The first time Krysten Ritter went to Japan, she lived in Tokyo for three months as a teen model, crowded into an apartment with a group of gangly girls trying to break into the international fashion circuit. When she went back this November, she returned as a superhero. Ritter was in Japan to promote her new Netflix series, Jessica Jones, a dark, noir thriller featuring the first Marvel superheroine in a title role. All 13 episodes debut today (Refinery29 is already binging), and as the series' star, Ritter has been flying around the world nonstop for a month to promote it. Today, she's in New York. “We did Comic Con here, and we are going to Brazil next, and Tokyo was crazy,” she says, slumped into a green velvet banquette inside the Rose Bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel. “I cannot believe I lived there when I was a child. I kept thinking, Oh my god, how did I do it? It feels like I have come a really long way.” Ritter has come a long way from being discovered in the Wyoming Valley Mall near her hometown of Shickshinny, PA, at 15 years old. Now 33, she has become one of the most versatile actresses working in television. She can go light (see her as the acid-tongued party girl grifter Chloe in two seasons of the ABC sitcom Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23) and dark (see her as the tragic, doomed junkie Jane Margolis, whose death was heartwrenching on Breaking Bad), and back again. She looks like a glamorous Wednesday Addams (all alabaster skin and thick black hair) but on-screen, she sounds like a young Dorothy Parker. Ritter has mastered the art of tossing off a witty barb; cutting quips sound effortless and devastating coming out of her mouth. Her ability to marry her comedic instincts with dramatic chops has meant that she has never stopped working since she cantilevered from modeling to acting in 2001. She has popped up on Gilmore Girls, Gossip Girl (and an ill-fated spin-off), Veronica Mars, and Gravity. She's also appeared in movies like Confessions of a Shopaholic, What Happens in Vegas, and Big Eyes. And yet, despite the fact that she never wanted for screen time, Ritter says she's had trouble finding a meaty, psychologically intense role that really spoke to all that she has wanted to give as an actress. Then, she read Jessica Jones.
“It took 10 years, but when I read that part, I knew — this is the one,” she says. We are talking the morning of the Jessica Jones premiere in New York, and though she tells me she is exhausted, Ritter looks casually glamorous in an off-duty Hollywood way: light-wash, high-waisted denim, black bodysuit, black blazer, hair just messy enough. “I had these goals written on my refrigerator, and I was not shy about them. I said, 'I want to do a prestigious Netflix or HBO show. I want to play an iconic character, I wanted to be part of a sprawling saga.' So when my agent called with this part, I was like, my fridge notes are working! But I never thought I would get it. I thought, they’ll meet with me for it, and maybe one day in the future use me for something else.” The “they” she refers to are executive producer Jeph Loeb, who has overseen all of Netflix’s Marvel projects (Daredevil and soon, the multi-character epic The Defenders, in which Ritter will also appear as Jones); and showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, a former head writer on Dexter who also wrote all of the Twilight adaptations for the screen. Rosenberg started developing Jessica Jones with ABC back in 2010. She wanted to create a new kind of female superhero who was allowed to be as flawed and mentally murky as Tony Soprano, and was thrilled to find Jessica Jones in the pages of the Alias comic series. Jones, as Rosenberg wrote her, is not a traditional superhero by any means: She rejects her powers after a traumatic, abusive event (it would be a spoiler to reveal it, but suffice it to say, the show may be the first Marvel series to openly address rape and violence against women), and goes on to start a detective agency instead. As a private eye, she is devoted to tracking down her former abuser (David Tennant) and trying to stop him from hurting other women, but she stumbles with her powers and her own demons along the way. She’s not always kind, she’s not always doing the right thing. She’s very sardonic and has a dirty mouth. All of these elements together required the kind of actress who could pivot quickly from superstrength to vulnerability — and it’s why, Ritter says, she knew she had to play Jones from the moment she heard about her.
“I am not usually a comic-book type of person,” she says. “I had a preconceived idea of what I thought a show like this was going to be, and I was dead wrong.” After her initial meeting with Loeb and Rosenberg, Ritter read the script in a locked room — no phones allowed. “They were that secretive about it,” she says. “I tried to retain as much as I could. And I remember walking out that day and saying, 'I have to play her.' This was one of the best parts I’d ever read for a woman, available to me or not. If I get 10 scripts, nine of them will be buddy comedies where the role for the woman sucks. When my acting teacher, who I’ve been with for 10 years and who is a huge feminist, learned I was up for this, she screamed. She said, ‘Baby, I have been waiting decades to see something like this!’” Rosenberg said that Ritter had been on her shortlist of actresses to play Jones since the beginning. “She is a very subtle actor, she can say a lot with very little,” Rosenberg says. “Krysten was the dream player. We could write anything, she would deliver. After she auditioned, she set the bar so high that no one else ever came close.”
In order to put herself into the mind-set of her damaged-but-badass alter ego, Ritter started to “eat and breathe Jessica” for an entire year. She worked with her acting coach several hours a day to flesh out Jones’ harrowing backstory (“I joke that my Netflix paycheck should go to my coach,” she says), and she began working for 90 minutes a day with a trainer in preparation for the grueling stunt work that comes with shooting action scenes. “When I started training — I worked with one of Madonna’s trainers called Marlene; she’s amazing — I couldn’t even do three pushups. By the end, I could do 60. I got guns. It was the kind of intense training where you throw up and keep going, but I became kind of addicted to it once I started seeing results.” On set, Ritter says it took her a while to fully embody the hard-hitting spirit of her character. “In the beginning, I would have to hit people, and I would break the scene to say, ‘Oh no! I hit you! I’m so sorry — are you okay?’ But by the end, I was really punching the stuntmen with all my might.”
Now that the show is finally out in the world, the significance of being in one of the first female-led superhero dramas is finally dawning on Ritter. She says that it is especially thrilling to be playing a woman who isn’t perfect, but who gets to struggle in multiple dimensions. “She is flawed but she is a survivor,” she says. “And she has all these females on screen who support her. The friendship between Jessica and the character Rachael Taylor plays is one of the most dynamic female relationships I’ve ever seen. And working with Carrie Anne Moss — she’s such a rad, powerful woman, and I’ve developed a bond with her that I only have with my closest girlfriends." Like Ritter, Rosenberg emphasizes that Jessica Jones’ complexity is what makes the show a feminist triumph, along with the fact that there are enough twists and turns and nail-biting action sequences to appeal to viewers of any gender. “If someone doesn’t want to watch this show just because it has a female lead, that’s called misogyny,” Rosenberg says. “Defining Jessica Jones as a women's show because there are actual roles for women in it is, to me, a reflection of the narrowness of Hollywood today.” Ritter says that for her part, she hopes to one day to wage her own battle against Hollywood’s narrowness, as a woman behind the camera as well as in front of it. “I always thought maybe one day I wanted to direct, but now I know it,” she says, curling her feet up under her on the velvet seat. “I was on set for 140 days, in every single scene. That’s unheard of for an actress, and it was like film school. By the end, I knew every lens we were using, all of the camera angles. I know that soon, I’m going to be the one. I’ve never been the kind of actress who only cared about my own lines and how my hair looked. I’m always paying attention to every aspect of what is happening on set. And I’m starting to realize, that makes me a director, I just didn’t know it yet.” Turns out Ritter — just like Jessica Jones — might have untapped superpowers, after all.