now I’ve had to sing and dance. This is why you should go to class. Kids: Stay in school.
Madden wears a Givenchy jacket; Calvin Klein Underwear tank top; Dries Van Noten pants; Shinola bracelet; Dior Men shoes.
My agent called me and said, “They’re casting a show about a women’s wrestling television program in the ’80s.” I said, “I want that job!” However, I very quickly learned that the producers didn’t think I was right.
Why? Too petite?
Yes, but I’ve secretly been strength training for years. After four auditions, I wore them down. And yes, I’ve learned how to wrestle and throw women across a ring. It’s incredibly empowering.
Do you ever practice by beating up your husband?
I don’t ever beat up my husband. I’ve been known to wrestle our cat a little bit. He doesn’t love it.
Brie wears a Givenchy sweater and skirt; Balenciaga boots.
When I was 12, I was washing dishes at home and the Tony Awards came on. It was the year Dreamgirls was up for best musical and Jennifer Holliday sang “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” I was in shock: all of these beautiful black people in high fashion with gowns and hair and makeup. At that time, you didn’t see a lot of people of color on television, dripping in style. And Jennifer Holliday sang like I knew how to sing in church, except she was on television! The connection of money, style, and television launched me into this space where I thought, That’s what I’m going to do. I can be that.
How did Pose come about?
They called me in to play the dance teacher. I was like, “Well, this ain’t quite the role I want, but…” I told them at the audition that I felt I’d lived through the world of Pose. I said, “Wouldn’t you need a father figure in the ballroom world?” Because one of the things that’s so powerful about Paris Is Burning [which influenced Pose] is that it’s about a marginalized group of people who had nothing in a world where people were dying of AIDS. And they chose life anyway. I wanted to tell that story.
Porter wears a Thom Browne dress and shoes; Wolford fishnets; his own jewelry.
I moved to California from London because I wanted to be happy. My very first audition was for The Good Place, and it went great: I am now on a show opposite Ted Danson, my hero. As a young girl, I always fancied Ted! Is that creepy? Am I creepy? But, my Lord, he’s still so hot.
Were you on social media before the show began? You currently have 2 million followers on Instagram.
The Good Place asked me to join Instagram, and now I use it to scream at people [laughs]. In all honesty, I think I’ve found a genuine community of people online who are tired of being erased. I understand being challenged: The bravest thing I’ve done in my life was move to Los Angeles, even though I was told I was too old, too fat, and too ethnic. I had no contacts and no friends in L.A. But I got on a plane anyway and flew to California to have an acting career. This had to work: I’m not talented at sex, so I couldn’t be a porn star. And I have no upper body strength, so pole dancing was out.
Jamil wears a Sacai coat; Prada boots.
For my sweet 16 party, my parents knew I loved The Book of Mormon so they had Andrew Rannells, who was one of the leads in the show, come and perform. It was literally the best moment of my life.
You were named after the kooky octogenarian in the film Harold and Maude.
Yes. As a joke, my dad started calling me Maude when my mom was pregnant, and it stuck. I do love that movie.
Do you ever sing any of the Cat Stevens songs from that film when you do karaoke?
No. I sing “The Confrontation” from Les Misérables. I love musical theater. The first album I really listened to was Hairspray, and the first thing I auditioned for was Grease. I was Jan, one of the Pink Ladies. I got to sing in a musical, and I had never been happier.
Apatow wears a Dior jacket, top, and pants; Cartier earrings, necklace, and ring.
I had not listened to the Dirty John podcast, but I heard friends talking about it obsessively. Two days later, my agent asked me, “Have you heard of Dirty John?” That was exciting to me: I love things that are creating conversation in the culture.
Your character, Debra, is both intriguing and infuriating.
I never judge my characters. I looked at playing Debra as almost a women’s studies project. She was self-made and had raised a family by herself, but she had this Achilles’ heel: She needed to have a man in her life. As horrible as it got for Debra, she thought she could handle and change that man. As the show goes on, she becomes more and more aware. We reflected that awakening in her clothing: In the beginning, she wears pink and light colors. And as the situation with John becomes more and more extreme, we go darker. By the end, she’s in black.
You were in a happier marriage on Friday Night Lights.
Kyle Chandler [who played Coach Taylor, her character’s husband] and I really fought for that marriage. Right from the beginning, we said to the writers, “Don’t make one of us go and have an affair.” I think the audience really appreciated that.
Growing up, who did you have a crush on?
Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I. The short shorts. The floral shirts. He was a sexual fantasy. I actually auditioned to play his wife in something. I remember thinking, No, Tom Selleck was a grown-up when I was a little girl. So that didn’t happen.
Britton wears a Stella McCartney shirt; Loro Piana skirt; Bulgari earrings; Tiffany & Co. wrap bracelet worn as necklace; Cartier ring; Tom Ford belt; Balenciaga shoes.
In The Loudest Voice, which is about Roger Ailes and Fox News, I play Laurie Luhn, who was a booker for the shows. To play her, we worked with very orange makeup and a look that was curated by Roger Ailes: the tight, the bright, the overly revealing. And legs. Lots of legs. There were no desks at Fox News, because with a desk, I suspect, you could get up to a lot of trouble underneath.
Do you have a secret skill?
I’m good with animals. When I was young, I wanted to live among animals. I liked sloths the best: That’s the animal I aspire to be like. A sloth just owns it. There’s great power in stillness.
Wallis wears an Isabel Marant top; Hermès skirt; Dior belt; Tiffany & Co. bracelet.
I am from Omaha, Nebraska, and I wanted to move to New York since the third grade. I had never been to New York, but I knew all about the city from watching television. I just knew New York was where I belonged. Later, I learned that most of those New York City shows like Friends and Seinfeld were filmed in Los Angeles. That was a bit of a mind fuck.
Was Girls your first part outside of theater?
No. I had another job playing a headless stripper in Sex and the City 2. It was just me in a Speedo grinding with another guy. On Girls, I played the ex-boyfriend who turned out to be gay and then became Hannah’s [Lena Dunham] best friend. My first nude scene was in season two. Suddenly, I would show up to work and there would just be a pair of underwear on a hanger. I was oddly comfortable with it.
Growing up, who did you have a crush on?
Maxwell Caulfield from Grease 2. He played Michael Carrington. He also played Miles Colby on Dynasty. Every day of my life is a hair tribute to Maxwell Caulfield.
Rannells wears a Dior Men coat and pants; Brioni turtleneck; Givenchy boots.
When I first read the script for You, I was not attracted to Joe, my character. I was like, “Oof—I don’t know.” He’s a villain, and yet he’s also an antihero. He’s seductive, but he’s a murderer. It’s fascinating that people—especially women—are drawn to this guy. The greatest challenge I have is not judging him. I don’t ever think of him as a killer. To him, murder is simply a means to an end.
Did you always want to act?
At the age of eight, I was in The Music Man, and I told my parents, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” When I was 12, my mom and I went to L.A. and I started working immediately.
Was your first kiss on camera?
No, but starting out so young, you’re always having to display sexuality before you’ve had those experiences. For You, I was tied up in bondage rope for the first and, so far, only time in my life. Look [shows his wrists], I still have rope burn. First time, and it’s on camera.
Badgley wears an Alexander McQueen coat; Boss T-shirt; Jil Sander pants; Sophie Buhai bracelet.
My big childhood claim to mediocre fame is Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I played Opal on that show when I was around 6 years old. I’d already done a bunch of commercials, and they didn’t all air. You want the ads to get on the air if you want to get your imaginary Lamborghini. Sadly, I didn’t get the Lambo.
You always had a smoky voice.
Yes, but thanks to a lifetime of smoking cigarettes—which they recently discovered are actually good for you—my voice has become thicker and deeper over the years.
In Russian Doll, you are asking existential questions.
I am curious about what it means to have a life. I imagined being at death’s door, looking back and asking, “What happened here?” I also recognize that it’s a nice thing to move from a disconnected life to a more connected one.
Who is your cinematic crush?
Recently, I watched Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises, and Mamma mia! My boyfriend, Fred Armisen, was there. I took screen grabs of Viggo’s nude fight scene and told Fred the stills were for research. Usually, when I play this game, I think it’s best to pick dead people—to say, like, “Isn’t Peter Falk a babe on Columbo?” I’m also very disappointed to discover that Idris Elba and I did not get married. I think many women felt the same way.
Lyonne wears a Marni dress; Tiffany & Co. wrap bracelet worn as necklace, and bracelet.
Going off the shows you named, do you think TV has been good to women?
You know, it really has. Those shows in particular that I was talking about, Mary Tyler Moore, I Love Lucy, the idea that in that era, that there were such female driven shows, and shows were women were allowed to have dimension and complexity, and be funny. I still grew up in a time, and came up in a time, where a lot of what you saw in women’s roles, particularly in film, were very supporting, very supportive, and very decorative. I kind of made a career out of taking a role that isn’t so very flushed out, and giving it humanity and levels and dimension, which I think most women have had to do. And yet, it is true that I was fortunate to have these role models on television growing up. Especially back sort of Friday Night Lights era, that was, I think, the beginning of this new era of women in TV, and it’s been such an exciting time these last ten, fifteen years to see where TV is going, but also what women are being able to do on television.
Let’s talk about Friday Night Lights—do you get stopped most for that?
You know what’s funny? People love Friday Night Lights, and it’s been great because Everybody loves it for different reasons. They’re continuing to discover it, which is one of the great benefits of this streaming culture that we live in now. But, I have to say, it’s pretty much across the board. There’s a whole slew of people who are like, American Horror Story. And then a whole slew of people who are like, Nashville. So, it really depends, but there is a deep, fond love for Friday Night Lights for sure.
I love Friday Night Lights so much for so many reasons. One of the reasons I love it so much is because I really fought for it, and we all really fought for it. There was a lot of passion there. I went in to that show thinking that I had just basically signed my life away to playing a supporting character, a supporting wife, on a show about football. Even though Pete Berg swore to me up and down, promised me that that’s not what we’re going to do, but you know, you can’t trust people. I really went in and I’m like, “What am I thinking? I’m going to be doing this and I’ll just be on the sidelines” quote, unquote. But there was such a wonderful environment there where we all were really trying to create something and elevate it together, and there was a great collaboration about that. So I got to really fight for that character, for Tami Taylor. And Kyle [Chandler] and I together really fought for that marriage, and we said right from the beginning, “Don’t you make one of us go and have an affair” to the writers.
I remember there was one thing where there was a character named Glen and they even just had a thing where Coach got jealous because I had been out to drinks with Glen or something. He was one of the teachers at the school. And even that, Kyle was kind of like, “This is not what we’re doing.” I think the audiences really appreciated that. Instead, we were actually just dealing with the things that couples really deal with on a day to day basis, and discovering all of the complexities of that, and people really appreciated that.
You guys were great together.
We loved each other. We do love each other still.
In your own life, where was your first kiss?
My first kiss was inner tubing down Lake Creek in Virginia. I was not worried about capsizing. I was very familiar with the tubing on a creek. That’s what you do when you grow up in Virginia.
Who was your crush growing up?
Tom Selleck in Magnum PI and, wait for it, John Denver. You’re welcome. Yeah, that’s right. I used to literally fantasize that he would sing Annie’s Song to me. Okay, there we go. Now you know.
What is your karaoke song?
I don’t do karaoke. It’s like a rule. I don’t believe anybody sounds good doing karaoke. But it doesn’t matter, they can do whatever they want. I’m not doing it.
What’s your secret skill?
My secret skill is that I’m a very, very good hula hooper. I just like to hula hoop. Then I just started doing it and then I found out that I can do it longer than other people.
What was your first red carpet outfit?
I don’t remember specifically, but it was definitely in the ’90s. I did not have a stylist, but at that time, I was very into shopping at Tracy Fifth and Jane Mail, so it was probably some variation. It was like a lot of slip dresses. And probably some very curly red hair.
You of course know about the fame of your hair.
Yes, I do. I know about the fame of my hair. Mystifying.