The star of Jessica Jones is back with a vengeance
On the nubbled white plastic table in front of us, Krysten Ritter has placed four small glass bottles; they're dark brown, so the sun can't get in, and the labels are hard to read. Her fingers are long and delicate, they look to have the tensile sensitivity and deceptive strength of a butterfly's antenna. Today, they're tipped in chipped cherry red nail polish. I'd seen her have them painted just four days before, during the photo shoot for this story, and she registered my slight surprise at their wear.
"My nails from the shoot are so fucked up," she says. "But, well, I'm working, you know what I mean? I can't keep nail polish on no matter what."
Ritter is someone who uses her hands. In the moment, she is using them to take my wrist, extended out to her, and tap a few drops of unmarked frankincense oil onto my skin, telling me, "These oils are so strong that they start to take the labels off." She then puts some on her own, and we both instinctively do that age-old ritual of rubbing the inside of our forearms together, bringing them up to our noses and inhaling deeply. It's the scent of sun hitting a pine needle-covered forest floor, and it's the scent of a just-opened hymnal book, the kind kept stowed away in the back of a church's wooden pews. It smells… good.
"It smells good," I say.
She nods, "Everyone is always like, 'Oh, you smell so good.' I'm like, well, that's kind of my thing."
Everybody needs to have a thing. But Ritter's thing—besides smelling good, which is definitely her thing—is actually having a lot of things that are her thing. Here are some of them: knitting (the incredibly cozy-looking black beanie she's wearing when we meet is something she "made two nights ago because I was on set, and I was like, 'I need a better hat'"); writing (her first novel, Bonfire, came out last November); producing (we're chatting in the cavernous craft services room in the even more cavernous studio building where a pilot for a new series on Pop TV she's producing, The Demons of Dorian Gunn, is shooting); adoring—and being adored by—her naturally mohawked rescue dog, Mikey (during the photo shoot, he perched calmly on a nearby couch, but every time he heard Ritter's voice, his ears would perk straight up); and, of course, acting, the thing for which Ritter is probably best known, the thing which she and I are here to discuss.
This month, the second season of Jessica Jones comes back to Netflix, with Ritter playing the titular role. And although Ritter has built an impressive acting career over the last decade or so, prior to Jessica Jones, she was mostly known for her unforgettable portrayals of either minor characters on long-running shows (Jane on Breaking Bad) or major characters on short-lived shows (the instantly iconic Chloe on Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23). It wasn't until Jessica Jones that it all came together; Ritter was finally in a starring role in a wildly popular and critically acclaimed (it even won a Peabody Award) series, a role she was born to play.
But let's back up for a minute. There are some actors who could more fairly be described as "born to play" a part or be a star. There are some actors who grew up in the shadow of the Hollywood sign or walked through Times Square on their way to school in the morning. (To those actors, I say, sorry, because that is a… really unfortunate commute.) But this wasn't Ritter's experience. Rather, she grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania, was spotted by a model scout in a local mall, and eventually went from doing runway and editorial work to auditioning for film, theatre, and television, making everything happen for herself in a way that's more than a little remarkable when you consider how easy it is in this world for things not to happen for people, for opportunities to be missed, for parts to go unplayed.
"I'm a hustler... I'm not the kind of girl who sits and waits for my phone to ring."
"Well," Ritter says, "I'm a hustler, and I really sort of make my own way. I've been a self-generator for such a long time. I'm not the kind of girl who sits and waits for my phone to ring. I've been taking my career into my own hands since the beginning. Even on my first auditions, I'd be like, 'I'm here for this audition, but I want to pitch my own thing.' I'm crazy like that."
It's this crazy-like-a-fox aspect of Ritter that's a palpable throughline in the otherwise wildly disparate characters she plays. It's a vibrational intelligence operating on a cellular level, a unifying energy, and it carries into each role she inhabits. It doesn't matter, necessarily, if she's embodying a doomed heroin addict or a young single mother or a vaguely sociopathic party girl or a sexual assault-surviving private investigator who just so happens to be imbued with superpowers—all these characters have something specific to Ritter in them. They are all, to borrow an expression Ritter's Chloe used to describe herself in Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, "like a river in winter." There's a lot happening just beneath the surface. The characters she plays are never reductive, never simplistic archetypes; they're all more than a little bit dangerous in their own ways—get too close, and you could shatter their veneer, falling right into their ice-cold depths.
Ritter acknowledges this. She says, "I'm very scrappy and very hardworking, and definitely think outside the box, definitely left of center. That's who I am, and that's how I approach my life and my career. So those are the characters that I'm then drawn to. I've never played, like, the girlfriend. Ever. I wouldn't even. No one's going to give me that part because... I just don't fit that. No one will put me there. I wouldn't even know how to fucking do it."
But, of course, when Ritter says she wouldn't know how to play the girlfriend, what she really means is the cinematic version of a woman defined by whom she loves—not a girlfriend, but The Girlfriend. Because whereas in real life being a girlfriend can involve talking about, as Ritter does, taking care of your partner's headache with a carefully chosen selection of essential oils ("I'm like, 'What's the matter? Alright. Lay down. Here we go.' And then it's like, 'Oil.' Oil everything."), on film and on TV, The Girlfriend is usually not much more than a set decoration. The Girlfriend is the kind of woman who apologizes a lot, who doesn't want to take up too much space, who is uncomfortable in her own skin. This is not Ritter.
One of the things I notice from being around Ritter is how quick I am to make little excuses—for having gone in the wrong entrance of the studio building, for not wearing warm-enough clothes on the ice-cold day (Ritter points matter-of-factly to my exposed ankles and says, "You need leg warmers!"), for not phrasing a question exactly as I'd meant to. It's a reflex, a not uncommon one, particularly among women, to apologize and deflect attention, but it's not one of my favorite qualities, and the reason I notice that I'm doing it is because I notice that Ritter is not doing it. It's just a trait that Ritter doesn't possess.
Ritter has a certainty, in both the ways she moves her body through the world and the ways in which she presents her thoughts and her ambitions. Or, as Jessica Jones writer-showrunner-series creator Melissa Rosenberg says, "She only knows how to be authentic, both as an artist and a human being." And co-star Carrie-Anne Moss, who plays Jeri Hogarth on the series, concurs, "Krysten brings everything she has to this role and this show. Literally carrying it. She embodies Jessica with humanity and truth. She has incredible strength and deep vulnerability."
Ritter's combination of authenticity, strength, and poise is one of the most important qualities she brings to Jessica Jones. And it's this lack of self-consciousness, this inherent defiance to adhere to gender norms, a refusal to be merely nice, and acceptance that there is evil in this world, that make Jessica Jones the anti Wonder Woman, because Wonder Woman, as conceived circa now, performs gender in a completely expected way—to say nothing of the fact that she is a literal goddess, born to the role she plays. This is the opposite of Jessica Jones, whose refusal to adapt to any cultural norms is what makes her the—if not perfect—certainly most interesting superhero for our times.
Netflix's Jessica Jones premiered in November of 2015, one year before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and two years before the sexual assault allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein would incite not only an industry-wide reckoning in Hollywood but, also, a national conversation about the ubiquity and insidiousness of sexual assault and harassment in all spheres of our culture, as well as the importance and intricacies of consent.
In a way, it is tempting to say that Jessica Jones foresaw our current situation; the first season's central narrative, after all, is about how Jessica, a victim of sexual assault, grapples with not only the trauma of what she endured at the hands of her rapist, Kilgrave, but, also, the trauma of having to define herself as a victim—something the character most definitely does not want to do. And it's for these reasons that Jessica Jones, despite being imbued with superhuman strength and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, is an incredibly vulnerable protagonist, relatable for many women who have also experienced abusive relationships with ultra-entitled men who get off on gaslighting their partners.
Kilgrave is perhaps unique among fictional villains in how thoroughly he has adopted the language of patriarchal white supremacy, deflecting responsibility for his misdeeds by saying he is just part of a corrupt system; as New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum pointed out in a 2015 review of the show, "[Kilgrave] won't even take responsibility for the brainwashing, arguing that his supernatural powers are actually a burden." Kilgrave, then, is the kind of powerful white man who will destroy anyone to retain his power but wants his victims to feel sympathy for him and the heavy price he must pay to ruin their lives. (Sound like any president you know? Yeah, same.)
"It turned out the best people for the job ended up being all women. How cool will it be when, like, it's not a big deal?"
And yet, I'm wary of citing relatability as a way into understanding or being attracted to art. It feels like far too tenuous a connection to be sustainable as a means of appreciating a TV show or a movie or a book. But when I talk to Ritter about why she thinks so many people responded so strongly to the character of Jessica Jones, she points out that it's actually not about relatability. "I think that the reason why women have connected with Jessica—and I feel it on the streets and on a personal level, from women I meet—is that they felt represented. They felt like they finally saw a female character, a female form, that didn't look a certain way, that had some really messy, fucked up shit happen to her, but didn't let it define her," Ritter says. "Despite all this darkness and this heavy load that she's carrying, she still puts one foot in front of the other. And I think people can really get behind that, and it makes people feel so empowered."
These days, empowerment is a word that can feel like it automatically has air quotes around it. You see it a lot on t-shirts. It's used to refer to just about everything women do now, from participating in political marches to developing a 10-step skin-care routine. It's easy enough to be wary of its use, not wanting to dilute it further. And yet Jessica Jones is an actually empowering show for women due to reasons beyond its story line. It's led by Rosenberg; has a cast full of complicated, strong female leads, including Moss; and, as Ritter points out to me, "All 13 directors this year are women. All 13. That has never been done before. That has never been done before. How epic is that?"
Ritter explains to me that Rosenberg didn't want to make "a big deal out of it," and that the original idea when hiring directors was just to "make it equal." And Rosenberg agrees, saying, "It normalizes parity. It's not 'women behind the camera,' it's just talented artists and craftspeople behind the camera." But Moss points out, "Having women direct each episode woke me up to how unbalanced it was before." Ritter further explains, "As they were interviewing and hiring people, it turned out the best people for the job ended up being all women. Awesome. Rock and roll. How cool will it be when, like, it's not a big deal?"
Hearing Ritter talk about this makes me think of what empowerment really is, and how it's often used interchangeably with the idea of a stereotypically masculine type of strength or domination. And this is maybe why our common conception of empowerment often makes me uncomfortable—it implies that empowerment can only happen within pre-existing structures and systems. It's a problem I've long had with superhero narratives—particularly female superhero narratives, in which the woman is empowered thanks to embracing both sides of the traditionally male-female binary. She is powerful because she is strong and can fight (male), and she is saved because she can love (female). It's reductive to a fault, and alienating to anyone looking for more nuance in their heroes—or antiheroes.
Jessica Jones, though, provides that nuance. Yes, Jessica is strong; that is her literal superpower. But it doesn't empower her any more than her capacity to love—or be loved—saves her. Instead, Jessica is shown as someone who is working toward constantly bettering herself with the tools she has at her disposal; she seeks answers in the world around her; she is working on processing her pain, working through her fear, and learning all she can in an effort to understand why she is who she is, and how she can move on from there. There's something in Jessica's quest for knowledge that reminds me of Ritter, who is a true autodidact. Over the course of our conversation, she rattles off tons of facts about everything from the essential oils with which she's obsessed (she uses Living Libations, by the way) to the amp coil she loves ("it's a biofeedback, biotechnology machine; basically a sound bath for your body") to meditation, which, she explains to me, is something that can feel "daunting at first."
"But," she continues, "You stick with it... It's the same thing with starting anything new. In the beginning, you're like, 'Oh my god. What am I doing? I'm never gonna get there. I'm never gonna get there.' And then you just do it, magically."
"I think that the reason why women have connected with Jessica… is that they felt represented… She had some really messy, fucked up shit happen to her, but didn't let it define her."
Ritter's method of "getting there" is hardly magic, of course. There's a lot of work behind it. She tells me that she grew interested in holistic practices like meditation because, though she's practiced yoga since she was a teenager, with meditation, she says, "I've noticed a difference in maybe being less reactive, caring a slight bit less, which is good. Because I balance a lot of projects at the same time, [and] I'll stress myself out if something isn't perfect."
But Ritter approaches her practice in a deliberate, non-trend-based way. She says, "I looked up all of the scholarly articles about it, because that's what you have to do. If you want, like, real information, you have to look up scholarly articles, because you can read an article that supports any theory." She pauses and looks at me with that trademark deadpan gaze and says, "Any fucking theory."
Her personal dedication to putting in the work in order to get the results is also identifiable in Jessica Jones. Unlike in many empowerment narratives, there's no easy resolution in the series, there's not even necessarily an end game. And that's why the show has struck such a chord among women who are processing their own trauma. It doesn't hyperbolize emotions—the humanity is always present—and it presents an accessible way for many women to register and reflect on their own traumatic experiences.
"I've never played, like, the girlfriend. Ever… I wouldn't even know how to fucking do it."
The show's ability to help women is something that Ritter really appreciates. She says, "I met a therapist at a wedding recently, who told me that patients of hers have used Jessica as a reference point for feeling better. Can you imagine? Someone telling you that? I mean, it's almost overwhelming to me. To be able to have any contribution at all to women's lives or society in any way as an actress is really exciting. It feels like more than me just having a good part, where I get to be, like, funny and do drama and do action. It moves things forward."
And moving things forward is something Ritter is distinctly good at doing. There's quantifiable evidence of all the things she's moved forward: the novel she wrote, the pilot she's shooting, the hat she knitted, the meditation app now downloaded onto my phone, the frankincense oil from Living Libations that's now on its way to my apartment, because of how much I loved its resin-y scent, which lingered for hours and hours after Ritter dropped it on my wrist. (She jokes, "I'm like a commercial for Insight Timer and essential oils. What a loser. Never said I was cool.") And so while we don't know exactly where Ritter will be going next, what new project she'll be creating, what new practice she'll be learning, we do know that she'll be moving there under her own power, using her own strength and intelligence to get where she wants to go.
Oh, and she'll smell really good while on her way. ♢
PHOTOGRAPHER: KATE OWEN | @thekateowen
FILM DIRECTOR: SAM SHANNON | @hamforsam
CINEMATOGRAPHY: ARTHUR WOO | @arthurwoodotcom
GAFFER: ERIC BUJNOWSKI
SOUND DESIGN: SKS STUDIOS | @hamforsam
COLORIST: GENE CURLEY AT NICE SHOES | @niceshoesonline
EDITOR: SKS STUDIOS | @hamforsam
PHOTO ASSISTANT: ALLISON BROOKS | @thegirlonthebike_
MAKEUP: KIM WEBER | @kwmakeup
STYLIST: HALEY LOEWENTHAL | @haleygirl1
STYLIST ASSISTANT: SABRINA ABBAS | @sabrinaabbas_
HAIR: RHEANNE WHITE USING ORIBE/TRACEYMATTINGLY.COM | @rheannewhite
PRODUCER: MAURA GAUGHAN | @maurzattackz
SHOT BY: CHARLOTTE PRAGER AND DANI OKON | @charlotteCprager & @daniokon
EDITING: CHARLOTTE PRAGER, DANI OKON, MADELINE STEDMAN, AND DYLAN PAILER-FRIEDMAN
SOUND: DREW JOY | @drewjoysound
PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS: GRACE KENNEY AND JESSICA MANNARINO