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Christina Ricci: Beyond Wednesday

The poster girl for 90s alienation is set to surprise us all again by producing a show about a tragic feminist icon – just don't call her 'brave'

Taken from the autumn/winter 2015 issue of Dazed:

“When I was a teenager, you didn’t have to be super-pop or commercial,” laughs Christina Ricci. “In fact, if you said you liked pop music, everyone was like, ‘Ugh, what’s wrong with you?’ It wasn’t cool to be the captain of the cheerleading team. Which was great for me.”

Ricci has spent the best part of three decades as Hollywood’s go-to girl for all things gloomy and intense. With her ability to cast that look – a withering stare that seems to reach deep into your soul and find its contents sadly lacking – she was the perfect pin-up for the post-grunge, post-Gen X era, when all the cool kids defined themselves in opposition to the mainstream. And yet, watching the 35-year-old pout and glare through today’s six-hour shoot, it’s hard to tell if she’s glowering because that’s what has become expected of her, or if she is genuinely bemused at still having to do this kind of thing.

Ricci’s film debut came aged ten, with a precocious turn opposite Cher in Mermaids (1990), but it was note-perfect performances as Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family (1991) and its sequel, Addams Family Values (1993), that confirmed her as a dark star on the rise. By the age of 17, Ricci was a poster-girl for disaffected youth, helping colour the zeitgeist of the decade with a slew of roles as snarky vixens and spectral waifs in films like The Ice Storm (1997), Buffalo ’66 (1998) and Sleepy Hollow (1999). But there’s a playful intelligence to Ricci that, one suspects, Hollywood has not always known what to do with.

“These were just the parts I got,” says Ricci. “I definitely auditioned for other things that weren’t ‘complicated’ or ‘risky’. I’m just not a rom-com kind of girl.” For a long time, this fact upset her. “I felt that, if I wasn’t believable as this cute, adorable person in a romantic comedy, what did that say about who I am in real life? I was a little offended. But my humour is different from the humour (in those films). Life is not a romantic comedy.”

Now, after years of struggling to avoid typecasting, she’s taking matters into her own hands. For her latest project, Ricci is exec-producing and starring in a pilot based on Therese Anne Fowler’s 2013 book Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, on Amazon later this year. Ricci was blown away by the novel, a fictional memoir written from the viewpoint of The Great Gatsby author F Scott Fitzgerald’s wife. Zelda was a gifted but unstable woman who lived in the shadow of her husband, and died in a mental hospital after being diagnosed as a schizophrenic (scholars now think she may have been bipolar).

“Zelda wanted very badly to be seen as an artist in her own right,” says Ricci, who identified with this proto-feminist figure whose talents were not fully appreciated in her time. “The idea that she was this crazy woman who ruined F Scott Fitzgerald is completely false and (typical of) the dismissive misogyny that is often used to deal with smart, complicated women who were ahead of their time. I also think her story is incredibly timely given the discussions about feminism going on in our society today.”

Assuming that Fowler’s novel would already have been optioned for the big screen, Ricci asked her manager to find out who had the rights, hoping to secure an audition for the part. As it turned out, they were up for grabs.

“(Producing) is something I actually want to move towards,” says Ricci. “I like being an older actress, but there’s something about the vanity involved in it. I would rather do something that I know feels more grounded, more based in substance. Where, like, if I got into a car accident and my face was ruined, I could still make money.”

At 35, Ricci is no ‘older actress’, but perhaps her 25-year screen career might give people that impression. In The Addams Family, she looked like an Edward Gorey drawing come to life, and for viewers of a certain age, Ricci quite simply is Wednesday Addams. “Christina was an exquisite child with an innate intelligence that belied her years,” says The Addams Family co-star Anjelica Huston. “Her huge eyes blinked slowly, like a little owl; she seemed to absorb the world around her with an unflinching acceptance. It would have been dishonest on my part to treat her as a child.”

The film’s sequel, Addams Family Values, saw Ricci’s character solemnly leading a rebellion at summer camp, turning the TV show’s sullen punchline puppet into a hero for outcast kids everywhere. A clutch of edgy roles followed in the late 90s – in 1998 alone, she appeared in seven films, including The Opposite of Sex, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and Desert Blue, in which she starred opposite Brendan Sexton III. Sexton would soon work closely with Ricci again in the same year’s Pecker, directed by John Waters.

“Christina was a beast,” says Sexton. “She led a revolution of social outcasts and Native Americans against the overprivileged pilgrims (in Addams Family Values). My sisters watched and sang along with Mermaids like it was their religion. She was an intimidating talent, and – thinking back – she probably suffered from a lack of material that could meet her sharp mind and big heart.”

“I would rather do something that I know feels more grounded, more based in substance. Where, like, if I got into a car accident and my face was ruined, I could still make money” – Christina Ricci

As a teenager, Ricci was sarcastic and aloof with the press. A comment about incest taken out of context, a display of scars from adolescent self-harm, and bad-mouthing an absentee father kept her on page six for a while. At the time, the attention felt like a big deal. Now, she says, “I’ve been presented in very extreme versions, but I’m the one who said all this bullshit. I wasn’t misquoted, so it was kind of my fault. I think people have actually been pretty kind to me over the years.”

While she was learning to give the press a hard time, Ricci was also cutting her teeth on New York’s party circuit. “Clea DuVall, who I just worked with (on Lifetime’s The Lizzie Borden Chronicles), is one of the people I always hung out with when we were teenagers,” she says. “We did stupid things – and we were allowed to. We were doing Hollywood parties and crazy New York clubs that we shouldn’t have been in. Now, Clea and I always talk about how it was such a different environment than Hollywood is now for people of that age. We weren’t well-behaved, but it was safer.”

Director John Waters recalls the teenage Ricci, who he directed in Pecker, being every bit as cynical as one might guess. “Christina is a wonderful actress – yes, I still use that word,” he says. “She’s a complete team player. In real life, she’s got the dark sense of humour you’d expect and is fearless in taking on roles others might fear. She can play blue-collar character parts and Hollywood glamour leads with equal comfort. Christina Ricci is the real thing. I miss seeing her.”

In Vincent Gallo’s directorial debut Buffalo ’66, Ricci played a wide-eyed blonde, Layla, kidnapped by a lovelorn ex-con (Gallo). “I remember people thinking my character was anti-feminist,” says Ricci, “because she just follows him around.” But when Gallo was courting her for the role, her character had a backstory that would later be cut from the film.

“It’s her birthday,” says Ricci, recalling Layla’s motivation. “Her father has just died so she’s all alone. When he kidnaps her she really doesn’t have anything else going on. She’s like, ‘I might as well see what happens.’ I just thought that was so simple and touching. Sometimes people do things that don’t make sense. It’s realistic for this person, because everybody’s different.”

Despite her defence of the character, she’s quick to point out that she’s no longer in touch with Gallo. “He just has nasty things to say about so many people and he’s done nothing but say nasty things about me,” she laughs. “I think he has imaginary fights with people. But I don’t like to talk about him. It just gets him more attention.”

Ricci, whose bravest roles include the girlfriend of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the Oscar-winning Monster (2003) and a cheerleader in love with a mentally handicapped mentee in a film she produced, Pumpkin (2002), pleads innocence: “I always felt like everybody would see the intention. I never really saw anything I did as ‘brave’ because I never consider the repercussions of anything. It confuses me when people say, ‘That’s a brave thing to do.’ I didn’t see the risk. I think that’s why I did a lot of things that maybe other people wouldn’t have done.”

Today we’re in Brooklyn, not far from where Ricci lives with her husband and 13-month-old son, Freddie, who comes to the set later on. Freddie has his mother’s huge eyes. When they first moved to the neighbourhood, the New York Post published the family’s new address. Now, every so often, Ricci is papped holding her child. “They put photographers outside of our house,” she sighs. “Now there are photos of him, which is terrible. We were so upset. It was Mother’s Day, so I bet their assignment was to photograph all the new mothers in Hollywood.”

“I felt that, if I wasn’t believable as this cute person in a romantic comedy, what did that say about who I am in real life? I was a little offended. But life is not a romantic comedy” – Christina Ricci

For Ricci, Freddie should not be in the public eye until he’s old enough to decide for himself. “I don’t want to make decisions for him that he should be able to make once he’s of an age to make them,” she says. “Who knows? Maybe in future it will be a terrible thing to be famous.”

But it’s obvious that Ricci, for the most part, gets what she wants. By now, she’s a pro at being interviewed, meaning she knows what to leave out. As the Zelda Fitzgerald project suggests, she wants to work, but not at being any more famous than she already is. And that’s because she’s right: being famous is becoming a terrible thing.

“Everybody is famous right now,” she says, her eyes getting even wider. “Young actors are under so much scrutiny. The things people get in trouble for are hilarious. It’s just acting like a jackass, like any teenager would. I liked to be a jackass at all times when I was younger, but it was a big thing when the tabloid sites popped up on the internet. All of a sudden, you had to be much more careful with the way you behaved at parties and what you said in restaurants. It happened fast. You had to have a really good publicist that could beg them not to print anything.” She stares off, most likely overwhelmed by the thought of what it would take today to stave off bad publicity. Could a teen Christina Ricci even exist in today’s Disney child-star factory?

“You don’t want to be an insurance risk,” she laughs. “There’s always someone else they can hire who they like just as much and will cause them less problems. It’s good to be considered normal.” After two and a half decades of playing the outsider, maybe ‘normal’ works just fine.

Hair Tamara McNaughton at Management Artists; make-up Pep Gay at Streeters; set design Eli Metcalf at Lalaland; fashion assistant Janina Butz; hair assistant Erin Herschleb; digital operator Antonio Cassio

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