'I'm Just So Invested': Krysten Ritter On Becoming 'Jessica Jones'

Originally published on May 17, 2018 11:21 am

Jessica Jones is not your typical superhero: She's a low-rent private eye with superhuman strength and PTSD from two big traumas in her past. Krysten Ritter stars as Jessica in the Netflix series based on the Marvel Comics character — and says she loves the complex role.

"I really get to sink my teeth into it," she says. "The work that I get to do and the backstory and the character building and breaking down the scripts — I'm just so invested."

The second season of the series was directed entirely by women, which Ritter says is fitting for a show that addresses sexual assault, anger and empowerment.

"I thought that it really suited the DNA of our show and made a lot of sense," Ritter explains. "Because of the subject matter, it's just a little easier to have really vulnerable, uncomfortable raw conversations."


Interview Highlights

On scenes with no dialogue in Jessica Jones

I am doing the most work when I'm not saying lines. It's been ingrained in me in my training ... If you don't have anything going on in your head you're not interesting to watch. So I would say that the bulk and the majority of my work is when I have no lines.

I love it when I have no lines, because often I'll talk to [showrunner] Melissa [Rosenberg] about a scene and be like, "I would love the opportunity to have this play on my face; could we cut X, Y, Z lines?" and we usually do. It's exhausting, because ... all of my subtext, all of the history is there. You can't just, like, stand there and scowl; that's not going to register. That's not going to affect anybody. That's not going to hit heart strings. You've got to feel it if you want your audience to be in it with you.

On her internal struggle over killing a villain at the end of season one

Jessica is really struggling when we find her in the top of season two. There's a lot of conflict going on. She hates herself. She doesn't know if she did the right thing or if she is actually a cold-blooded killer. ... The public, her friends, all say, "You did the right thing. We can sleep at night knowing that that guy is out of the picture." But Jessica is very fearful that she is a monster. So that's kind of where we find her, really, really battling with that.

On the experience of acting out an overdose death on Breaking Bad

Acting is so weird. It was emotional witnessing someone grieving for your death. ... I'm a very sensitive person and Aaron Paul was really — his performance was so amazing — and he was so distraught and so devastated and crying and on my chest and trying to revive me so violently that it was intense. ...

Additionally, there was a body cast made — thank God they had the foresight to do that. It was a cast that screwed together on the sides to protect my chest so that Aaron could really go to town [attempting CPR]. But they made it for my body double and she was a little more petite than I am, so the thing didn't fit all the way. So he's, like, smashing on my chest and ... it was pinching my skin every time and I'm just trying so hard to just lay there and be dead, and I couldn't get a full breath of air because of it.

On her "science to arrival" which she perfected early in her career, when she was doing commercials as a model

I got the bug kind of right away. ... I was like, I can always be better, I can always work harder, I can always show up earlier. I had a whole science to arrival. I wrote it down in my journal ... You don't want to be 20 minutes early because then you might annoy people, they're not ready for you. But you don't want to be 5 minutes early because what if you have to use the ladies' room or you'll be rushed? So I decided that arriving 12 minutes before your appointment was the best. This is something I came up with at age 20 — my science to arrival — and I still use it to this day.

On feeling disappointed by the roles available to women and deciding to take a break from acting to write the thriller novel, Bonfire

I just felt like in that time especially — end of 2015 — it felt like all the comedies that I was seeing featuring women were all raunchy, sexy and drunk, and I just don't believe that that is the only source of comedy that you can get with female characters. I didn't really want to participate in any of them. I felt like I would rather sit out, work on my side hustles, I think my time is going to be better spent generating my own stuff, telling stories I want to tell, being excited.

Heidi Saman and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our guest Krysten Ritter is the star of the Netflix series "Jessica Jones," which is based on a Marvel Comics character. Season 1 and 2 are on Netflix. The series was recently renewed for a third season.

Jessica Jones is not your typical superhero in tights. She's a hard-drinking, low-rent private eye with superhuman strength. She's also coping with PTSD from two big traumas. She believes she's the sole survivor of a family car accident from when she was a child. She was also the sex slave of a super-villain named Killgrave, who could command people with his voice. As several reviewers have pointed out, the show's themes of sexual assault and female rage make Jessica Jones a strong feminist hero in this era of the Time's Up and #MeToo movements.

Krysten Ritter also played Jesse Pinkman's girlfriend in "Breaking Bad." She spoke with our producer Sam Briger. They started with a scene from "Jessica Jones" in which Jessica is attending a court-mandated anger management session where she's supposed to tell the group how she's feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JESSICA JONES")

KRYSTEN RITTER: (As Jessica Jones) My whole family was killed in a car accident. Someone did horrific experiments on me. I was abducted, raped and forced to kill someone. And now some maniac says that I am here for a reason, like some sick destiny. She's out killing people, and I'm in here bouncing a ball.

SAM BRIGER, HOST:

That's a scene from the second season of "Jessica Jones." Krysten Ritter, welcome to FRESH AIR.

RITTER: Thank you so much for having me.

BRIGER: So the first season of "Jessica Jones" was about your character coping with the trauma of basically being a slave to this supervillain named Killgrave. His superpower's, like, commanding people with his voice. And he rapes her and also has her kill someone. And in the second season, the character seems to have moved from a stage of trauma and into some situation where she's feeling a lot of rage.

RITTER: Yeah. Jessica is really struggling when we find her in the top of season 2. She hates herself. She doesn't know if she did the right thing, or if she is actually a cold-blooded killer. She was capable of murder. It was easy for her to do that. So she's dealing with a lot of conflict with that. You know, the public, her friends all say, you know, like, you did the right thing. We can sleep at night knowing that that guy's out of the picture. But Jessica is very fearful that she is a monster. So that's kind of where we find her - just really, really battling with that.

BRIGER: And it seems like one of the questions this season is trying to figure out is, how can Jessica harness that rage in a positive way and not be so destructive to herself and the people around her?

RITTER: Sure. And a lot of the thing with the season - you know, we deal with her rage, and she's wondering, like, how far that is going to take her. Where is the line? She finds herself constantly stepping over the line. And then when the opposing force, Jessica's antagonist, shows up and ends up being, basically, a souped-up version of her - her mother, who is a rage monster and can kill people without remorse, without any awareness - Jessica is terrified that that is where she's headed.

Playing with the themes like - you know, relatable themes like, am I my mother? Am I becoming my mother - in this elevated, super (laughter) - superhero - super way where, if she becomes like her mother, there are major consequences.

BRIGER: So this season, you get to play a younger version of Jessica Jones. I think it's, like, episode seven or eight where there's...

RITTER: Yeah.

BRIGER: ...A lot of flashbacks to a younger version of yourself. And there's also a lot of scenes in this season where you're alone, and there's not a lot of dialogue, and you're just sort of emoting, you know?

RITTER: Yeah.

BRIGER: And you're very good at that. Like, you - I don't know if you have a very expressive face, or you're just good at expressing yourself. But I'm just wondering, like, technically, what goes through your mind when you're doing those scenes? Like, are you - like, what level are you working at? Are you being, like, OK, scowl. OK, scowl some more. Or are you...

RITTER: No.

BRIGER: Thinking about...

RITTER: That...

BRIGER: ...Like, your life, or are you thinking about the character's life? Like, I'm sure all those levels could work, but where do you do it?

RITTER: I am doing the most work when I'm not saying lines. It's just been ingrained in me. If you don't have anything going on in your head, you're not interesting to watch. So (laughter) - so I would say that the bulk and the majority of my work is when I have no lines.

And I love it when I have no lines because then - I often - like, I'll talk to Melissa about a scene and be like, I would love the opportunity to have this play on my face. Could we cut X, Y, Z lines? And we usually do. It's exhausting because you have all of that - like, all of my subtext, all of the history is there. Yeah, you can't just, like, stand there and scowl. That's not going to register.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

RITTER: That's not going to affect anybody. That's not going to hit heartstrings. You've got to feel it if you want your audience to be in it with you. So I just make sure that I feel it, and I have a ton going on.

BRIGER: You also were really terrific in the second season of "Breaking Bad." And you played Jane, who was a recovering drug addict who eventually starts using again when she dates Jesse Pinkman. I wanted to play a scene from that show. Your dad, played by John de Lancie, has just found out that you're using again. He's obviously really upset. And we'll also hear Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse, in this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

JOHN DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) You're going back to rehab today - now.

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) Look. As it so happens, we were just - we were just talking about that now.

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) Yeah?

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) Yeah, and I was going to tell you - OK? - if you would just let me.

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) Eighteen months - you have been clean for 18 months, Jane. Why? Why do you do it?

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) I back slid, OK? Like, what? Do you think I'm proud of this? Like I do it on purpose?

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) You're lying to me - shacking up and using with this scumbag, this loser...

AARON PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Hey, it takes one to know one.

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) His name is Jesse, Dad, and you don't know the first thing about him. We talk about rehab every night. It's his idea.

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) You talk about rehab? Well, gee, isn't that wonderful?

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) Thank you for not being judgmental 24 hours a day because that's exactly what I need - to be judged all the time.

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) OK. You know what you need? I'll tell you exactly what you need.

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) What are you doing? What are you doing?

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) I am calling the police.

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) Dad - dad, no.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Hey, woah, no. Come on. Come on.

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) Dad, no - don't.

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) I have tried 10 years of love and understanding. Maybe what it takes is you drying out in a jail cell.

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) Dad, no.

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) Yes. I would like to report drug use in a building that I own.

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) Dad.

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) No. It's ongoing. It's illegal activity. I'd like to talk to somebody...

RITTER: (Jane Margolis) Daddy, no.

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) Would you connect me, please?

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) Fine. We'll go to rehab.

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) I could care less about him going to rehab. I want you in rehab.

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) OK. I'll go first thing tomorrow.

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) Not tomorrow - today.

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) I have to call into work. I have to stop the newspaper. Last time I went to rehab, all my houseplants died because you didn't water them, so - daddy? Please? I'll go tomorrow.

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) Tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) Tomorrow.

DE LANCIE: (As Donald Margolis) Tomorrow.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) You meant all that?

RITTER: (As Jane Margolis) I don't know. I just think if we had enough money, nobody can make us do anything.

BRIGER: That's my guest Krysten Ritter in a scene from "Breaking Bad." It's a really powerful scene, and it's very emotional. How do you prepare when things are going to get that emotional?

RITTER: Oh, my God. Even hearing that I was like, whoa (laughter), because it's so sad because we know she doesn't go tomorrow.

BRIGER: Right. Is that a scene that you would work on a lot together?

RITTER: That's a scene I think that we would mark and have a good shape. I think with something that emotional, because that does get pretty heavy, you don't want to totally take the air out of the tires. Of course, like, you end up shooting a lot, and you shoot different angles. But that wouldn't be a scene that I would want to go to 100 in rehearsals. With stuff like that, like in - and in "Jessica Jones" too, there are, you know, some heavy scenes where it gets, like, you know, really hardcore, really emotional. And I would kind of have a good idea what I wanted to do.

I will kind of go to the sound department first and kind of tell them like, hey, just so you know, like, this is what I'm planning to do. I'll talk to the camera operators, the DP, like - and the director, of course. This is kind of like, I'm going to mark it for you. But, like, I just want everybody to be ready. Like, you'd never want to do, like, some crazy performance where you get really emotional, and then, like, your mike blows out because they aren't expecting, like, a huge volume. So I tend to, like, have a really good idea or a really good sense of what I'm going to do and then kind of show a shape and then go for it.

BRIGER: Later that episode, you have a really violent death. And, you know, you're passed out on heroin, and you start choking on your own vomit. And Bryan Cranston's character Walter White is there, and it looks like he's about to help you. But then he decides just to sit there and watch you. You know, you're convulsing, and you're spitting up. And he just lets you die because you've gotten in the way between him and his partner Jesse. It's a really horrible scene. Was it a hard scene for you?

RITTER: Yeah. I think the harder scene for me was when I was actually dead the following episode. It was emotional witnessing someone grieving for your death. And I'm a very sensitive person. And Aaron Paul was really just - his performance was so amazing. And he was so distraught and so devastated and crying and on my chest, and so him - and trying to revive me so violently that it was intense. I tried to, like, go in my body so much. But then I couldn't help but think like, oh, my God, if I were dead, like, someone would be doing this. It was hardcore. Those are the moments where you're like, man, acting is really weird.

Additionally, there was a body cast made, which was - thank God they had the foresight to do that. It was, like, a cast. It screwed together on the sides to protect my chest so that Aaron could really go to town. But they made it for my body double. And she was a little bit more petite than I am. So the thing didn't fit all the way. So he's, like, smashing on my chest. And each time, it wouldn't latch. So it was pinching my skin every time. And I'm just trying so hard to, like, lay there and be dead, and I couldn't get a full breath of air because of it. We had to take a minute. It was really - you know, when you're on the verge of, like - of anything emotional happening, to then, like, pound on your chest, it's just going to come out.

BRIGER: Yeah. Sounds terrible. Yeah.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Krysten Ritter. She stars in the Netflix series "Jessica Jones," and she played Jesse Pinkman's girlfriend in season two of "Breaking Bad." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NO ONE REMAINS VIRGIN'S "UNDER THE LION CROTCH")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Krysten Ritter, who stars in the Netflix series "Jessica Jones." In this part of the interview, they talk about how she started her career.

BRIGER: You were at a mall with your mom and were approached by a talent scout who asked if you had ever considered a career in modeling. Is that something you jumped at? Were you suspicious of the scout? I mean, it sounds sounds like something from a movie too.

RITTER: Totally. Well, it was a woman. And she was...

BRIGER: That probably makes a difference.

RITTER: Yeah, yeah. And it was - she was from Elite Model Management. And that's a - you know, that's a reputable agency. Even I had heard of that in the back of, like, Seventeen Magazine. We were surprised. Around that time - so I would've been 15 when I was scouted. My mom was, I guess, pregnant with my sister. And a lot of the nurses would always say, like, oh, Krysten's so tall. And, oh, she should be a model, but - that thing that, like, people just say. But it wasn't Like, I was, like, pretty in high school or, like, had that kind of, like - I don't know - vibe. So when I was scouted, it was pretty surprising. And my grandmother said something to me. She passed away years ago. And she said to me - she was like, modeling is - was the best thing that happened to you because I saw what it did for your competence. And so I'm really grateful for that.

BRIGER: So you started modeling at 15. And you were doing that in New York and Philadelphia and moved to New York at the age of 18. And you did fashion, you know, all over the world.

RITTER: Yeah.

BRIGER: Eventually, modeling led to work in acting. And did - is that something you took to right away?

RITTER: Yes, because I think, you know, like I was saying before, I didn't really know what I wanted to be when I grew up. And I'm modeling, and I'm angsty. And I got my guitar on my back. And I'm like, I want to be a rock star. And I didn't like how I was treated at my go-sees. I would try to crack jokes. They weren't really interested. It was just like the kind of cliche fashion industry stuff.

BRIGER: Right.

RITTER: And so when I started getting sent on commercials, they were like, tell us about yourself. Tell us a funny joke. Do a funny dance. And I'm like, OK. All - I can do all of those things. So I got the bug kind of right away. I started booking all the commercials. And then I was like, I can always be better. I can always work harder. I can always show up earlier. I had a whole - a science to arrival. I wrote it...

BRIGER: What was that?

RITTER: ...Down in my journal. Like, this is what time you need to arrive for an appointment. You don't want to be 20 minutes early because then, like, you might annoy people. They're not ready for you. But you don't want to be five minutes early because what if you have to use the ladies room? Or what if they're - you'll be rushed. So I decided that arriving 12 minutes before your appointment was, like, the best. And this was, like, something I, you know - I came up with at, like, age 20. My science to arrival. And I still use it to this day.

BRIGER: That's great. Well, you've branched out from acting. You, last year, wrote a novel called "Bonfire." That's a...

RITTER: Yeah.

BRIGER: ...Thriller. And you said you wrote the book in response to some disappointing roles you were being offered at the time. And this was in between, I think, the seasons of "Jessica Jones." What were some of those roles?

RITTER: Honestly, like, it's - Jessica's a tough act to follow. Jessica - like, the work that I get to do and the backstory and the character building and, like, the - just the breaking down the scripts. And I'm just so invested, and I really get to sink my teeth into it. And so then when you see a part where - I don't know. It's like a group of six girls going to Vegas. And, you know, the girl's like, oh, my God. You're so getting laid tonight. Like, I can't - I can't - I can't - I can't do it.

BRIGER: Yeah.

RITTER: I can't do it, and I don't want to. And I just felt like there - in that time, especially, you know, end of 2015, it just felt like all of the comedies that I was seeing featuring women were all raunchy, sexy and drunk. And I'm like, I just don't believe that that is the only source of comedy that you can get with female characters. And so I didn't really want to participate in any of them.

I felt like I would rather sit out, work on my side hustles. I think my time is going to be better spent generating my own stuff, telling stories I want to tell, being really - you know, being excited. You know, being on set and, like, working - it's hard work. And when you love it, you never want the day to end. But it takes you away from your personal life. It takes you away from your house. Like, it - you know, it puts strains on all of your - all over your personal relationships. So it's got to be really, really good and really worth it.

BRIGER: Krysten Ritter, thanks so much for coming on FRESH AIR.

RITTER: Thank you so much for having me. What a great interview. I appreciate it so much.

GROSS: Krysten Ritter stars in "Jessica Jones," which has been renewed for a third season. Seasons 1 and 2 are on Netflix. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Michael Pollan. He's best known for his books about food. But his new book is about the history of psychedelic drugs and current experiments with them in therapeutic settings to treat depression, addiction and people with cancer who are afraid of death. The book also recounts Pollan's own recent personal experiments with LSD and psilocybin. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.