Krysten Ritter, Star of Raunchy ABC Comedy, on Playing Everyone's Favorite 'B----' (Video)
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.
Still, the part on Breaking Bad was titillating: Jane Margolis, an artistic young woman with a history of heroin abuse who seems to be on the road to recovery, under the watchful eye of her strict father, until drug-addicted Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) moves in next door and tempts her into not only a sexual relationship but also a return to trouble. It was right up Ritter's alley: she had seen and known about a lot of drug addicts during her time in New York; she had previously played one in the little-seen indie The Last International Playboy (2008); and she was craving the opportunity to play darker and edgier characters. (“That’s more my style than sort of the girlier, bubbly stuff that I also do.”) -- After reading the script, she felt that she could really do something with the part. Then, after binge-watching the show’s first season in her bed, she knew that she wanted to.
Not long after, Ritter went in to audition -- along with a number of other high-caliber actresses including Juliette Lewis and Fairuza Balk, she has heard -- and, sure enough, bagged the part. “I thought I was only going to do four or five episodes,” she remembers, “and I ended up doing I think 10.” She adds, “Honestly, I never thought anyone would ever even see it, [but] it ended up changing the course of my life and career.”
Ritter’s success on the show was almost entirely dependent on her ability to click with Paul, and click they did. “We had great chemistry,” she agrees. “That’s just luck. That’s lightening in a bottle. That doesn’t always happen.” Interestingly, and helpfully for her performance, she had only an “icy” off-screen relationship with John de Lancie, the actor who played her character’s father. “We didn’t like, bro-down right away in the ways that I did with Aaron and even Bob Odenkirk [who plays the ambulance-chasing attorney Saul Goodman on the show], who I still keep in touch with.” She adds, “Sometimes what’s happening off camera really informs what’s happening on camera, you know?”
For Ritter, the climactic moment on the show came when it was time to shoot the scene in which -- major spoiler alert -- Jane begins to overdose in her bed while laying beside Jesse, who is also in a heroin-induced stupor, and Walter, who has broken into their home, elects to do nothing to help her. Ritter says that the rest of the cast and crew, for weeks before the scene was shot, kept mentioning to her how sad it was going to be to have to say farewell to her character, especially under such tragic circumstances, but that realization didn't set in for her until much later. “I was like, flying to New York and doing press. It was busy. So, I didn’t have time to really process it.”
Ritter's emotions finally bubbled to the surface when it came time to shoot the scene in which Jesse wakes up, discovers what has happened, and hysterically tries to revive Jane's heart: “They made this cast to go around my chest to protect my heart, obviously, but they fit it to my stand-in, who is smaller than I am. So, this thing wouldn’t close all the way because they had to drill it on and they had to drill it off. It’s a whole thing, so it wouldn’t close all the way. And so, it’s pinching me every time he pushes my chest. And I can’t get a full breath of air. So, I’m like [gasps for air] trying to get air. And I’m the most sensitive person on the planet -- like, I will watch the news and cry. And you have this amazing actor on top of you like, pounding on your chest, hysterical, like, crying -- he’s got tears dripping on my face. It was too much. I’m like, ‘Okay, this is acting. Okay, don’t cry. Okay, just hold it together.’ And then, I started to think like, ‘Oh my God, if I were dead, somebody would be like, really upset, probably. Like, this is what it would be. This is weird.’ And then, not being able to get a full breath of air, I had a panic attack! We had to stop for a while, for like, five minutes. Like, I had to get it off. I think it was also my birthday. It was too much. I couldn’t wait to get out of it. That was when I went, ‘Just get this character away from me. I can’t.’”
As Ritter, the cast and crew, and TV viewers struggled to say goodbye to Jane, network executives were beginning to catch up with the show, and soon began expressing an increased desire to say hello to Ritter. The actress, meanwhile, had made it her “mission” to avoid participating in the annual battle for parts that is TV's pilot season, just as she’d managed to do for the previous three years, since she finds the process to be “hell." As she explains it, “You’re sitting there with all the girls, and it’s just the most stressful thing, and then, you don’t even get it… [or] you go there again, and again, and again, and then the show doesn’t even get picked up. It’s like, you’re making yourself absolutely crazy for a job that isn’t even real." Besides, she reasoned, she has always managed to find other, less degrading routes to gainful employment, “shooting a movie or something else.”
Post-Breaking Bad, Ritter’s agents told her to expect bigger and better opportunities. One of her first offers, though, was the starring role in a low-budget indie called Refuge, the script of which greatly intrigued her, and she decided to say yes, feeling perfectly “content” to focus her energies on that and other similar projects. But, before she was to head off to work on the film, her agents received “a straight offer on a pilot,” as in, no audition necessary. She chuckles, “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s so crazy. That never happens.’” And then it happened again. “I was [beginning] to realize that people would want me to star in their TV shows.” Clearly, it was time to rethink her views on pilot season.
One of Ritter’s friends, who knew about her dilemma, forwarded her an article that she had read online about plans to cast a pilot of a show called Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apt. 23 (the bad word was only censored later) -- the premise of which read like a 21st century, no-holds-barred, female version of The Odd Couple -- and followed up with a phone call to say, “Krysten, I know you’re like, feeling a little worried about TV, but this sounds really cool if you could be the bitch.” Ritter, intrigued, called her agents to ask if they knew anything about it. When she heard back from them, she was informed, to her great surprise, that Nahnatchka Khan, the show’s creator and executive producer, was very interested in meeting with her about the titular part, Chloe, and wanted to know if she was available to meet up the following day. She had a date.
At that initial meeting was not only Khan, whom Ritter says she loved immediately, but also Jason Winer, Khan’s fellow executive producer, who would direct the pilot, and whom Ritter knew and liked from when she had auditioned for the part in Arthur (2011) that eventually went to Greta Gerwig. Khan, a big fan of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), told Ritter that she envisioned her show as a TV version of the classic film, only depicting what it would be like if Holly Golightly was thrust into today's New York and forced to figure out a way to fend for herself. Ritter says, “I love that movie. I love Holly Golightly. I love Audrey Hepburn. So, I was like, ‘I would love to play like a twisted, evil version of her.’” By the end of the “great meeting,” plans were in place for Ritter to shoot the pilot -- on a timetable that would also allow her to honor her commitment to Refuge. (Meanwhile, Dreama Walker, who played Alan Cumming’s young nemesis Becca on The Good Wife, was cast as the one roomie that Chloe can't shake.)
Chloe, the Golightly surrogate, truly earns the derogatory appellation ascribed to her in the show’s title. As Ritter explains, “Chloe is a sociopath. She has a total screw loose. She has no morals, no filter. She does horrible things to people. She scams people. She’s a con artist in fabulous clothes. And somehow, like, gets away with all of these things.” The remarkable thing about the show, generally, and Ritter’s performance on it, specifically, is that the audience loves Chloe in spite of her appalling behavior. “You can’t make a show about a horrible bitch if there’s not something redeeming, or something endearing, or whatever,” Ritter theorizes. “I just try to bring a positive spin to whatever she does, which I think helps balance out the evil.”
I, for one, think that Ritter brings much more to the table than just that: namely, as I wrote shortly before the series premiered, star-quality of a very modern variety that resonates especially strongly with younger TV viewers:
“What impressed me most about Ritter on Breaking Bad, and in the lengthy promos that I’ve seen for Apt. 23, is her unmistakable, unflappable sense of self. Like Katy Perry and Zooey Deschanel, she’s not a conventional beauty, but she’s much sexier than most who are because -- I believe -- of the striking contrast between her childlike, almost cartoonishly-cute appearance (pouting, big eyes, bangs, flowery dresses) and the very adult things that she says and does (and the comfort and confidence with which she does them).
“Moreover, in the great tradition of Louise Brooks and Barbara Stanwyck, she has no problem doing whatever she wants and/or has to do to get by -- such as turning on her inner daddy’s girl to avoid being sent to rehab on Breaking Bad and blatantly lying to and stealing from her roomie on Apt. 23 -- and couldn’t really give a [damn] what you or anyone else thinks about it. In fact, the only thing that impresses her are people who prove that they have the gumption to navigate this crazy world as effectively and ruthlessly as she does.
“In short, she is one of the first truly 21st century chicks on TV.”
Don’t Trust the B---- is pretty edgy, too, especially considering that it airs on a broadcast network. Almost all risqué shows now appear on cable (which has much looser restrictions about what can be said or shown) or premium cable (which has virtually no restrictions at all), but Don’t Trust the B---- has been playing with fire since the airing of its pilot, in which the word “bitch” was spoken (without a bleep to censor it) and Ritter was shown prancing around in the nude (with pixilation employed to blur out her privates). Ritter says, “Every week I’m getting the script and being like, ‘Whoa!’ And we are getting away with most of it. They do some creative editing; like, they cut away right before something happens.”
She wouldn't have it any other way. "I feel like it’s exciting and dynamic, and it will hopefully continue to be," she says. "If you’re going to sign on for potentially a long time, you want to make sure that you’re going to be excited." She gushes, "It’s my favorite job so far. I like it better than anything else."
Upon being presented with the Bette Davis line that is cited in this post’s opening paragraph, Ritter is amused -- “She sounds so fun -- I’d love to hang out with her!” -- but quickly makes clear that she disagrees with its argument. “I think everybody has a little bit of everything in them. And, as an actor, you just tap into the different parts. I could be a bitch if I want to, you know? I’m also like, really girly and fun. I love to have a good time. I like to work hard, I like to play hard.” So, she summarizes, “I’m able to tap into [being a bitch].” She adds, “I just didn’t realize how much fun I would have doing it."
That's a good thing, because Don't Trust the B---- recently got picked up for second season and will be returning to the air in the fall on Tuesday nights at 9:30pm. You don’t have to trust the bitch in apartment 23; you can just take my word for it: Ritter makes this show, like virtually everything else in which she has appeared, well worth your time.
2014 Emmy Awards
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