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Christian Slater: 'Dirty John' character 'had a sadistic quality'

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Christian Slater: 'Dirty John' character 'had a sadistic quality'
Christian Slater plays Dan Broderick in "Dirty John" Season 2. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, June 2 (UPI) -- USA's true crime anthology Dirty John will return for a second season, depicting the tale of Betty Broderick, who was convicted of killing ex-husband Dan and his wife on Nov. 5, 1989. The series depicts their relationship leading up to the murder.

The Broderick trial was well-covered in the early '90s. Dirty John creator Alexandra Cunningham strove to offer new insight into what led to the crime.

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Christian Slater and Amanda Peet play Dan and Betty. Though playing the murder victim, Slater felt his character drove Betty to violence.

"There's torture and then there's emotional torture," Slater told UPI over Zoom on Wednesday. "[It's] hard to say which is worse. When you get into somebody's brain and start playing around in that area, it's an extraordinarily cruel thing to do."

The psychological abuse Slater described is now labeled gaslighting. It derives from the movie Gaslight, in which a husband drives his wife to question her own sanity.

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One example of gaslighting depicted in the series occured when Betty was suspicious Dan was having an affair with a receptionist at his law firm. Dan assured her he was not and she was wrong to think so.

Betty was correct, though. He did sleep with his receptionist. Peet believed making Betty doubt herself when she saw the signs of infidelity did more lasting damage than the infidelity itself.

"[Dirty John] showed you what it's like when you constantly say, 'I smell smoke, I smell smoke,' and someone constantly says, 'There's no fire, there's no fire. You're paranoid, you're crazy,'" Peet said.

Slater felt that Dan was a sadist, and derived pleasure from tormenting his wife.

"He kind of got off on treating her the way that he did," Slater said. "There was a sadistic quality to Dan."

Sadistic men are a recurring theme in Dirty John. Season 1's story depicted the true crime of con artist John Meehan, who ensnared Debra Newell into a marriage under false pretenses. Connie Britton and Eric Bana starred in the first season, and Britton remains an executive producer on Season 2.

Slater said Dan's success only made him more sadistic. Having struggled through Cornell Medical School and his hospital rotations, Dan decided to parlay his training into a medical malpractice law practice. He went to Harvard to earn his law degree.

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In his research, Slater believed Dan wanted to erase his past, and would stop at nothing to control his present.

"There was an element of his ego and arrogance that he wanted to destroy those memories and that time, as if it had never really existed," Slater said.

Through Dan's schooling, the Brodericks could barely make ends meet. Though Dan eventually built a successful law practice, Slater believes his character resented their struggle and took it out on Betty.

"I think he hated the fact that he had to struggle so much with her when they were younger that he just never wanted to think about that again," Slater said.

Slater believes elements of Dan's sadism appear even in presumably humorous moments. In the second hour of Dirty John Season 2, while Betty is pregnant, she lies on her back on the floor. She needs Dan's help to get up, but Dan doesn't help. They both laugh it off.

"That was the first moment where I started to think, 'Boy, this is really a sadistic moment,'" Slater said. "This guy had that thread running through him."

Dan is not happy when Betty shares details of their past with his clients and partners. In a later episode, he chastises her for telling people that they've come a long way from being on food stamps.

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Peet understood the pressure Betty felt to live up to the image Dan wanted to present to the public. She believed that pressure contributed to Betty's breakdown and violence.

"I think Alexandra wanted to show the ways in which their attachment to those very superficial things was part of what led to their downfall -- for both of them, not just Dan," Peet said.

Dan's superficial obsessions extended to his wardrobe. He wore suits with a rose in his lapel to convey a sharp image. Slater could see a sinister side of that, as Dan kept up his persona at home with Betty too.

"Dan was a performer," Slater said. "He, in a way, was wearing a costume most of the time."

Peet compared The Betty Broderick story to Revolutionary Road or the stories of John Cheever. The film was set in the '50s, and Cheever's short-story collection was published in 1978. Both the film and many of the stories deal with suburban families who appear happy.

"You peel back the curtain and it's like hell on Earth," Peet said.

The Betty Broderick Story spans the '60s to the '80s. Peet felt social pressures drove Betty to violence because she had no outlet to express her struggles. In the series, Betty attempts to take Dan to marriage counseling, but Betty is not able to seek regular therapy.

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"Alexandra was really interested in really looking closely at the discrepancies between the way things appeared and the way things really were," Peet said.

Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. EDT on USA.

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