Jason Ritter on His Film I Am I, Why VOD Is Important, and His Fred Savage Fan Letter

Jason Ritter. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Sometimes there’s a little bit of legwork involved in being a Jason Ritter fan. With a career that’s toggled between interesting character roles in limited-release movies (2005’s Happy Endings, 2008’s Good Dick) and bigger parts in short-lived TV shows (Joan of Arcadia, The Class, The Event), his always-nuanced performances can often prove hard to catch. That changes today with the Vimeo On Demand release of I Am I, a Kickstarter-funded movie about a woman posing as her recently deceased mother in order to get to know her long-lost father, who is suffering from memory loss. The actor co-stars with Jocelyn Towne, who also wrote and directed the film, and her husband The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg, who has been a friend of Ritter’s since high school. (I Am I will also be released in theaters by Gravitas Ventures on June 13.) Next week will see the release of The Big Ask, another indie Ritter shot with a cast of TV thespians, including Community’s Gillian Jacobs. Vulture spoke with Ritter about the magic of Kickstarter, how sitcom stardom runs in his family, and his love of all things Fred Savage and Nirvana.

Even though your character Mark wasn’t really involved in the show this past season, I still feel like I should congratulate you on Parenthood’s renewal.
Oh, thanks! I’m really excited for them. One of the things that always really bums me out about TV in general is [that] stories get started and rarely ever get finished. So I’m happy to see that they were given enough time to end it in a nice way, as opposed to ending it on a big cliff-hanger and then we never see what happens.

Do you have any inkling that you might make a return to the show for its final season?
I have no idea. I never know. I would certainly be up for it; I love working on that show. But I have no idea.

Not to make you feel bad or anything, but you’ve certainly been put through the ringer a few times, as far as shows getting abruptly cancelled.
Ha, I have! This year, my brother’s show got picked up — my younger brother [Tyler] is in the new show The McCarthys — which made me really, really happy. It’s his first show, so that was very happy and exciting news.

Has your brother asked you for advice?
He let me give him some warnings and red flags. What was nice for me to see was how hard he was willing to work for it. That’s the thing everyone should be worried about when someone they care about says they want to be an actor. Do they really, actually want to be an actor, or do they want to be a famous person? There are some people I’ve met and even worked with, the acting seems like an annoying thing they have to do in order to do photo shoots and interviews. It was nice to see my brother decide that he wanted to do this and be smart about it, sign up for classes, and be willing to put himself out there and fail a bunch of times and keep plugging away. I had warned him that it could be years and years before he got any parts, just because auditioning is such a weird and awful system, but they haven’t figured out a better one yet. It was an incredible and pleasant surprise to see how relatively fast he started getting jobs.

The McCarthys has some great people attached to it. Not just in the cast, but I believe Fred Savage directed the pilot. [Ed.: Fred Savage directed the show’s single-camera pilot in 2013; it was re-shot as a multi-camera pilot this year.]
I can’t remember, actually. That’s sad. I should look that up. I did an episode of [IFC’s upcoming show] Garfunkel and Oates that he directed and I can’t remember if I said, “Oh, yeah, you directed my brother.” Fred Savage is the only actor that I ever wrote a fan letter to, when I was 8, and he sent me back a signed headshot that I had in my room for years.

Really? But he can’t be that much older than you.
He’s not that much older, but he’s just enough older that I watched him on The Wonder Years and I was like, “In three years, that’s where I want to be.” I thought he was the best.

Did you tell him about that when he directed you?
I told, like, everybody else on the crew, and then I was too nervous to say it to him.

So you’ve got two movies coming out as video-on-demand releases two weeks in a row: I Am I this week, and then The Big Ask next week.
Yeah, it’s nice because both of those movies I shot a long time ago, so it was a long road to finally get a theatrical release. It’s kind of amazing that they’re coming out around the same time. I like that.

Both movies are getting a VOD release before their theatrical release, which is becoming a more popular way to release smaller films. What do you think of that as a method of distribution?
I like it. The first time I heard of that I think was a Steven Soderbergh film. I think it was called Bubble. I’m not 100 percent sure about that; I could be getting the director wrong and the name of the film wrong.

I will fact-check for you. [Ed.: He’s right!]
Okay, thank you. One of the things that’s tough about theatrical releases is, it’s not in every theater. You really have to track it down. So people in big cities, they can see the movie how it’s meant to be seen, on a big screen with the sound and everything, and then people who don’t live in that area can also be able to see it and not have to wait an extra couple weeks. That way it makes it easier on me to talk about it and then say, “Everyone can go see it. If you’re in a city, you can go see it at the theater. And if you’re not in a city, or you’re a lazybones, watch it in the comfort of your own home.”

I Am I was written and directed by your friend Simon Helberg’s wife, Jocelyn Towne, who raised over $100,000 to make the movie through a Kickstarter campaign. What was it about her campaign that you think made it so successful?
Actually, Jocelyn did this really ingenious thing. The Kickstarter video that she made was awesome. It was all one shot. We choreographed it within an inch of our lives and we did it maybe six times and it was a really beautiful, well-done thing. It was fun and funny, even though the movie’s not a comedy — it has funny moments, but it’s not a comedy. But it showed people that she had a vision and that she’s a good director and that she’s able to put something together that is pleasurable to watch. And that was done sort of at the dawn of Kickstarter — at least, I had never heard of people asking for that much money before. I had only heard of people getting $10,000, $20,000. I think that I had only ever donated on Kickstarter for bands and stuff like that. Now, with Veronica Mars, people can ask for $1 million, $2 million. But at the end of the month, Jocelyn had raised around $111,000, so that was amazing.

It sounds like the video gave people a reason to buy into the Kickstarter campaign beyond, Hey, I’m a famous person and you recognize me, so give me money to make this movie.
Absolutely. With a good Kickstarter campaign, you feel involved. You’re on an email list, you get updates, a lot of times they’ll sign you up for a private Instagram account to show them recording the album or making the movie. So you really become part of a family. Jocelyn’s video made it seem like a fun group of people to be in a family with.

Had you and Simon ever acted together in a movie before?
Never together. We both got parts in the first movie that either of us ever did. It was a movie called Mumford that Lawrence Kasdan directed. We were both in high school and we both got these parts in it, but we never actually worked together. Simon and Jocelyn also wrote and directed a movie called We’ll Never Have Paris that I was in, so that was really fun, to finally get to work with one of my best and oldest friends.

What can you tell me about your experience on The Big Ask?
The Big Ask
was one of the most special shoots I’ve ever been on. It was really small; it was basically six actors and we all shot in a house, so we were all kind of stuck in the same place. It was awesome. I had a great time making that movie and I think the movie turned out very well. It’s been great to watch it have a life on the festival circuit, and I’m so happy that it’s finally coming out.

Your career really seems to sort of go between these big network TV shows and then these small, indie movies.
That’s been sort of the balance that I’ve struck, which has been really fun. I’ve been able to do some really great and fun TV shows — even if they were short-lived — and then in the summertime I’ve been able to do the kinds of movies that I want to do. I’m able to go onto an independent film and not be worried about my next month’s rent because the TV is helping with that.

When you were studying drama in New York and London, did you ever daydream, or even think practically, about what sort of career you would have?
Probably everyone in drama school has an idea of what they would like for themselves. You’re hoping that you’ll be some kind of Daniel Day-Lewis or Gary Oldman, one of those actors’ actors who can do anything. I had big dreams and I also had realistic expectations. I was just hoping that I would be able to do it in any capacity. One of the things that made me comfortable in pursuing it anyway is that the thing itself makes me so happy. Even if I wasn’t making a living at it, I would be happy.

On your Twitter feed recently, you posted a photo of something you made as a teenager, a typed, alphabetical list of every Nirvana song, but not including any of the songs on Unplugged in New York. First of all, how did you find this list?
It was at my mom’s house. I found this Nirvana scrapbook that I had compiled. I used to save every dollar of my allowance and all the money I made while flipping turkey burgers and chicken sandwiches at a Little League park and spend it on any magazine or single or anything about Nirvana. Eventually I started cutting and pasting everything into a scrapbook. So I found that in my mom’s house last time I was there and I found that list — which I don’t remember making at all.

Okay, and second, why no Unplugged? Because Unplugged is the best thing they ever did.
That is my probably my favorite album of theirs. Every once in a while, I’ll watch it all the way through just because it’s such an incredible, magical performance. The only reason I didn’t include Unplugged is because, at the time I made that list, Unplugged wasn’t out yet. It was like ’93, ’94 and I was probably like, I need to compile a complete list and it’s very important that it’s in alphabetical order. I think I thought if I put them in alphabetical order, there’d be some sort of code or something. I was a little obsessive.

Jason Ritter on His New VOD Films and Parenthood