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‘W.’ Star Jason Ritter on Becoming Jeb

Twenty-eight-year-old actor Jason Ritter is in the midst of his own one-man October surprise. This Friday, he hits theaters in two vastly different roles: In the low-budget indie Good Dick, he stars opposite longtime real-life girlfriend Marianna Palka, also the film’s writer-director, as a Los Angeles video-store clerk who draws an emotionally deadened young woman out of a claustrophobic cocoon of hostility and sexual antipathy. In Oliver Stone’s W., Ritter — who, as the son of the late John Ritter, knows a thing about family legacies — portrays Jeb Bush. Ritter spoke with Vulture about Oliver Stone, playing Jeb Bush, and his relationship with Palka.

When did you become aware that Marianna was working on Good Dick? Was it an idea you talked about before she went off and wrote it?
She just sort of started disappearing into the room where the computer was for hours at a time. I would try to open the door, bring her some tea, and take a peek at the screen. I didn’t even know that she was writing a screenplay. She was very private about it. I didn’t know if it was a play or some kind of manifesto. [Laughs] Then she just emerged a month and a half later with a 60-page script.

You’re almost like a human piñata for much of the movie. Are you that patient in real life?
Marianna’s pretty awesome, so in real life I haven’t had to deal with most of the stuff that my character has. I think one of the things that is most cathartic about this film is that the fact of the matter is you cannot change another person. And it’s sad, because the person who loves the abusive person is always waiting for that day. We’ve had a lot of people come up to us and say that they’ve been in a relationship like that, on both sides.

You also have a role in Oliver Stone’s W. Did you study any tape for your role as Jeb Bush?
I watched everything that I possibly could and read some books about both the Bush family and one mainly about Jeb. There was a big recommended reading list, but since I only had one scene in the film, and that’s in the 1970s, my main interest was what his life was up to that point. My scene is one of the most well-documented moments in almost all of the books about the family, when George Bush came home and challenged his father to a duel. So I hope Jeb appreciates my work! [Laughs]

Based on that reading list and other stuff, what’s your impression of his relationship with his brother, and their respective relationships with their father?
It’s really interesting, because Jeb was the golden boy of the family, and everyone thought that he was going to be the one who would be the senator, and then president. Jeb was extremely bright, really dedicated. He had a tiny, little rebellious period where he joined the Socialist group at school and smoked a little weed and told his dad that he wanted to be a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War. But, in the end, he really protected the legacy of the family, whereas I think our president had a much tougher time upholding the outward image of the family. He was the black sheep pretty much. There was one memorable moment at a big governors’ dinner, I believe, where there was an exchange between George W. and Jeb, where George W. says, “I didn’t grow up wanting to be president of the United States,” and Jeb says, “I did.” And George W. says, “Yeah, you did. Anyway…” Ouch!

What about your impressions of Oliver — earlier in his career, he used to be regarded as a mad genius, but there’s the sense that he’s mellowed a bit. Did it seem that way on the set?
He did seem pretty mellow. It’s a high-octane job to be the director, especially of a movie like this, so you might imagine that he’s a lot more stressed out. We did a rehearsal and he started to bring everyone in, and Josh Brolin said, “Actually, I’m just having a problem with this one thing…” And so he sent everyone back out and stayed and heard Josh out, which doesn’t always happen. I was pleasantly surprised.

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‘W.’ Star Jason Ritter on Becoming Jeb