Talking to Christina Ricci is, strangely, like chatting with an old friend, albeit one who is insanely cool, effortlessly beautiful, and a magnetic Hollywood star. I tell her this and she laughs – that slightly husky, almost sardonic laugh we know so well from her movies – and before long, we’ve gone down a rabbit hole recalling the films of my childhood, and the ones that made Ricci famous: Mermaids (1990) The Addams Family (1991) and Addams Family Values (1993), Casper (1995), Now and Then (1995), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Sleepy Hollow (1999).
Indeed, so much about Ricci, now 36, seems familiar – that laugh, the enormous eyes, her voice – that I wonder if it’s odd for her, being known so well by so many strangers, having been part of their lives through film and television for almost three decades. It’s not really, she says. After all, she has nothing to compare it to. Ricci has been famous since she was seven years old. Discovered by a scout who was in the audience of her school Christmas play, she landed a few TV commercials before her film career took off with Mermaids, alongside Cher and Winona Ryder, and she quickly became the most in-demand child actress of her generation. As a teenager, she earned a reputation for darkness after she made inflammatory statements about incest and death to the press. Today, she acknowledges this as ‘lashing out’ – she was, after all, just a teenage girl with ordinary insecurities, often placed in extraordinary situations.
Now, as well as being a busy wife and mum – she married camera technician James Heerdegen in 2013 and they welcomed a son in 2014 – and a spokesperson for RAINN, America’s largest anti-sexual violence organisation, she’s created an intoxicating new role for herself. Reading Therese Anne Fowler’s 2013 book Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Ricci was so enchanted by Zelda’s life, particularly her complicated marriage to the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, that she called her agent to ask who owned the film rights.
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No one did, so Ricci pounced. Season one of Z: The Beginning of Everything premiered on Amazon in February, and a second season is already in the works. And it seems Ricci was on to something: it’s recently emerged that Ron Howard is directing a film aboutZelda, with Jennifer Lawrence in the starring role. Ricci and I spoke about the show, how she got under Zelda’s skin, growing up famous and why she doesn’t believe in complaining.
So you read this book and decided you wanted to turn it into a show and star in it. Were you thinking, ‘Gosh, I want this part!’ the whole time you were reading?
I read it because I was looking for parts for me as an actor and I fell in love with this character. It’s such a great opportunity for an actress, and I couldn’t believe that no one had made it into a movie or something. I feel like a lot of the really good parts are already taken [laughs], so I really couldn’t believe it. At first, I just called my agent and said, ‘Whoever is going to make this into a movie, I really want to come and audition. Will you just get my name in there?’ My manager was like, ‘Well it’s not set up anywhere and nobody has the option.’ So I took it right to Killer Films, because they’re the
highest-end production company I really know and it just happened to fall into place really easily. The whole thing has been surprisingly seamless [laughs]. There have been some bumps in production, but you have so many things you try to get made and you can spend years and years and they never see the light of day. It just felt like it was kind of meant to be, if you believe in that kind of thing.
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It seems as though Zelda was quite misunderstood – her reputation has always been one of a mad, destructive alcoholic.
Yeah! I feel like there’s a group of writers and they all fall into this category, you know, like all these crazy ladies who apparently ruined their husbands’ lives [laughs].
What surprised you most about her?
I was very surprised that a lot of her writing was actually used by him. I found that to be sort of shocking. I knew it happened a lot, but you would think with people this famous you would have heard about it. And what’s surprising is that all of this information is out there. It’s not new; it’s been out there since the seventies or something. Although when you’re dealing with someone like him, who is considered to be a great American novelist, one of our precious writers, it’s easier to understand why people are protecting his reputation. But I don’t know… the whole thing is just kind of unfair. It’s one thing to have your writing taken and to not be allowed to be an artist and stand on your own if that’s what you want, but to then be blamed for somebody’s demise! She wasn’t just oppressed; she was beaten. It’s kind of unbelievable. But with shows like this and what Jennifer Lawrence and Ron Howard are going to do, hopefully we get to give Zelda back her reputation a bit.
What did you love most about playing Zelda?
Because we had done so much research and I had been so involved in development, I knew so much about her that I really felt like I was living in the knowledge I had of her. It made me able to be spontaneous in the middle of a scene, to make a face that was contradictory to what I was saying, to play her with a little more realism than most characters. Because with most characters, you’re so aware that they’re not real, that you are working to make them feel real. I was just given a lot of freedom by all the information I had and how real of a person she was in my head.
Is that something you’ve done throughout your career – dig into the research so you can embody a person before you start playing them?
That’s not something I ever did consciously. I think maybe, subconsciously, there’s an element of that. Because I’ve been doing this so long, I really do feel very comfortable in front of the camera, so I like being able to really take advantage of that comfort and to relax and trust my instincts. But I think in order to do that I have to have a very good feeling about who the character is. So yeah, it probably is something I have always done but not in a conscious way. With other characters, there isn’t as much actual information.
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You’ve said you’d never be cast in this role unless you created it for yourself. Why do you think that?
Initially, we did a bunch of camera tests to see if I could even play her at 18. No one wants to do anything ludicrous [laughs]. So, firstly, I’m a little too old to be playing her in her younger years, but with camera and make-up and digital effects we managed to make that work. And because, very quickly, we’re going to jump ahead to an age that is more appropriate, it was okay. Secondly, I’m not your go-to when you think of your romantic lead. I’m a very specific actor, I think, just even from the way I look, the way I talk, and it’s hard for people to imagine me doing something different to what I normally do, which I understand. But it just means that, at a certain point, I had to accept the fact that I wasn’t going to play those parts, and if I wanted those kinds of parts, I had to create opportunities for myself.
As you were saying that, I was wondering if that’s a source of frustration for you or if you’ve been able to turn it on its head and see it as an opportunity. It sounds like the latter.
Yeah, I’m one of those people. I don’t like to complain, and I don’t like to be unhappy. The second something is bothering me, I try and fix it. It’s the only way you can actually do anything in your life, you know. If you’re not willing to take the time and effort, you can’t really complain – you have to exhaust every option and possibility before you say something is impossible.
I imagine this attitude is kind of essential in your industry. There are so many factors you can’t control.
Yeah, that’s the thing. You’re dealing with human nature. Somebody might not like short people, so they might want this and that but all they care about is that everybody below five foot five is taken off the list. You know what I mean? And I know people who are executives, so I know these really are conversations that go on! When you realise how little control you have, you have to carve your own path. And I am capable of doing these things. More and more you see people doing this, and I think it’s going to take off. I say that with a wink [laughs].
You grew up in the spotlight, so how did you establish a sense of yourself and learn to be okay with rejection?
When I was very little, my mother always taught me that you don’t know what people are looking for when you walk into a room. Like I said, somebody might hate short people. You just don’t know, and you can’t take other people’s taste or wishes personally. But as I’ve gotten older, when you really want something and you’ve got down to that final call back, it can be really devastating when you don’t get it. I certainly have had weekends spent in bed, just eating Thai food, after losing a part after a third or fourth audition [laughs]. I can say that I am really comfortable with it, but there have been times where it’s just rocked my world.
I saw a quote of yours that said something like, ‘I hope I’m not still talking about being a child star in menopause.’ But given that you’re not there yet, I guess we’re allowed to touch on it?
[Laughs] Yeah, of course!
Growing up, did you dream of being in movies?
No, not really. It had never occurred to me as a possibility. I was so little! I was only seven, so nobody had ever presented it as something that you could do. I loved movies and television, but I hadn’t made the leap, like, ‘Oh that could be me on the TV.’ When you did start out, did you love it right away? I loved being busy, and I loved having responsibility. I loved the problem-solving element of going in and figuring out who your audience was and who they wanted you to be and how to play the scene. I had a very active mind and I liked putting it to use and being challenged in that way. I was bored at home. I was bored just going to school.
Does talking to an invisible Casper in such a convincing way count as problem-solving?
[Laughs] I mean, there was like a stick with a ball on the end, and they’d tell me where it was going to be. I think, again, I’m one of those people who likes a challenge, so talking to a ball on a stick was like, ‘Oh great! Let me figure out how I’m going to do this.’ I just had one of those inner lives as a child that was very busy!
Thinking about your career before talking to you, I realised that you’ve done a lot of very memorable films. I wondered what the process was like for choosing those roles when you were so young?
After The Addams Family, I got a lot of offers for the best things for kids. I was lucky, in that I was an indemand child and they didn’t make that many kids’ movies, so I think I got my pick. There are some things I read that weren’t quite right, but for the most part, the things I read and were offered were just perfect.
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Do you have a favourite film of yours, or one that you have very fond memories of making?
Oh I loved making the Addams Family movies, I have to say. Those movies I think are the ones that changed my life the most, so I owe them a debt of gratitude. But I also just had fun – so much fun.
It sounds like you’re quite busy and you love problemsolving – do you have much downtime?
I have a hyper-vigilant personality [laughs]. So it’s constant doing and making lists. It’s funny because I’m always late, but for my own schedule. I don’t really have a lot of downtime. Sometimes, after I put the baby down, I’ll have an hour and a half of staring mindlessly at the television. Everybody needs to space out now and then!
How has motherhood changed you?
I think it just helped me prioritise, and it helped me take my life seriously in a way that I just didn’t before. It’s easier for me to take things seriously for another person than it is for me to take things seriously just for me. It’s nice. But the thing is, I get why I didn’t take things seriously before, because it’s terrifying to actually care about stuff [laughs]. I know that before I tried not to care as a way of protecting myself, but now I can’t. Now it feels good; it feels good to be committed and to care. You know… riskier, but good.
As a teenager you were quite provocative in interviews, but I wonder if these things are connected – you being more invested and caring so much, whereas back then you were just a kid.
Yeah. And also, it was very uncomfortable for me. I was a teenager. I was very aware of my own limitations. I had all the insecurities that a teenager has, and I was put into situations where I couldn’t say, ‘You know what? I don’t feel comfortable with this conversation and I’d like to leave.’ My way of leaving was just to say ridiculous, outrageous things. There were times when I would rather do anything than sit in this room and talk to someone. It felt very invasive, and I think a lot of the outrageous, shocking things I said were me lashing out a bit, and trying to get a little space, more than me just being hostile. Because I did feel invaded.
Did you feel famous when you were young?
I don’t think so, because I didn’t really have anything to compare it to. I started so young. You know how people apply things retroactively to memory? So when I think of myself, even as a very young child, I still think of myself as an actress. Because I never had any life experience outside of fame, it’s hard for me to feel the effect that the fame has had because I have never known anything else. I started dating my husband and I remember him being like, ‘You know that people don’t react like this to everybody?’ And I’d be like, ‘What?’ He was like, ‘People aren’t that nice to everybody. You think they’re just super nice to you because they like you?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know. I mean, I’m friendly. I smile at everyone.’ He was like, ‘No, it’s because you’re famous!’ It took me a long time to really understand that and to get how most people experience the world. But I can’t claim to understand that because I have never really had that first-person experience.
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Do you wish that you had? You seem very self-aware and unscathed from child stardom.
I think that I could be further in my career had I not had such a hard time dealing with fame as a child. But, at the same time, I’m so lucky, and this career in a way saved me and gave me a direction. So I would never wish that it hadn’t happened, because when it came about, it was like the greatest thing that had ever happened to me and my family. But I wouldn’t choose it for my own child. I think it’s important for people to be old enough to contextualise the insane things that happen to them. Otherwise you can’t explain to a kid that that’s not normal or that this won’t be happening ever again. Sometimes the good things are so out of control good that you think that’s just normal, and that’s what happens to people in this industry. I think that’s where the drugs and alcohol often come into play, because how else do you recreate that rush of adrenalin, that high? It’s impossible to recreate.
Yeah. You’ve grown up being Christina Ricci, rather than just Christina. Which I guess is a cool but different reality.
It is a different reality, but I think I prefer my reality. I cannot believe how lucky I have been. And now, especially, looking around at what goes on in the rest of the world and even here at the moment, in America. My life is so incredibly blessed. I would never dare to complain about it.
It seems like that’s a mantra of yours, to not complain.
[Laughs] It’s true! I find it really embarrassing when people complain about things in their lives and they have such good lives. You can really make yourself look like a jerk. I just can’t. But the things that I have to complain about are private things, so there’s nothing for me to complain about publically.
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Make-up Tina Turnbow at TraceyMattingly.com.
Manicure Lolly Koon at Art-Dept using Chanel Le Vernis.
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