true crime

How Dirty John’s Young Dan and Betty Channeled the Brodericks’ ‘Perfect, Happy’ Past

Tiera Skovbye and Chris Mason as newlyweds Betty and Dan Broderick. Photo: USA Network/Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network

The second episode of Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story is titled “The Turtle and the Alligator,” which refers to an inside joke between the real Betty and Dan Broderick that lasted their entire relationship. It’s a bizarre Dan Broderick thing, a way of teasing his girlfriend, and later wife, by pretending to be both a turtle and an alligator. In the episode, viewers get treated to the turtle and alligator shenanigans twice — once by Chris Mason, who plays the younger version of Dan, and later by Christian Slater. Tiera Skovbye, who plays the younger version of Betty, and Amanda Peet are just on the receiving end of the reptilian tease.

The game recalls the couple’s happier days. After a 16-year-marriage and a long and messy divorce battle, Betty Broderick murdered Dan Broderick and his new wife, Linda, in November 1989. She has been in prison ever since. But the episode focuses on how they met, how Dan romanced Betty, and the early years of her marriage as she struggled with part-time jobs and childcare while he went to medical school and later law school.

Vulture spoke with Tiera Skovbye, 25, and Chris Mason, 29, about taking on roles that were also being performed by Amanda Peet and Christian Slater, what it was like to film the turtle and alligator scene, and what they learned about the Brodericks in the process.

It’s tricky to play the younger version of a real person in a show with other actors playing the older versions. How did you prepare?

Tiera Skovbye: I got to spend about a week on set just watching Amanda. They also sent me the dailies from what she had already filmed. I based a lot of how I was going to portray young Betty on what Amanda was doing. I followed in her footsteps. And then having done the research about Betty in her younger years, I layered that in there as well.

There isn’t a lot available in terms of things you can watch that show Betty as a young woman.

Skovbye: No, not at all. I really had to trust our amazing writers and go with what they put on the page and use that as my guiding force. I also read the portions of The Twelfth of Never that dealt with her younger years.

What was important for you to convey?

Skovbye: That they were really in love and they did try really hard to make it work. It was really important for me to show how dedicated she was as a mother, as a wife, as a provider for the family at the beginning, and how much she truly did believe in Dan and wanted him to be a successful doctor, initially, or then a successful lawyer. There was a real place of love between the two of them. I think that’s what makes the whole thing so heartbreaking. They initially did love each other and they had many kids and things just took a very dark twist and went down the bad path.

Chris, how did you prepare to play Dan?

Chris Mason: When I found out I got the role, I had no idea that I was going to be playing a younger Christian Slater. I auditioned without knowing that. I went in with a very strong idea of who Dan was from the little that is out there. Christian and I just tried to work together and learn together to tell the story. We were very lucky to have fantastic directors. For episode two, Meera Menon was brilliant. Having watched it, I saw how well she told the story and established the transitions from us to the other actors. We were very lucky to be in such capable hands.

Skovbye: I haven’t watched it yet. I’m waiting!

Mason: When you watch it, Tiera, you’ll be shocked at how quick it feels, because we had a whirlwind two weeks of film, film, film. There are some freaky moments where you see Amanda give a look to Christian and you see the resemblance between us.

Chris, you ended up sounding so much like Christian Slater. It’s uncanny. How did you do that?

Mason: I’m from Liverpool originally, so I’ve got quite the strong accent. But all through my career, even when I was back in the U.K, I’ve had to change my voice for the role because there’s not many people that would accept this accent, mainly because it’s hard to understand us when we get angry. And so, I’ve always been a decent mimic. Watching Christian over and over, you see and feel where it comes from. I love a challenge and I remember being on set and being nervous about even attempting it, but the producers and the directors made me feel at ease and let me have fun with it.

But it’s not just changing your accent. It’s the tone of his voice. The first time I heard you, I kept staring at you wondering if there was dubbing involved. It’s that good! Did it take a long time to get there?

Mason: I’ll take that, thank you! I could have went with a real heavy mimicry route, but I wanted to get as close as possible without ruining my own performance or cheapening the show. There was definitely some takes where it wasn’t right. It takes a lot to get into the voice, and if it wasn’t right, I’d ask if we could do the take again. I was lucky they let me do it.

One of the reasons I’ve been dying to talk to you both is Dan Broderick’s obsession with the Turtle and the Alligator. What is that?

Skovbye: Yeah, Chris, what is that?

Mason: It’s something that Dan used to do, a little weird thing between them. I think it was slightly different the way Dan did it in real life. But when something is such an inside joke, it can be hard to portray on screen. Christian did the first and best filming of the alligator, so they told me to watch it and match it. It was possibly my favorite scene to shoot — and it was one of my audition scenes. So, I really committed to it. I had to wear pads on my hands and legs and throw myself on the floor. It was so fun.

Tiera, did you find it creepy?

Skovbye: No, I thought it was hilarious. There wasn’t much acting for that scene. I just really was reacting to whatever variation Chris was going to do. It was incredibly entertaining to watch. It’s one of those weird, quirky things that a couple has probably done their whole relationship.

Chris, what do you mean that the real Dan Broderick did it differently?

Mason: The way he did the actual action of the alligator. It was more with his mouth and using his hands for a snapping alligator kind of thing. I think he used his mouth a little bit more, which could have been misconstrued on screen. And Christian really made it a lot bigger than how Dan did it.

Even though the series is more focused on Betty Broderick’s experience of their relationship, the writers did try to share some of what was going on with Dan as well. How did you view him?

Mason: He’s a very clever man, academically, to be able to become a doctor and then become a lawyer and be successful. But that didn’t excuse how selfish he was. From his upbringing, I think he had a very entitled frame of mind. I’m smart so I will get what I want. The things Betty sacrificed for him at the beginning, it was almost easy for him to forget that because he was always so focused on his next thing. As far as playing Dan, I got to play the nicer part of him. There was a soft side. We got to show some nice scenes of him being the charming, charismatic guy that Betty fell in love with.

When they got married in 1969, gender roles between men and women were very different. But some of it really took me aback, like when he was talking to her about buying three lab coats to save her cleaning time. What did you think of those aspects of their relationship?

Skovbye: Definitely now I’d be like, “Take it to the dry cleaner yourself.” But she had a mother who taught her what was expected of a good wife. So, for her, it was a no-brainer that she takes care of the cooking, the cleaning, and the kids. But the added layer was that she was also the financial support when he was going to school. So, I put myself in the mindset that these were the times. You build on your husband and you do the things that he needs so that he can get a good job and eventually be the sole provider. And then she can have nicer things. Once he becomes a doctor, or once he becomes a lawyer, then our lives will be easier. I won’t have to do this so much. But for now, this is what I do. This is for my husband because I love him and then we will have a good life. And that’s what’s so heartbreaking. Once that does happen, and all the sacrifice is over, everything starts to unravel.

According to the book Twelfth of Never, Betty Broderick was pregnant nine times total. You see some of that in the show. Because of all of that, I think we can empathize to an extent with her enormous sense of loss, which is something the series brings out that other coverage of this story didn’t do in the same way.

Skovbye: I think she also loved being a wife and she took pride in being a good wife. I think she loved that role. From the outside, it looks like this perfect, happy family and she was this perfect, happy wife. I think she loved that. And then it all gets stripped away from her.

When you were playing her, were you mindful that she’d eventually commit murder?

Skovbye: I fully put that away. I didn’t bring that into our bit of the storyline at all. I don’t think that was even something that she thought was in her world at that time. I don’t think it was until much later when things really started to get out of hand and things turned dark. But for where we were with the characters and our timeline, I didn’t actually think about that at all.

She didn’t even ask for half of their assets in the settlement. He had a lot of money. He had a new wife. He had the kids. He had a successful practice. Why do you think he hung onto these battles with her?

Mason: Betty sacrificed so much for him, she was always there, and she was always willing to do things for him. He had a real level of control over her. And when he decides that he doesn’t love her anymore, and she doesn’t want to be controlled by him, he still tries to retain some of that control. He really could have been a lot fairer. He had the wherewithal. He had the know-how. He just wanted her to still be his version of Betty, the Betty he wanted her to be. That’s probably why he didn’t give her an inch.

Skovbye: I think it was easier for him to convince the outside world that she was the problem instead of having to admit that maybe he was also a bit at fault. Instead, he just pinned it all on her to make it seem like she had been losing herself. It was just easier for him to get his way, and on the outside, it took all the blame off of him.

I know it’s hard to beat the Turtle and Alligator scene, but was there any other scenes you did together that stood out?

Skovbye: One of my favorite scenes was the one with the lab coat. There was so much happening in that scene. We had two kids, I had to come in with a jacket, carrying one kid, and a bunch of bags in my hand. It was such a juggling act to get everything right—to have the kids not cry and not ask questions and not talk in the middle. To continue our long scene and get all of our dialogue going was such an acting challenge, but it was so rewarding in the end. I think we had a lot of fun with it, too.

Mason: We did. I got the easy role in that scene. Just to come in and be not such a nice guy. That was also a really cramped set, right?

Skovbye: It was so hot. I was wearing a super tight little sweater and I thought I was going to die.

Mason: Poor Tiera had to deal with all the kids and the props and everything all at once.

Just like the real Betty.

Skovbye: Exactly.

Dirty John’s Young Brodericks on the Couple’s ‘Perfect’ Past