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Actor Jason Ritter draws on painful memories for new film 'About Alex'

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TORONTO - In the new dramedy "About Alex," the first time we see star Jason Ritter he's withering inside a rumpled suit, his hair wet and his dewy blue eyes shrouded in bags so heavy they could be used to train boxers.

He then sends out a solemn tweet, hoists himself fully clothed into a bathtub and — off-screen — slits his wrists.

The 34-year-old Ritter couldn't sleep the night before shooting that pivotal scene, which coincidentally only enhanced the reality of his dire performance.

"It's one of those things where you can't shut off your brain," said the personable Ritter in a recent telephone conversation. "To him, in that moment, it feels like this will be an end to all of the turmoil. There will be silence finally. It's that strange and tragic and sad sense that soon it will all be over.

"To think about friends of mine who had attempted suicide and things like that — it was a dark place to be."

Fortunately neither Ritter nor the titular Alex needed to dwell there long.

In the film, Alex's suicide attempt fails and inspires his once-unbreakable circle of college friends to reunite at his remote upstate New York cottage to prop up their semi-estranged in-crisis friend.

Of course, his buddies all embark on the trip saddled with much figurative baggage of their own.

Ben and Siri (Nate Parker and Maggie Grace) are brainy college sweethearts now mired in unhappy stasis. Max Greenfield's prickly Josh is toiling fruitlessly and hopelessly on a doctorate while eagerly inflicting his sour worldview on anyone who'll listen. Max Minghella's Isaac faces the palpable judgment of his friends over bringing along his 22-year-old girlfriend (played by "Suburgatory" star Jane Levy), while Aubrey Plaza's sensitive Sarah has dispassionately devoted herself to a job she hates.

Over the course of a single scenic weekend, the seven characters weave themselves into a romantic knot so complex it would flummox a sea captain.

And behind the scenes, Ritter said it was crucial to try to establish a bond with each of his co-stars, because otherwise the movie wouldn't achieve its essential lived-in quality.

"We would have shot ourselves in the foot before we took our first step if no one believed that we had been friends for years," he said.

"It's hard to create history but what you can do is take a tiny bit of history and expand it. If you start hanging out with someone and then within three days you have little references and inside jokes and you have ways to make that person specifically laugh, it starts to create a specific bond."

Sequestered as they were away from their usual urban stomping grounds, the actors had almost no choice but to bond.

They'd party at night and entertain each other during long days onset. Greenfield and Ritter established a rapport that's particularly evident in a scene that finds the two tossing out goofy dance moves ("It's important to feel comfortable enough to make a fool of yourself," Ritter offers with a laugh).

He shares perhaps the most onscreen chemistry with Plaza, who's become famous for her bone-dry wit and Arctic chilliness as April on "Parks & Recreation." She plays an altogether different role here, and one of the film's most touching moments comes with she and Ritter cuddling platonically in bed, tears rolling organically from her eyes.

"I think Aubrey is an amazing actress," Ritter said. "Every time she would see me initially at the beginning, she would see my bandages and I would see little tears come to her eyes. For whatever reason, she really connected to the material."

Ritter did too. Where the other actors mainly headed back to New York on weekends, he stayed north — finding that the isolated solitude helped to inform his performance.

(He also found time for some hijinks, meeting a group of locals at a karaoke bar and the next day joining them for a round of cliff-diving.)

For a film that opens with a suicide attempt, "About Alex" — which hits Toronto theatres and Canadian video-on-demand services on Friday — is surprisingly light. Early on, Alex gives his friends permission to laugh about the near-tragedy — and, by extension, the audience too — and Ritter says that reflects the way he's handled adversity in his own life.

"For me, humour is one of my strongest and most effective defence mechanisms," said Ritter, who lost his father, Emmy Award-winning "Three's Company" star John Ritter, when he was 23.

"Some of the hardest times I've laughed in my life have been the worst times. But there can be so much pain that something strikes you as funny, and all of a sudden the pain has a way of being released into the world.

"You never forget what happens — but that's not what happens when you're laughing during a tragedy. You're almost acknowledging it and how painful it is and the absurdity of the notion that you're supposed to be able to just deal with something like this and move forward.

"And the absurdity is that life just keeps on barrelling forward at the exact same rate of speed before the bad thing happened."

Ritter might be most familiar either for voicing the plucky Dipper on the celebrated animated series "Gravity Falls" or for portraying Lauren Graham's perceptive paramour Mark on "Parenthood" (he says he's not sure yet whether his character will figure into the ensemble drama's upcoming final season, but that he would "absolutely love" to participate somehow).

Certainly, Alex hews closer to the latter character: a sensitive, soft-hearted type with an almost uncomfortably intuitive gaze. And Ritter acknowledges that his aptitude for characters like that does reflect something about his personality.

"Yeah, generally I do gravitate toward roles like that," he said. "In 'About Alex,' it was like, all the protective layers that I have been able to put up over myself to be able to live in the world and experience disappointment and heartbreak — I tried to take all those away, and just get back to someone who is capable of being wounded at any time.

"I know people like that, who just feel everything so deeply. And I was like that. You know, I cried a lot, until I realized that that wasn't what was expected of me, and then you try to cover up. But yeah, I don't know what it is. I guess there wasn't a lot of pressure in my family or growing up to be like a super manly man. It was OK to be like: 'I'm sad about this thing' or 'this thing makes me happy.'

"I guess I just gravitate toward characters who spend a lot of time in their heads."

— Follow @CP_Patch on Twitter.

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