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THE PERFORMANCE: Jason Ritter

The son of late actor John Ritter tackles the role of a bully in 'Charlie Banks'

March 26, 2009|Michael Ordona
  • Jason Ritter stars in "The Education of Charlie Banks."
Jason Ritter stars in "The Education of Charlie Banks." (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)

"We all have bullies in our lives and we just assume they're evil, but largely I think that kind of behavior comes from somewhere," says Jason Ritter, who plays a neighborhood tough who commits an almost psychopathically vicious act in "The Education of Charlie Banks." "Certainly the bully in my life, as far as I could tell, the house he grew up in was completely devoid of any love. He had all the money in the world, but you walk around his house and it was cold like a museum. So the only reaction he could get out of people was fear. It made him laugh."

With neat, close-cropped hair and a scruffy in-progress beard like a cross between G.I. Joe and the Unabomber, the 29-year-old projects an inoffensiveness in person that makes his transformation in the movie all the more impressive. The brutal act perpetrated by his bulldozer-in-a-china-shop Mick is witnessed by sheltered uptown boy Charlie (Jesse Eisenberg). Mick then turns up years later in Charlie's dorm room, insinuating himself into a life of privilege amid the well-to-do students.

"The challenges were consistent with my worst nightmare of how I'm perceived," he said at his publicist's West Hollywood offices. It wasn't that the character was so objectionable but so unlike him: "I generally care very much what other people think of me. I'm not proud of that trait.

"I had to start from the very beginning and ask, 'What kind of man ends up so out of control that he can't help but ruin his own chances at being anything?' This was definitely one of my most challenging roles."

The son of the late actor John Ritter acknowledges he's known for playing "innocent, nice guys"; his background was a lot closer to Charlie's than Mick's.

"When the script first was circulating, I auditioned for Charlie," he admits. Years after that production fell apart, the screenplay came around again. Thinking himself now too old for Charlie, he took a furtive stab at Mick. To his surprise, he got the part. "There was a huge part of me that was terrified and thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I tricked them!' "

To pull off the guise of a guy who never questions his actions but moves with a shark-like decisiveness, Ritter had to face down a couple of demons.

"I had to find a whole lot of confidence somewhere," he says with a slightly nervous laugh. "I'm always second-guessing myself. He never apologizes and I never cease apologizing."

The cast, especially love interest Eva Amurri, helped him settle into this rough and uncomfortable skin.

"The first time you see her talking to Mick in the bar, she's sort of jittery and excited," he says, compared to her cool when dealing with the madly infatuated Charlie. That enabled Ritter "to lean back in my chair and say, 'Oh, yeah. Mick doesn't have the problems Jason has when talking to women.'

"I was also lucky [the cast and crew] believed I could pull this off. I've done other things where there was a producer somewhere going," he exhales in exasperation and rolls his eyes. "As much confidence as I had to pretend I had, it would have taken just one person to say, 'I don't buy it' to let it all drain out. It was such a delicate thing for me."

Not exactly an imposing figure, Ritter decided to use his physicality and clean-cut appearance to his advantage.

"I've never been in a fistfight in my whole life. I don't have a giant scar on my face; I don't look like a tough guy. [But] Mick had to be able to blend in with the college kids; he had to look almost normal. The only thing keeping him from normal was that you had seen this violent act at the beginning," he says.

The actor felt a kinship with the character ("We're disgusted by the same things"), believing he understood Mick. The question was whether it was too late for Mick to change.

"It's hard when the only thing stopping you from everything you want is your own inner workings."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Where you've

seen him

Jason Ritter got his start at age 10 opposite his father, the late John Ritter, in the 1990 TV movie "The Dreamer of Oz." He was a regular on the short-lived sitcom "The Class," but is probably best known as the wheelchair-using ex-jock Kevin in "Joan of Arcadia." He had a ringside seat for "Freddy vs. Jason" (2003), worked with Don Roos in "Happy Endings" (2005) and played Jeb Bush (yes, that Jeb Bush, whom he sort of resembles) in Oliver Stone's "W." last year.

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