Film

Interview: Jason Ritter on Committing to the Intensity of Bitch

Out on home video and several streaming platforms today is one of the more talked-about films out of last year’s Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Marianna Palka’s Bitch. Palka stars as a wife and mother who snaps, assuming the psyche of a vicious dog as her philandering husband (Jason Ritter) attempts to keep the family together and understand what it was he did to cause this mental break in his long-suffering spouse.

Back in November, when the film got a limited release in several cities, I ran an interview with Palka and her co-star Jaime King, who plays her sister in the film, here. And today, I have a conversation with Ritter, who gives us easily the finest dramatic performance of a career that includes a great deal of comedy as well, including the current ABC series “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World” and the Comedy Central series “Another Period,” kicking off its third season on January 23.

Image courtesy of Dark Sky Films

In many ways, Ritter (son of the legendary comic actor John Ritter) is one of the acting titans of independent cinema today. He even has a new film getting its world premiere at Sundance this year, director Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, co-starring Laura Dern. He and Palka (who once dated) previously made her 2008 feature debut Good Dick, which also debuted at Sundance. And he happens to be one of the single nicest folks I’ve ever been lucky enough to interview. Bill, his character in Bitch, is a tough one to like but an easy one to discuss. Please enjoy.

My first thought seeing this film was that, in the last year, you’ve done the funniest shit you’ve ever done on “Another Period”—you just committed to full-time dumbass.  With this movie, it’s the best raw, emotional, dramatic acting I’ve ever seen you do, so: good year. I don’t have to ask how this came to you, but was there any hesitation to take this on? You’re going to be the object of derision by a lot of women in particular for a great deal of this film, redemption or not.

I really loved this script so much. I was a little bit nervous about it, just because there were all these unknown elements that on a page you read and go, “Okay, but what is acting like a dog going to look like? What are the kids going to be like?” Any time I read a script and there’s kids, it’s such an unknown element. We lucked out, and the casting department found these four incredible kids, but that made me super nervous.

But there’s something that felt so true to me and my life. I think generally, we all have blind spots, but the idea of that first sequence where they don’t know where she is yet, she’s just dropped out, and he’s trying to take all the kids to school, and he has no idea what to do, I think that more people in relationships can identify with that. They’ve delegated the job within the relationship, and if one of them goes missing, the other one is completely lost.

I was going to bring it up later, but that scene where you’re just punching the car and yelling every four-letter word in the book, that’s a phenomenal scene, but also that’s what’s going to make everyone hate you.

Yeah. I love that too. It’s satisfying to see a dick like that be revealed. He’s walking around the beginning of the movie with all the confidence in the world. I think it’s this thing of, being an entitled person means that there’s a part of you that really believes that you deserve everything that you’re receiving. So to all of a sudden be left with only what you have and realize that it’s not very much, I think it’s satisfying to watch that and go, “I thought I was indispensable at my job, or that I showed all my coworkers the picture of my four kids on my desk and said, ‘See look at that, I basically have done some stuff there.’” To all of a sudden have to admit to himself that he hasn’t been doing anything. He’s been coasting, and she’s picked up the slack, but he hasn’t even really noticed that she’s done it. He’s just accepted it.

I was there at the premiere, the midnight show, and the crowd was so into it, and they were crying at the end. I wasn’t expecting that. And I realized that this is really his journey. As much as the plot summary is about what happens to her, you have a complete arc. Your character is the one who must go from asking “Why is she doing this to me?” to “What have I done to turn her into this?”

Yes, exactly. It’s exactly that. He’s the center of his own universe. The kids, the wife, they’re orbiting, and he gets to know his kids more and their needs and step into that role in a more real way. There are a lot of people who, if that isn’t broken for you, you can go through almost your whole life behaving like that. I feel like it’s a journey from his self obsession. “She’s not having a nervous breakdown; she’s doing this to me.” It’s all about “How does this affect me?” Then he starts to see his kids and how it affects them, and what he had done to her and he feels guilty for leaning on her so hard. He had no idea that she would break. He thought this is what you do.

That was one of the things I held on to when talking to Marianna about the characters. A lot of it was removed from the movie, but it helped in terms of thinking about the character, which is that he didn’t come from a healthy family background. He doesn’t know what that looks like, so he’s trying to create from the outside what he thinks a family should be. “I have my wife, we have four kids, I have a job, make sure you look nice,” that kind of outward-in thing to make sure you’re presentable to the world. But he has no sense of the inner workings of that, and not a lot of patience for troubles. He barely hears that she is asking for a break. He just can’t even hear that. He’s like, “No. Where would that leave me? Your job is to take care of the kids.”

And to that point, that whole idea of him being very surface-level about everything and only worrying about how you present yourself and presenting a certain image to the world makes that scene in the dog park at the end so important. Who would be that bold, to both bring her there at all, and then do what you do. That’s why people were crying.

Yeah, exactly. He cares so much about how he is perceived. In real life, we had a bunch of people at the park and a lot of people with their dogs, and some of the owners of their dogs having not a lot of idea what the movie is about. They were like, “What is this guy doing?” So I also felt like I had to overcome that as a human being as well. “I’m not embarrassed.”

It made me think “This must be what acting class is like. Become an animal.” But the whole movie is like this. You all just commit to an idea, and at first it sound ridiculous, but you just go at it so hard and never let up, and eventually it wins us over. Are you the kind of actor that, when you get a role like this and it’s something you were scared of, does that motivate you to a certain degree to try it? “Because this is scaring me, so now I must do it?”

For sure. Actually, when I was in middle school, I created a little rule for myself, and I haven’t always been able to follow it, but basically if something scared me, I forced myself to really examine the source of the fear. And if I wasn’t going to be in physical danger, if there wasn’t like an actual try-to-stay-alive-type of instinct, if the fear was coming from “I could be embarrassed” or “someone won’t like me,” I would force myself to do it or try it anyway.

It was this freeing thing, because there was this period of time where I tried to be a cool person, but it seemed to me that in order to do that you had to have a third of the energy that I had, and you had to be very hard to impress and not care about a lot of things. It felt like I was trying to do that, and at a certain point, it felt like “I’m just going to do this thing that is so scary because I might not be cool, but also I don’t really care about that and I’d rather do something to the fullest.” It’s the same thing with scripts. If something scares me, I will try to examine why exactly I’m scared. Sometimes I’m scared for a good reason, but then there are times where I’m like “The only reason I’m scared of this script is because it’s really wild.” When you go for something like this, you set yourself up to fall even further. Instead of going “This is about a boy and girl who fall in love”—you’ve seen this movie a million times.

You might have been in it a few times.

[laughs] I certainly have. So yeah, it’s scary, especially a character that is not a pleasant person for a large chunk of a movie. There was something about the script that I couldn’t put down in my head. I just kept thinking about it. Even though it’s such a strange story, there was something that I connected with and understood, and when Mariana would do readings with people, it would stick with them. When you’ve been treated in a certain way and taken for granted, there’s something satisfying in seeing someone who’s been in that position just going, “I’m removing myself completely. You’re going to treat me like this? I’m going to actually be this.” It’s a break from control, but at the same time, I expect her to be this domesticated thing that doesn’t have humanity; her humanity goes so far out the door.

That’s what I’ve been trying to explain to people who haven’t seen it. You describe it to them, and they think she becomes the family dog. I’m like, “No, she’s like a wild animal.” People actually love their family dogs; that’s not what she becomes.

Yeah, you see that when Jaime goes down in the basement, and she’s her sister, and she’s saying all the things that could and should help her come out of it, if she was still in there saying, “We’ll go away. I see you. Let’s do everything.” She’s being very comforting and hasn’t done anything to hurt Jill, so when Jill attacks Beth and the kids too, it’s a moment where you go, “Oh shit. She’s gone.”

After you finished making this, did it stick with you? I want to know what happens in the next year of their lives. It feels right, but there’s a long, rough road ahead of them.

It’s interesting, because it ends in this moment. I always believe that a lot of times, our interpretations of movies have so much to do with our own things. So in any even semi-ambiguous moment, we all put our own things in there. So when I see that final scene, I think he’s terrified, because now she’s back. He’s almost come to understand how to deal with her in this way, but he hadn’t yet gotten to know the real her. It’s a whole other journey if she’s back. If she’s human, where do they go from there? They have a lot of work to do.

I think what they both realize is that, for better or worse, he does deep down have unconditional love for Jill, and that’s something that you can’t really control. You can think you have it, and something happens and you’re like “I actually thought I knew you.” Things like that can break. You can also have a feeling for someone, and they can treat you horribly or something horribly can go wrong, and you go, “I still love you.” It is a thing that’s impossible to control, and I think Bill realizes that he has that for her, and that she’s important to him and to the kids, but who knows? It’s certainly not “And they lived happily ever after.”

To that point, if the movie had ended without her coming back, it would have been just as satisfying to me. It’s about you transforming more than her, and you’re in the right place. You’re the better person now. It’s great that it ends the way it does, because it’s a little bit of a relief, but it would have been just as satisfying and just as interesting the other way.

It’s interesting too, because I first saw it at that midnight screening, and when I remember shooting that scene, it actually ends with her… she wakes up, I wake up, and she says, “Hi.” She says something. And she cut that out. So when I saw it, I was like, “Is she back?” She smiles, and the feral quality is gone. So that’s what I assumed, but part of me was like, why did they cut “Hi?” Are we supposed to not be sure?

Was it sometimes scary being next to her like that, at her most primal, while you were shooting?

It was bizarre.

I’ve never seen anybody do that.

Me either. The closest that I’ve ever seen to that is, I’ve seen actors who have gone into some kind of zone or crazy place, but they’re in a corner, then they come out and do the scene, then they retreat, then they go home. What was really crazy was to have her get into the makeup, be in the robe, with her hair like that and covered in filth directing and giving notes and then take the robe off, go down there, and not be the Marianna that I recognize. It was strange, but it was exciting to see.

I would imagine that when she lashes out at you and tries to bite you, that maybe she wouldn’t tell you exactly when that was going to happen so your reaction was a little more real.

Yeah. Especially when I’m trying to put water on her at the end. I didn’t know how many times… I knew she was eventually going to attack me, but I was supposed to keep on trying to bathe her until I can’t anymore.

So what’s going on with “Another Period”?

I’m actually going back on Monday. I literally land and go straight to that house, and we start season three. Every season, we think it’s done. We can’t even believe that it got picked up in the first place. We shot three different pilots of it. We were like, “We think this is so funny, but it’s hard sell” a period, broad comedy. Because some of the jokes are like, it’s not exactly high-brow humor.

Mostly not, I’d say. I love it.

That makes me so happy. Thanks so much.

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