In 1980 in the small town of Wylie, Texas, there was a murder that has produced two limited series in the past year. The latest, "Love & Death" on HBO Max, is produced by 11-time Emmy Award winner David E. Kelley of "Big Little Lies" and stars Elizabeth Olsen as Candy Montgomery, a woman who kills her friend Betty Gore, played by Lily Rabe, after she has an affair with Betty's husband, Allan, played by Jesse Plemons.
Krysten Ritter plays Sherry Clecker, a real person who was a loyal friend to the ax-slinging Candy. Ritter's Sherry adds levity to the dark, tense and suspenseful "Love & Death." "Even when we're doing something that's really dark, I always like to find the flip of that," Ritter shared with me on "Salon Talks."
From "Jessica Jones" to "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23" (which Ritter would do "again, a million times"), no matter the genre, comedy and women with toughness always find their way into Ritter's work. "There is that through line where the characters are strong, and have agency, and aren't exactly wallflowers," Ritter said. "I think that that is something that is just me."
Early on, Ritter explained, she worked with acting teachers who tried to get her to "hold still" and "slow down," but by resisting that advice and remaining true to her rambunctious, fast-talking self, she has carved out a catalog of memorable characters who often express that back to the viewer.
Watch the "Salon Talks" episode with Krysten Ritter here, or read our conversation below to hear more about "Love & Death," Ritter's favorite hobbies to do in between takes (she has lots) and what's up next for her, including a new book and "Orphan Black: Echoes."
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What did you know about Candy Montgomery before you signed on and how does your character fit into her story?
I didn't know anything about this story before. I met with our wonderful director, Lesli Linka Glatter, and David E. Kelley, and read the scripts. Everything was super top secret. I couldn't believe that it was a true story, and the scripts were so fantastic, and this is a really amazing group of actors, group of producers, and I was in immediately. I play Sherry Cleckler, who is also a real person, Candy Montgomery's best friend and business partner and her confidant as she is making some pretty bad decisions.
Speaking of this cast and crew, the writers and producers of this show really wanted to distinguish it from true crime, and the true crime genre. How did that inform your work as an actor?
"They were trying to get me to hold still and slow down. I'm glad that I didn't let that happen."
I just tried to play the character in a fun, truthful way. She reminded me, personally, of my real life Aunt Sharon, who was a singer in the choir at church, and we're from a small town similar to this, and she just had this way about her, and she was also a beautician. My character's a beautician, and she had this way of walking and talking and, as soon as I read the script, that's the thing that popped out at me. So, that's why I wanted to play this character, and I just kept that in mind, and didn't pay attention too much to what everybody was going for. For me as an actress, you focus on what you're doing, and it being truthful, so that's what I tried to do going into this.
It was a really fun opportunity to play a character with a little bit of levity in an otherwise very dark story about murder, an affair and drama. I thought it was an opportunity for me to have a little fun, and play a character that was going to be a little bit of a breath of fresh air when she was coming on screen.
The Betty Gore murder happened in 1980, so this show is also a time piece. I loved the music specifically that we got to hear in the series. What is it about the story that grabs our attention today and still resonates with us today?
I think that's a really good question. It's timeless in that people are in their lives and feel bored sometimes, and everybody wants something, the grass is always greener. We're all seeking happiness, and this was a time and a place that was really special. You're right, the music is so fun in the show. Also, the hair and the makeup and the wardrobe. We had an amazing costume designer, amazing hair and makeup girls, and just really got to transport to a different time.
Was there anything that really helps you get into that time period in particular?
"S**t goes down in little small towns."
Definitely the clothes and the hair. As soon as you get that on, you have a whole other physicality. I wore some clogs, and a little flare jeans, which made it really fun.
You were working it.
When am I not working it?
You also have an interesting way to way into Wylie, Texas. You're from a small town, you wrote your novel, "Bonfire," about a small town. You're from the place at the center of the "Kids for Cash" documentary, and you also have connections to Steubenville, Ohio, where there was a high-profile case that reached national news like this one. How did this help you understand the optics of a scandal in a small town?
Yeah, you're exactly right. I have been touched by all of those things, and all of those events, so you get it and you get like, s**t goes down in little small towns. I am from a small town just like this. I grew up in the church like this, a small church where everybody sang in the choir, wore the big robes just like we do [in the show], which was really impactful to me on those days where we would spend full shooting days, multiple shooting days, singing these choir hymns. I was transported back to my childhood in a way. It's really emotional to sing these really simple two-chord hymns. We were all like just belting our faces off. It was a really, really unique experience.
Throughout your career you've played some bada**, confident and complicated characters. Was this an intentional choice, and how does Sherry fit into your catalog now?
I'm lucky in that I've been fortunate in my career to get a variety of opportunities and always get to try something new. But there is that through line where the characters are strong, and have agency, and aren't exactly wallflowers. I think that that is something that is just me, and I bring to the roles.
Changing it up is really important to me. I like to do dark drama, but then I love to do comedy and laugh, and this was a really fun opportunity to do a little bit of both. When I read the scripts, I had the first three scripts, and there was a really — she's fun and she's light — but there was a really great scene where Patrick Fugit's character comes to me and knows what's going on, and it was really tense and really dramatic, and sometimes it's really fun when you get to do both, be comedic and be light, but also do some real work as well. So, for me, it's all about changing it up. I love to do it all, and I love to change it up and not be stuck in one lane.
There's always humor in your characters, whether it's at the forefront of the project or not, and no matter how dark the story is. How has your approach to comedy changed throughout your career?
I really enjoy comedy, and I love it. I have always been very goofy, and very obnoxious, and funny, and I like to find humor everywhere. It's something that I enjoy, and it's important. I love to laugh. I love to laugh all day. Even when we're doing something that's really dark, I always like to find the flip of that. Then, obviously we're both fans of "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23," which is just all laughs and all going for it as much as possible, which I'd love. Being funny is one of the best things about the gig.
You were first discovered by a modeling scout in a mall. What were those early days of modeling like, and did you know that you would always end up an actress?
No, no, no. I had no idea what I was going to be when I was a teenager. I had no idea what I was going to do. I think that's a scary thing and a lot of pressure for teenagers that a lot of people deal with. I was scouted at the mall, and I started going to New York and modeling and realized pretty quickly that it was a system that wasn't going to last. If girls didn't hit within one season or two seasons, they weren't brought back the next summer, and that was it. So, I linked into that pretty quickly, and I was like, "Oh, how do I make sure I don't go home?"
"Being funny is one of the best things about the gig."
It wasn't until I went on a commercial audition where I was like, "Oh, this is good." Whereas most actors would say they have no control over their lives, and you just keep doing the thing, coming from modeling, in this commercial audition I was like, "Oh, I finally have full control. I can be funnier. I can show up earlier. I can plan my jokes. I can work harder." So, that's where it was just my eureka moment, and I decided I wanted to really focus on acting, and then started taking classes and working with a coach and transitioned that way.
But I started from modeling, and then started being a background extra in commercials, extra and music videos, and, blink and you won't see me things. Then I started getting little parts, and I started getting commercials and kept going. I kept showing up, kept working, kept showing up. I think modeling gave me that good perspective. It also taught me about resilience and rejection so early. That's part of it. That allowed me to get into the acting world with a better head on my shoulders.
You have always stayed true to who you were. From an early age, you were silly, goofy and a fast talker, and you really stayed true to who you were in those auditions. How do you think that has affected your career?
Early days in acting classes, they were trying to get me to hold still and slow down. I'm glad that I didn't let that happen because I got that part in "Gilmore Girls," and guess what? They were even telling me to talk faster. Then, that just led to the next thing was a little bit bigger. The next thing was a little bit bigger. I found a way in. I was always the quirky funny one, the whatever, the this. You just keep carving, and keep showing up, and getting used to hearing "no" 900 times in a row. Then finally, you're a yes, and you grab it, and keep going.
You've also directed, you have a production company and you've written a novel. What draws you to these other forms of storytelling?
I love storytelling. I'm also just somebody who gets bored quickly, and I like to make my own rules. I'm not somebody who sits around and waits for my agent to tell me when I'm going to work, never have. Never have. Even before I was getting jobs and working consistently, I was making my own stuff. I was shooting things on camcorders, and editing them on iMovie, making music videos, learning GarageBand, and making music. I'm always very scrappy, always like a scheme and always a new interest, or a new hobby I would always throw myself into. So, that's what all of that is.
"I know how to do the work. I've been doing this a long time."
I really enjoy directing, and just from being number one on a TV show for over a decade, you learn so much, and you see so many directors coming in and what their style is, and picking up like, "Oh, this really worked for this, this really worked for that." Just having a point of view. So, directing, and producing, and writing allows me to just keep doing what I'm doing, but in a different medium. It's exactly all the same thing though.
Are there any other artistic challenges that you want to take on?
Well, I'm working on a new book, which will be announced soon. It's taken me a very long time because I have a child now, and things like this takes so much longer. So, I'm doing that. I have some other things in development and I have a new show coming out, "Orphan Black: Echoes," which will be out next year. Honestly, I'd like to learn ballet. That's next. I'm going to do some ceramics classes. I'm just one of those people who gets really into hobbies and into new things.
Ceramics is one I also want to try.
I got really into it years and years ago, and then I found a studio in Los Angeles recently, and started going again. There's just something really special about making something with your hands. It's very fulfilling. It gets you off your phone. It gets you present. It's very meditative, and there's just something about having something at the end that you just made, and you put a lot of thought, and intention, and love into it.
I know you're a big knitter. I'm a crocheter.
I love crochet, too. Honestly, I go back and forth because I think knitting is better for garments, and clothes, and it lays nicer, but I like a crochet because it's faster. Now, I'm a grownup with a kid. I love crocheting dish towels for my house, or all my shelves have a mat that I've made to put the cleaning products on. So, I really enjoy crochet, also. I think for on set, it's just easier to pick up and put down. So, yeah, I have crochet in there, too.
You've worked with the same acting coach for a really long time, Marjorie Ballentine. It really struck me as a huge "Don't Trust the B----" fan that you said she wasn't impressed by you landing that role. What has it been like having this person with you throughout your career?
"I would do "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23" again a million times because it's so joyful."
She's still very much a huge part of everything that I do. She worked with me for Sherry Cleckler. She worked with me for "Orphan Black: Echoes," which we just finished. She doesn't get as fired up about the comedies as I do, and I love it, and I have to convince her. She's very big and passionate like I am. We'll be standing on our chairs by the end.
Two heads are better than one. I feel like even when I have a really great handle on something, or I feel like, "Oh yeah, yeah, I got this. I know how to do it." And, I do, I know how to do the work. I've been doing this a long time. I work on it with her, and she always comes up with more stuff that I didn't find. She's smarter than me. She's better than me. Having her along the way has been an amazing support. I've learned so much. I admire her. She's just this passionate, wildly intelligent, feminist f***ing bada**, and that is infectious. I just can't get enough of her. I feel very grateful to have found a mentor like that. She's a huge part of my acting process, and she always will be.
She wasn't excited about "Don't Trust the B----," but what does she think of "Love & Death"?
Oh, she loves "Love & Death." The scripts are fantastic. I mean, this is David E. Kelley, who's one of the most fabulous, prolific writers of our lifetime. She's very excited about this one.
She likes what I did with "Don't Trust The B---- in Apartment 23," but she just likes the dark s***t. She likes going deep into the underbelly. She likes the dark, gritty, more intense stuff, where I was like, I like to laugh all day. I would do "Don't Trust the B**** in Apartment 23" again a million times because it's so joyful.
There's something to be said about laughing all day. If you are laughing and being funny in your scene, when they call "cut," you are still laughing and being funny. It's an amazing headspace to live your life in. It's joyful. It's up. It's positive. When you're doing dark stuff for months and months — I'm better at it now, 'cause I have hobbies and things like that, and you just get stronger. It's like a muscle, but this weighs on you, too. So, I'm always battling with her. She'll be like, "Let's do this drama." I'm like, "I need a happy, laughing job." So, that's what we go back and forth about.
Those laughs from "Don't Trust The B----," I still reference it today.
Lately there's been a really fun fan on Instagram who's been unearthing all of these little clips, and moments that even I forgot about. I'll watch them and be like, "What?" I just can't believe the stuff that we got away with. The writing was so funny. That character was so funny. So, it's been fun the past couple of days. They've been posting these little really funny jokes and moments from it, and I've been reliving it, and enjoying it.
"Love & Death" is streaming on HBO Max.
"Salon Talks" with actors