Getting up at the crack of dawn to feed the cows seemed like hard work for Krysten Ritter, who was raised on a 100-acre cattle farm outside Shickshinny.
But a decade or so later, as she was shooting “Refuge” in the blue-collar neighborhoods of the Hamptons, she flashed back to those days of long hours and endless chores.
Life on the farm, it turned out, gave the actress something to draw upon when she was playing Amy, a townie forced to give up on her dreams so she can raise her brain-damaged brother (Logan Huffman) and delinquent sister (Madeleine Martin).
“I think where I’m from is a big part of why I connected to the character as much as I did,” says the actress. “I’m from such a small town that I was able to [play the role] as if Amy were me.
“I thought, ‘What if I were still in that small town and my dreams weren’t able to be realized? How would that make me feel?’ I was able to put myself into this character’s shoes in a way that was very interesting for me.”
In the movie, which director Jessica Goldberg based on her off-Broadway play, Amy has a one-night stand with a shy drifter (“Flight’s” Brian Geraghty). Afterwards, the pair of misfits surprise each other by taking the tentative steps toward romance.
“Amy is totally trapped, and that’s such a dangerous place to be,” says Ritter, 32. “It’s sad and scary. But she chooses not to be a victim anymore and chooses love. And that’s her escape, her refuge.”
While Ritter is mostly known for her comic roles in “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” “She’s Out of My League” and TV’s “Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23,” “Refuge” gave her the opportunity to dig deep.
“I loved the script the second I read it,” recalls the actress. “It was a small, intimate movie about people. Just having proper scenes with another actor is rare these days. You read so many scripts where you’re just there to drive the plot or deliver exposition.
“But this one was about what’s going on with these people emotionally. It was an amazing acting experience. It wasn’t about any glamour or hair and makeup. It wasn’t about landing jokes. It felt like a real luxury to do this movie.”
While Ritter has been working steadily for the last decade, 2014 might turn out to be her busiest yet.
Ritter reprised her role as Gia Goodman in the now-playing “Veronica Mars” movie and recently announced she’ll be headed back to TV to play the starring role in Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s ’60s-era NASA-set sitcom “Mission Control.”
Ritter will also pop up in a trio of 2014 comedies, including “Listen Up Philip” with Jason Schwarztman and Elisabeth Moss, “Asthma” with Goran Visnjic, and “Search Party” with Alison Brie. Also coming up is “Big Eyes,” a biopic about Walter and Margaret Keane (Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams), the artists known for their paintings of large-eyed waifs.
“I’m such a positive person that I think every time is great but, yes, this is a particularly great time for me,” says Ritter. “I’m so grateful to have the job I have, and I love all of it.
“I want to keep it going. It’s like when you’re at Disneyland and it’s time to get off the roller coaster, I decided to stay on. I want to keep going around and around.”
“Refuge,” which is now playing in limited release and arrived on VOD yesterday, is the Ritter project which is, arguably, nearest and dearest to her heart. It’s no wonder she’s so fond of the film, since it relies so heavily on the bond she shares with Geraghty, who is her boyfriend in real life.
When Ritter was signed on to “Refuge” back in 2012, she’d only been dating Geraghty for a month.
“We were skeptical at first about doing the movie together… because we didn’t know if it would be a total disaster or a great idea,” says Ritter. “But it ended up being one of the loveliest moments of my life because I got to spend time with him and make a great movie.
“I think the chemistry and newness we had with each other we brought to the screen.”
As a youngster growing up in the teeny tiny towns of Benton and Shickshinny, Pa., Ritter enjoyed being the center of attention long before she dreamed of a career as an actress.
“My mom says I was always dancing around and screaming for attention,” Ritter notes.
When she wasn’t showing off, she kept busy on the farm. “I did all kinds of chores,” she recalls. “I picked up rocks along the property. I fed the chickens. And I fed the cows at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. It didn’t matter what else you had going on, you still had to feed the cows every morning and evening.”
At 15, Ritter was scouted by a modeling agent at the Wyoming Valley Mall and soon was signed to Elite Model Management and then Wilhelmina Models.
Three years later, she moved to New York City. “As soon as I got to the city, I went, ‘Oh, here we go. This is where I belong. Krysten Ritter belongs in a city that is vibrating.’ I was vibrating in my small town but didn’t really know what to do with myself.”
Despite not knowing anyone in Manhattan, Ritter was eager to make the move. “I was never fearful, but now I look back and think, ‘I had some serious balls to do that.’ I moved to New York with one suitcase. I didn’t care. I was going to figure it out.”
After several years of modeling, Ritter went to an audition for a Dr. Pepper commercial in 1999 and came away wowed by the experience.
“When you’re a model, you’re not able to express yourself creatively,” she says. “They don’t ask you questions. They want you to shut up and be skinny.
“But at this audition, they asked me questions and I was able to be funny and make them laugh. I was, like, ‘I have control. I’m the one bringing something into the room.’ I loved it.”
Ritter counts her role as Jane on “Breaking Bad” as one of her personal favorites. As the addict girlfriend of the meth-dealing Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) partner Jesse (Aaron Paul), she wound up dying a horrible death after choking on her own vomit.
Jane’s sad story – and Walt’s part in her demise – marked an important turning point for the show. Up until then, Walt never seemed all that evil, but as he stood over Jane and watched her die, he suddenly seemed capable of anything.
“I look back on the show so fondly and with a smile because not only was it a turning point for Walt, but it a turning point for me and my career,” says Ritter. “It really changed the course of everything. … It opened up a lot of doors for me.”
In between shooting “Mission Control,” which is likely to air in September, Ritter will be hitting the promotional trail to help promote August’s “Big Eyes,” which gives the actress one of her highest-profile roles to date.
In contrast to some of Tim Burton’s recent effects-heavy projects like “Alice in Wonderland” and “Dark Shadows,” “Big Eyes” is a throwback to his smaller-scale movies like “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood.”
“It’s a personal film for Tim. There’s no tricks or gadgets,” says Ritter. “I play a beatnik in the ’60s, so I got to wear big hair and lots of eyeliner. I did a lot of my scenes with Amy Adams, and that was unreal because she’s so good.”
Even more exciting for Ritter was getting directed by Burton.
“I adore Tim’s movies,” she says. “I’ve wished to work with him my entire career. He was everything I wanted him to be and more. He was so warm and nice. And he dug me too. I tried not to embarrass him too much by being a superfan.
“At the end of the shoot, he said, ‘Let’s work together again.’ I said, ‘Yes, please.’ I was thinking, ‘Can somebody please record him saying that?’”
Ritter admits that her busy schedule has made it all but impossible for her to visit Pennsylvania as often as she’d like.
“I haven’t been back for a while,” says the actress, whose parents and 17-year-old sister still reside near Shickshinny. “It’s kind of hard to get to Shickshinny from California. It’s a couple of flights, a bus trip, whatever.
“But I love it. It’s so fun to freshen up with some clean air and quiet. … I’m so proud to be from where I’m from. I don’t meet many people in Hollywood who have the kind of background I have. It makes me feel very special.”