At 28 years old, Christina Ricci today emerges as the unlikely poster-child for child actors. Making her splashy big screen debut opposite Cher and Winona Ryder in Mermaids (1990) aged nine, she has since starred in 40 movies. An unconventional-looking child, Ricci’s expansive forehead and huge eyes initially typecast her as an oddball in family films like The Addams Family (1991) and Casper (1995) but, by the age of 15, she had shaken off earlier preconceptions with a small role in Anjelica Huston’s harrowing tale of child abuse, Bastard Out of Carolina (1996).

The film hinted at more dramatic potential than Hollywood had previously given her credit for, and, before leaving her twenties, she had turned in complex performances as Kevin Kline’s nymphomaniac daughter in The Ice Storm (1997), a laundromat worker who finds fame in John Waters’ sweetly subversive comedy Pecker (1998), and a manipulative teen who seduces her gay brother’s lover in The Opposite of Sex (1998), earning herself a Golden Globe nomination.

While family problems and substance abuse have blighted the adult careers of many a former child star, Ricci shimmied effortlessly through her own coming of age. Not that she claims any superiority over her beleaguered colleagues: “I’m not someone who deigns to think that my way of living is something I should tell other people to do. I stay out of the tabloids because I literally don’t go anywhere at night. I’m a day-time celebrity,” says the actress, who nevertheless claims to have at least three paparazzi who regularly stake out her home.

Ask how she has managed to avoid many of young Hollywood’s familiar pitfalls, and Ricci smiles: “It may seem like that but I’ve had my own share of problems, including anorexia and depression. These are things you can’t always deal with alone so I went to therapy. Sometimes people need to seek professional help. Along the way I discovered that you can choose to be happy. If you choose to let go of your self-consciousness and insecurities about physical appearance, then you’ll get to a place where you are present to see the world and enjoy yourself.

“I think the reason why many child stars don’t make it is that it’s hard to see someone as cute, and then all of a sudden they become adults. In hindsight, I was lucky that, when I was younger, nobody thought of me as cute.”

Sympathetic to today’s young actresses, she says: “When I was that age, that nightclubbing age, I was living in New York. And I went to the bars and clubs and everything, and made all the mistakes one needs to make, going through that age; and was as silly as I needed to be, because there wasn’t really that kind of tabloid culture then. This sort of blood-lust, almost, is fairly new. When I was going through that five or 10 years ago, you could make mistakes without someone there taking a photograph.”

Likewise, Ricci isn’t naive enough to believe that certain actresses don’t actively court such attention: “I do think that if you don’t want to be photographed, there are certain places where you don’t need to go.”

Ricci is currently starring in the Wachowski brothers’ action family flick Speed Racer. Featuring Emile Hirsch in the title role, Speed Racer isn’t Ricci’s usual film fare – it’s a big-budget, glossy affair, laden with special effects, and featuring CGI race cars and a chimp dressed in clothes.

Unabashed about her motivations, she says: “In order to get the film roles that I love, and in order to have the career I ultimately want to have, you have to have a certain amount of box-office success, to be offered those roles. You know, there could be a horror film and then you’re offered some totally intense, Elizabethan drama. And neither has anything to do with the other, but all they care about really is that your last movie grossed whatever it grossed. So for a while I’ve been trying to get into bigger films.”

Even more odd is to witness an outspoken feminist such as Ricci decked out like a living doll in pink and red for her role as Trixie, Speed’s devoted girlfriend. “On the contrary, I loved playing Trixie because she’s truly what feminism is all about,” Ricci says. “She does everything the boys do, but at the same time she’s the girliest girl ever. She has a special outfit for each activity, and her lipstick always matches her hairclips or her T-shirt or shoes. Yet she still does everything the boys do – like she flies a helicopter; she strategises with the boys; she kung-fu fights with them, and even races in a rally. She’s actually a great role-model character for girls because she’s smart and funny.”

So while Ricci’s coiffed, designer-clad image will be plastered around the media for the coming month, for the most part she stays strictly beneath the radar. In an effort to further her creative goals, she formed her own production company eight years ago, both producing and starring in the well-received indie films Prozac Nation and Pumpkin. And she works with RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network), lobbying on Capitol Hill for funding to process massive backlogs of rape kits.

She was the fourth child born to former model Sarah Murdoch and psychiatrist-turned-lawyer Ralph Ricci; her parents divorced when she was 13. Born in California, she spent most of her childhood in the middle class town of Montclair, New Jersey, where her then psychiatrist father specialised in primal-shrieking therapy. As a child, she would hear his patients’ screams through the vents in her room, later re-enacting them for her mother.

All three of her elder siblings were approached by talent scouts as children, although their parents refused to let Hollywood corrupt their offspring. “We’re a very loud, talkative family, so I guess that’s why all of us received so much attention. So when I was approached by an agent when I was seven, my two brothers and sister begged our parents to let me take a shot at it. All four of us may have been actors today, although I don’t think my siblings regret it for a moment. They’re all happy and fulfilled with their own lives,” says Ricci, who employs her sister Pia at her production company.

Having frequently discussed her insecurity over her unusual looks, Ricci today has the last laugh: “Seriously, if I was just starting out in this business, I’d probably have to lose 20lb. As a teenager, my favourite rejection was ‘She looks too healthy’, which, of course, translates as: ‘she needs to lose weight’. But I never had any illusions. I knew I’d never be cast as the pretty girl. I went through an awkward adolescence and had braces. This business is all about appearances, which leaves a lot of the more interesting roles to actresses like me.”

If Ricci doesn’t consider herself among Hollywood’s prettiest actress, then it hasn’t adversely affected her love-life. Previously attached to actors Orlando Bloom and Adam Goldberg (in whose directorial debut, I Love Your Work, she starred in 2003), she is now dating the Australian actor Kick Gurry, whom she met a year ago on the Berlin set of Speed Racer. But, having regretted publicly declaring her desire to start a family while dating Goldberg, she’s learnt from previous mistakes. She now takes a more traditional approach to such questions: “Kick is a very good friend.”

‘Speed Racer’ opens on 9 May

From The Independent