When many of his contemporaries have turned bed-hopping with their co-stars into a veritable sport, actor Jason Ritter, 28, proves a fresh-faced anomaly. Not only is he unabashedly secure in his nine-year relationship with fellow thespian Marianna Palka, but he is confident enough to take orders from her, as they star opposite each other in a dark romantic comedy she wrote and directed, “Good Dick,” in theaters Friday.
“Never once did she take a line that I recommended, but she always changed it to something better and accommodated me as an actor,” says Ritter of the script, which Palka penned specifically for them and the two then helped coproduce. “It was a really romantic [experience].”
That’s not to say the couple were simply acting as themselves. The film has Ritter and Palka as unnamed singletons in an unglamorous contemporary Los Angeles. Ritter is a video store clerk who falls for a severely depressed customer (Palka), who turns up every afternoon to rent a selection of porn. He becomes so taken with her, he doggedly pursues her despite her forceful rebuffs and the two become entwined in a dysfunctional (and sexless) relationship.
“We all grow up watching these Disney movies that show being in love as the most beautiful thing…and a lot of times we find ourselves in a position where we’re in love or — even scarier — someone’s in love with us and it’s mutual and we go, ‘Oh my god, wait. I’m not ready to ride off into the sunset yet,’” Ritter says. “People see it as a death almost.”
Fortunately, Ritter and Palka’s real-life courtship played out rather differently. The two met while studying at the Atlantic Theater Company. They did a short film together (directed by Palka’s roommate) and hit it off — though she did more of the pursuing as Ritter had, at the time, written off dating.
“I really wanted companionship and I couldn’t find it. There would be a lot of times when someone would be like, ‘Gosh you would be such a great husband, anyway, bye!’” he recalls without bitterness or self-pity. “I had completely given up and said, I’m gonna do the things that make me happy and complete.”
The son of the late John Ritter, who passed away suddenly in 2003, and actress Nancy Morgan, he had initially wanted to be a child actor. (“Fred Savage was my hero — I even had a signed headshot of him on my wall.”) His parents passed on the “child” part of the equation, telling the young Ritter he needed to learn the craft and study if he really wanted to enter the business. And so, after high school, with his parents’ support, he attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he earned a drama degree.
Since then, Ritter has collected a string of unorthodox but critically praised parts, including a paraplegic on the TV series “Joan of Arcadia,” a jilted doctor on the sitcom “The Class” and a closeted gay man opposite Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Happy Endings.” He has a small role in Oliver Stone’s upcoming “W,” playing a young Jeb Bush in a flashback scene, and will star in “The Education of Charlie Banks” as a sociopathic high school bully.
It may all seem a bit of a leap from the edgier indie “Good Dick,” but as Ritter paints it, they all constitute his ongoing fascination with unconventional male characters.
“There seems to be one definition of masculine abilities, and it never includes steadfastness or internal strength. You never see any movie about men who are married from the point when they were 20 until they died — that’s never a heroic struggle you see,” he says. “It’s always the complicated guy who’s been a sex maniac his whole life, finally settling down and realizing in his twilight years that love is the true answer.”