When Amy's (Krysten Ritter) parents head to Florida for a "vacation" without a return ticket, she is left to take care of her two younger siblings: Nat (Logan Huffman, V), her temperamental brother with a brain injury, and sister Lucy (Madeleine Martin, Californication), an artistic and troubled teen whose rebellious behavior quickly escalates into dangerous territory. Amy meets Sam, a drifter, at a bar (Brian Geraghty, Boardwalk Empire), and what is supposed to be a one-night stand becomes something else entirely: he ends up renting the siblings' living room. Sam's presence in the household emphasizes their parents' absence; looking at the siblings' lives through his newcomer perspective reveals just how precarious their relationships are with each other and with themselves.
Refuge is a somber drama, and yet, as Leonard Cohen sings, "There is a crack in everything -- that's how the light gets in." Though the cracks in each character are made depressingly clear, the film is ultimately a hopeful narrative about finding grace and refuge in our loved ones -- and how our connections with other people help anchor us to the world.
Women and Hollywood talked to Krysten Ritter about Refuge and her role as Amy, a refreshingly honest portrayal of how challenging it can be to take on the responsibility of caring for others while taking care of oneself. We also discuss her passion for unconventional representations of women, her heartbreaking final scene in Breaking Bad, and her future projects, which include starring in Tim Burton's upcoming Big Eyes alongside Amy Adams, whom Ritter compares to jazz.
I read that you loved the script for Refuge
so much that you immediately wanted to be a part of it. What was it that hooked you?
I loved that it was so simple: it was just about people. It's kind of rare that you have something so character-driven. This is just about people and their relationships with each other.
I was so drawn to it in terms of just focusing on the acting. Just the fact of [writer-director] Jessica [Goldberg's] writing -- I mean, she's a playwright: plays are inherently juicy things for actors to do.
Refuge is a low-budget, character-driven film. What did you like most about working on a project of this scale? Did it help you develop a convincing dynamic with your co-stars?
That's exactly right. What was happening off-screen was very similar [to what was happening onscreen]. We were all piled on top of each other. We were stuck in this house with nowhere to go and no privacy. We all shared a dressing room and it was messy. It was hard to find a place to sit and feel comfortable because there were no trailers or anything. I loved that.
It forces some quick bonding and camaraderie with your cast and the crew: you're all in it together. If you're doing a low-budget movie like that, it's not about anything except for the work because nobody's making a dollar.
There's something about having that budget limitation that makes things more creative, because you have to really make it work. Working within those confines is really exciting as an artist. It's also fast-paced: you jump in and it's dramatic. It's kind of my favorite thing to do. If I could, I would just do independent film after independent film with a tiny little budget like this, but I'd be penniless and starving.
You play a surrogate mom to your abandoned siblings in Refuge, and in L!fe Happens, which you co-wrote and co-produced, you portray a woman who becomes pregnant after having unprotected sex with a one-night stand. Why do you think you're drawn to these unconventional representations of motherhood?
Well, I'm drawn to unconventional representations of women period -- empowered and unconventional is always what I'm looking for, because I'm those two things in a way, [though] in different ways than those two characters, of course.
I have a seventeen-year-old sister, so I sort of raised her and took care of her when she was little. I was very involved, so I understand [what it's like] caring for a child. Also, with Amy specifically, she was a girl that I related to because I'm also from a very small town. It was an interesting characterization to play out because it was like, "What would have happened if I was still in my small town and what if my dreams had been taken away?"
Amy was a girl who had big dreams. She wanted to go to college and she wanted to travel and she couldn't. I was able to tap into that in myself and imagine what that would feel like. What I love about Amy is that she goes through it but she doesn't roll over and die. She finds joy in her situation. She decides to choose love instead of just wallowing in a dream. She makes a proactive choice.
Many people know you from ABC's Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, where you played Chloe, the titular "bitch." I'm wondering how you feel about the word "bitch"? Lots of women have re-claimed that word and almost wear the title with pride, as "bitch" is so often used to describe women who are assertive and outspoken.
Yeah, exactly. It's a double standard, right? When men act that way, they're considered awesome leaders. I've reclaimed it because I'm no wallflower, and I loved playing Chloe. A friend of mine told me that "bitch" stands for "Being In Total Control of Herself." I adopted that as my own while I was on my Don't Trust the B---- press whirlwind.
I believe in women having a voice, being empowered, speaking up, and having ideas. It'll change, I think. It's a slow process, [and it's] a shame. We're still fighting for equal opportunity. It's still a bit of a boys' club out there.
What do you consider the most challenging aspect of being a woman in Hollywood, and what's the most rewarding?
I'm sort of missing that part of my brain where I look at anything as a challenge. I always have. Even when I look back, I don't know how I've never been fearful or looked at things in that way. I'm proactive and I tackle. The most rewarding thing is having a job that you love. It's not a luxury that everyone in this world enjoys.
I heard that watching the scene where your character Jane dies in Breaking Bad made you so uncomfortable that you had a hysterical laughing fit. You even wrote an essay on Vulture about how difficult it was to shoot that scene and to watch it. Was shooting that scene the most uncomfortable thing you've ever done?
Yeah, I think so. I don't know if I had a hysterical laughing fit. I definitely had a bit of a panic attack and went through a full myriad of emotions. At first, I wasn't processing while it was happening. We all knew it was coming, and we were like, "Oh, it's going to be so sad," [but] I really didn't process that information until I was in a body cast and I couldn't get a full breath of air. It was like, "Oh, this is what it feels like [to be in a corset]."
I couldn't expand my chest, [and this was] while I had an amazing actor [Aaron Paul] on top of me pounding on my chest and crying -- sobbing. It was like, "Wow. If I were dead, people would hopefully, maybe be sad." It was very overwhelming. It's a weird thing to simulate a death.
What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?
I don't know, because I don't really know what the conception is currently. I've been bouncing around from comedy to drama and TV and film. I'm not sure anymore. To quote Chloe from Don't Trust the B----, "If I worried about what other people think I wouldn't have time to be my fabulous self."
Has that been a conscious decision, to do both drama and comedy?
100%. I like to do a little bit of everything and experience everything.
I have a production company now where I'm producing and developing with other writers. That's pretty rewarding. I also like to spend time on my own scripts. I have a lot of things to do and I have a lot of things to offer, so it's important to do it all.
I'm really glad that you mentioned your production company because I wanted to ask what made you want to get involved behind the scenes in this capacity?
Not unlike the stepping stones of my acting career, it's been a natural progression [Ritter transitioned into acting from modelling]. I wrote my first script when I was 25. I was going out for pilots all the time and I was like, "I could do this," so I wrote a pilot and I sold it. Then I started loving that and loving writing. I started producing as well, in a one-woman scrappy kind of way -- find a project and try to get them made. Then, as I started working more in television and people started understanding that side of me, I was getting more opportunities. So it was a natural progression to start a company. Our brand is very much about unconventional, empowered [women].
Are you also interested in directing?
Yes, 100%. [My plan is that] 2014 is the year I direct a film. I hope I can get it together; it's already the end of March now.
What are some of your favorite performances by women in film and television?
The first thing that comes to mind is Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise, and also Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise. Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist. Kate Winslet was amazing in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I also thought Natalie Portman was pretty fantastic in Garden State. Things like that -- those kind of quirky characters. Annette Bening in anything. Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Interiors.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
I'm in a Tim Burton movie later this year!
That's really exciting. It's Big Eyes, the divorce drama between an artist couple, with Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz?
Yeah. By the way, everything [Amy Adams] does is pretty spectacular. Watching her, being in a scene with her -- sometimes I would notice myself just watching her like an audience member and be like, "Wait a minute! I'm in a scene!" She's so colorful in her acting. She's like jazz: she's all over the place.
My whole life I've wanted to work with Tim Burton. I'm like the biggest super-fan ever. That experience exceeded all of my expectations because he was warm, awesome, encouraging, and he liked me. I would love to work with Tim Burton 90 more times. I would do only Tim Burton movies for the rest of my life and be very happy.
Laura Berger is an editorial assistant at Women and Hollywood and works at Ryerson University in Toronto. She has spoken at academic conferences across Canada and the United States about representations of gender in film and television. Her recent publications include pieces in Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion, Bitch Magazine, and PopMatters.