I thought some guy with a film reel top hat would be like, 'You kids can’t be doing this!' and we would scatter into the night.
One of the scariest things in the world is, arguably, watching firsthand a relatively sane person gradually descend into complete madness. Irrevocable trauma, unremitting stress, childhood abuse, addiction of all kinds—mental health is a fragile thing. Where does your last straw live?
In Marianna Palka’s Bitch, housewife Jill (Palka) is crumbling under the pinpricks of everyday life. In the film’s opening, she’s at the end of her rope—a common belt. She steps off the dining room table and the light fixture pulls out at the weight of her body. A failed hanging. It’s not her time.
Also disturbing is our introduction to Jill’s philandering husband Bill (Jason Ritter), who’s too busy going down on a colleague at work to notice that his wife is coming apart at the seams at home. Jill has had enough and, naturally, assumes the psyche of a ravenous dog, stripping naked and holing up in the basement. She snarls, barks, and wallows in her own feces. After Jill “checks out,” the narrative readjusts to focus on Bill’s clueless attempts at parenting his long-neglected four children and reconnecting with his sister-in-law (Jaime King). The tenets of domesticity in the household falling away to chaos, Ritter’s frantic running around and barely fulfilling the parental obligations casually assigned to Jill informs the film’s most hilarious and ultimately heartfelt moments.
Anthem reached out to Ritter during the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea to discuss playing a bastard in Bitch, Meryl Streep, and Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.
This year’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival ran July 13 – 23.
There was a full house at the Bitch screening I went to at BIFAN. What do you make of festivals? Is it typically a nerve-racking experience or do you get used to it over time?
It’s a little bit of both! A lot of the time, you’re right there, you know? There’s this sense of immediacy that’s different from when something goes out into the world. It’s more concentrated and it feels a bit more intense. People at festivals are lovers of film who really go the extra distance. It’s not your average, “Let me look on my app and see what movies are playing around me.” Their opinions mean more in a way because they’ve seen more movies and they’re interested in seeing different types of movies that challenge them. So it’s only nerve-racking to me because I find myself caring more what people think at festivals than normal.
It’s good that “bitch” has direct translation in Korean as both an expletive and a female dog. I was talking to a filmmaker who had a film called Assholes at the festival and that word doesn’t have double meaning here. People literally went to go watch a movie called Anuses.
[Laughs] That is so funny. Well, we lucked out with Bitch!
Bill makes quite an entrance in this film. He’s so self-absorbed that you wonder how he’ll ever redeem himself. In many ways, Bill is the antithesis of who you played in About Alex, the embodiment of fragility. You seem so sweet natured—it must be fun to play a bastard.
It is! Especially when there’s some kind of journey there. It would be another thing if Bill was a jerk the whole time. The thing with Bill is too much entitlement: “I make money and, therefore, I can do whatever I want. I have the money, I have the control. I can cheat. My wife will stay in her place. My mistress won’t mess with me.” He’s playing this chess game. That’s why it’s so satisfying to see it all taken away from him. He thinks he’s in control. He thinks he doesn’t need anybody. He has no idea how much he had been relying on someone else. And I really believe that we’re all capable of everything. Given different circumstances, parents, friends, places to grow up in—we’re not so different from the next person who acts in a completely different way. Maybe there’s something innate in us, too, but… For instance, there’s certainly a very selfish part of me, but I squeeze that down as much as I can. [Laughs] So it is fun to let the super selfish and childish part of me out that, had I let grow and flourish into adulthood, I would probably be like Bill.
Bill’s arc is really well drawn. Without spoiling anything, it was so neat how Marianna decided to bring Bill and Jill back together at the park. I believe you read this script a few years before shooting. Did the earlier draft stay more or less the same?
The core of it was there when I first read it. Marianna and I made this movie years ago called Good Dick and when she wrote the script for Bitch, I was always like, “I love this script so much. This has to be your next film.” Even though there were quite a few differences, there was something at the core of it that really hit me. What’s so great about her writing is that she goes to these super strange places. I don’t personally know a woman who started acting like a dog one day. But when we would get a group together to read over the script and get notes, both men and women would be like, “I know what that feels like!” There’s just something true in it. Interestingly enough, that scene at the park you’re talking about wasn’t originally there. That was a reshoot. The producers, Josh Waller and Daniel Noah, and Marianna decided to go get the camera again, go to the park, and shoot it. Kudos to the three of them for realizing that. Exactly what you said: Because Bill is so unapologetically irredeemable, we need to see him lose everything and basically beg for his marriage back. Now I can’t imagine not having that scene. It’s such an essential part of it.
The score, the kids running amok, your slapstick humor—the energy gets wild in places and the film invites that. Did it feel chaotic on set? The young actors were so great, by the way.
That was actually one of the things that I was most nervous about. You never know with child actors. You don’t know if they’re going to feel real. Have their moms and dads run lines with them? Have they memorized the lines exactly like they’re intended? I do feel like they found these four incredible kids in the casting. I have to say this was one of the more surreal sets that I’ve been on. There was a lot of time spent with Marianna getting into her full-body, filth make-up. She would direct with these sunglasses on and her hair would be all crazy like in the movie. She’s the kind of actor who can be setting up a shot, then throw off the robe and fully get into it as a dog. Then she stands up and she’s out of it again. I remember one of the first scenes we did was where I bring her back home. That was one of the first times I saw her as the dog. I’ve known Marianna since 1999. I’ve known her for so long and it felt like a different energy. It was weird. It’s like when people enter a house and the first sense they get is, “Oh, no one’s here…” Then they find their loved one lying there. This is a horrible analogy. My point is, there’s this hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling where the internal energy is different. It wasn’t, “Oh, that’s Marianna acting like a dog.” It really gave me the creeps. [Laughs] And it helped me in the story.
You reminded me of the time my mom was looking at homes and she told me about this one property that creeped her out. She told me that this eerie feeling came over her as soon as she walked into the kitchen. The realtor later told her that someone had been murdered there.
Woah! See, I feel like because we’ve become so logical, we ignore some of those instinctual feelings. It’s similar to how deer behave when there’s danger. We so often go, “I’m just being crazy,” but those instincts are real. This is again off-topic, but a police officer was telling me that one of the things about survivors of attacks is that they all had a sense before it happened. They ignored it or didn’t have enough time to react. If you have that, make a scene. Scream out. Do something. The worst thing that could happen is that you might look crazy, and you will look crazy. We so often think, “This guy is creeping me out. But I want to be polite.”
I had no idea that Marianna wrote and directed Bitch when I watched it. I just assumed she was the star. I actually prefer watching a film this way because there’s inevitably extra baggage put onto a person like, “Oh is this some kind of vanity project?” I’m surprised you haven’t written and directed anything yet. Is that something you’re interested in doing?
I have thought about it. There are a couple ideas that are sort of stuck in my head. I’ll keep thinking of a scene and think it’s so great, but I haven’t put it all in order yet. My biggest problem with writing is discipline. I’ll sit down and get antsy. I honestly think what I need is—I’ve talked to a couple friends about this—a partner where we can bounce ideas off each other. Because I also tend to spiral off into outer space, it’s helpful to have people be like, “The original plan was…” But what if we introduced aliens halfway through!! “No, Jason.” So it is something that I’ve thought about. Also, I was hugely inspired when Marianna and I made Good Dick. None of our friends had written or directed anything before. It felt scary and exciting, but I also thought “We’re never going to finish it.” I thought some guy with a film reel top hat would be like, “You kids can’t be doing this!” and we would scatter into the night. [Laughs] Marianna is the kind of person to say, “Don’t wait for someone to give you the role or the story you want to tell.” She’s always gone to the beat of her own drum: “There aren’t roles for women that I’m enjoying or auditioning for. I’ll write a couple good ones.” She has this optimism and work ethic that I really appreciate.
If your director is covered in filth and crawling on all fours, is it easier to go that extra distance? Does it make you braver in your acting choices? Maybe this question is too obvious.
No no, it’s not! That’s actually a huge part of it. First of all, it was kind of nice that this woman who’s covered in feces stands up and becomes the leader. [Laughs] Every ten minutes, she’s running the charge. Exactly what you said, there was an element of, “Look how far she’s going. Look how dedicated and committed she is.” And she has that anyway, even when she’s not covered in feces. She cares so much that it makes you go, “I have an opportunity to try to be my best self and really go for it.” Not that you ever phone it in, but there are times when you give the extra push and that makes people go, “I better step it up.” That’s one of the most exciting things. When you get into a scene with another actor and you see them operating on another level.
I remember reading the scene where Bill is on the phone and he suddenly collapses. He’s lying there for a second. That was so strange and so fun. It’s a weird challenge because, what is that? What happens? Why? Marianna did that with Good Dick, too, where she started my character off with him spying on her. It’s like, “You’re making it really hard for me. I have to navigate this challenge where I don’t turn the audience off completely, or I turn the audience off but then try to get them back, or at least leave enough room so the audience can enjoy the ride of watching this asshole suffer.” [Laughs] So she creates these writing challenges that make for interesting acting challenges. Then she goes all the way and there’s no excuse for you to half-commit.
Is it true that Bitch was inspired by a real-life case study?
The true story is fascinating. When Marianna heard this story, she couldn’t get it out of her head. R.D. Laing is a real Scottish doctor who had a very interesting approach to mental illness. He would go to his patients and try to get an understanding of their world, as opposed to prescribing medicine. I can’t remember if the husband was dead or if there was a divorce, but he was out of the picture. This story is about this woman and her kids. She raised her kids and got them out of the house. After sending her final kid off to college, she sat down at the table, leaned over her food, and ate it with her mouth. She stopped wearing clothes. She started howling at the moon. She started pissing and shitting all over the house. She became wild. The interesting thing is that she was conscious throughout. It’s like how an obsessive compulsive person will know, “I don’t have to touch that this many times, but I’ll feel better if I do. It will bother me if I don’t.” What really fascinated Marianna about it was that, one day, this woman stood up, took a shower, cleaned the whole house, and went back to normal. It’s like it was something that she needed to go through. She was starved for freedom, away from the “You can count on me and rely on me” mother.
I was told that you’re filming right now. Are you working on the TV show?
Yeah, I’m in Atlanta right now. Today’s the official first day of the second episode.
It’s called Kevin (Probably) Saves the World. How exciting!
It is exciting!
When did you shoot the pilot? Was there a big gap in-between?
There was a pretty big gap. We shot it in March/April. Then there was this long waiting period. We got back a couple weeks ago and we had to reshoot some of the pilot for a whole bunch of reasons. Now that we’re done with all that, we’re onto the second episode.
Similar to Bill, Kevin sounds like another character who has a sort of reawakening.
We meet him at one of the lowest points he’s ever been. He just attempted suicide and got out of the hospital. He moved in with his sister for a little while to lick his wounds and heal. I imagine that Kevin’s life used to be like Bill’s. He had a nice job. He had a girlfriend. He had money. He had a similar understanding of himself: this self-made guy who always put himself first. In the pilot, he’s starting to realize that he wasn’t really there for his sister and his niece in the way he probably should’ve been. He’s simultaneously accepting their help and understanding he hadn’t really done anything to deserve it in the past. He’s now feeling like everything that made him feel important or worthy—money and a girlfriend and a powerful job—has been taken away from him.
This woman appears to say, “You’re the chosen one,” and how he has to basically save humanity. Understandably, Kevin thinks there’s been some sort of cosmic mistake. [Laughs] Papers got filed wrong! This is an accounting error! This guy is starting to believe there’s more to all of this than what he once thought made him important and worthwhile. What I love about it is that it’s about connection and helping people out—not isolating yourself and becoming the most powerful person. Kevin doesn’t really feel like he should be the one to do this. He doesn’t feel particularly special. He’s always been sort of scrapping around to survive. It’s a really fun show and I’m excited to do it. The writing is so great. It’s part-mystery, surreal and there’s humor throughout, which is nice.
Could you walk me through your morning? What are your morning rituals on shoot days?
These days are really nice because we have split days where we start during the day, have a later call and go into the night. It depends on the day because some days you’re just up at five in the morning to get there by six to start shooting. On those days, I don’t really have that much time for a ritual. I just get in the car and then have coffee and just go do that. The rituals happen the night before. I got home pretty late last night, so this morning, I could wake up, look over the script to see what we’re doing today, which I did a little bit of last night, have a cup of coffee… I woke up a little later today because I’ve had such a crazy week and I haven’t had a full night’s sleep. Sometimes I’ll go for a little run. One of the things that’s bad for me is, I can get too in my head when I’m reading scenes. It’s sometimes nice to get out and be in actual, direct sunlight.
Is there anything that you found particularly challenging as an actor early on in your career that you feared might never go away, but eventually did over time?
You know what? One of the initial things that really terrified me was the thought of getting a job where you’re working with an incredible, established actor who has been around forever. It’s one thing to be in acting class with people your age and your same level of experience, which is zero. The nightmare scenario is that you go to your first rehearsal and they go, “What’s this guy doing? This isn’t a real actor. Get this guy out of here!!” It’s like, “Ohh! Sorry! I tricked you in the audition…” [Laughs] I guess that’s the thing that eventually broke down. It’s the way we put certain actors on this God-like pedestal, like they descended from Mount Olympus. For the most part, there are some people like that, but it’s not because they’re more talented. It’s because they’re jerks. So that was one of the things that I was nervous about, and there’s still an element of that. One of my really close friends, Simon [Helberg], just worked with Meryl Streep. I can’t imagine what that’s like. He said she’s the loveliest human being in the whole world. So that’s been one of the nice things: dismantling this wall you put up in your brain to protect yourself. It’s like, “No, you’re fine.” For the most part, people are nice. And if they’re not nice, it’s not a reflection of you.
I’m really looking forward to this buddy film starring Jason Ritter and Meryl Streep.
[Laughs] That’s what I’m going to write!
How can she possibly deny you? You wrote it for her.
Yeah, I’m sure that would go over very well: “I wrote this with you in mind, Meryl.” Let me write this script with the greatest actor of all time in mind.