Interview, February 2004
By Brad Goldfarb
At age 8, she arrived to an audition with a black eye and freaked the casting director out. Fifteen years later, she’s still keeping the surprises coming.
BRAD GOLDFARB: Since this is a special issue about people who started out as child stars, let’s go back to your beginnings as an actor. I know your first movie role was in Mermaids , when you were just 9 years old, but let’s go back even further, to how it all began.
CHRISTINA RICCI: I was 7 years old, and I was in this Christmas pageant at school–we were doing a performance of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” I was one of those little kids who never liked to go to the bathroom because I always felt like I was going to miss something, so even though my class was waiting their turn to go onstage, and even though I had to pee, I decided to hold it. Finally, they called for us onstage, and the whole time, I was dancing around and putting my knees together, just acting like a little kid who has to pee. When we got to about the 10th day of Christmas they sort of waved me off so I could go. One of the mothers in the audience saw all this and told my mother that I should do commercials and stuff like that. It’s actually something people had said about all of my siblings when they were younger, but my mom would always say no. My siblings found out, though, and told my mother that she should let me decide.
BG: Why do you think she was resistant?
CR: She had been a model when she was a pre-teen and teenager, and I think she didn’t like the way she saw kids treated. It wasn’t something she liked doing at that age, so I think she thought it would be a pain for me. At first I just said I wanted to because I would have done anything to please my brothers and sisters when I was little. My father loved movies and actors, so I knew a lot about the subject, but it never occurred to me that it was something I might want to do. But once I started getting parts and my morn saw that it wasn’t having a negative effect on me, we both got really excited about it. At first I didn’t get parts, though, because I sort of unnerved people a little.
CR: Well, when I was a kid I played soccer, and for some reason I used to get hit in the head a lot. I remember this one time, I was going in for the final audition for Pet Semetary , and when my mom came to pick me up from soccer, I had this huge black eye; we just went in to the audition like that anyway, with no explanation. I remember people acting funny, but neither of us could figure out why. When we got home, my sisters couldn’t believe my morn hadn’t explained to them what had happened.
BG: Going on castings and shoots was something you did together with your morn for a lot of years, right?
CR: Yeah, and she was great. She’s one of the reasons I was so successful as a kid: She wasn’t a stage mother, and she’s incredibly poised and well-mannered and very professional. People really loved her, so I was hired again and again by the producers I worked with. She was also very good at explaining to me what was going on on the set so I could see it in sort of an adult way. She was very rational with me and set a good example in terms of how I dealt with things. For instance, she taught me that if I get upset about something, I should turn to someone else before reacting and ask what they think–I still do that today.
BG: Did you find that kids were more eager to know you and hang out with you because you were making movies, or did they assume you would be stuck-up?
CR: I think people assumed that, but I was really outgoing and friendly. The social skills I had developed from being on set made me good at being friends with everyone. I only went to one year of public high school, but while I was there I jumped around from one group to another all the time.
BG: And after public high school?
CR: I went to the Professional Children’s School in New York City for three more years.
BG: Were you aware of other young actors at the time who you thought would be going places?
CR: I never paid that much attention to the boys, but I was always really competitive with other girls. I did work with Thora Birch when I was 14 and she was 12, and I remember liking her a lot: She was so beautiful and sweet. I remember thinking that there was something about her that made you pay attention. She’s one person I wasn’t surprised to hear was making the leap to more grown-up roles.
BG: That’s proven a tricky transition for a lot of child actors to make. Why?
CR: I remember when I was little, all the mothers saying once you’re 13 you have to stop working because there are no roles for teenagers. But I think I was lucky because just when I got to be a teenager, there started to be a lot more roles for kids my age. For a while it did look like I would have to keep doing kids’ movies to stay in the business, but then when I was 15, The Ice Storm  came along.
BG: Tell me about that.
CR: My mom would usually read the scripts I was sent first, and then she would say how she felt about them. After she read The Ice Storm, she told me she thought it was really good and very sad. We both knew who the director, Ang Lee, was, so that was a role I really wanted. And right after I shot that, I did Buffalo 66 and The Opposite of Sex [both 1998].
BG: So the transition for you was a fairly smooth one?
CR: There were about two years there that were very hard. I had a brief flirtation with anorexia, and when I was recovering from that, I put on a lot of weight, which was very difficult for me. But you know, once I moved into the city and started to go to the Professional Children’s School, it got a lot better. New York is a little more evolved than L.A., and you see all these different kinds of people, so that was very reaffirming, as was just getting those roles in Buffalo 66 and The Opposite of Sex. Working on Buffalo 66 with a director like Vincent Gallo, who is incredibly artistic and who appreciated me and thought I was wonderful, was very reassuring and sort of made me feel like everything was okay. Actually, the media attention I got for those movies made me feel that way too. I know it’s not supposed to help [laughs], but it made me feel better about myself.
BG: Has navigating the movie industry’s rigid definition of beauty been difficult for you?
CR: I can certainly fall victim to the insecure actress epidemic, but for some reason I’ve been lucky enough to not have it keep me from doing anything. Like in life, I think you just have to find the environment that you fit into, a place where what you are is okay. Thanks to the world of independent movies, I found that when I was a teenager.
BG: As you’ve become better known, have you managed to stay out of the celebrity bubble and have a more or less normal interaction with the world?
CR: Well, I probably don’t interact with the normal world as much as other people do because I’m sort of hermitlike anyway. I’m kind of shy, and I’m always afraid that I’ll be yelled at in public.
BG: Like someone will yell your name out on the street?
CR: That, too, but just, like, I’ll do something wrong and get yelled at. I used to not be able to go into stores because I was afraid that I would spaz out at the cashier, stuff like that.
BG: And what are you doing when you’re hermiting away?
CR: Well, my boyfriend and I watch a rot of DVDs, and I’m obsessed with television. I cannot lie–I love it so much! [laughs]
BG: Do you have a favorite show?
CR: I’m a huge Law & Order fan, and I just got into all the Special Victims Unit spin-offs. And then we watch a ton of American Justice.
BG: Have you ever thought about doing TV?
CR: Yeah, if I could do a really good show in New York, I’d be into it. I’m almost blue collar in my approach to acting. I mean, my life is not blue collar at all, and I can be a little bit of a princess, but for the most part, my work ethic and view of this industry is–it doesn’t always come from a very artistic place. I love what I do and think it’s fun and amazing that my job is to pretend all the time, but I think it’s such a coup that I make my living doing this that I don’t have these notions of being an Oscar-winning actress or working with specific people. I mean, if those things happened, it would be great, but I don’t necessarily think about it. For me, it’s much more about the steadiness of my career and my abilities, just doing the job and making money. I’m sort of the last person another actress needs to be competitive with, because all I want is steady pay. [laughs] I also feel like if you try to map out a career, you’re going to end up disappointed. I don’t want to set myself up for that; it’d be so much better if what ever happened came as a surprise.
BG: So there’s no strategy in terms of the roles you choose?
CR: I was strategic for about a year, and it didn’t seem to get me anywhere. It made me feel desperate about myself, and I think I gave that off. Now I just think in terms of “Oh, that’s great pay,” or “that sounds like fun,” or “I love working with that person.” I think when you try too hard, things don’t work out.
BG: So what appealed to you about your latest film, , in which you play the girlfriend of prostitute and serial killer Aileen Wuornos? Was it just good pay?
CR: No, it definitely wasn’t good pay. [laughs] I’d never played a part like this, someone who was so passive-aggressive and really just along for the ride. I tend to be the more proactive person in my roles, and Selby is sort of a weak character. I really loved the film’s director, Patty Jenkins, and thought what she had in mind sounded amazing. And I also really liked Charlize Theron, who plays Wuornos.
BG: I read once that you hoped to play a serial killer yourself someday.
CR: That was just more me being a teenager and thinking those kinds of roles were romantic. I did think it would be fun, but now I think it would be more interesting to be the forensic pathologist. But I am troubled by people’s ideas of right and wrong. We’re so ready to condemn without really having much empathy for what caused the situation in the first place. Certain things are inexcusable, like all of Wuornos’s murders–except maybe the first one, which you could argue was self-defense–but I do think it’s worthwhile to look at what happened to her to get her to that point. I mean, how long does it take to break somebody or reduce someone to an animal? Getting answers to those questions is why a person like Wuornos shouldn’t be put to death.
BG: One final question: Do you ever imagine what you might have done with your life if you hadn’t been an actor?
CR: Yeah, I think I’d probably have been a therapist. I like to listen to other people’s problems, and I think I’m pretty good at helping other people–I can usually tell when there’s something wrong with somebody, even if I don’t know them very well. Recently, though, I was telling someone that popping out kids and making them work for you didn’t seem like such a bad idea, so the stage-mother thing might still be an option. I love being on set, but I don’t love having to wear other people’s clothes or do my makeup. I don’t love doing what I’m told all the time, either. It would be great if I could just tell someone else what to do.