“I was really scared to play a murderer,” says Amanda Peet. But the 48-year-old actress came to embrace the psychological gymnastics required to take on one of the toughest roles of her career: Betty Broderick, the suburban housewife convicted of the 1989 murders of her ex-husband and his new wife.
“I was really scared to play someone who did that to their children’s father and to their children,” she adds, with the tone of someone still grappling with it. “And behaved in a way that is morally repellent. Yes, that definitely scared me.”
The fear resulted in a layered performance that fans and critics have called the best of Peet’s career. Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, which also stars Christian Slater as Betty’s ex-husband Daniel Broderick, follows the seemingly ideal romance and marriage of the San Diego couple and their combative split, which preceded the brutal double murder that gripped national headlines. (The anthology series, whose first season was based on a Los Angeles Times podcast, is produced in association with Los Angeles Times Studios.)
Once again helmed by Alexandra Cunningham, the second season joins other recent dramas, such as Little Fires Everywhere and Mrs. America, in offering a complicated portrait of a woman whose identity is defined by her role as a wife and mother as well as societal expectations. The portrayal of Betty Broderick allowed Peet to confront and sink into the complexity of that archetype and find depth in a woman who had been reduced to tabloid fodder.
“From outside the situation, she was a murderer to me,” Peet says. “Once I was on the inside, she was a person in dire straits who had all her eggs in one basket, had no psycho-therapeutic resources, and had the rug pulled out from under her in the most fundamental, visceral way.”
Curled up in a pillow-filled nook inside her Los Angeles home, which she shares with her husband, Game of Thrones writer David Benioff, and their three children, Peet has her hand outstretched, holding her phone at a distance to participate in our video interview. She’s back in town after a recent trip to New York to visit her mom, who lives with Parkinson’s disease, on her 79th birthday. (“The airport did remind me of a zombie movie,” she says.)
The role had Peet thinking a lot about her mom, Penny, and the social mores she had to navigate as a woman who grew up in the 1950s and was starting a family in the 1970s while balancing a career. But it also had Peet reflecting on her own points of connection to Broderick.
“I’m a very jealous person,” she says. “I certainly care about airs, what people think … not all the time, but I can relate. I’m not, like, immune to that. I can understand the feeling of wanting to keep up with the Joneses, wanting to appear to be just flawlessly sane when things inside are not … the discrepancy between the way things appear and the way things are.”
And then there’s the matter of watching your partner rise to success. Dan developed a lucrative career as a medical malpractice attorney in San Diego, while Betty tended to their home and their four children. Betty, as the show tells it, began to feel insecure about their marriage as his professional life took off. Peet’s husband, along with his writing partner D.B. Weiss, have been in high demand due to the meteoric success of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Peet is well acquainted with bouts of insecurity and wondering how one partner’s success might impact a marriage.
“It definitely crossed my mind at certain points when he’d been away on location for many months and Game of Thrones was taking off in a way that none of us could have possibly imagined,” Peet says. “But we’re pretty good communicators, and I’m the daughter of a shrink. And so we had a lot of advantages that, obviously, (Betty and Dan) didn’t have. And also, I think we’re both big fans of dance with the gal that brought you here.”
To prepare for the role, Peet opted not to review footage or read stories related to the case. She also didn’t read Bella Stumbo’s 1993 book Until the Twelfth of Never: The Deadly Divorce of Dan & Betty Broderick, which serves as the primary source material for the series. Instead, she chose to let the scripts inform her. One of her first questions before shooting was whether she was going to be made to look like Betty.
“Once Alexandra said, ‘I’m not interested in you doing an imitation of Betty Broderick. This is not what this is about. I just want you to try to capture this person’s psyche,’ then I felt very liberated,” Peet says. “I tried really hard not to look at footage of Betty because I didn’t want to be disappointed or, I don’t know, be misled by seeing some tiny clip when really I had to try to create a more whole picture.”
After Peet was cast, Cunningham e-mailed one of their mutual friends, actor David Duchovny. Cunningham says the actor, unaware of the premise of the series, suggested the writer-producer find ways to tap into Peet’s comedic side.
“I actually did not realise the extent to which that was going to blow the character outward in so many ways,” Cunningham says, “because Betty was a very funny person. Even in super inappropriate times and, especially after she was in custody, she was still trying to make jokes and trying to make people laugh because it was so important for her that everyone like her. For Amanda, the humour and the rage were right next to each other all the time. And the intelligence. I just would watch her on set with my mouth open.”
For Peet, who has appeared in films such as The Whole Nine Yards and Igby Goes Down and in TV shows like HBO’s Togetherness and IFC’s Brockmire, Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story put the spotlight directly on her. And she worked hard to earn its keep there.
“My entire life was Betty Broderick,” Peet says. “It was definitely all-encompassing. Not like in a Daniel Day-Lewis way — God bless him. I didn’t come home and make everyone call me Betty.”
But, as in most projects Peet takes on, she did have questions. She would often make the short trek to the home of her best friend, Sarah Paulson, and run scenes out loud with Paulson and her partner, Holland Taylor, to get their input and guidance on the emotional beats of her character. (Paulson points out that Peet returns the favour as a sounding board when she needs it.)
“It’s just a testament to her dedication that she would have worked an insane day and then still come over afterwards to run the lines or we would get on FaceTime and parse things out,” says Paulson, whose nickname for Peet is Bird. “She certainly didn’t need me for any of this, but I think it’s part of Amanda’s way of moving through the world, in general. It’s like — and I’m not trying to infantilise her — but it’s like being a kid at the park and you keep turning around to make sure that the person is still standing there and then you do the big, brave, bold thing because you know the people you trust are watching.”
Cunningham jokes that the questions would usually reach her only if Peet had already asked Benioff and Paulson, and their answers were not in agreement.
“She always was like, ‘I don’t want to bother you,’” Cunningham says. “And I’m like, ‘You’re the only person that I want to bother me.’ But, so, she would say, ‘I asked David and he said X and I asked Paulson and she said Y. What do you think?’ … When I would see her name on the phone it would give me joy because we’re going to discuss what we’re doing together. And she’s gonna maybe give me insight into something, and I’m gonna help her. It really was like a dream that I never wanted to stop having. I think it comes from the writer in her.”
Peet wrote while a student at Columbia University, where she studied American history, but it wasn’t until she turned 40 and experienced Hollywood’s inhospitable attitude toward women of a certain age that she began to take writing more seriously.
“I hadn’t reached a certain echelon in my industry,” she says. “There were other 40-year-old women who were getting the type of writing that I wanted to be getting, and I just wasn’t on those lists. Maybe it sounds lame for me to complain because it’s fun to just be employed as an actor.”
Peet made her debut as a playwright in 2013 with The Commons of Pensacola, a Bernie Madoff-inspired off-Broadway play that starred Sarah Jessica Parker and Blythe Danner. In 2018, she premiered her second play, Our Very Own Carlin McCullough, at the Geffen Playhouse. Both productions received solid reviews from critics.
“I feel a lot of regret about it,” she says of not writing seriously sooner. “And when my children show little bits of interest in becoming actresses, I always say, ‘You’ll have to write that! You have to be like Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Write your own material. Don’t wait by the phone. … I guess I feel like if I had been serious about it earlier, I could have been better by now. I also feel like I wouldn’t have done some of the lousy stuff that I did because I would have realised that there were other resources at my disposal. I didn’t have to play that wife role or that role in the unnameable movie that I won’t name. I could have been writing instead of doing that. I think there was a period of time in my 20s where I was definitely chasing the hype instead of doing my work.”
Her writing will next be seen on Netflix. She’ll make her debut as a TV series writer and showrunner with the upcoming six-episode dramedy The Chair, about the head of a university’s English department. The series, which will star Sandra Oh and Jay Duplass, counts Benioff and fellow Game of Thrones creator Weiss as executive producers as part of their blockbuster $200 million overall deal with the streamer. (Peet co-wrote the pilot with Annie Julia Wyman.) It’s unclear when production will begin on the series.
“It’s lampooning academia and dealing with overprivileged, desperate people and making fun of them but also digging out the heart and the comedy and the soul of what it means to be alive and trying to figure out how to do your life,” says Duplass, who reunites with Peet after their work on Togetherness. “Amanda is an incredible writer. She’s just so funny and so sharp and very, very … rigorous. To be in Amanda’s hands and to know how rigorous she is and how hard she’s working on it and to see these scripts go through drafts because she’s dogged, is awesome.”
Despite her dedication to the page, Peet is convinced there’s one story she would have mishandled as a writer: Betty Broderick’s.
“I don’t think I would have been able to do it. The time period and the story. Also to write a real person. I couldn’t do it. I don’t mind saying that. It’s too hard.” — Los Angeles Times/TNS
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