Actor Jason Ritter discusses his philanthropic passion, the loss of loved ones, and awakening in Africa
by Dann Dulin
I’m in awe of Jason Ritter. But not for the reason you might think. It’s not because he’s starring in the popular TV thriller, The Event, nor because he’s the son of Hollywood royalty (the late John Ritter was his father and Tex Ritter, his grandfather), or even because of his wholesome good looks. I’m in awe of Jason because of his compassion for others. In his short life of thirty-one years, he’s been actively involved with numerous charities that include AIDS organizations such as the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatrics AIDS Foundation (PAF), Lifebeat, Project Angel Food, and AIDS Project Los Angeles.
When I confess my envy to him as we sit together on my couch in West Los Angeles, Jason humbly replies, “A lot of times these invitations fall into your lap and if you’re not doing anything else—why not?” From an early age, his mother, actress Nancy Morgan, and his father would take Jason and his two younger siblings to PAF’s summer outdoor fundraiser bash, A Time for Heroes. “This carnival was so much fun, especially being a kid,” Jason says enthusiastically reliving the exhilaration. “There’s booths, games, and you could have your picture taken with your favorite TV or film star!” He ponders a moment while slightly unzipping his slate green hooded sweatshirt, revealing more of a fitted white crewneck T-shirt. “It just seemed like such a great and positive way to raise money for research. My parents told us that not only is it going to be fun but it also supports a great cause.”
When he was performing on the New York stage in productions of Wendy Wasserstein’s Third and Tom Donaghy’s The Beginning of August, Jason lent his support to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “After our performance, we would stand in the lobby with buckets. I love that it’s just what all of New York chose to do [in support of fighting AIDS]. We need to do more things like that where we come together as a community.”
In a very short time, I quickly learn that it was Jason’s parents who inspired his altruistic behavior, that the man loves teamwork, and “caring” is an operative word for him. But why? “I think it’s one of the reasons we were put here; to help each other out,” he says softly, supplementing with an explanation. “We can all focus on our own lives and try to make them as good as possible but there are certain things that are out of our control. I would hope that if something were to happen to me, if I were to fall on hard times, people would help me out. Or not even fall on hard times but if I contracted some disease or if I was affected by some issue or….” He halts, and for clarity, mentions a rape survivor’s organization he’s associated with then returns to the initial question. “There are all these people who are doing the difficult work, the day to day groundwork. I just come and donate time and money.”
But we get to witness Jason’s true character in his work with the AIDS community. Jason first became aware of the AIDS epidemic when he was eight years-old and heard about Elizabeth Glaser’s seven-year-old daughter, Ariel, who died of AIDS. Several years later, Magic Johnson came out about his HIV-positive status. At ten years-old, this made an impact on Jason and Magic became a hero. “He subtly changed the face of AIDS,” he notes with poignant emphasis. “Now the message was that AIDS affects all of us. Magic didn’t try and hide it. Today, uneducated people still think that it’s a gay disease and they don’t have to worry about it. It’s their way of avoiding the issue and not caring about it or about protecting themselves. That was the problem from the very beginning.” Jason gasps, his eyes radiate horror, and he shakes his head doing a double take grasping the truth of what he just said.
Jason recalls hearing that Magic’s teammates didn’t want to be near Magic’s sweat for fear of being infected with HIV. “Back then there were many misconceptions, especially about saliva and sweat. As we know, the thing that can combat such misconceptions is knowledge.” He looks off momentarily then shifts, crossing his cream-colored stripped socked feet under him. (The sophisticated guy removed his cowboy boots at the entranceway.) “At ten or eleven years-old, I had my own journey to go through—of being scared of it and not understanding exactly what it was, and then [eventually] understanding not only what it was but that it affects everyone.” He rolls up his sweatshirt sleeves to above his elbows. “Gosh. AIDS is such a monster of a disease and it’s been in my consciousness for over twenty years now. I hope one day it will be a total thing of the past. We’ve made leaps and bounds and now people can live with HIV but we certainly are not out of the woods.”
It’s especially affecting the people of Africa, where Jason has traveled several times. One trip incorporated a meeting with Mothers2Mothers, an organization that educates mothers about mother-to-child transmission of HIV. He visited several townships and spoke to many citizens. “They take women who contracted HIV and enlist them to teach their peers about it so that misinformation is corrected and it’s not some person in a lab coat saying, ‘We know what’s best for you.’ It’s someone from within their community speaking to them, ‘Listen, please take these drugs. Don’t do any of these [outlandish] things you’ve heard about to cure the disease.’ This is a huge problem in Africa and the more we can gang-up on it as a world, the faster we will get rid of it.”
Like many of us, Jason knows people who are living with HIV. “I also know those who have lost someone to AIDS. It’s a difficult thing,” he laments, “to watch someone pass away from this disease. I’ve seen the toll that it’s taken on the people I’ve met and friends of mine as well. So…” he pauses, “I will do everything I can [to help out].”
Jason knows about the excruciating pain of loss. In 2003, when he was twenty-three, his father, grandmother, and maternal grandfather all died. “Oh, boy!,” he bursts out when I ask how he coped. He brushes back a clunk of hair that keeps flopping down over his forehead and sometimes into his eye. “It was a real sort of crash course in death. And their deaths were all very different; from extremely sudden to very slow. It was a tough time. Unfortunately it’s the other part of life. It’s hard for everybody,” he points out, taking another sip of java.
“Sometimes I feel there’s a trade-off. When someone has the time to know they are going to die, they have the opportunity to say goodbye. But on the other hand, if you are not afforded the opportunity to say goodbye then perhaps there is less suffering on their part. Either way you’re going to suffer and you’ll have to make peace with it,” he says. “And no matter how unfair it seems in the moment, you must try to imagine that maybe that’s the way it was supposed to be. The alternative is to feel like you had the last ten chapters ripped out of your book of that person’s life. Maybe that was the whole story.”
Does Jason ever feel his father’s presence? “Yeah, yeah…definitely! Especially if someone comes up to me and tells me a story about an encounter they had [with him]. My dad wouldn’t come home and brag about some nice thing he did for someone but it’s nice now to hear people say, ‘He gave up his seat at a coffeehouse table because he saw me….’ Just those every day-to-day things that he did for others.” He flashes a disarming grin jarringly resembling his dad.
Jason offers that he experiences a “download of personality into his mind” of those that have crossed over. When he has a question, he checks his “database” and says, “I’ll bet my dad would have thought this about this.” Having this belief certainly keeps the spirit alive for Jason. His take on the afterlife is summed up in one word: Karma. “After you die, you get to see exactly the effect you had on the world you just left. Everyone you caused pain you understand how much of that is theirs and how much of that is your doing. All the love you’ve created you get to enjoy that too. To me that is heaven and hell. Most of us would end up somewhere in the middle. This is based on what I would like to happen,” he says, smiling, adding, “Then I would like to jump into another baby…or a squirrel. I always wanted to be a flying squirrel.” He laughs, but means it.
Jason’s imagination and focus are intense. When he was a kid he acquired the nickname “Jace the Ace from outer space” from his parents because he would concentrate on something for an inordinate amount of time. His parents would tell him to return from outer space and, “Come back to us, Jason.” This intensity certainly contributes to his talent as an actor, but when speaking with him, he intimately makes you center stage. That’s rare these days in our land of Attention Deficit Disorder.
Following the deaths of his family members, Jason was crestfallen. What transported him through that turbulent period was a quote from Kierkegaard. It became his mantra: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future particularly the one you can never have.” He puts his hands in prayer position and balances his chin on the tips of his fingers for a moment, gazing off into the distance. “These are the things that I wanted to do [with them] that I’ll never get to do. And that was the future I was remembering that I’ll never be able to have. So once I read that quote, it was a very painful state of being,” he emphatically attests. “I would catch myself imagining those future times and [I would] stop and tried to appreciate the time that I did have with all three of these people.” Jason politely sneezes into his sweatshirt sleeve. “You can rail against it uselessly and torture yourself or you can try—as hard as it is—to accept it and move forward in your life.” When Jason speaks there’s a sense of urgency and knowing. He reveals his interest in the teachings of Louise Hay [A&U, April 2010] as well as those of Abraham-Hicks and Marianne Williamson and their wisdom: Change your thoughts, change your life.
“Anytime I’d have those [sorrowful] thoughts of my family I would center myself and think of that Kierkegaard quote. It’s tough but you have to train yourself because there’s something very natural and human about folding your arms, pouting, and saying,”—Jason lowers his voice—“‘No, but I wanted that other life!’ It’s useless,” he snaps throwing his arms up. “Nothing ever gets better by sitting in the corner and sulking.” He squints his sky blue Clark Gable-looking eyes, gently rubs his two-day stubble on his chin and extemporizes, “It’s the same about playing safe. If you train your mind to do that then eventually there will be no other option that you can be talked into—‘No, this is the deal….’”
And does Jason play safely? He’s been in an eleven-year monogamous relationship with writer, director, and actress, Marianna Palka, his costar in the film Good Dick. “I never got tested regularly because I haven’t had multiple partners,” he says candidly, skootching his sweatshirt sleeves back down his arms. “Marianna and I got tested after we were together for a short time. I wore a condom up until that time.”
Jason’s face becomes distorted, presenting frustration. With all the free testing sites that are available to the public, he can’t understand why people don’t get tested. He switches gears a little. “If you get tested and are lucky enough to not have HIV that doesn’t mean that you get a free pass. You must still be careful,” he warns with eerie directness. “It’s never worth it to chance it. No matter how much you know the person, it’s not a judgment call on them to protect yourself. If they are not willing to respect your wishes then maybe you shouldn’t be allowing them in your life in the first place.”
Jason leans back into the bulky sofa pillows and places his arms behind him, gently playing with his sweatshirt sleeves much like a schoolboy. “The sad thing is that a lot of people go, ‘I pretty much know I don’t have it. I mean, everyone I’ve been with….’ But that’s how it spreads!” he articulates feverishly. “They think it will happen to somebody else until they go and get tested and find out it was them. It just takes one time. Look, there’s no cure and sometimes the drugs don’t work. Isn’t it worth it to have that awkward conversation than to sign your own death warrant?”
There’s silence, allowing his last potent statement to sink in. I ask Jason one last question. What sticks with him about what his father taught him? He places both index fingers tenderly against his lips for a couple of seconds, reflecting, then responds with warmth. “He was the kind of guy who would think about others before himself. He taught me the golden rule: Before you act, imagine how your action is going to affect those around you.” The HIV/AIDS community is blessed that Jason learned his lessons well.
Dann Dulin interviewed actor and comedian Alec Mapa for the May cover story. For more patter on Jason Ritter, log on to: www.DANNandKELLY.com.