Kick ass for the kids
Eric Ritter: actor, karate teacher, altruist
How is acting like karate? It may sound like a riddle, but Eric Ritter has a serious answer. “[Acting is] a lot like karate,” he says, sitting in the paper-strewn office of his karate gym. “It’s technical, takes a lot of work. It’s very hard to make a living, but you get to where you’re very happy doing it.”
And, as his muscular physique and black Martial Arts Training Academy jacket make clear, he should know. The 28-year-old Reno native is not only an award-winning martial-arts expert; he’s also a TV and film actor who just wrapped up an episode of CSI: New York with Gary Sinise.
Ritter began studying martial arts when he was just 4 years old, at his father’s behest. “I needed discipline,” says Ritter, laughing. His gamble paid off: “25 years later, I became disciplined.” Ritter ended up loving karate and studied various martial arts over the years. He now holds a fifth-degree black belt in karate, a third-degree black belt in goju kenpo, and first-degree black belts in both aki-jujitsu and tae kwon do. In addition, he’s been state champion in both Nevada and California, and he was inducted into the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame in 2004.
At age 20, Ritter joined the Marines and was stationed at Camp Pendleton, outside San Diego. He stayed for two and a half years, until a wrist injury led to an honorable discharge. What’s the next career step for a karate star and ex-Marine? Why, acting, of course. Ritter moved to Los Angeles and began working as an actor and studying at the Beverly Hills Playhouse and the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, where he met his wife, Michelle, also an actor.
Ritter’s martial-arts experience helped him get his foot in the door, but soon he was getting jobs based on just his acting. “My first year and a half in L.A. was great,” he recalls. “I worked all the time. Then we had the commercial strike, we had the writers’ strike, we had 9/11—now, it’s a totally different Hollywood today than it was when I first went out there.”
When he started out, Ritter says, the market for independent films was much greater than it is today, as low-budget movies like Clerks and The Blair Witch Project became hits. “There were unknown people making unknown films using unknown names. … They’d sell them to the studios, and they would get big, and people would work their way up the ladder.”
These days, he says, major studios control most projects, and lesser-known actors are forced to compete with big-name stars for work.
“In the scheme of things, I’m a no-name,” Ritter says. “I work, I get paid, but I’m not an A-list actor, so it’s hard when I go for an audition, and it’s like, ‘It’s you and John Travolta. Good luck!'”
Like karate, acting requires hard work, discipline and perseverance, says Ritter.
“I don’t care what actor you can think of, somebody out there thinks they were sleeping on a park bench and got found one day as Steven Spielberg stepped off of a bus,” he laughs. In reality, being a successful actor means making the most of any role—even a thankless one. “It’s hard, because everybody wants to go out and be the action hero. They think they’re going to go to Hollywood and jump off a building and save the damsel in distress. Well, your jobs aren’t like that. Your jobs are to be believable in whatever you are, and that is a very difficult thing to do.” For Ritter, those roles have included street urchins, drug addicts, gang members, serial killers and the occasional murder victim.
Ritter prefers film acting—he’s appeared in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Showgirls and Coyote Ugly, among others—but also has done television work on shows like Star Trek Voyager and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Most recently, he worked with Gary Sinise on the new CSI spin-off, CSI: New York.
In CSI: New York, “I’m the victim,” explains Ritter, “so there’s this scene where I’m in the medical examiner’s office, and I’m on that cold, stainless-steel table, and I’m naked, and they have to clean me off and figure out all the wounds. … [Sinise] washes me and picks rocks out of my cheeks and looks at my hands, and I told him, ‘You realize I get the better version of this story. I get to say I did a nude scene with Academy Award nominee Gary Sinise—it’s very sensual, he holds my hand, he bathes me, and then at the end he gets my rocks off.’ “
Joking aside, he says, working with Sinise was a wonderful experience. That’s how he was introduced to Operation Iraqi Children (www.operationiraqichildren.org), a charitable organization founded by Sinise and Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand. While touring in Iraq to entertain the troops, Sinise noticed appalling conditions in the local schools. “They had one-room classrooms, no floor, no windows or anything,” says Ritter. “They’d do their lesson plans in the dirt.” Returning to the United States, Sinise noticed the excess supplies at his own child’s school and realized that he could help.
Through Operation Iraqi Children, donations of school supplies are assembled into kits and sent to Iraq, where U.S. soldiers distribute them to children. “You’ve never seen kids so happy to get a pencil, to get paper to write on,” Ritter adds. Locally, he has gotten Reno High School involved with the program and is working with Spanish Springs Elementary as well.
Celebrities have a great deal of social influence, says Ritter, and he’s happy to see actors like Sinise using their fame to do good. “You look at someone like Gary Sinise, who makes no money on Operation Iraqi Children, who gets very little recognition for it. … What he cares about is that kids over there have paper. It’s great to see people like that.”
In addition to his other endeavors, Ritter owns the Martial Arts Training Academy, which he opened in 2003. He teaches a blend of several martial arts to students of all ages. “We have self-defense-oriented classes, we have sports-oriented classes, and we have traditional classes,” he says. As the sole instructor, he stays pretty busy but welcomes anyone who’s interested in learning more about martial arts.
So what’s in store for Eric Ritter? He’d love to work with Quentin Tarantino—one of his favorite directors—or even write and direct his own independent film with some actor buddies. But as long as he’s working and doing what he enjoys, whether that’s acting or karate, he’s a happy man.
“To me, strenuous is sitting in a cubicle," Ritter says. "I’ve got to be able to express, and that’s what I love about karate—you’re constantly expressing yourself. With acting, you’re constantly expressing something."