The Observer – March 2004

Hidden Depths
The Observer, March 2004
By Gaby Wood

Christina Ricci has been in films and therapy all her life. But – surprise,surprise – at 24 she’s a cool, clever and accomplished actress. Gaby Wood talks to her about existentialism, Dostoevsky and making out with Charlize Theron.

A sunny day in California; a famous movie star climbs out of a swimming pool. She dries herself off, comes over and says hello; at which point it becomes clear that Christina Ricci is far too wayward for Baywatch – or even, really, for California. The sardonic death stare that has been burning up movie screens for the past 14 years is even more arresting in the flesh. The unusual dimensions of her face – a long forehead in a heartshaped head – and the stark harmonies of her features – dark, slicked-back hair, moon-pale skin, enormous brown eyes – lend Christina Ricci an innocent, eerie charm.

She goes inside to get changed, returns in a vest and lived-in Earl Jeans, and wonders if it’s OK to smoke her friend’s last cigarette. What I know about Ricci so far is this: she has confessed to a ‘dark temper’ and a certain amount of paranoia, she doesn’t like crowds, and for years she couldn’t bear to look at herself, so she covered up all the mirrors in her house. She has been anorexic, she has cut herself, she has had recurring dreams of being eaten alive. She is given to glum existential comments, such as ‘fate is bored’, and has been known to get into bed accompanied by a doublepronged stun gun.

So, how should we proceed? ‘I’m actually not afraid of dying,’ she says, blowing smoke into the air. ‘Apparently – according to everyone else – that makes me incredibly naive. And stupid. But I’m just not afraid to die. I mean, I try to be afraid to die,’ she says this in a girlish, almost pleading tone, ‘because first I had older friends and everybody told me, “It’s because you’re too young, and when you get older, you’ll understand the fear of death.” And then I watched a lot of Woody Allen movies and he basically feels that if you’re not afraid of death you’re an idiot. And my boyfriend right now, I think, feels like I might be kind of stupid, because I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m really just Not Afraid To Die. And there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m afraid of being in pain – I don’t want to, like, burn to death. I don’t want to be scared before I die. But I’m not afraid of not existing – which is what everyone seems to be afraid of with death: the not-existing part.’

‘Hmm,’ I say. ‘Did you talk to Woody Allen about this?’

‘No. Cos he certainly would’ve been like, “You’re a moron.”‘

If Christina Ricci didn’t exist,Woody Allen would have had to invent her. And as it happens, he sort of did anyway. In Allen’s latest film, Anything Else, Ricci plays Amanda, a beautiful actress on whose ‘offbeat sexual quality’ the plot turns. ‘She’s crazy,’ Woody Allen’s character says of Amanda. ‘The Pentagon should use her hormones for chemical warfare.’

Although it’s far from being Allen’s best movie, Anything Else shows fairly impressively what Ricci’s new maturity can do for her. She has been acting since the age of eight, when a film critic ‘discovered’ her at a school pageant, in which she gave a sarcastic running commentary on the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. She made her film debut in Richard Benjamin’s Mermaids as a child who thinks one of the three kings brought Jesus ‘Frankenstein’ as a gift, and not long afterwards she was given the seminal role of Wednesday in The Addams Family, a character who is perhaps best summed up by the outfit she chooses for Halloween. ‘This is my costume,’ Wednesday says on being asked why she is wearing her normal clothes. ‘I’m a homicidal maniac – they look just like everyone else.’

Ricci managed to escape the sorry fate of many young actors once her childhood ended, a stroke of luck she has attributed to the fact that she was never cute. Her haunted look and ease with irony ensured her a spate of major success in the late Nineties, when – in The Ice Storm, Buffalo ’66 and The Opposite of Sex – she gave adolescence more nuanced inflections than the most tormented teenager knew it had. But the past few years have seen her on an uncertain footing. She was slated to direct The Speed Queen as her debut, and that plan has been scrapped. Two recent films, Prozac Nation and a thriller called The Gathering, remain unreleased, and Pumpkin, her first film as star and producer, had a lukewarm reception.

This is a situation Ricci describes as ‘a little detour – a lot of random movies’. She now feels like her life is beginning to shape up. She has just finished shooting the new Kevin Williamson/Wes Craven horror flick, Cursed; she stars in I Love Your Work, a new film by her boyfriend, Adam Goldberg, about a celebrity who stalks a fan; and British audiences are about to see her in Monster, the gutwrenching movie that won her co-star, Charlize Theron, an Oscar. Ricci says she took on the part of the serial killer’s lesbian lover because everything the character does ‘goes completely against who I am’. She ultimately turns in Theron’s character, but along the way Ricci gives the relationship a sweetness and an energy that make the film not only harrowing, but very sad. ‘It was certainly dark and depressing and after a while I just wanted it to be over,’ she says of the shoot. ‘But the way we dealt with the weight of the material was, we laughed our asses off all of the time. You wouldn’t believe how much we made lewd jokes and giggled.’

How did she get on kissing Theron with her fake teeth? ‘I didn’t notice!’ she says. ‘She was always apologising, whenever we made out. And I was like, “Honestly? I’d have to kiss you without them, sometime, to, like, compare?” I mean, I made out with kids in high school who had braces, so it can’t be any worse than that.’

Ricci has a childlike voice, which retains the questioning inflections of a teenager. At first you are too gripped by her worldly, enveloping gaze to notice it – because her eyes seem to say they’ve seen it all, the innocence of her voice temporarily passes you by. But there is something in this combination of things that may be key to Ricci’s screen alchemy. It’s what Tim Burton, who directed her in Sleepy Hollow, described as her ‘ambiguous quality – she looks at you and you get a definite feeling, but you’re not quite sure what that feeling is’.

She has, for instance, three very visible tattoos, which on closer inspection turn out to be of rather demure subjects: an Edward Gorey creature, the Lion from “The Chronicles of Narnia” and some large sweet peas across her back, whose significance Ricci professes, unconvincingly, not to know. She can sound babyish but speaks about Nabokov. One of her favourite films is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a brightly coloured French musical about absence, loss and the violence of war. She continually refers to the perception that she is ‘naive’ or ‘stunted’, yet everything she says is knowing, and the general feeling she exudes is one of being exceptionally grounded. She has an impeccably wry demeanour: from time to time one side of her mouth will edge upwards, and her voice will croak a little, as if there were a smile at the back of her throat. ‘The whole growing-up process seems to have eluded me,’ she drawls wearily, contradicting herself as she speaks.

Perhaps the growing up happened too early to be easily recognisable. Ricci learnt to read by the age of three, and since she was at school has written fiction in black-and-white Mead notebooks. When I ask her to elaborate on its subject matter, she sniffs: ‘I write what pleases me.’ She will allow, however, that ‘as you get older, it gets lamer’. She got into Columbia University some years ago and would have studied creative writing, but then decided she didn’t want to go to college, on the grounds that actors only did that because they didn’t want people to think they were stupid. She once wrote a screenplay called Asylum, about ‘a group of youths who feel dead because they’re unable to make the transition to adulthood’. And she recently wrote an adaptation of a book to which she didn’t have the rights, simply for the ‘sense of accomplishment’. When I ask her about her literary influences she says: ‘I know it sounds very high school-ish, but, um, Dostoevsky?’

Ricci is the youngest of four children. Her mother was once a model with the Ford agency and her father – who she says she looks more like – is a psychiatrist who treated his patients using primal scream therapy. ‘All I knew was that it was called primal scream therapy and that it happened in our basement,’ Ricci says. ‘We didn’t really even talk about it, till one day I was, like, “And Mom, what the hell was that?” And then me and my sister started imitating the screaming people, and we all died laughing. My mom thought that was hysterical, that we could remember it. She was, like, “I thought you guys were asleep.” With the screaming, in the basement? No.’

Ricci’s parents divorced when she was 12, by which time she had made five films and seen the break-up coming. She no longer speaks to her father, a subject about which she is naturally reticent – ‘It’s not something I think about really,’ she says. But even as a child she thought her mother was ‘the most fun person to be around on earth’.

‘Her whole thing was, you ate steak and you drank Scotch, and that’s how you stayed thin. Twiggy was the ultimate beauty, and there were certain things women never did. She’d do very silly things when we were little girls, like point to people’s noses and say, “You can thank your father and I that you don’t have that nose.” You know, she was very silly, very vain and thought she was this starving socialite, in a way.’

Ricci says she was proud that her mother was pretty and had been on the cover of Seventeen, but doesn’t feel that those looks put undue pressure on her. Her much-publicised eating disorder, she claims, came from watching TV. ‘At the time that I was starting to diet and stuff, I saw this TV movie, and I thought, “Ooh – anorexia. I could probably do that.” And so I attempted. And I succeeded!’

After years of therapy – ‘I’ve been to therapists my whole life’ – Ricci says she’s fine. ‘I find the less attention I pay to food, the healthier I am. Any obsession is dangerous. And a whole country that’s obsessed with one thing, unless it’s, like, jeans, it’s very dangerous. Everyone’s obsessed right now with carbohydrates in this country. It’s ridiculous.’

What was it like hitting puberty in public? ‘I think I would have hated myself just as much had I not been in the public eye,’ Ricci says. ‘But I think I chose to rebel very strongly against the fact that people were going to take note of my behaviour. I think I probably said and did things with a lot more fervour than I would have.’ She says she can’t think of any particular examples, but it would seem that with a Sixties mother and an alternative-therapist father, Ricci rebelled against the only norm available: the regularity of a Hollywood career. You might say that the public was her parent-figure, and now she’s made her peace.

Ricci says she loves to work, but life creeps into the lulls in between projects, and she finds life ‘very stressful’: ‘The day-to-day aspects of life. Just simple things, you know – getting to appointments, driving, traffic, getting out of parking lots. That stuff is stressful to me.’ When she goes abroad, she takes her own duvet and bedding, and her favourite kind of candles. As soon as she arrives in a hotel, she rearranges the furniture and goes out and buys a particular sort of bath mat and towels. ‘I like to set things up my own way,’ she says.

In which case, life is currently dealing her a stress marathon, in the form of a transcontinental shift. She is leaving Los Angeles for good, and moving into a place she has bought with her boyfriend in New York. (Adam Goldberg has directed two films, but is better known as an actor – he was the Jewish soldier in Saving Private Ryan, and Matthew McConaughey’s best friend in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. He and Ricci have been together for more than a year.)

When I ask her how her life has matched up to the fantasies she had as a kid, she says it’s ‘slowly turning out. I guess I couldn’t really imagine the middle part. But now, it looks like it’s turning out to be the end part. If that makes any sense.’ She refuses to tell me what the ‘end part’ consists of, but a guess wouldn’t be all that hard to hazard: she has said in the past that she hoped to be married at 20 and have children at 23; Ricci turned 24 last month. ‘I’m really looking forward to it,’ she says, of the move back to the place where she grew up. ‘It’ll be really nice to sort of, put down roots.’

I ask her what her self-image is like now. ‘I think it’s good,’ she says, then she catches herself sounding unswervingly optimistic. ‘I mean, I don’t like anyone who likes themselves too much. All these people with great self-esteem, they can go straight to hell as far as I’m concerned.’

· Monster is released on 2 April and Anything Else on 23 July.