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ABC dramas Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter have both featured characters and plotlines pulled from wildly successful movie franchises. Netflix’s Daredevil at least had brand recognition courtesy of a poorly received Ben Affleck movie.
With Jessica Jones, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg is building a series around a character who only debuted in 2001, a former superhero turned private investigator. The character, sarcastic, self-lacerating and powerful, is played by Krysten Ritter, an actress who, while familiar from many beloved TV shows including Breaking Bad and Veronica Mars, has never carried a show this big before.
This is Rosenberg’s second shot at Jessica Jones after the ABC pilot incarnation failed to make it to series.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Rosenberg (Dexter, Twilight) about the evolution of Jessica Jones and the challenges of casting its leading lady, as well as David Tennant as the season’s chief antagonist.
How does the Netflix series differ from the version that you were eyeing at ABC a few years back?
When I was doing the network version of it I was able to stay closer to the original comic book plot. The universe, the mythology of the universe in the book, is that people with powers are fairly integrated into society and there’s a lot of prejudice against them. There’s the metaphor of The Other, which was a fun story to tell, but by the time we got up to Netflix, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a slightly different mythology so I really had to move away from that storytelling. There wasn’t a lot of plot I could take with me from the book, but I certainly used as much as humanly possible because I was just such a huge fan of the book.
Was it going to be a slightly lighter show on ABC?
That was probably one of the reasons that it didn’t end up on ABC. (Laughs.) Because the book itself, the source material is dark, that’s what attracted me to her. From the very start with it, I was like, “I want to do this tone. I want to stay true to this tone and then go even further with it if I can.” There was a lot of support for that but I think ultimately it just wasn’t a great match for the network, but it was for Netflix. Jeph Loeb, who’s the head of Marvel Television, secretly ran around and put together this incredible deal for the Netflix Marvel Universe.
From your point of view, how do you feel about the different levels of control that you get to have over the storytelling under those two circumstances?
It may surprise you but I had free rein. Part of it’s because Jessica Jones is a lesser-known character, so there wasn’t the same kind of expectations that came with it, like Daredevil, which has a very, very long history.There was a lot of freedom to really explore her storytelling and they understood as much as anyone else what the original material was. It was Marvel’s first adult comic book that they’d ever put out. They went into it eyes wide open and completely embraced it, as did Netflix. … That surprised me just that Marvel honestly really just supported my vision and contributed to it, really.
What were the conversations that you had to have regarding how this fits into this whole four-series deal and then The Defenders package deal that this was always developed as?
It feels like they’re following the storytelling as opposed to imposing the storytelling on the storytellers. There’s been no conversations about The Defenders. I think I’d read one script of Daredevil before I started the writing room up. There’s just no crossover at all.
Jeph Loeb kept us honest because he was the keeper of the universe, in a way, and said, “Well, you’re treading on territory that Daredevil‘s going down,” or, “That’s kind of breaking some of the rules of the universe.” Cheo [Hodari Coker], who’s the showrunner of Luke Cage, I don’t think he saw anything of my series before he started. It’s been really purposeful on their part to let the showrunners and show creators create.
Is there a chessboard aspect to what you could or couldn’t do, as you say, with Luke Cage? Because you’re introducing him but then he has to go off and do his own thing. Was there a place where you had to start him, and then a place where you had to end him and then you had free play between those two points?
Nothing had been predetermined. We were determining it as we went along. Jeph Loeb said, “Well, you know, he does kind of have his own series so the origin story is the stuff of his series.” There’s so much that you can’t know. At first I freaked out. I thought, “I can’t tell anything with him,” but it ended up being quite perfect because it just leaves more of a mystery for that relationship. The series is called Jessica Jones. It’s not called Luke Cage. Actually, it ended up bringing us back much closer to focus. Luke’s story is important in how it branches off Jessica’s and how that connection is made. Then he goes off into his own storytelling.
There were a lot of high-profile names that were associated with the casting on Jessica, but there’s this dark, sarcastic bite to the character that seems so specific to Krysten. Did the character shift once she began reading the dialogue?
No, because we were looking for exactly that, and Krysten Ritter, if you’ve seen her comedic work before, she’s exactly that. That’s why she was always very high on our list and of course when she came in very early in the process set the bar incredibly high and no one else came close. Particularly on that one count of delivering incredibly dry.
When you were auditioning people, was that the part that was most difficult to find and match up with Jessica?
That was. That was always going to be the toughest thing. As they say, death is easy, comedy is hard.
When it comes to Jessica, how much ambiguity do you want there to be about her exact powers? After seven episodes do I know everything she can do or not even close?
We’re really treating them as very matter of fact, you know? She’s very unapologetically who she is. Her power, her sexuality, her damage, she just goes through life who she is. The powers are a part of her personality but they’re not what the story is about. The goal was to land them in a very realistic way. There will always be a little bit of, for her, “Can I do this? I don’t even know, but f— I’m going to try.” Always pushing those boundaries.
How do those specific skills steer the action of the show? Because Daredevil obviously had this very intimate hand-to-hand, visceral kind of action and Jessica can’t do that because if she starts doing that to people she punches them across the street. How did you shape the action around who Jessica is?
Daredevil, first of all, the actor has a mask so you can put a stunt double in pretty easily. His character back story is that he’s trained for decades to hone his skills and Jessica has never trained. She’s a brawler and if she punches, you go down. She never embraced being a hero. Whereas Daredevil wants to protect the city, she just wants to protect her apartment, and save her business and be able to buy whiskey that night.
One of the things I enjoyed most here was the noir-y-ness of it and how Jessica is inhabiting what has very traditionally been a very male space. How conscious were you of twisting the gender expectations at every turn?
I’m a pretty out and proud feminist, so that’s always very forefront in my consciousness, but really the focus in writing her and breaking story with the other writers, the focus was just on doing a fascinating character. She’s not defined by her gender, she is simply a character. When you’re writing a white male, you don’t approach it as, “Well, what would this white male do?” You just approach it as a character, and I find so many times when people are writing either a female character or a person of color, the character gets limited to that one aspect of who they are and I think that’s part of why we see so few of them on our screens.
I was just wondering because there were different points where I was thinking, “Okay, she’s kind of being the Humphrey Bogart character here,” or something to that effect, and that wasn’t an approach you were taking. The “we know what this kind of genre hero looks like, here’s how it looks and how it feels if it’s a woman” thing. Writing it as a character, but saying “Here’s an archetype, here’s how it’s different.”
Jake Gittes is sort of the archetype and Kilgrave is her Chinatown. That’s how we all referenced that film and certainly we referenced it visually. That was one of our original models for the pacing and framing of it. There weren’t a lot of female characters to model her on, so you just sort of look at the noir and stay true to that genre but build off her character, you know?
What was your approach to the specific kind of threat that that character, who’s a very specific kind of power, the threat you wanted him to convey?
She’s super strong. She’s got superpowers. She’s fairly invulnerable, but his powers are terrifying to her. He defeated her. She’s afraid, he makes her afraid, which is not something that she has felt a great deal of in her life. It undoes her and she’s been carrying that around ever since.
David Tennant has this great voice, of course, and that’s mostly what his performance is, at least for the first few episodes. How conscious of his voice were you from the very beginning and wanting to work with that?
I’d just seen his range and I knew that he would bring that to every moment, whether it would be just his voice or otherwise. The reeling out of his story, it was very important for us to really experience him from Jessica’s point of view. It’s the fallout, the impact of what he’s done that introduces him before the character himself is introduced. You know who he is, at least from her perspective, right from the start.
How did you want to handle weaving him through the individual episodes? Because there’s a semi-procedural aspect to it but then you’ve got Kilgrave in the background at all times pulling the strings as well.
Kilgrave’s definitely the through line of the entire season. There is procedural element somewhat, but again the series is really about her character. It’s not about the case of the week. Kilgrave is so wrapped up in who she is and one of the events that has shaped who she is so much has to do with Kilgrave, so the procedural is really the backdrop for the storytelling.
The entire first season of Jessica Jones premieres on Friday on Netflix.
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