By Thomas Beller
At the time, I didn’t think it was strange
When she was eight years old, Christina Ricci’s father, a primal-scream therapist, began seeing patients in the basement of their suburban New Jersey home. ” He tried to soundproof the basement, but he forgot about the air vents,” she says. “And I had an air vent that went from the basement right into my bedroom.” A cigarette smolders in her small hand, and daylight seeps in from the skylight. Her eyebrows have moved a little closer, giving her expression an ironic scowl, as though to say: Can you believe it?
Even at 18, tilting her head in a womanly, knowing way, even when she’s joking around, telling you a story you know she’s told before, one she knows is strange and a little charming, one she tells almost out of politeness, because people want to know what makes her tick, Ricci can still seem like a hurt, angry child. “My teachers would always say, ‘Why do you look so tired?’ It was because every night I’d do my homework and go up to get in bed. By 9 o’clock the shrieking would begin and kept going until 10:30.”
There’s some palpable energy emanating from her forehead – the broad white forehead that makes her like an alien, or a baby, or a genius, or a Japanese anime character. “My father would ask them, ‘How do you really feel?’ And they would scream, ‘I’m angryl!’ He worked with a lot of couples, so I heard a lot of, ‘You fucking bastard!”
“And at the time, I didn’t really think it was that strange. I used to do imitations of screaming people for my mom. She really liked it. My dad never knew I could hear. He was so paranoid about doctor-patient confidentiality that if you mentioned you heard it he would, like, flip out. Because we weren’t supposed to be hearing what they were saying. And also, at the time, all that screaming seemed normal.
“And now I really enjoy screaming.”
If you’re not desperate, the world comes to you.
There is a velvet rope outside the nightclub, another one inside, in front of some stairs, and yet another velvet rope upstairs, behind which a churning mob of people drink, talk, gawk, grope one another, and exchange business cards. it is a movie premiere, and the movie is The Opposite of Sex, in whick Christina Ricci stars as a smart, bitchy, manipulative, sexually voracious, and possibly murderous 16-year-old.
She stands at the center of a jostling crowd, surrounded by friends and strangers and photographers and journalists. Her face appears only now and then in the throng, a brief vision of wide eyes, gold mascara, and that petulant mouth.
Her expression to the cameras and to the strangers who shake her hand seems very much like that of a young woman who has just starred in the high-school play, and is sincerely amazed at how much people clap when it is time to take her bow. She is wearing a black dress and sneakers. Her nails are painted red, but the red has chipped.
Michael Stipe stands at the edge of the pack, wearing a wool cap and looking like an ex-convict who has done something to violate his parole. “She’s an anachronist,” he says, pausing to consider the word. “Or iconoclast. Whatever. I like her a lot. I like what she’s doing.”
Across the room sits Dan Bucantinsky, who has a small but hilarious cameo in the movie as a flustered waiter, and who has flown in from Los Angeles for this premiere. When Ricci visits Los Angeles she stays with Bucantinsky. “I drive her everywhere,” he says. “She’s like my little sister.”
Ricci surfaces in the crowd for a moment, and she does look very young, small, and vulnerable.
“The thing about Christina that is so great,” says Bucantinsky, “is that she doesn’t give a shit about being a star. She uncensored. She’s not like:’I have a calling; the world needs to hear my gift.’ None of that bullshit. Her attitude is: ‘As long as it’s fun, I’ll do it. But I’m not desperate for it.’ If you’re not desperate, the world comes to you.”
I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.
By the age of 14, Christina Ricci had been in two movies that made more than $100 million – Casper and The Addams Family – and had been cast in leading roles in such less-than spectacular fare as Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain, Disney’s That Darn Cat, and the Demi Moore-produced Now and Then, a girl version of Stand By Me, which Ricci describes, with a big role of her eyes, as “a movie about the summer that changed our lives”.
But nothing, not even the darkly droll delivery of Wednesday Addams strapping her younger brother into an electric chair and saying, “Now we are going to play ‘Is There a God?’ ” anticipated her role in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. “I was really depressed when I was making that movie,” she says. “I was going through some weird stuff.” So was her character, Wendy Hood, whose emerging adolescent sexuality is both troubling and fascinating. In one scene, she entices a prepubescent neighbour into the bathroom. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” she says. All the confused feelings of predation and victimization flash across her face as she closes the door and utters that line – a Borgesian moment when you see the whole spectrum of sexual possiblity all at once.
Today, she has six movies either recently released or on the way, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Opposite of Sex, John Water’s Pecker, 200 Cigarettes, and Buffalo ’66. She’s the new It Girl but not quite: She’s the Anti-It Girl. Watching her in these movies; one feels she is providing a scarce commodity that people are hungry for. there is something hones, troubled, and unvarnished about her that feels unusually authentic in a movie star.
“I don’t look the way I’m supposed to,” says Ricci. “In Hollywood, you’re supposed to look nice. Go get designer clothes. I don’t do that. I don’t like that whole thing where everyone looks the same. And I would feel like and asshole if I made myself look the same.” Her commitment to her collection of T-shirts and her propensity to make unanticipated statements (she joked to one magazine that incest was cool) seems especially likable in light of the shiny, little-grown-up veneer of many young actors who star in those new horror films.
In a way she is reminiscent of Courtney Love, the Courtney of a few years ago. “Both Christina and Courtney are willing to be dangerous,” says Risa Braman Garcia, who directed both of them in 200 cigarettes. “Like Rockn’roll, Christina is willing to dance on the edge of what’s safe, to be dangerous and take risks.”
“I loved her before,” says Ricci about Love. “She would just get naked on stage, and you could tell with her body, she didn’t give a fuck. It was so hot! She was like, ‘damn!’ But now it’s quite a drastic change. People just applaud her new change. They’re like, ‘Yes, she finally got some really attractive clothes, and she’s doing her hair.’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about!’ It’s so sad!”
“She sometimes seems older than her years because she’s very seasoned,” says Don Roos, writer and director of The Opposite of Sex. “She’s seen a lot at her young age. She had a period when she couldn’t get any work she wanted,” he says, referring to the two years between That Darn Cat and The Ice Storm when her weight fluctuated drastically. “But I think she’s very conventionally beautiful. In a 1950’s sort of way, like Natalie Wood or Marilyn Monroe.”
“She has an incredibly centered, soulful, angry wickednes, and yet a soft, sweet, supple, tender side also,” says Garcia.”She’s a hybrid of Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor.”
To which Ricci replies, “People only say that I remind the of Liz Taylor because I’m not skinny.”
In John Water’s Pecker, due out this September, she plays the workaholic owner of the Spin’n’Gril Laundromat. It’s a supporting role, and Waters thinks she’s smart to have taken so many supporting parts in interesting movies, rather than hold out for the big parts in Hollywood movies. “She’s taking a different and smart career route. She’s not trying to be the ingenue. She’s taking good parts in ensemble casts. She’s playing characters who are insane and unhappy and troubled, even in comic modes. She’s insurring herself a long career. No one remembers the ingenue. They’re always the worst-written parts.”
Ricci has never taken an acting lesson. There is an unsettling volatility about her inner life that she seems able to summon for the camera. Vincent Gallo, who directed her in Buffalo ’66 , seems to have made the best use of Ricci’s capacity to be both childish and knowing. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” As Layla, she plays a quiet, nubile tap dancer whom Gallo’s ex- con kidnaps for the purpose of presenting to his family as his wife. Her role is strange and quietly stylized, a bit like the film itself. (Gallo composed his technical support team from the fashion industry; shot the movie on reverse film stock, giving it a lush, colour saturated look; and, in general, paid hyper-obsessive care to all of the movie’s details.) Gallo wrote the part of Layla explicitly for Ricci, whom he describes as a tender , complex individual. “But she’s also changing so fast,” says Gallo. “She’s got a very unconventional body, and when she showed up for filming, I realized she looked totally different from when I last saw her. I was shocked by her…ratio.”
There has been much recent atention paid to Ricci’s ratio.
At one point in the movie, Ben Gazzara, who plays Gallo’s unloving father, grabs Ricci and buries his face in between her breasts. In fact in nearly every scene he is lecherously pawing her, and it looks unsettling spontaneous. “That was NOT in the script,” says Ricci. “I looked at Vincent for help, but he was just laughing. He thought it was hilarious.”
“There’s a lot of little girl in there,” says Gazzara, “and I hope it doesn’t leave her too soon.”
When I asked whether putting his face in her breasts might hasten the little girl’s departure, he responds, “She has such nice voluptuous bosoms! When she stood up, that’s right where my face was. Frankly, I’m sorry I didn’t go deeper.”
Parliaments have an indented filter.
New York City’s Canal street is a traffic jam creeping toward New Jersey, A barrage of automobile horns and street vendors hawking socks, shish kebab, car stereo part. We cross it, heading south, walking leisurely. Ricci is discussing boyfriends. “I just moved in with my boyfriend into this new apartment,” she says. His name is Matthew Frauman, he’s 25, and he’s an actor too. “We’ve been going out for five months. It’s my longest relationship. All my other relationships have been three months. I used to always cheat on my boyfriends. For no reason…Just to create a little drama. And now I don’t need that. I don’t need that. I don’t need any more drama.”
A block further south it is quieter, and Ricci pauses in the middle of the empty street to light a cigarette. A lone truck appears in the distance, heading in her direction. It’s a narrow street. She smokes Parliaments, she says, because they have a weird indented filter, so you always know if you’ve put the wrong end in your mouth. She lights a match. It sputters in the wind and dies.
Even from 50 yards away, it is apparent the man driving the truck bearing down on Christina Ricci is having a bad day. He is not slowing down. After the second match, she examines the tip of the sigarette to see if it is lit. It’s not lit.
“Let’s get out of the street,” I say. Ricci is now on her third match. She begins walking slowly. I gently tug at her arm. She does not accelerate. The truck does not slow down. It honks instead, a sustained blast.
The truck sails by, missing us by inches, its horn illustrating the Doppler effect as it passes. “Jesus!” I say. “A friend of mine does the same thing. She refuses to hurry up when she is about to get run over.”
“That’s because girls don’t look good when they run,” she says. And then she lights the cigarette.
Who’s going to smell your pee?
At the very back of a restaurant sit two young women, cigarettes in hand menus before them, wearing black and talking about their day. Outside, it is raining. “I can’t eat a thing,”says Gaby Hoffmann, Ricci’s friend and costar in several movies. “I ate a Cookie Puss today and I’m stuffed.
She consults the menu. I mention that “Cookie Puss” is the name of an early Beastie Boy record. Hoffmann looks at me with a perplexed expression.
” I thought Paul’s Boutique was their first record,” she says. “I love that record.” “Have you ever had a Cookie Puss?” asks Ricci, in a helpful tone of voice.
“From Carvel? It’s so good.”
Hoffmann looks at the menu and says, “I did her like this, I did her like that, I did her with a Wiffle ball bat.”
Ricci and Hoffmann recently finished shooting 200 Cigarettes, a film set on New Year’s Day, 1981, in New York City. Ben Affleck, his brother Casey, Paul Rudd, David Chappelle, and Courtney Love are also in it.
“I’ve got a stomachache,” says Ricci. “I don’t think I’m going to eat.” When the waitress comes, she orders the chicken.
Ricci’s boyfriend Matthew Frauman works here as a waiter. He wears black pants and a black button-down shirt and a skinny black tie, looking like he was raised watching old Westerns and empathized with the bad guy. He arrives quietly, shakes my hand, and then rushes off to clear a table. Ricci watches him.
“Damn, it’s got esparagus,” says Hoffmann when her salad arrives. “It’ll make my pee smell bad.”
“Who cares?”says Ricci. “Who’s going to smell your pee?”
They start talking about a recent episode of 90210. So hysterical, they say. A character is into cutting. It’s so hilarious, they say. Apparently she isn’t doing it right. “So deep!”Hoffmann. “It’s like, you would never cut yourself that deep.”
I look at the red marks on Christina’s arm
Two boys show up for Hoffmann, and then it’s only Ricci, waiting for Frauman to finish up. I ask about the marks on her arms. “That is a burn,” she says, pointing to a red splotch on the inside of her left forearm.
How’d it get there?
She laughs and explains that sometimes she puts cigarettes out on her arms.
“I was trying to impress a woman about how much pain I could take.”
Was she impressed?
“No, she wasn’t. It was not worth it at all. She was, like, ‘Hmm.’ ” Doesn’t it hurt a lot when you do that? “No. You get this endorphin rush,” she says. “You can actually faint from pain. It takes a second, a little sting, and then it’s like you really don’t feel anything. It’s calming actually.”
I show Ricci my old copy of J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories because I thought she might be a J.D. Salinger fan. “I don’t like Salinger,” she says. “Everyone else, my agent, everyone, loves Salinger. I had a friend who wanted to change her name to Phoebe Caulifield and I was, like ‘Why?’ I mean she was kind of cool, I guess, but he is gross. He wants all women to be his little sister. She’s this cute little sister. I’m, like, ‘You should not want to fuck someone who is your little sister.’
“I liked Franny and Zooey,” she continues. “More than Catcher in the Rye. He’s just so self-indulged and whiny. My teachers were, like, ‘This is the voice of your age group. This is someone really expressing how you feel.’ And I’m, like, ‘I don’t feel like this! He’s a fucking loser!’ Salinger looks at woman and he wants to make them all incredible angels, perfect. You can’t make them into that. Because then they will fall and crumble.” She smiles with surprising ruefulness as she says this, as though she experienced in matters of crumbling. “I really like The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand,” she says. “Her philosophy is that you’re worthless if you’re not out for yourself.”
Some weird shit happened here.
It’s Saturday evening. Ricci and I are driving west over the George Washington Bridge, straight into the sun. It’s the kind of sunset for which New Jersey is famous-lingering, toxic, beautiful. We are driving to her hometown, Montclair, New Jersey. She tells me that she hated it here. Her feet are up on the dashboard. She’s wearing gold open-toed shoes that she bought that day. She’s been compaining about yesterday’s photo shoot for Spin.
“Whenever there is a photo shoot that doesn’t have a concept thought up in advance, they end up putting me in something that makes me look like a prostitute. So, of course, I get there and this guy dresses me up to look like a whore. But they wanted me to act like a little girl. And that’s just disgusting.”
I mumble apologies and say that magazines always try to create some theater.
“But that wasn’t theatre at all!” she says. “I’m totally into that. but there are a lot of different kinds of drama, and most of them are better than me just looking like a whore.”
What did you have in mind?
“I wanted to be made up as a wood nymph,” she says
When we enter Montclair, Her face becomes calm. “it’s been three years since I’ve been back,” she says in a low, pensive voice. “Fuck.” Her parents split up several years ago, and she no longer talks to her father. As we drive through the streets, she points out the sights. Her tone of voice flits between nostalgia and utter contempt. I ask if we are going straight to her house and she says there is something she wants to show me first. Soon we are parked across the street from Glenfield Middle School. Ricci has a blank look on her face. It’s an expression of sadness and horror and fascination. “Some weird shit happened here,” she says.
“Once, while we were getting out of our buses and hanging out getting ready to go into the school, a secretary was shot in the head by her boyfriend, who then shot himself in the head in front of all the teachers in the faculty lounge,” she says. “Other stuff happened too. Stupid stuff.”
“I used to be friends with these girls, popular girls in my middle school, and I’d go to all these sleepovers. I was just 11 or 12. I used to wear nightshirts but no underwear. And this one girl had this roof where you could climb up and go to another place and we used to smoke paper, pretend we were smoking cigarettes. And I found out later they had taken pictures of me crawling out with no underwear. And they showed the pictures around school, and people, like, saw my pussy. And…it just makes me feel icky.”
“I think about stuff like that and it just makes me so depressed. Any time anything good happens to me, I start remembering all the horrible and embarrassing things I’ve done in my past.”
The sky is deep purple, the leaves rustle alongside the road the houses are huge, the lawns well- kept. We drive along a quiet street for a while and finally come to a clu-de-sac at the end of which is a neat two-story house with a grey Volvo station wagon parked in the driveway.
“Oh, no!” she gasps. “No!” her mouth hangs open, like she’s seen a ghost. “That’s our old house, and my father always had a grey Volvo station wagon. That’s really freaky.”
She get’s out, and we stand there in the dusk staring up at the house, each drinking a beer. There’s just a tiny bit of light left in the sky. The house is lit from within. She points out her bedroom, window upstairs, where she lay in bed in the dark listening to the primal screamers getting their emotions out. She paces back and forth, stares, sips her beer, smokes. We stand there for a while in silence.
“From the outside, these houses are so innocent,” she says finally. “That’s what’s depressing. Because you just always imagine what’s going on inside. Everything looked really beautiful from the outside, and the houses were beautiful, but they were just all just so unhappy.”
Then, as though to illustrate her point, a man raises his voice inside the house. A woman yells back.
Her eyes widen. “Did you hear that?!” she says, her wide eyes especially wide now, her right had outstretched in the direction of the house. “That was yelling. Oh yeah, they’re fighting in there. “Her eyes, her forehead, her little hands, one holding a cigarette packet and the other a beer, all become knots of emotion.
“It’s just a breeding ground for unhappiness, all these little suburban towns. People feel like they have to live up to being perfect, or have a perfect life, or be perfectly happy, and then it just makes them more unhappy. It’s really crazy.”
There is something about Ricci’s sensiblity, and her whole ambience, that is reminiscent of David Lynch’s baroque vision of the nasty underside of America. But in lynch’s movies there is always a vague sense aliens have entered the bodies of his apparently wholesome protagonists. Ricci has a more human vision: She’s fucked-up. You’re fucked-up. We’re all fucked-up. Innately. There is nothing strange about it. Weirdness is the normal natural condition and any attempt to cover that up is fake.
She stares up at her old window. “Being here makes me feel like I don’t actually live in the city. Like I still live here. Like I never left. Like I haven’t changed at all. But I feel like somebody planted the memories of this place into my head, and I never actually experienced it.”
I’m not as crazy as they are.
Soon we’re driving back across the George Washington Bridge. The radio is on. She sings fragments of Sublime, Foo Fighters, Talking Heads, Joan Jett. She finds a Stevie Nicks song.
I think of something Risa Braman Garcia said:”She has to be careful. There’s an 18-year-old girl there with incredible presence and sexuality. It could blossom, it could explode, it could implode. She’s going to have to be very strong and careful so it doesn’t get fucked-up.”
Steve Miller’s “The Joker” comes on. She turns it up, singing, “I’m a picker. I’m a grinner. I’m a lover. And I’m a sinner.”
She stops for a moment, turns to me, and says, “I went through the things that everyone goes through when you’re growing up. Except my family was crazy, so it was a little more extreme than normal.” She sings some more Steve Miller and then turns to me again. “Except I’m not as crazy as they are.”
Then she goes back to singing.”Whoo-hoo,” she sings.