If there’s a scene stealer in “Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story,” it might be Christian Slater’s voice coming out of another’s mouth.
It’s not dubbing. It’s actor Chris Mason being really good at sounding like Slater.
The anthology series, which is produced in association with Los Angeles Times Studios and whose first season was based on a Los Angeles Times podcast, focuses in Season 2 on Broderick’s 1989 double murder of her ex-husband, Daniel Broderick, and his new wife, Linda Kolkena. Much of the series’ action is set in the run-up to the brutal killings, with Amanda Peet and Christian Slater portraying the couple amid the nasty breakdown of their marriage. But flashbacks of the young lovebirds, played by Tiera Skovbye (“Riverdale”) and Mason (“Broadchurch”), are introduced in the second episode.
With few resources to emulate Dan Broderick’s vocal cadence, Mason modeled his vocal performance on Slater’s to ensure a sense of symmetry between young and older Dan. Hailing from Liverpool, the 29-year-old actor credits his uncanny impression of Slater’s distinctive voice, which sounds like there’s a grin perpetually attached to it, to years of having to camouflage his thick Scouse accent.
“When I started acting in the U.K., there was a requirement for me to change my voice a lot to different British accents in order to work,” he says by phone. “When I moved to America, I hired a coach and I realized the actual work that goes into understanding a voice.”
The examination of Slater’s voice took many forms. Mason observed Slater on set – “I would watch him and then I would go away and make sure it’s grounded in what I was doing.” Mason also studied clips on YouTube and Slater’s films “Heathers” (1989) and “Kuffs” (1992) to get a sense of Slater’s rhythms. Plus, Mason and his wife had begun watching “Mr. Robot.”
“I had a few warmups,” Mason says. “I’d do a full vocal warmup before I even head to set. But then on set, there were a few things – lines of Christian’s that I heard him say on set – and I would run them over and over and over and over, just as we’d run up to ‘action.’ So, as soon as they say, ‘OK, rolling,’ I’d stop blabbering to myself. I’m sure the sound guys hated me. Everyone else was looking at me weird, but it just got me into the register where the voice was sitting.”
Mason says most of the interactions he had with Slater were focused on how to marry their performance on some of Dan’s shticks – like the turtle and the alligator bit, in which Dan would come home inebriated after a long night and playfully drop to the floor and imitate the creatures.
Unaware of the Broderick case because of his age and where he grew up, Mason read journalist Bella Stumbo’s book “Until the Twelfth of Never: The Deadly Divorce of Dan & Betty Broderick,” which served as the season’s source material, to learn more about the power couple and their very unhappily ever after. But he was measured in how far down the rabbit hole he went with his research.
“There’s an awful lot of stuff out there,” he says. “There’s tons on Betty, especially after this happened, and not a lot on Dan, so I read up until the point of the age I stopped playing because I didn’t want to know anything beyond that that might influence my performance. I didn’t want to be second-guessing something.”
So what’s his view on Dan, the prominent San Diego medical malpractice attorney?
“He’s a bit of a genius,” Mason said. “There’s not many people who get their medical degree and then go on to become an attorney. There’s definitely parts of him that knew he was that smart guy. And I think he started off with the right intentions, in terms of his relationship with Betty. But I also think he had an antiquated view of the role of a wife.
“In the flashbacks,” Mason continues, “we were able to play like Betty’s a fantastic wife, she lays it all down for them and does everything just to support him and his career. So for me, some of the more interesting scenes to play with were the ones where he was a little meaner and started to foreshadow some of the darker sides to him. I was lucky to be able to play mostly happy scenes and falling in love and all the fun. But I got little bits where we can kind of foreshadow what we’re going to see more of in the future – the addicted side, the controlling side. I feel like that was a good bridge between mine and Christian’s (performance).”
Well, that, and of course, the voice: “Hopefully I did it justice.”