The child actor who grew up in the glare of the cameras is a tricky inTerview, but it’s worth persevering with christina ricci, star of Bel Ami. Just watch out for her death stare

Certain words crop up again and again when it comes to Christina Ricci. The actress walked on to her first film set at the age of nine and has been described as dark, quirky, edgy, angsty, indie, alternative, and just plain weird pretty much ever since. For some, she is the female Johnny Depp, Hollywood’s It Goth Girl, the one who took over from Angelina Jolie when she crossed over to the light side. For others she is more like Marilyn Manson.

We don’t really like our child stars to grow up. Even though it’s been more than two decades since Ricci played Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family, that pale-faced precocious child continues to haunt her at 32. So to us Ricci is still “creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, altogether ooky” just like the theme tune promised. And it must get really boring when you’re expected to be a weirdo all the time. When Ricci was introduced on The Jonathan Ross Show last month and everyone started snapping their fingers and chanting the first verse of The Addams Family theme tune, she looked utterly unimpressed.

“I think sometimes I have a dark sense of humour, but who doesn’t these days?” she says when we meet in London. “And quirky? I feel like everybody is. Who is normal? What is normal? I feel like these catchphrases don’t mean anything.” Does it annoy her? “Personally I think it’s funny,” she replies, though, I note, without a twitch of a smile. “I make fun of it all the time. I joke about being a goth because any real goth would spit at me. Look at me. I’m really not goth. I like hearts and sparkles.” A stony silence ensues. Not for the first (or last) time I seem to have offended her. We move on.

The thing is, a fair amount of the dark reputation has come from Ricci herself. She acknowledges this. “I am quite sarcastic and I do make strong statements a lot of the time. I’m very honest and straightforward and I think sometimes people take that as being aggressive or weird. I think it’s funny.”

She certainly used to say outlandish things in early interviews, such as “I’m not afraid to die” and “It’s such a natural thing to have sex with [your parents]”. Things that were designed to shock but actually made her seem young and vulnerable. And there were other factors. She put herself into therapy when she was 14 years old. There was a period of anorexia, self-harm, and depression. She said she couldn’t bear to look in mirrors and had to cover them up in her house. She said that “if I hadn’t gone into acting, I would have been one of those weird runaways on Hollywood Boulevard. No, it’d be uglier. I’d probably be dead.”

“I think you make mistakes and you learn from them and you get over them,” she says warily, when I ask how she coped as a young woman in a vicious industry. “You learn how to cope… just like in any profession.” But it’s not like any profession, I counter, because you have to do it all in public. “Well, it felt ridiculous to be asked certain questions when I was barely out of high school and I couldn’t really understand why anyone wanted to know what I had to say,” she admits. “But you know… you make mistakes. You say things you shouldn’t. And you learn not to do it any more.” She laughs; more a short, tight, release than an expression of mirth. “I’m human,” she goes on. “So I did it. I made those mistakes.”

Mistakes. Ricci uses this word repeatedly, seeming unduly harsh on her youthful self. Not that she’ll let me sympathise with her. “It wasn’t necessarily the best way to handle things,” she ploughs on. “But I’m human. I was a teenager. I handled it the way I did. Was it the best way? No.” And now she’s stuck with it. “These things will follow me around the rest of my life,” she says. “I’m not upset about it because I’d rather be a human being who has a real, natural reaction to something than be a robot who did everything perfectly. I can relate to the person who puts their foot in their mouth. I can’t relate to the person who does everything perfectly. So that’s how I coped. By saying really obnoxious, sarcastic things.” She laughs again, the same tinny sound.

Then there are the roles. In The Ice Storm Ricci played a troubled, sexually curious teenager. In The Opposite of Sex she was an arch manipulator who seduced her gay brother’s partner. In Buffalo 66 she fell in love with the man who abducted her. In Monster she played the sweet, screwed-up lover of Charlize Theron’s serial killer. And in Black Snake Moan she was a traumatised rape victim who spent most of the film chained to a radiator in her underwear. For a while Ricci seemed to be the go-to girl for vulnerable, distressed young women who mask their fragility with tough talking and sexual aggression. And sometimes, off screen, she came across a bit like that too.

In more recent years, Ricci has lightened up (on screen, anyway). She was a kickass heroine in the Watchowski brothers’ Speed Racer, can currently be seen as an air stewardess in frothy American TV series Pan Am, and we meet to talk about her role as Robert Pattinson’s sweet, devoted love interest in Bel Ami, a film adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 satire. So what’s changed? “I can’t analyse why I’ve been drawn to things,” she says tersely. “But then, people have been drawn to me when it came to casting those parts. It’s not all my choice. It’s other people as well.”

We meet in London during a week when Ricci has worked the red carpet twice: first at the Baftas in gold Givenchy, second at the Elle Style Awards in black, floor-length Jonathan Saunders. On both occasions she came across as very small, glamorous, girly, and not in the slightest bit like a goth. I have to ring a bell to get into her hotel suite, and when she answers I don’t get to see her because she has scurried away. The room smells of cigarette smoke, which in a posh hotel in 2012 is actually pretty radical. She is wearing skinny jeans, boots and a tight sweater. She is beautiful in an extreme, almost bruising way. Huge features – saucer eyes, high forehead, full lips – crowd a tiny, heart-shaped face. Her hair is so shiny and straight you can practically see your reflection in it. Her figure is the textbook definition of hourglass. She basically looks like a Disney drawing of herself.

Interviewing Ricci is an uncomfortable experience. It’s not exactly surprising – she’s been doing this longer than almost anyone her age and has, no doubt, had her fair share of grim encounters. Her survival tactic, it seems, is to swing from hiding behind platitudes of the “I’m human” variety to being plain old defensive. Sometimes, she just plays bored. It’s all rather hard work and being on the end of her famous death stare, as others have called it, is an unnerving experience. I’m on the receiving end a few times and it reminds me of what Tim Burton, who directed Ricci in Sleepy Hollow, once said of her “ambiguous quality”: “She looks at you and you get a definite feeling, but you’re not quite sure what that feeling is.”

Bel Ami is the story of the ascent of Georges Duroy (Pattinson) through belle epoque Paris, achieved through sleeping his way to the top. A morally and mentally vacant pretty boy, he beds the wives of powerful men, played by Ricci, Kristin Scott Thomas and Uma Thurman. Ricci is the least-revered actress of the three, but puts in yet another impassioned performance. She is very good at high emotion and always gives her all to a performance. But Clothilde, an innocent, naive woman who stands by Duroy to the end, is a departure for Ricci. “She is somebody who has been happy for most of her life. One of those rare, inherently happy human beings.” She makes a face and we both laugh.

“She has never known a day of angst,” she goes on. “So when she experiences heartache, she feels it like a teenager. She keeps believing he will come round, instead of behaving like a modern woman and saying ‘you sh*t!’. For me, what was interesting was playing somebody who registers pain as this bewildering and brand new emotion.”

Ricci has no formal training as an actor. She works by watching and feeling and she tells me her subconscious does a lot of the work for her. “People explained things to me in very simple ways when I was a child on set,” she says. “Then as I got older I started understanding things in more complicated ways and starting creating my own mind games, methods and rules in my head.” I ask her to tell me some of them and get a death stare. “No,” she says, “because they’re mine.” I ask her more about acting and she goes into bored mode and answers quickly and vaguely. How does she feel when she leaves a character at the end of filming? “Characters slowly leave you,” she says, perking up slightly. “You always try to do something to make it go faster. I usually dye my hair or cut it to get out of it. But it usually takes longer… It’s like a break-up haircut. It doesn’t really work.”

Ricci, the youngest of four children, was born in Santa Monica and grew up in New Jersey, where she was discovered in a school play. Her mother was a Ford model in the Sixties and her father was a psychotherapist. He’s usually cited as a psychiatrist but she soon sets me right. “I would hate to give psychiatrists who actually went to medical school a bad name,” she says, giving me a look so withering it makes Wednesday Addams look like Pollyanna.

An oft-quoted story is that her father would practise primal scream therapy with his patients in the basement and the family would hear the screams drifting up through the house. What was that like? “It was interesting and at the time it seemed normal,” she says. What does she think about it now? “I think it’s hilarious,” she says, with a curt laugh. She often says things are funny when she doesn’t seem amused in the slightest.

Her parents divorced when she was 12 and not long after she broke all contact with her father. Ricci doesn’t speak about him in interviews and even bringing up her childhood makes the atmosphere tense. When I ask her how having a psychotherapist as a father influenced her as an actor, she simply dispenses a stare and says, “I really don’t want to talk about my father”. Fair enough.

What kind of child was she? “I don’t know,” she says. “I think I was… I don’t know… Part of me wants to say I was chatty but then I remember being shy. I was a really curious kid. I asked a lot of questions. But then I also remember staying really quiet so that people would forget I was there, so I could hear everything that was going on.”

Her first film, when she was nine, was Mermaids, in which Cher played her mother and Winona Ryder her sister. “I loved working from the very first day,” she says. “I loved being an actress. I always felt at home and that it was something I was born to do.” Really? When she was nine? “I was always taught to look around and watch what other people did and not do anything until I was sure I was doing the right thing,” she says, which seems a strange response to the question. “That became really useful when I started acting.” She adds that she still “runs into” Ryder, hasn’t seen Cher “in a really long time” but sees Angelica (Huston, who played her mother, Morticia, in The Addams Family) “a lot”.

Like Jodie Foster, Ricci never had a problem transitioning from child actor to actor. She thinks this is because she was never cute. But the strange thing about Ricci is that when she was a child she seemed wise – that knowing, ambiguous gaze staring out of wide, innocent eyes. And now that she is an adult, she seems like a child. Always, she is slightly at odds with herself, which is probably what makes her such an interesting actor. She giggles her head off when I ask her about this discrepancy, the one easy, unfettered laugh of our encounter. “I know, it’s very weird,” she says. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” She laughs again. Would she like to be seen as more mature? “No,” Ricci replies. “I like where I am and where I’m going. And working has always been a solace to me. I like to work as much as possible. And I’m okay with me. I’m okay with how I am.”