Krysten Ritter, Star of Raunchy ABC Comedy, on Playing Everyone's Favorite 'B----' (Video)
The actress discusses her unhappy childhood, panic attack on the set of "Breaking Bad," and reimagining Holly Golightly on ABC's "Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23."
The great Golden Age actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford famously hated each other off-screen as much as -- and perhaps even more than -- the characters that they portrayed on-screen in the cult-classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). Case-in-point: In an interview late in her life, Davis was asked by a reporter why she was so good at playing bitchy characters. She replied, “I think it’s because I’m not a bitch. Maybe that’s why Joan Crawford always plays ladies.”
Having recently interviewed Krysten Ritter, the present-day actress who plays the eponymous character on ABC’s half-hour comedy Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23, I am convinced that there may be something to Davis’ logic.
On the show -- which debuted in April and aired throughout the spring on Wednesday nights at 9:30pm, right after Modern Family -- Ritter plays Chloe, a jaded New Yorker who scams naïve out-of-towners by posing as an ideal roommate until she collects their deposit, at which points she makes their lives utterly miserable until they elect to move out. In short, she is a real “b.”
In real life, however, the cute, quirky, and undeniably magnetic 30-year-old is considerably more likable, as you can see for yourself by checking out the video of our conversation at the top of this post. Over the course of our roughly 45 minutes together, she was -- as Chloe never is -- candid (about the pain and sadness of her childhood), serious (describing her methodical approach to achieving success, first as a model and then as an actress), and, above all, grateful (for each of the breaks that led up to the role of Chloe).
Many who have discovered Ritter through Don’t Trust the B---- have hailed her as an “impressive newcomer.” The reality, though, is that she has been acting professionally -- really, hiding in plain sight -- for the better part of a decade already; it just took people a little while -- and a magnificent turn as Jane, the drug-addicted girlfriend of Jesse (Aaron Paul), on season two of AMC’s Breaking Bad -- to cause people to sit up and take notice.
Now, all of a sudden, it has become almost impossible not to notice Ritter. Don't Trust the B---- has been promoted unusually heavily on ABC, ABC’s affiliated channels (ESPN, etc.), and even in movie theater promos, plus on multitudes of posters and billboards. During a recent trip to a mall in Los Angeles, I literally couldn’t turn around without seeing her face smirking back at me -- not that I'm complaining. When we met up in New York for this interview shortly thereafter, she seemed to be taking all of the recent developments in her life in stride, almost as if she had always expected them to happen.
Krysten Alice Ritter was born on December 16, 1981, in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, 40 miles southwest of Wilkes-Barre. She spent her childhood in nearby Benton, a small town that she remembers fondly as “very Norman Rockwell,” with only two or three streets and “not even a stoplight.” She was a tomboy. She had friends all around the neighborhood. And she was generally very happy. That all changed, however, after Ritter’s parents divorced when she was 12, which was regarded as “a big deal” in a community in which divorces were incredibly rare.
Not long after, Ritter’s mother remarried and moved with her daughter to “the sticks,” a change that Ritter still speaks of as a traumatic, “Rosebud”-like moment. As the youngster entered her early teenage years, there was “nothing and no one around” except for the farm animals -- cows, chickens, etc. -- that she was charged with caring for and a little moped that she would ride around by herself while trying to “create fun things for myself to do because it was so boring and lonely.”
To make matters worse, she was bullied relentlessly at school. Though she would later become a model, she says that she had yet to “fill out” at the time, and her classmates “would make fun of me for being really skinny, [and] gangly, and just the way I looked.” She didn’t find much solace at home, either. “I was always an outcast, even in my family,” she says. “I wasn’t really included… I just fell between the cracks. I was completely on my own.” She remembers feeling one thing very clearly: “I just had to get out of there.”
When Ritter was 15, her mother became pregnant again, and it was soon determined that the baby was suffering from a heart murmur. Ritter accompanied her mother to many of her appointments, and decided that she wanted to become a pediatric cardiologist in order to try to help other babies suffering from similar problems. Really, she says, “I just wanted to have some purpose.” Those plans were diverted, though, when several of the nurses who were caring for Ritter’s mother began remarking upon Ritter’s beauty. “The nurses were saying, ‘Oh, Krysten should be a model! Krysten should be a model!’ And we were like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Shortly thereafter, Ritter’s mother heard that Elite Model Management, a top modeling agency, was coming to the local mall to host a contest through which they would scout for potential talent, and she insisted that Ritter go. “We were not getting along very well,” the younger Ritter says. “We were, like, fighting in public. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself.” She eventually gave in -- but, by the time she and her mother arrived at the mall, the contest had already ended. As they bickered with each other, she recalls with a chuckle, “Someone came up to me and said, ‘Hello, have you ever thought about becoming a model?'... So that’s how it all started.”
Ritter signed with Elite and almost immediately began traveling alone to New York for work. She looks back at that time as a major turning point in her life. “It was awesome. Immediately, I felt like I fit in. Meeting the other models, who were also kind of weird looking, and tall, and skinny, I was like, ‘Wow, I feel more like myself here.’” The only downside? After her gigs ended, she would have to head back home to finish high school.
After graduating, she began to ponder her long-term future. Modeling was fun and exposed her to all sorts of interesting people and exciting places, but she felt increasing angst as she came to realize just how fickle a line of work it is. “You would stand in line for two hours to show people your book for five seconds. They wouldn’t even look up at you half the time. They were just like, ‘Where you from? Okay, thanks.’ I was like, ‘Really? Um, okay.’” She adds, “I just realized pretty quick, watching the girls around me, that if you didn’t hit in like, two seasons, when you got sent home, you don’t come back. And I didn’t want to go back. So, I just wanted to like, figure out a way to stay in New York and do something that I loved.”
Ritter wound up switching from Elite to another agency, Wilhemina, which, it turned out, had an acting division. “They got to know me a little bit when I was in the office. I was very energetic, and I was always bouncing off the walls, and telling funny stories, and whatever,” she recalls. “So, they were like, ‘Krysten, you know, what do you think: Would you want to consider acting? Would you go on a few commercial auditions and see how it goes?’” She was game for the challenge, and was soon sent out for a Dr. Pepper commercial. When she arrived in the audition room, the casting folks asked her to tell them about herself. “So I just started being a goof, and dancing around, and I got the job."
Ritter enjoyed her early commercial work, and realized that she wanted to shift her focus from modeling to acting. She knew that many models had made that leap, but also that most who had done so cruised on their looks for as long as they could and then faded away because they never really learned the craft or the business. As she puts it, “A lot of actresses start out modeling because it’s a great way to sort of get your foot in the door. That’s all it is, though. They open the door and you have to walk through it." So, she explains, “I just got really focused, and put my nose to the grindstone.”
She began by studying the Meisner technique with acting coach Nina Murano, which she describes as “the best thing that happened to me,” as it provided her with “tools… focus… [and] taught me how to listen." Then she started studying the Method with Marjorie Ballentine, a student of Stella Adler’s, who, she says, “taught me how to break down scripts” and determine characters’ motivations. She also carefully calculated her approach to auditions. "I knew I could always work harder and be better and show I’m more prepared. I had a whole science to like, how you have to arrive 17 minutes early to something. If you’re 20 minutes early, that means you’re too eager, but 17 minutes gives you time to like, settle, sign in, use the ladies room, have some water and get comfortable. And if you’re five minutes early, then you’re rushing.”
All of this began paying off about a decade ago, when Ritter started working regularly. Her early credits include the part of an art history student in the Julia Roberts film vehicle Mona Lisa Smile (2003), eight episodes on the UPN TV series Veronica Mars (2005-2006), and eight episodes on The Gilmore Girls (2006-2007). Then came best friend/sidekick parts in four big studio romantic-comedies -- 27 Dresses (2008), What Happens in Vegas (2008), Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009), and She’s Outta My League (2010) -- which would prove to be both a blessing and a curse.
“There was a moment where everybody was saying, ‘Oh, Krysten’s the new Judy Greer,’” Ritter recalls, referring to the “amazing” character actress most recently seen in The Descendants, who has also played best friends/sidekicks in a multitude of films. “Everyone has to be put into a box, of course," Ritter says. "They can’t just let people be people.” Nevertheless, she took it as a compliment. “For me, like, those were huge jobs. It’s hard to get a studio film, you know? It’s hard to get a movie that will be seen… It’s all about keeping the ball moving forward, in terms of your acting, the work, and your viability.”
In the middle of 2008, Ritter received an offer to do an arc on the Julia Louis-Dreyfuss CBS sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine, and was planning to take the part when her agents alerted her about a role on season two of AMC’s Breaking Bad. At the time, the show’s first season, which consisted of only seven episodes, had just finished airing, but it had yet to develop the cult following that it now possesses. (Indeed, star Bryan Cranston had yet to win even the first of his three Emmys -- thus far -- for playing high school teacher-turned-meth kingpin Walter White.) Therefore, it was not at all an obvious move to risk losing out a part on an Emmy-winning network show in order to audition for the chance to play a part on a fledgling new cable show.