“Marvel’s Jessica Jones” makes its much-anticipated Netflix debut on Nov. 20, and as Variety critic Mo Ryan notes in her review, the series is “not just a contender for the title of Best Marvel-related TV Property; in a supremely crowded TV scene, it is one of the year’s most distinctive new dramas.” That assessment is thanks, in large part, to Krysten Ritter’s performance as the show’s titular heroine, a prickly, damaged and deeply conflicted private eye who nonetheless manages to radiate wit and charisma, even when she’s at her most antagonistic. The series is based on writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos’ “Alias” comic book series, with Melissa Rosenberg serving as showrunner.
Variety spoke to Ritter about her approach to the super-powered detective, her place in Netflix’s corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (alongside Mike Colter’s Luke Cage and Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock/Daredevil) and why Jessica Jones is “the best part that I had ever seen.”
To me, Jessica is one of the most nuanced, complicated characters, female or male, we’ve ever seen leading a show – what excited you most about taking this role?
It’s kind of exactly what you just said. She’s such an original, sort of obscure, misfit character in the Marvel universe and I love how grounded the show is and how deeply complex and developed she is. I feel like it’s such a rare opportunity to get a role like this. It’s a part that you find in some weird, dark, obscure independent movie that nobody will ever see, and fact that I get that opportunity on a Netflix platform, with the Marvel logo… it’s completely insane. When I first read the script — I read the first few before I got the part — I walked out of there and felt like they were the best scripts I had read and the best part that I had ever seen, available to me or not. A tough female character like this doesn’t come around every day.
She’s also a deeply scarred character, emotionally – does that headspace feel oppressive at the end of the day, or do you find it easy to leave her on set?
A little bit of both. This was some heavy lifting for me. I’m in 99 percent of the scenes so there wasn’t a lot of down-time, so I kind of just had to stay in that mindset, and go home, and go to sleep, and come back. If I had an opportunity to shake it off, whether it was with Carrie-Anne [Moss] or Rachael [Taylor] on set, and enjoy myself, that was welcome. But it’s the kind of work as an actress that I’d always wished to do. So for me, it was very creatively rewarding to just roll up my sleeves and sink in.
It sounded like a fairly long audition process — what was that experience like for you, considering, as you said, these kinds of roles for women don’t come along very often, so I’d imagine you were pursuing it pretty aggressively?
Big time. When I first heard about the show, my manager called and said “Netflix” — I’d really wished to be on a Netflix show because I love the content that they’re putting out and I think their shows are really top quality, and those are the shows that I watch. I love “House of Cards,” I love “Bloodline,” I love “Orange is the New Black,” so I had written on my refrigerator that I was looking for “groundbreaking television on Netflix.” That’s what I wanted to do, so when my manager called like, “Okay, so Netflix wants to see you for this superhero show,” and I like to audition so I was like, “Great! I’m never going to get that, but I’m happy just to go.” My mind never went to the place where “Jessica Jones” lives. I just assumed “superhero — that’s not what I look like, I’ll never get that.” They were parsing out information, [all] secretive, as Marvel is, and I started reading scenes and I was like, “This is really cool. Is this real? Is this really this dark and this dramatic and this character-driven?”
And then I met with Melissa Rosenberg and Jeph Loeb, and at the end of the meeting we’re just going through all the things that she is and everything they’re saying, I’m just lighting up more and more, and then at the end of the meeting, they just said, “And she needs to be funny.” I was like, “What? Now you’re talking.” I was like, “Come on. Who else are you going find that could do this?” Then I started screen testing with Mike [Colter] and I was very vocal about how badly I wanted the part. I just loved how it was an opportunity for me to do drama, and comedy, and action sequences, but the real thing that really got me was when they said they needed someone that could be funny. I’m like, “Come on.” So I just worked my ass off. I wanted to prove to them and bring a work ethic to it that I didn’t think anybody else in the whole world would ever bring. So everyday was like, “Okay,” proving that they choose the right girl.
It’s such a great part. It’s everything I’ve always wished to do, like great scenes with a scene partner; walking around and looking cool in New York; shooting in New York; wearing a bad-ass leather jacket, comfortable clothes, it was like everything.
It’s still so rare to have a well-developed female lead, especially where you’re not in a skimpy outfit. She’s not overly sexualized…
At all! She’s not. Yeah, I love that. I love she’s never using her figure, her sexuality to get what she wants, which you may see in typical P.I. tropes. All of that. She’s such an original. I’ve never seen anything like it. When we were doing the show, before I got to see anything, I was always bugging Melissa and one of our other head writers, Scott Reynolds, like, “Tell me about the show. What’s it like? What would you compare it to?” they’re like, “Nothing. It’s like nothing on television,” and I thought that was total bulls— because it sounds like a weird thing to say, but then when I saw it, I was like, “Holy s—. There’s nothing like it on television.” It’s a real thrill.
You’re playing the first female Marvel superhero to lead her own show or movie – does that create additional pressure, or do you just see it as an opportunity?
Yeah, I just see it as opportunity and it’s so exciting. I feel really lucky that everything lined up for me to play her. You know, they’ve been developing this show for a long time. It’s so exciting. I love that I’m not in a superhero costume. It’s great, character-driven television besides being part of the Marvel world. I’m really proud of it and it’s just thrilling.
Did the scripts give you a pretty good grasp on who she was right off the bat, or did you look to the comics or have discussions with Melissa or Jeph in terms of figuring out who she was, and what you wanted to bring to her?
Yeah, the scripts were really strong. Melissa’s such a fantastic writer and also the comic books are really great source material so there was a lot there for me to work with. And then, in terms of what I wanted to bring, the real heavy-lifting came with building the backstory because Jessica Jones is so informed by her past, the trauma that’s happened to her and those events, so it was really about building that backstory and creating the life before you actually meet her on screen. So that was where I spent most of my work to before I even stepped foot on set, hours and hours every day with my acting teacher breaking all that down and that was the real fun part.
On the other hand, she’s also part of this larger plan for the “Defenders” crossover, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole – have they clued you in on how it’s all supposed to fit together?
I have no idea. They don’t really tell me much, but I really looking forward to the Defenders because it will be Mike, and I, and Charlie and I don’t who’s playing the other guy yet, but that’ll be fun. “Daredevil’s” a great show, I feel like “Jessica Jones” is a great show and I feel like they really are tapping into something. It’s also nice to know what you’re going to be doing — as an actress, that’s rare. [Laughs.] So yeah, I kind of won the lottery in terms of parts because it’s so rare to have a show, even more rare to have two shows that’re picked up on Netflix and it’s a great part that I love. It’s all good.
Right, she seems like the kind of character who has so much depth and so much to unravel that you know there’s plenty of room to explore her over many years.
Well, that’s the thing when you’re signing on to a show, hopefully, potentially it could go for a long time and the last show I signed on to, “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23,” was just so exciting for me and set the bar creatively really high because I knew I could play that character for a long time. So when Jessica Jones came along, I feel so inspired by her and she challenges me and it’s great pair of boots to step into, so I would play her until I was 70 if they’d let me — they’ll have no interest in that, but… [Laughs.]
Are you the kind of actor who wants to know as much as possible going into a role, or did you want to take it script by script?
I think backstory is really important to know because I’m all about prep work. I like to do all of my work right away, as soon as I get it. I’m incapable of procrastinating on anything, so I like to do all of the work. That way, I can walk on set and be confident in my choices so I think it’s okay getting scripts as you go because I don’t know what’s going to happen next, Jessica Jones doesn’t know what’s going to happen the next day, but in terms of backstory and all of those things, I like to know everything I can and get as much information as I can beforehand.
Was her backstory something that you and Melissa talked about and collaborated on? Did you have a strong idea after doing the prep work?
Yeah, Mel was great — we have a great open dialogue and we communicate really well. We always are talking about the character’s backstory. She wouldn’t really tell me where it was going, but anything that I needed, she was totally available. I could text her at three in the morning if I’m on set doing a night shoot and I know she’s going to get back to me. And we also had an amazing director establish the show in episodes 1 and 2 — S. J. Clarkson, and she’s the kind of director that’s very rare. She should be doing every giant movie that there is and she was helping with the character so much. I don’t know if the show would be what it was or if my performance would be what it was without her. So I had a great team around me to support me and answer any questions that I had.
Does it make a tangible difference to you, having a female showrunner or female writers and directors on a project?
Yeah. I’m a girl’s girl. If we’re at a lunch table, I’m going to always sit with the girls. That’s just kind of how I am. I always gravitate towards women. I know how to communicate with women. Yeah, for sure, but I think that suits the show, it suits me and yeah, that’s kind of how I work. And especially because I like to be really honest, and communicative, and free, and vulnerable, and all of the things that sometimes come along with playing a role like this, and sometimes with dudes it’s a little harder to be that raw, I feel.
One of the most striking aspects of the show to me is that I’ve never seen a show tackle rape culture and issues of consent with this kind of nuance and honesty, and all without feeling the need to show a physical rape scene. It never feels gratuitous and it never feels like pushing an agenda, but it’s depressing how subversive that still is on TV these days. But it’s also so thrilling to watch you guys nailing the realities of being a woman, and to present that perspective unapologetically, while at the same time illustrating just how universal those struggles are. Did it feel that subversive to you while reading it?
Everything that you’re saying, I almost feel overwhelmed just hearing you say that, because that’s how I felt when I read the scripts and I felt like this was such a huge thing, beyond just, “Oh, Krysten, that’s a great part.” I felt like it was really important; I feel like it’s a show that’s so meaty and matters. I was also talking to somebody about the lack of f—ing rad roles for women, and this is one of the only parts that I’ve seen where I don’t have to get naked … there is the history of assault, yes, but we don’t depict it. It’s not literally on your screen. We’re dealing with the aftermath and the emotional struggles and how that affects her, but it’s rare. I don’t really enjoy doing things like that — I don’t like sex scenes. I don’t like stuff like that and a lot of times, it’s cool rad character, “oh, but you have to get naked,” or “oh, but you’re going to do this terrible sex scene that makes you really uncomfortable” or a rape scene. And the only part that I really think of in the past, I don’t know, six years, that was an amazing female [lead] role that didn’t have to do all of those things is “Zero Dark Thirty,” and now Jessica Jones, and that’s a huge thing to say, but that’s how I feel.
You must’ve seen a lot of scripts over the course of your career – how often do you see these kinds of roles for women, who are allowed to be broken and unlikable and selfish just as much as witty and strong?
Melissa obviously has such a singular vision for this character.
She’s amazing and I’m so lucky to have her writing the show and my relationship with her. I look up to her and I just think she’s so wildly talented, and I’m incredibly proud of how she ran the show. Her attention to detail is up there with Vince Gilligan and I think that she’s a rare, rare talent. And her work ethic… I mean, we joke that all we’re doing is eating, sleeping, and breathing “Jessica Jones” and it’s very true, and I think that helped me keep going, because the schedule was really difficult for me and I knew if I needed her, she was there. I knew that she was working just as hard as I was, and when you’re doing a show like this, that’s the best feeling — when everyone’s just in it to make something great, and I feel like she was.
“Marvel’s Jessica Jones” debuts on Netflix on Nov. 20.