Amanda Peet on the Tragedy of ‘Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story” and Not Playing Crazy

Kate Aurthur

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Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story,” the new season of the true-crime anthology series on USA (June 2 at 9 p.m.), stars Amanda Peet as the titular character — a San Diego housewife whose husband, Dan (Christian Slater), cruelly discards her, for which she takes murderous revenge. The story, as laid out by creator Alexandra Cunningham, unfolds over decades in two timelines: one showing Betty and Dan in a happier past, the other in their miserable present. During the coronavirus pandemic, Peet (“Togetherness”) has been sheltering in place in Los Angeles with her husband, David Benioff, the co-creator of “Game of Thrones,” and their children. “We definitely count our blessings every day,” she says. 

I imagine playing Betty was difficult.

I am very close with Holland Taylor, and before I started, she gave me a great piece of advice: Don’t play crazy. She encouraged me to look at each scene as a legitimate protest or a justified experience.

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And the story is riveting. They appeared to be such an average, suburban American family. And yet the story ended up being so violent and tragic. I think Alexandra feels that there’s value in exploring how and why — how could that have happened?

 You’re in almost every scene. What was that like?

Well, luckily, I have a very supportive husband, unlike Betty Broderick. He became a very full-on parent during this period of time. Since he had just come off nine years on “Game of Thrones,” I think we both felt it was my turn!

I went down a Google spiral on Betty Broderick, and I see that she’s been denied parole twice. What do you think of that?

I made a decision that I’m not going to comment on the legal proceedings. Partly just because I have no business doing so, but also I think Alexandra did a good job of showing that this was a fairly complicated case. Divorce laws then left no protections for women who had sublimated their own ambitions and careers when they had children. They were left with no money, and without a lot of legal power decades later — and no earning power, really. 

And how did you feel the show represented that?

I liked the fact that Alexandra was exploring both a psychological portrait — the idea that there was mental illness — and then combining it with some of the nature/nurture things. Like the fact that she grew up in the social mores of the ’50s, and I think for some women divorces in the ’80s were horrifying. 

My mom grew up in the ’50s, and she went to college. But when my sister and I were born, she pretty much gave up her career. Later, in the ’80s, when my mom got divorced, it was definitely an identity crisis, because she didn’t have any earning power and she hadn’t cultivated that part of herself. A lot of women can identify with that aspect of the Betty Broderick story — the idea that you gave yourself to being a mom and a wife, and then the rug was taken out from under you. And then someone’s like, “OK, it’s time for you to be on your own now! And you can’t have any of my money!”

This show had an all-women writing-producing-directing team. What difference did that make?

It’s just a beautiful kind of acknowledgment that everyone is dealing with kids who are being left at home while we were doing these 13- to 14-hour days. That was powerful. 

Did starting to write plays change your career trajectory?

It did, in that I feel like it’s easier for me to get hired as a writer now. Hopefully, I’m going to have a TV show going with Sandra Oh, and I’ll have more experiences behind the camera. I feel like it allows me to use different parts of myself than I use when I’m just an actress. 

But I still really love it. I still really loved talking about acting with Alexandra — and I liked that I was the actress and she was the writer. I feel very lucky to have that variety. 

After you started writing, you were on the Duplass’s “Togetherness” on HBO, you were in the Leslye Headland movie “Sleeping With Other People,” you were on “Brockmire,” and now this show. Did it feel like you were getting gratifying acting projects after a lull?

 A few things happened. I hit my forties, “Game of Thrones” turned out to be a big show, and I had children all at the same time. And also, I was coming to terms with the fact that — this isn’t a complaint, I’m just calling it like it is — I didn’t make it into the very upper echelons of Hollywood stardom. So the writing got worse and worse and worse. The complexity in the roles I was given — well, they were devoid of complexity!

So when a role comes along like Betty Broderick, where Alexandra’s just trying to explore so many different facets of being a middle-aged woman — I was champing at the bit. 

 Tell me about “The Chair,” your Sandra Oh show for Netflix.  What’s happening with it?

 We’re supposed to go into production July 20. So we’ll see!

 What do you think?

Who knows? I don’t know! I don’t think anybody knows. I think everybody’s trying to make it up as we go along. 

What gave you the idea for it?

I’m a massive Sandra Oh fan, and Jay Duplass I had been batting around some ideas. It was a bunch of strands of stories that I was working on, and I tried to put them all into one thing. Hopefully it won’t feel that way when you watch it! But that’s what it was. 

You’re supposed to be in the long-in-development Julian Fellowes show “The Gilded Age” for HBO. What stage is that at?

I’m actually not going to be able to do “The Gilded Age” anymore, because it’s going to move to the fall. And because of my kids, I can’t. It was contingent on shooting in the summer. 

Oh! What’s the role you’re most recognized for? 

I think a lot of people talk about “Saving Silverman,” and roles that I did around that time period. So it’s delightful. And also I am like, “Holy s—, how the f— am I this old?” 

What have you guys been doing during all of this? Just hunkered down at home?

Yeah, we’re in Los Angeles. My sister is a doctor in Philadelphia, and so is her husband, so they’re on the frontlines. They’re really in it. We definitely count our blessings every day. 

 

AGE: 48 HOMETOWN: New York City FAVORITE QUARANTINE VIEWING: “Dave” on FXX: “I’m pretty obsessed with it.” WHAT’S NEXT: Production on “The Chair,” a show she created for Netflix, starring Sandra Oh and Jay Duplass; Peet is the showrunner

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