In Netflix’s much-anticipated noir series, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Ritter plays the hard-drinking, trash-talking, no-bullshit private-eye protagonist. It’s a Marvel Cinematic Universe property, meaning Jessica technically occupies the same New York as Iron Man, Daredevil, and other costumed crusaders, but the show is quite light on superpowers—Jessica is very strong and can jump pretty high, and that’s about it. Nevertheless: This is Marvel. Ritter is a Marvel hero now. There’s no going back.
Luckily, she seems nowhere near a stage of Chris Evans–esque superhero regret. On the eve of Jessica Jones’s release, she sounded amped and eager, especially when it comes to the show’s unprecedented focus on female characters (though she cautioned against reading it strictly in terms of identity politics). We caught up with Ritter to talk about PTSD, David Tennant, and dressing as a giant hoagie.
How was the show pitched to you?
The first pitch from my manager was terrible. I got a call, you know, “Netflix wants to see you for this show, it’s Marvel, it’s a superhero show.” And I like to audition, so I was like, “Okay, I’ll go, but I’m never gonna get that.” My manager was like, “No, no—it’s not your typical superhero show. Your character’s really bad at it.” I was like, “Okay, uhh, what does that mean? Is it, like, slapstick? What is that?” So at first I didn’t know what to expect, but it didn’t sound very good.
It wasn’t until I got the super-secretive encrypted material that I realized, Oh, wow, this is really interesting! It’s really dark! The [audition scenes] were just with the Luke Cage character, but it wasn’t even Luke Cage on the pages, it was somebody I don’t know. Just really character-driven moments that weren’t full of exposition.
Wait, he wasn’t called “Luke Cage” in the excerpts they sent you? Sheesh, Marvel doesn’t screw around with the secrecy.
Yeah, they were using a code name. In true Marvel fashion!
Okay, sorry, back to the audition process.
So I went in and auditioned, got more information from the casting director, and then that went well, and I had a meeting with [showrunner] Melissa [Rosenberg] and [Marvel TV chief] Jeph [Loeb] and learned that she’s not in a superhero costume. This is a thriller first and superhero show second. And at the end of the meeting, they also said, “Oh, and she needs to be funny.” And that’s when I think they really got me. That’s when I got obsessed. At that point, I got cocky and was like, “Oh, she has to be funny? Come on, who else are you gonna get?” [Laughs.]
How hard is it to adjust to Marvel’s notoriously draconian information-lockdown policies?
It’s been very secretive. But the best thing I can do is trust that Marvel knows what they’re doing. I’m lucky to be on the roller coaster.
What’s a conversation with showrunner Melissa Rosenberg that particularly sticks out in your mind?
She never really talked about Jessica as gender first. She never wrote the character as gender first. It’s always character first, which I loved right away. She pointed out at one point, “You don’t hear anyone ever saying, ‘white male superhero.’ You just say ‘superhero.’ But for a girl, for some reason, it’s ‘female superhero.’“ That really resonated with me and how she approached the character, and the kind of integrity that she has. And she always talked about this show like a gritty drama. I think she’d compare it to Homeland before anything in the superhero genre, which was very exciting to me. The television I watch—I’m into psychological thrillers, I’m really into Damages and Bloodline and character-driven pieces, and that’s what this is. Oh, and also the fact that I happen to be a superhero and get to exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this global superbrand that puts out really high-quality content, is kind of like hitting the jackpot, you know what I mean?
The show, unlike most Marvel screen properties, almost exclusively uses practical effects. Virtually no CGI to be found. How hands-on were you with your superpowers?
A lot of it’s very hands-on. We have some special effects. You get to check off that box and get excited for me. I’m like, Ooh, fun! Do that to my face! But me? If I’m gonna punch somebody and they’re gonna go flying, that’s gonna happen on the day. And that’s real fun.
The first episode features you appearing to lift a car, and it’s a surprisingly quiet and subtle moment. What do you remember from shooting that scene?
That day was the coldest day in the history of New York City. I’ll never forget that day. Originally, the scene was supposed to play out a little differently, but we had to stage it and block the scene differently because it was so cold. I remember being so cold that tears were forming in the corners of my eyes and freezing there and making little sores. That was one of my favorite scenes when reading the pilot, because this is before her past comes back to haunt her, so this is is how Jessica Jones, sassy as fuck, gets what she wants. This is how she goes about her days. I loved seeing how she lives in the world before the incidents of our show.
Okay, but while your hand’s there and the car is rising, did it feel like you were lifting it?
That’s all acting, my friend. [Laughs.]
Your character only wears one costume: She dresses as a giant hoagie to sell sandwiches. Tell me about that experience.
I had a fitting and the costume designer was like, “Oh, we need to fit you for the sandwich costume,” and I actually thought she was fucking with me. I hadn’t seen that script yet. Any time you get to play or dress differently or look differently, as an actress, that’s incredibly exciting. I had a good time in that sandwich costume.
Jessica has PTSD, and there are some truly agonizing scenes of her trying to keep it under control. What did you do to prepare for those character beats?
I made a joke that most of my paycheck went to my acting teacher, but I think there’s truth to every joke. [Laughs.] I worked with my acting coach one-on-one for hours and hours, every single day for two months, before even setting foot on set or putting on Jessica Jones’s clothes. PTSD isn’t just a memory. It’s not like you can rely on, Oh, the camera’s gonna push in on you and the music’s gonna swell and you have a memory and the audience is along with you. PTSD is a very different thing. PTSD is when something feels like it is actually happening. You are back in that spot. For me, the heavy lifting came in building Jessica’s backstory, all the stuff that happened to her, her trauma, who she is before we even meet her onscreen. That kind of preparation? That’s hard-core.
You’re the envy of millions because you get to work alongside noted dreamboat and geek icon David Tennant, who plays the villain. What makes him unique, among all the actors you’ve worked with?
His incredible talent and range and ability to do what he does. I mean, he could do a five-page scene over and over and over again and change it up every time and make it a little different and nuanced and varied. He’s a pro, through and through. Always knows his lines. Always hits his marks. Besides shooting amazing scenes with him, he is so fun on set. When they tell David that they’re ready for him on set, he gets up and he runs, he actually runs to set. Just because he’s excited! Everybody likes him as a person.
Well, he has to be extra-nice on set, given that his character is a murderer and a serial rapist.
People were in awe of what he was doing. They were just like, “Holy shit, do you see what David was doing in that scene?” Everybody commented on it.
One of the more remarkable aspects of the show is its depiction of the intense bond between Jessica and her somewhat-estranged best friend Trish, played by Rachael Taylor. How did you and she build that dynamic?
We clicked immediately. That’s luck. We’re the same age, we’re into the same stuff, we have a lot of the same values, the same fashion tastes. We coordinate our outfits. We’re bros. We’re buddies. The [characters’] friendship, that’s all Melissa Rosenberg creating that complex, amazing friendship that both Rachael and I really responded to because we were so stoked that it was so honest and complicated and real. The characters aren’t talking about a guy or a wedding or bullshit. That’s one of my favorite things about the show, actually, is that female friendship.
I know this is a weird question, but do you see the show as feminist?
Sure! But I see the show as a remarkable show. Quality is quality, and when I watch it, I am incredibly proud of it. It’s groundbreaking in so many ways because of the female point of view, all of the women that we’re employing in front of the camera and behind the camera. The biggest compliment that I can get is when women are watching the show and they love it and they are coming at it not as fans of Marvel Comics. For me, I always thought that this show was special and great, but when you get that demographic, who typically might be like, Oh, I don’t wanna watch that because that’s not the stuff that I’m into, and they’re into it? Then I’m like, Fuck yeah, we did our job.