Krysten Ritter is returning to Netflix as Jessica Jones, and her role is more resonant than ever. Here, she opens up about managing her money, managing Jessica’s emotional toll, and managing a career that’s always “a little dangerous”
By Sara Benincasa // Photos by Michael Lavine
Styling by Jardine Hammond // Makeup By Amy Nadine Clement // Hair by Pamela Neal
Krysten Ritter is a badass. Yes, so is Jessica Jones, the iconic Marvel character she wonderfully inhabits on the hit Netflix series of the same name, which returns March 8. And no, Jones and Ritter aren’t one and the same. But Ritter herself—an actor, author, TV writer, musician, and producer—is also a tough cookie.
Raised on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, Ritter, now 36, began a modeling career when an agent scouted her at age 15 at her local mall. It’s an old-fashioned origin story for a star, like getting discovered in a soda shop or being spotted in the high school musical. But it’s a pretty uncommon tale these days. And while the beginning of her professional life sounds almost magical, Ritter didn’t turn into a superstar overnight. Her career is a story of talent, hard work, ups and downs, and canny strategy. And I get the distinct impression she’s not the type to rest on her laurels. (She released a freaking novel during her hiatus from Jessica Jones, the psychological thriller Bonfire.) When we chat, I learn more about how this gal has been doing the rise and grind routine for so long.
Our talk starts at the beginning. In high school, she’d sometimes take the bus three hours into New York, do a fashion shoot, then return home to the countryside. For longer assignments, she’d stay in a model apartment in New York. She did stints in Japan and Milan, and eventually devoted herself to studying acting. None of this made her wildly wealthy. For a time, when money was tight, she even lived with her longtime acting teacher, with whom she still works today.
She popped up on Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls before her breakout turn as Jane Margolis on Breaking Bad in 2009. Jane, a former addict who starts using again after getting involved with Jesse (Aaron Paul), was a fan favorite. Ritter’s career picked up steam after Jane’s arc ended in tragedy, and in 2012, her first starring vehicle, Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23, debuted on ABC. Despite critical praise, the series was canceled after one season. Then came Jessica Jones, the show that made Ritter a mainstream star in 2015.
So many prominent actors seem to come from big entertainment families, or at least from families that can always send a check if times get tough. Not so for Ritter, who comes from decidedly working class roots. “It’s very rare that I meet people from tiny towns like I’m from,” she tells me over the phone. She’s hanging out at a friend’s house and relishing some relaxation after the book tour for Bonfire. The tour came after she shot Jessica Jones Season 2, which in turn came after she shot the Marvel miniseries The Defenders. “The other day I met somebody who was from a farm,” she says, “and I realized that I don’t ever meet people from farms.” She adds that she’s “very proud” of where she’s from, and I believe her.
One thing I’ve learned about Ritter from reading and listening to interviews is that she’s more on top of her money game than most adults are, with an enviable attention to detail. She didn’t go to college or get her CPA license, but her financial acumen had its start back home and she tells me she’s always been very frugal. “I sort of still have that early-bird-gets-the-worm mentality,” she says. “If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. The clean plate club—finish everything on your plate. I grew up with humble, small-town values like that, and they do totally stick with you. I really understand the value of a dollar and the value of hard work. I have a small house. I just like to live a simple life.”
“I grew up with humble, small-town values, and they do totally stick with you. I really understand the value of a dollar and the value of hard work.”
When Ritter was an 18-year-old model in New York City, she ran into an entity that often provides a reality check to artists with freelance income: the IRS. Barely out of high school, she was audited. She quickly taught herself the ins and outs of budgeting and taxes. And to this day, she doesn’t have a business manager—practically unheard of for a star of her level. “No one is gonna care more about what I have going on than me,” she says. “I figure, business managers have a million clients. I just have one client. So I have a very keen attention to detail.” She also reads all of her contracts closely in order to catch any mistakes.
I offer that it’s an exciting thing to hear in a society where many families and schools still don’t teach girls about basic finance, based in part on the assumption that one day a husband will take care of it all. “I never, ever got that message,” Ritter says. “In fact, I never remember anyone ever telling me, ‘Oh, you’re gonna get married and this will happen.’ I never, ever was a little girl dreaming of a wedding and a white dress. That was just not in my vocabulary, in my mind, or in my world at all.”
Along with a clear sense of what she does (and doesn’t) want out of life, Ritter also seems to have a healthy amount of self-confidence, and it’s grounded in the kind of perspective that comes from experience. “I’m a creative person who also has a pretty good business mind, thank God,” she says, laughing. “There are people who are way more talented, but I have a business savvy and a level of obsession that allows me to find these things that I love so much and make them my job. So I never actually feel like I’m working, because I play.”
I ask if she ever felt resentful when she met other folks in the industry who had more of a financial cushion from home. “Now, no, because I wear everything with a badge of honor,” she says. “When I was just starting out, I didn’t come from a family in this business. I didn’t have any connections. The only thing I had was a strong work ethic and determination. I remember when I was young and starting out, I felt like I had to really start at the beginning, where maybe other people already had access or were so much further along. But then as things go on, you’re like, ‘Oh, well this feels even better because I earned it myself.’”
And she’s earned a hell of a lot—not only in terms of income, but also in critical praise and fan loyalty. She’s worked in entertainment for nearly two decades, in a career dominated by supporting roles. Ritter tells me that during the years of smaller parts, she’d watch everyone around her carefully to absorb wisdom about what to do and what not to do, so she’d be prepared when her time came to carry a series.
Then came Jessica Jones, a show that requires its star to work long hours, often as the only performer in the scene. As she fights crime on the mean streets of N.Y.C., Jessica needs to be able to crack wise and break the audience’s heart in the same moment. It’s not a simple role, and Marvel isn’t known for handing out parts without putting candidates through their paces first. Ritter auditioned multiple times and did a couple of screen tests before she nabbed the gig. And then came extensive physical training, as well as a temporary move back to New York City.
The Marvel series dropped on Netflix in 2015, and launched her into that sphere of critically acclaimed actors who achieve mainstream stardom. After several turns as quirky friends and sidekicks, Ritter nailed that rare female lead who gets to be smart, bold, angry, sexy, beautiful, brave, fucked up, and more. In other words, Jessica is complicated.
Her character also suffers from intense PTSD after a long, forced relationship with Kilgrave (David Tennant), an abusive rapist and murderer with the ability to control minds. Thanks to Ritter’s multilayered performance and some excellent writing and direction, this storyline struck a deep nerve with many female viewers. And as the glowing reviews poured in, so did the essays, blog posts, tweets, and emails from survivors of abuse.
I can’t imagine Jessica is an easy person to inhabit for up to 16 hours a day. So I ask Ritter how she handles the stress. “Well, the emotional toll is much harder than the physical toll on Jessica Jones,” she says. “They’re both up there. I’ve tried to apply things like meditation, making time to play my guitar, knitting, and reading.”
But she doesn’t just leave the character behind once she’s done filming. Women approach her all the time to thank her for the show and to tell her how they relate to Jessica. I tell Ritter I’ve really been wondering how it feels to address sexual assault, sexual harassment, and abuse in such a big way, on such a big show. Those subjects are a major part of the national conversation today. But back in 2015, the discourse wasn’t as rich and varied. I ask if she’s thought of how Jessica Jones fits into the #MeToo moment we’re having now, over two years since Season One debuted. “I’ve thought about it a lot,” Ritter says. “You know, our show was definitely ahead of the curve. After Season One came out, I was getting approached by women a lot, sometimes in tears, about how they felt represented, how it helped them deal with their own traumas in their lives. It was very, very personal to these women to see a character like this represented—how strong she was. I think that hit me in such a profound way, that Jessica Jones was so much more than a great acting part. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the first character like this we’ve seen, especially in the form of a superhero, especially in the form of a leading lady, who looks like this, who acts like this, who doesn’t really give a shit about how she looks.’”
"After Season One came out, I was getting approached by women a lot, sometimes in tears, about how they felt represented, how it helped them deal with their own traumas in their lives."
Ritter clearly loves Jones, and speaks with particular affection about the character’s resilience and tenacity. “Despite all of the darkness, all of the things she’s been through, she still puts one foot in front of the other. It made me want to work even harder. If this character provides strength or inspiration for even five women—or more than that—that’s awesome. It feels like I get to be part of something bigger than me. It’s a contribution to the art of television and film, [which] have a way of moving society forward. So to get to act and do what I love and be part of some sort of change or shedding a light on something, it’s pretty much as good as it gets.”
I ask Ritter if she ever thought she’d be a part of any project that made such a deep emotional impression on so many people and she demurs. “I wish I could say that I did,” she says. “I just focus on what’s in front of me and do that with everything I’ve got. I love to act because I like to express things specifically as I see them. And that’s given me parts that are not so cookie cutter. All of them are dark, a little dangerous. That’s what I like to see as a viewer and that’s what I’m into and what I’m about. So it’s no surprise that I ended up on a show like this. It’s all stuff that I love and that speaks to me.”
I’m having trouble figuring out how any human could get a novel written while juggling all these other projects—much less one as well-written and well-reviewed as Bonfire, a tale about an environmental lawyer who returns to her roots in small-town Indiana to investigate corruption. Did she do it while working on Jessica Jones? During a film project? Did she invent extra time for herself, and if so, what’s the secret? (Answer to all: nah.) “I focus pretty heavily on one thing at a time,” she says. “For example, when I’m doing Jessica Jones, I’m not doing anything else, because it has very long production hours. When I get home, I’m learning lines.”
In fact, Bonfire was in the works for years when Ritter found out Jessica Jones would get a second season on Netflix. “So I was basically given this gift, that of security,” she says. “I would not be able to work for 15 months. So I thought, ‘OK, this is 15 months. I could stomp around in my house… or I could really maximize my time and do something that I love.’” It took her longer than 15 months to finish that first draft, but she got a lot done.
Ritter is a hardworking boss lady with many talents, but she’s not all about the career. Her tone changes in the sweetest way when she talks about her 21-year-old sister, Bailey. “She’s just getting so cool,” she says. “We’re really close and [she comes to] stay with me all the time since she was 12. It’s interesting. Now she’s an adult and she’s really open to all of the stuff that I’m into, and she keeps me company. I’ll be like, ‘Hey do you want to go to this meditation?’ And she’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I’m down.’ And it just warms my heart so much. Like, I get to expose my younger sister to all of these cool things that aren’t necessarily in Pennsylvania. It’s totally new and it’s exciting.”
I also bring up the myth of the magical “big break” that is so often applied to women who’ve been working at their craft awhile, since Jessica Jones brought Ritter so much sudden attention. “In the rare case when it does happen, it seems like it fucks with people, don’t you think?” I ask. “To suddenly have a bunch of fame and money thrust on you seems glorious and incredibly stressful.”
“Yeah, it’s hard,” Ritter concedes. “I think when your life changes drastically, you don’t have a lot of perspective. Since I’ve been around a long time, I understand like, ‘Oh wow, great parts don’t come around every single day!’ I don’t assume that it’s always gonna be easy and great. ”
So what’s next for Ritter? It’s a fair bet she’ll continue to expand her multi-hyphenate career, particularly under the umbrella of her production company, Silent Machine, where she’s working on a screen adaptation of her novel and producing TV pilots. Surely there will be more television, more films, perhaps more books, maybe even another design collaboration. (She just did a project with the collective We Are Knitters, modeling alongside her dog, Mikey.) After we say our goodbyes, I’m not sure there’s anything this woman can’t do. I am sure, however, that while we may only see a few more seasons of Jessica Jones, we’re all going to see a hell of a lot more of Krysten Ritter.
top photo: pink faux fur coat: Topshop; black dress: Ulla Johnson
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2018 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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