When John Ritter died suddenly two years ago, his son Jason was shooting the doomed TV series Joan of Arcadia and a movie with Hilary Duff. Since then he’s graduated from teen melodrama to a role as a closeted youngster in Happy Endings, as well as several forthcoming indies. Boris Kachka talked to the NYU graduate, now 25, about his latest part, as a jock out of his element at a radical New England college in Wendy Wasserstein’s Third.
How did you wind up back in New York, doing theater?
[When] they flew me in to do a final audition, I actually had another audition later that day, for another great play, an Al Pacino play. But I hadn’t worked on that at all—I was willing to totally suck at the next audition and make a fool of myself because I wanted this part so badly.
All that to play a midwestern jock? You’ve said you always felt like the geek in high school.
He’s a guy who the audience comes to understand as a human and not just as a stereotype. The thing that I ended up identifying with is that he’s still completely out of place. Because he’s a complete outsider, he made more sense to me.
But where does this outsider sensibility come from? You were raised by supportive actor parents and became an actor.
Well, in junior high school, my parents were getting divorced, and all of a sudden everything was completely alien to me. I saw the really popular guys at school, and I literally, like a sociopath, got a pair of jeans that I saw one of the guys wearing. They were way too big and falling down, and I went over there and tried to mimic them and it didn’t work. There’s something about being rejected—when I go out without my friends, I’m reminded of how I’m actually quite antisocial. I don’t look like a guy who feels like that, but it’s very hard for me to start up a conversation. At a party, I’m lost.
Yet you seem to be leaving behind your adolescence in your roles.
It’s exciting—a couple of months ago I said no to the first thing ever without the possibility of something else. I’d rather put things out that I would want to see and want to show my friends. But it’s not like I can sit there like Tom Cruise and pick and choose.
Well, he can do Magnolia and then make $20 million in his next movie. Do you want to make $20 million?
When I see those action movies, I feel the same way I felt when I was trying to be like those popular guys. I don’t think I can pull it off. That swaggering confidence—I’m much more drawn to characters who are more uncertain. If there’s an uncertain action hero anywhere, I’m not averse to making $20 million.
You’ve talked about your father as a mentor. Where do you go for that now?
I’ve sort of adopted other mentors. Joe Mantegna was a huge one, when I was working on Joan of Arcadia. Charles Durning has become that on this play. Man, his stories are unbelievable. Like James Dean mouthing off to him, and Charles asking to go outside and settle it, and James Dean refusing! And also, my dad showed me so much of himself, it’s almost like there’s a chip in my mind where I can access his memory. The only thing I can’t do is ask him for notes on my performance.
You’re very open about what you went through when he died.
When it first happened I shied away from everything, and then some old interviews—and things that I hadn’t really said—got out, and it painted a picture of us reuniting at his deathbed. I just had to accept that some people were gonna read those articles and think, God, what an ungrateful son. So when I’m asked about it, I’m forced to kind of talk it out. You’re a very different actor from him, though.
I auditioned for sitcoms, but I could feel the expectation in the room. I would freeze up. Even if I tried to be my dad, it would be a mediocre, slightly embarrassing version. But to some degree I think that’s helped. My dad was a fantastic dramatic actor, but because he was so funny, that’s how people knew him—[then] Billy Bob Thornton gave my dad this part in Sling Blade, which is a really subtle, beautiful performance. It’s similar to what happened with Tom Arnold: He’s so good at being the funny crazy guy, and Don Roos gave him an opportunity to be in Happy Endings and he was amazing. But I don’t have to worry about being pigeonholed as the funny guy.
They’ll figure out a way to pigeonhole you.
That’s why I keep trying to change. But I’m sure they’ll catch up to me at some point.
at The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Opens October 24