Jessica Jones is a failed superhero and frequently morally-compromised private investigator with a penchant for drinking, dangerous situations and cutting one-liners, whose antisocial tendencies are spurred by a dark, traumatic secret from her past. And she’s powerful enough to punch people through walls.
As Krysten Ritter quickly realized upon reading the show’s pilot script, what actress wouldn’t want a chance to bring this character to life?
Indeed, the character, created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos as the central heroine of the adult-skewing Marvel Max comic “Alias,” seemed almost tailor-made to showcase the talents of Ritter, who’s resume includes both an impressive ability for darkly dramatic turns and cutting edge screwball comedy.
When Marvel Television tapped the character to headline the second of its several TV series streaming via Netflix, the call went around Hollywood trying to find the right actress with the blend of edginess, vulnerability and signature snark to life. And while Ritter admits she’s never envisioned herself playing a comic book hero, her management team did. And even if they didn’t quite sell her on the notion of why she was practically born to play Jessica Jones in their pitch to her, she tells CBR News she quickly came around to the idea in a very, very big way. “I just felt like this was the role that I’d been waiting for and wishing for my whole life,” she said. “My whole career.”
CBR News: Was there anything about Jessica’s character that you immediately responded to?
Krysten Ritter: I think what I was looking for, obviously, and found here — I just wanted to do something that the character was really strong but never sort of sexualized and in high heels or using her sexuality to get what she wants. I’m always looking for proper themes with another actor. A lot of times, in television, things are so exposition heavy, and this wasn’t. The thing that sort of popped out to me was how character-driven this piece is. This is the kind of material that I feel like you only find in, maybe, tiny independent films, in terms of the vulnerability and the character-driven themes and moments. There’s so much time and room for the character to come alive and really breathe, and that’s a really rare thing to find in any medium, let alone a giant Netflix and Marvel project.
I loved how it was an opportunity for me to do everything, to be vulnerable, really delve in and build a backstory. Most of the heavy lifting for me came in terms of really building what happens to her, who she is before we even meet her on screen. So that was four or five hours a day, every day, with my acting teacher, just building this and getting to do the kind of work that you dream of doing.
I love that she’s walking down the street, looking like a badass. I love how strong she is, in her person, and also physically. I love that she is funny and sassy. When I met with Marvel and heard all about it and, at that point, read everything, they also had this emphasis on her being funny. I was like, “Guys, come on! Just give me the fucking part already!”
For me, it was all about the commitment, because I wanted the part so badly. I knew it was a huge property for Netflix and for Marvel. It was a big financial investment, because the show’s picked up and it’s part of “The Defenders.” I just wanted to prove to them every day that they picked the right girl. With me, they were getting a work ethic that they would find nowhere else. I wanted it so badly, that I just worked my ass off.
Tell me about playing those sharper edges, because Jessica isn’t a traditional hero. She’s flinty, and she makes herself not easy to like right away.
Right. That’s all there in “Alias,” in the script, and they build that in her backstory. Her edge and her irreverence and her sense of humor — it’s all a cover for someone who’s deeply damaged. I love that she doesn’t wilt away. She’s still standing tall, as hard as it is for her to do that every day.
We’re in this great moment in time where there’s been a desire for people to see female superheroes as lead characters. What does it means to you, to have this opportunity at this juncture.
I mean, it’s a thrill! I felt, when I got the part, beyond it being just like a huge role for me, in my world and my career, I felt like it was really potentially ground-breaking material. I felt like Jessica Jones, there’s so much potential there for her to be a really iconic figure.
You’re right, there’s not a lot of female superheroes, but there’s certainly none like her. It sort of takes the idea and just, like — it almost stops that conversation. Marvel doesn’t have any other female superheroes in the title role, and this is taking that and just going so much further. I don’t wear a costume. She is rough around the edges. She has very real issues. So getting to do this really grounded, rooted, character-driven piece, and also be a superhero, it just like ticks off so many boxes.
We do get a glimpse of the costume. Were you relieved you didn’t have to pull off that more traditional superhero look?
Actually, when I first met with Marvel and Melissa [Rosenberg, the showrunner], she was never going to be in a costume, and she was never going to be seen, like, flying over the city with her arms spread out. It was never going to be like that, and I don’t know that I would be the girl to do all of that. I don’t think that’s what I’m best at, or I would even know how to do it.
But what I love about Jessica Jones is, she has her feet on the ground. I just play her like a real person who also happens to have these super powers. At least, that’s almost secondary in my work and in my building of her.
Tell me about creating that look that she has, that very New York street style — like her version of armor, in a way.
That’s exactly what it is. I rely very heavily on wardrobe when I’m building a character, so I was very involved with that look, how I wanted her to look and how I needed to feel in order to inhabit her and have that physicality. For her, the clothes live on the floor, and you can say that — the costume guy will make something that like “lives on the floor,” but these clothes really do live on the floor. I barely change my outfit. She doesn’t have any money, and I just wanted that to feel really authentic. Not just in terms of the way she looks, but the way it made me feel in playing her.
The show doesn’t rely on the spandex or cleavage, but she’s still sexy. Tell me about playing that aspect, and finding your chemistry with Mike Colter’s Luke Cage.
I think if Jessica Jones is sexy, it’s only because of her attitude. It’s certainly not coming from the clothes or how I play her in any way. In fact, I was always looking for the opposite. I didn’t want to wear anything that showed my figure too much. Jessica Jones doesn’t want to be looked at by the world, so she dresses — she covers herself, and she’s got like a posture that is very protective. It’s really androgynous. She’s not trying to get any attention. She’s never in any tight clothes. She’s never in any bold colors. She wears a lot of grays and blacks, a lot of black, and dark blues, things that can kind of blend in and not really stick out. I think she sticks out and she’s sexy because of her attitude.
The chemistry with Mike is lightning in a bottle. We just got lucky. You never know how that could go. And that relationship originally in the comic book is one of my favorite things about “Alias.” I loved how unique their relationship was. At the end of the series, she’s pregnant, and how they handled it, I felt, like was so fucking cool. It’s like a relationship we haven’t seen before. She’s like, basically, “I’m pregnant.” And he’s like, “All right. You want to do this? We’re adults. All right. Fine, let’s do it.” There’s no sentimentality there. They just are sort of soul mates in a way.
Mike and I have been through this whole process together from the beginning. It’s a rare thing as an actress: you get to act, and you’re really on your journey on your own. It’s not like you’re in a rock band, and you have all these people to share it with. It’s just you. And for the fact that Mike and I started auditioning together and doing “Jessica Jones” and. He’s now doing “Luke Cage.” We’re doing “The Defenders” together. It’s an amazing thing that I think I’ve taken for granted in the past, how this has always been lacking. But I feel like I’m in a rock band now, where I have that person who’s going through the same exact thing, has the same experience. It’s a really special thing. We have a special bond outside of playing the characters, which I think translates.
What is it like working with Marvel? Their projects come with such anticipation, and also a high degree of secrecy during production.
Everything is very secretive. I kind of had to figure out pretty quickly, the best thing I can do for myself is trust that Marvel knows what they’re doing. From the beginning, Jeph Loeb told me that they would get the best writers, the best cast, the best editing, the best music, the best DP, best directors, writers, everything. And he really delivered. Like, they really delivered on that. They really did surround me with the most amazing supporting cast.
The final product — I knew the show was good when we were making it, but when I saw it, I was like, “Holy shit!” They sprinkled the fairy dust on it, and they just really know what they’re doing. The best thing I can do is just like buckle up and enjoy the ride, and trust that they know what they’re doing. Sometimes, when I can’t get my hand on a script — this security system is beyond frustrating. I just have to sort of take a deep breath and say, “Okay. This is how it goes, so just go with it.”
As you’ve mentioned, we know we’re going to see Jessica Jones again with “The Defenders.” What has you excited about doing a street-level version of “The Avengers” for television?
It’s just amazing. The mean, the movie model is exactly what we’re doing. We’re all getting our own character-specific shows that are all very different, tonally. I’m really excited to see what they’re going to do with “Luke Cage” and “Iron Fist.” I imagine when we all come together, we’re going to have a great fucking time, because there’s going to be four of us. These shows, we work crazy, crazy hours. I had two days off. My schedule was just bananas. I imagine if there’s four of us, it will be like a party. The work will be spread out, so I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to having future work. It’s nice having that extra component built-in. I kind of hit the lottery.
In the comics, Jessica Jones has become a central figure in the Marvel Universe. Similarly, you could now turn up in any Marvel movie or other TV show. Does that prospect excite you?
I think that would be amazing in so many ways. When you’re signing on to a series, it’s a big commitment. You have to choose something that you’re going to love and continue to be challenged by and excited by. That doesn’t come around all that often, and when I read “Jessica Jones,” I just fell in love with this character, and I love playing her. I would play her until I was 80. Any chance that I can like throw on her leather jacket and play this character, I would be thrilled. Like I said, I’d play Jessica Jones until I was 80.
Her world isn’t the sunniest place, so what did you do to shake it off after shooting?
Well, I feel like I’m sort of back to feeling like myself now. It’s a hard job, and now, getting to talk about the show in a different way and experience it in a different way — I’m traveling around the world promoting it — I feel like myself again. But I definitely just kind of got into that headspace and stayed there. I was on set probably between 15 and 18 hours every single day because there wasn’t a lot of time to shake it off. It was exhausting.
Sometimes, when I didn’t have lines — which was never — but there were scenes where maybe someone else does most of the talking, I felt like I was working harder because just, like, listening and staying in that head space of the darkness and trauma and keeping it alive, for them in the hours a day can be pretty draining on you. But the fact that it’s being so well-received — I’m very proud of the show — is even more gratifying because of that. All of that hard work and dedication, getting some positive feedback goes a long way.
Was it liberating, not to have to learn Black Widow or Captain America-style complex fight choreography and just be a brawler who has some power to her punch?
Yeah, and it was just about finding — it comes from character. It goes to me like building the character and doing all the prep work, because it’s about finding that thing inside her that fuels her fighting style. I had to learn how to throw a punch. I had to learn how to box and do stuff that I’ve never done in my life, which is a lot of fun. But I never thought of it as any other way. I never thought, oh, I’m now learning martial arts. I knew what I was learning, and I had a good time with it. It was just about putting that fire in every movement.
I got really good at throwing a punch. I have a great right hook. I can do a lot of push-ups. I’ve got into seriously sick shape to do this part. When we wrapped, I stopped working out immediately because I needed a break. But it was really empowering for me to just get into the kind of physical condition I had never been in before.
What was it like working with Melissa Rosenberg to get the show’s gritty feel with a female perspective?
I love Melissa. I don’t think she has a bigger fan. I just think the world of her. She writes Jessica never as gender first. It’s just all about great character. When you’re talking about a character like this, it’s always a “female” this, a female character, a female superhero, female private eye. But you never really attach that to male characters, and that’s not how she writes. She writes for her as a great, flawed character.
She also has this kind of integrity in writing her that I don’t think we find anywhere else. She’s never going to have me doing the traditional P.I. honey pot thing where you put on a tight skirt and high heels and go seduce somebody to get what you want. She’s not about that. She hates the word “bitch,” so it’s not said in our show. She’s the fucking real deal, and she’s a fantastic writer. The pilot script that I read for this is hands-down the best pilot script that I ever read in my whole career.
Did you get to share any time with the creators of the comic, Brian Michael Bendis or Michael Gaydos?
I haven’t met them yet, but I’m dying to. I’m so thrilled to hear how excited they were about the show and how much they loved it, because I think we heard [Brian’s] feedback towards the end, Episode 11 — we heard he loved it. It’s like this real relief, this real shot in the arm, like, “Oh, yeah!” Because that’s the test. I mean, that’s the bar, right there. If the guys who created this character that’s so loved, and he feels like we nailed it and did it justice, it’s so thrilling.
I’m obsessed with the show. It’s rare that you do something that turns out so well. And I’m so thrilled to have been a part of it and have this opportunity. And I hope people like it.
“Marvel’s Jessica Jones” arrives November 20 on Netflix.