Premiere – February 1999

Queen of the wild frontier
Premiere, February 1999
By Margy Rochlin

We’ve watched her morph from cherubic child star to wicked teen queen. And Christina Ricci is only getting started. Imagine: By the year 2020, she should be just about the coolest 40-year-old movie star in the galaxy…

If at lunchtime you should happen to stumble into Spago in Beverly Hills, you might be struck by the Nancy Reagan bouffants, the pastel Adolfo suits, and the jewelry by the pound. Christina Ricci, the apealingly glitz-resistant-eighteen-year-old star of The Opposite Of Sex, Buffalo ’66, and Pecker, surveys the crowd and sees only pickey eaters.

“Once, I worked at a snack bar,” she explains, letting her memories drift back to the summer of 1993, when she temped at the country club her parents belonged to in Montclair, New Jersey.

“These women were rich and bored and all on weird diets,” she says. “They’d tell you, ‘No mayonnaise!’ And we wouldn’t put any on, and they’d start screaming, ‘I taste mayonnaise!’ They were so obnoxious and demanding, just horrible-but we were allowed to be horrible right back. All the snack-bar girls were members of the club. It didn’t matter if we got fired; we’d still be there.”

At the time, she was already fairly well known as an actress, having appeared in four movies, including The Addams Family. Images dance in your head of little Wednesday behind the counter, garnishing turkey on wheat with deadpan threats and maybe a little arsenic. So how did ms. Ricci put her deeply tanned customers in their place?

For a few beats, she says nothing. In life, as in her movies, there is something acutely unsetteling about Ricci when she’s quiet. If a camera were to focus on her face at this moment, it would pick up an ingenue with her knife and fork poised over pink slabs of London broil, delivering one of her famously masklike reaction shots. Although her facial muscles have barely twiched, all sorts of complex emotional activity seems to be coursing just below her pale skin. Then, a light switches on in her hazel eyes. “I’d go , ‘Okay ma’am,’” she says sweetly. “ ‘We’ll make you another sandwich.’ ” Of corse, it’s possible that Ricci complied like a perfect food server. But it’s just as easy to envision her scraping off the imaginary condiment and substituting fat free spit.

During the past sevral years, Ricci’s public profile has gone from adorably self-possessed screen kid (Mermaids, Casper) to entertainingly feisty teenager du jour. In the past twelve months alone, she’s managed to outdo Parker Posey in the Yep-I’m-In-That-One-Too sweepstakes, showing up in nine films, if you include her bit parts in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and the upcoming 200 Cigarettes; her voice-only performance in Small Soldiers; plus her still-unreleased low-buget flicks Desert Blue and I woke Up Early The Day I Died.

During their frumpy pre-adult years, Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields mostly hid out in University study halls. But Ricci tackled her post-puberty transition the modern way, by carefully selecting the roles that celebrated both her shrewdly appraising squint and curvy, belly-dancer figure. Then she wooed the media with her rebel apathy: chain-smoking parliaments and chatting blithely about burning her arms with cigarettes and of her bout with anorexia, all the while cursing as if she were Redd Foxx’s illegitimate white child.

Despite a fleeting late-90’s trend towards embracing gee-whiz Jennifer Love Hewitt’s, Americans will always have a weakness for intelligent, spunky protovixens. Jhon Waters says he “laughed out loud” when he learned that after spending several weeks in Baltimore as a hyperdedicated Laundromat manager in Pecker, Ricci promptly informed a journalist that she loathes the town Waters loves most. “It was the most Cinematically incorrect thing she could say.” Still, Waters believes that her big mouth is only another reason of why she seems like an exotic, mysterious island in young Hollywood’s shallow sea. “she’s not just a good comedian and actress who is provocative onscreen,” he says, “She’s great at press, too, wich they never are.”

Still, these days Ricci is not sure what she’s won by being the It girl with the punk-rock communication skills. “ I read my interviews, and think, Ohj God! I’m not like that! This is so embarrassing! People must think I’m gross, slutty, and, like, dirty…,” she says later adding a medical diagnosis to this string of self-flagellating adjectives. “Sometimes I think I have Tourette’s Syndrome. I’ll read something I’ve said and think, why the hell did I say that?”

Up there on her list of regrets is an aside in which she’s dismissed her 200 cigarettes costar Courtney Love as a sellout. Though Ricci says that her comment was edited to sound disparaging, she nonetheless put in an apology call to Love, dialing the number with a trembling hand. “I was so afraid,” says Ricci, who was relieved to find Love an Understanding media consultant. “She gave me all this advice. She said ‘You know, you don’t have to be interesting. It’s their job to make you interesting.’ And I thought, Oh, that’s right.”

For the next several months, Ricci will be residing in London, playing Katrina Van Tassel to Johnny Depp’s Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. But beofore the Paramount execs would ok Ricci for her first big-budget commercial project in three years, she says, producer Scott Rudin (who knew her from the Addams Family franchise) had to vouch for her psychological well being. “Because of interviews they’d read, the studio wanted to know if I was this dark personality, if I was stable,” she says “And what I thought was funny was that it was people from inside the business who believed those interviews were correct.”

In 1997’s The Ice Storm, Ricci portrayed Wendy Hood, a gloomy adolescent who finds refuge from her sadly splintering family by coming on to the neighborhood boys. It was a startling departure from her “Oh Casper!” days, and the critics were justified in marveling over how every line of dialogue that spilled from Ricci’s frowning-cherub mouth was a revelation. Her most-oft-cited big moment was the Dominatrix vibe she brought to the scene in which she corners a very terrified young lad in a bathroom and a bargain: “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” Ricci added to her growing demonology by bragging to journalists that the strangely knowing performance was the result of her tapping into her own perverted sexuality. But director Ang Lee says that on that day, the origins of her fury were more mundane.

“She was under a lot of pressure because she was studying for her exams,” recalls Lee, who says that his job wasn’t really to direct her as much as to “capture” her roiling, adolescent angst. “Right while we were lighting the scene, her tutor started complaining that she didn’t do her lesson right, and she really got worked up. I wanted to kill the tutor- but it ended up being good for the movie.”

Because Ricci has never taken a single acting lesson, she’s unlikely to talk loftily about craft or motivation. Instead, she subscribes to this six-word dramatic philosophy: “I just do what I’m told.” For someone so gifted, this creed renders her ability to be compelling onscreen even more intriguing. Is she a prodigy? Is she a savant? Most likely, it’s that she’s relying on a technique she’s long since forgotten learning, the rules of her vocation having been drummed into her since age nine. That was when Cher battled it out with then director Frank Oz (Richard Benjamin later replaced him) to get Ricci cast in Mermaids, opposite her and Winona Ryder.

“It was my first movie, so it was really exciting.” Says Ricci, who reminisces almost lyrically about her debut, of the thrill of being carried around by “like, twenty-year-old guy production assistants” and of the vanilla~y scent of Cher’s perfume. But her older costar supplies a slightly different version of the story, in which in which two leading ladies took a talented pip-squeak under their wings and tried to mold her into a solid scene partner.

“I don’t know how professional she was, but if you worked with her, she picked things up right away.” Says Cher, who’d take Ricci home for sleep-overs or invite her into her trailer to watch video’s. But Cher could also be a scorching disciplinarian. “One time, I really got pissed because she was being a total little brat. And I took her aside and said, ‘Look, miss, you’d better get your ass in shape. And you’d better do it right now, because this shit won’t fly. Just because you’ve got some bug up your ass today, you cannot just leave [Winona] high and dry.’ So she kind of hopped to it right away.”

Almost a decade and nineteen movies later, Ricci still loves the feeling of arriving on a new set. “I like the effort it takes to make people like me,” she says about the rush she gets from strategizing how to ingratiate herself to strangers. “Of trying to figure out their sense of humor or what favor I can do for them that they’ll appreciate or what side of me they’ll like more.” Ricci pauses, then turns bright red. “Basically I’m like…a whore. I’ll give people whatever they want so they’ll like me.”

Because of her direct gaze and her air of self-possession, Ricci’s always being described as an old soul. But at this moment, she seems just like every other eighteen-year-old. Constantly trying on and discarding new personae, hoping to find one that fits. For example, she carries what she calls her “white-trash passport.” Which features a satanic looking mug shot of documenting her one-time-infatuation with bleached hair and smudgy eye makeup. These days, however, she wears her natural brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, revealing a satiny complexion and Italian-Irish features so classically pretty that she could have modeled for a 16th-century artist.

Once a vocal fan of the East Coast, she now extols the virtues of Los Angeles, where she was born just before Valentine’s Day, in 1980. Six months ago, she moved to a Hollywood Hills rental with 27-year-old boyfriend, Matthew Frauman, and now entire evenings are planned around the television reruns. “Friends at 11, then Mad About You, then Law and Order,” she recites as if she’s the first neo-nester to reject wild times for pleasures that don’t require a fake I.D. “I moved here because I wanted a better lifestyle. I wanted to get away from New York, where you stay out all night.”

On another day, when Ricci and Frauman were walking through Beverly Hills, Frauman used his long, skinny body to act out the armistice between the couples rottweiler puppy and house cat. It was a blip-length bit of sidewalk theater, but one can’t help but think that for a sought-after starlet her age, Ricci has made an unusually sane decision: falling for the not-yet-known nice guy in threadbare corduroys, instead of the jerk with the high Q-rating who can’t stop fussing with his hair.

“I can judge a person by how they treat Matthew,” Ricci says later, when asked if their fame differential has an effect on their relationship. “Like, if I’m introduced to them and they don’t even acknowledge that he’s standing there, obviously they’re really fake and I don’t want anything to do with them.”

For all the ways Ricci charges through life like a sherman tank, at certain times she wishes someone else would take the wheel. “I’m a girl, and I’m really paranoid, and I don’t like don’t like being by myself,” she says, confessing to a bit of anxiety over the fact that the Sleepy Hollow brass expect her to live alone in London. “I want to be afforded the same respect as an adult. But I feel like calling them up and saying, ‘Look, I’m eighteen. You’d better assign me a partner, or at least find me a hotel where someone from the front desk can come and find my dead body.”

Back on Spago’s central patio, Ricci is puffing away on a cigarette and wondering why authority figures are never around when you need them. She says, for example, that she starved herself down to skin and bones on the set of the 1995 coming-of-age movie Now and Then, and that practically no one—Not even producer Demi Moore, who had dealt with her own weight issues in the past—confronted her about her obvious eating disorder. “I was trying to get attention, to get someone to do something for me that showed they actually cared,” says Ricci. Help arrived in the form of her sister Pia, who showed up on location and had a fit at the sight of her withered sibling. “She just freaked out, screaming at me and crying,” says Ricci. “As soon as I got back home, I started eating again.

When Buffalo 66 and The Opposite Of Sex were released, reviewers made much of Ricci’s defiant voluptuousness—that she was all soft hips and tummy, and that she insisted on being taken as sexy on her own terms. In reality, her attitude is lodged somewhere between yearning to be as svelte as the next A-list actress and knowing that for her, it isn’t worth the sacrifice. Take, for example, her response when asked who’s body type she covets. “I would love to be Calista Flockhart,” Ricci says, “But I Can’t be—and I’m aware of that fact.” Forget giving her a chance to come up with a less frightening ideal. “That’s the way my mother looks,” she says stubbornly. “And isn’t that what it’s all about? Being raised to want to look like your mother?”

A few days later, Ricci is drinking coffee and a Diet Coke at an outdoor café’ on sunset Boulevard. As the sun sets, the temperature begins to drop, and Ricci pulls the hood of her faded blue sweatshirt low on her forehead and ties the neck string tightly. With those expressive, street-urchin eyes peering at you from across the table, it’s easy to understand why directors are so fond of shooting her in close-up. “We have a saying that the face is not just a face, but a reflection of the mind.” Says Ang Lee. “Christina may or may not know it, but that is her power.”

And does that power have an expiration date? “She’s going to last forever and ever.” Waters predicts. “She’s an original, the real thing. She’ll be the big, BIG star of a lot of strange movies.”

Where does Ricci see herself in the year 2020? “I have no idea,” She says, in a tone flat enough to indicate that she dosen’t want to be confused with showbiz’s current crop of junior career planners, who’ve mapped out their futures: from Hot New Face to gravity-induced move to behind the camera. “I’ll be 40, Which is scary.” She contemplates in silence for a few seconds. “I’ll be a bitter, bitter old actress,” she concludes. “I’m already leaning that way—it’s just my personality.”