The Times Magazine – December 11, 1999

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The Times Magazine, December 11, 1999

Some people spend all their lives in Hollywood and still fail to see through it’s love affair with itself. Not Christina Ricci, though. At 19, the actress who has made her name playing weirdo kids is wise beyond her years. Here she speaks candidly to Robert Crampton about beauty, breasts and the cult of being a celebrity.

Christina Ricci is 19 years old and she has made more than 20 films. She has been giving interviews for a decade. It is no surprise that she has learnt to keep her distance. But she is bright and, by American star standards, breezily candid and willing to engage. Why, Christina and I, we almost had a proper conversation. I grew so relaxed that towards the end I became unforgivably over-familiar – asking her, so help me, to talk a bit about her breasts. Given the context, it felt sort of legitimate at the time. But if she got home to LA and fulminated about that creepy English guy and hist chest-questioning, I’d understand. I apologize.

She was here to promote Sleepy Hollow, her new film, which stars Johnny Depp. It is very much his film – Ricci’s is not a great part. I supposed she made it because Depp is a hero to many actors and because Sleepy Hollow is big-budget and mainstream. She is the current princess of the independent scene, having given a series of excellent performances since The Ice Storm in 1997 confirmed her as a grown-up actress, able to make the fraught transition from the child star she became playing Wednesday in the two Addams Family films. As Wednesday, she was dark and disturbing. Now she has added dangerously sexy. She’s good. She will have a long career.

She looks impossibly young and even tinier than 5ft 1in. She is wearing a T-shirt, jeans, boots and just a little mascara. Her hair is scraped back off her exceptionally broad forehead – so no hang-ups there. She regards this informality as a swipe at stardom, part of her desire to resist the pressure in and around the film industry to be, and be seen to be, constantly upgrading your status, you ego, your partner, you anything. “You’re always supposed to look nice and have nice things and drive nice cars and be see in really nice clothes…… right now, I’m a bad example. (To me she looks perfectly smart. Anyway, the jeans are Earl – £95 a pop (approx. $142.50) – and the boots Costume National, another hip, pricey label.)

More than once she says that young actors – and musicians, though not models, if those monsters at Elite have got anything to do with it – are too clean-living, that there are no Jack Nicholsons and Richard Burtons in her generation. She says that she is boring and clean-living too. She smokes – but never in pictures for US magazines (European ones are OK), hardly drinks, does her exercise, goes home after a shoot, walks her rottweiler and her two pit-lab cross puppies, watches videos, waits to do the next film. She goes out a bit. When she gets comped into clubs, her actress friend Gaby Hoffmann pretending to be her personal assistant, she feels “obnoxious, because of all the people waiting on line”.

She accepts that “there is something about keeping an image alive that is part of this job. And Hollywood’s all about image.” She says that she “doesn’t compromise as much as I should”, but does a little bit. For instance, she would never agree to be photographed in the gear described above – not glamorous enough. When she gets bored – so much of her job is waiting, for a script, and audition, a technical shift – she’ll think, “OK, strategise! New image”, but she rarely takes it further. Her own image is Rebel Weird – partly because of the forehead I suspect, partly because of the parts she plays, partly because her father was a primal scream therapist. This image is not her doing. She once admitted burning herself with cigarettes, but as she says, “teenagers do very strange things. It (self-mutilation) was a huge thing in my junior high.” In truth, she is neither rebel nor weird. Like many people in a profession whose essence is speaking someone else’s words at someone else’s direction, she is “really conservative and really scared of things. I always assume that if anything bad can happen, it’s gonna happen to me.”

Ricci talks straight and has a clear head. She doesn’t whinge about fame and fortune and she doesn’t pretend that all her fellow stars are wonderful humane beings driven by an inner compulsion to make great art. For instance, we talked about celebrity couples. I suggested that so many celebrities got together because they only ever met other celebrities. She wasn’t having that. “It’s also the image, ” she says. “You’re supposed* (note from person typing interview, whenever the * appears that means that the word before it was supposed to be stressed in italics) to got out with someone else who’s famous.” Really? “Yeah, it’s all a package. You wanna be famous so that you can meet George Clooney and marry him and have beautiful little children and hang out with Meg Ryan. I had that when I was younger.

She got over it. Matthew Frauman, her boyfriend of two years, is also an actor – an unknown one. She judges new people by their attitude to him, “because they’re going to be nice to me. If their not nice to him… you know immediately they’re after something. He’s really friendly, so if someone pisses him off, you know they’re probably a jerk.” When she and Matthew first got together, this “weird little clique in New York really disapproved of it. They felt that I had a responsibility to be with someone famous. It was disgusting.” The couple moved to LA two years ago, but will go back to New York “when we can afford some place gorgeous”.

Like Kate Winslet, whom I interviewed a year ago, who also started acting professionally as a child, Ricci never felt out of place in the adult world. “Working was where I felt best about myself. This career was tailor-made for me – I had the personality that isn’t ruined by the business. A lot of kids just don’t have the right mindset. I always kind of had it. It’s about not being too fragile. The thing that ruins people is believing their own press, good or bad. You’re not supposed to hear what other people think of you.”

Most celebrities get a good press, I say (In American you can replace “good” with “nauseatingly sycophantic”). “Yeah, but can you imagine how obnoxious I’d be if I believed all the good things said about me?” She says that her siblings – she is the youngest of four – kept her down-to-earth. “Also I know, I knew then, I kind of got* the whole concept that you don’t have any control (of the press). So many people allow it (celebrity) to change them. You see it happen and it’s strange.” How do people change? “They just get weird. Imagine walking round being so conscious all the time what people think of you. In a kind of weird fucked-up, huge-ego way, where you have the positive, but at the same time, the negative.”

She has not always had such a healthy attitude. Again, like Winslet, Ricci fell victim to the biggest occupational hazard there is for a young actress. Cameras and casting directors seem really to despise even the tiniest amount of fat on a woman’s frame. Winslet told me that, at 18, already underweight at 8 st, a director told her to lose another 10 lbs because American audiences like their cheekbones extra-hollow. This loss had triggered her anorexia. Ricci was 14 when she was seduced by the thrill of emaciation (5 st 10 lb was her low point). “I was really competitive and I was in a movie with three other girls, so I wanted to look better than all of them.” For while she ate a green salad a day and nothing else. “I was like E.T., ‘cos my head is big. I thought if I could just be skinnier, I would be more successful. Which is still silly because I was* successful.” Counseling, friends and family helped her over the worst. “I’m really a survivor, I guess. There’s a huge part of me that won’t allow me to self-destruct.” Winslet says much the same. Recovery is harder for girls who lack the drive, money, vanity and incentive of Hollywood actresses. I can’t help thinking that, as this dreadful myth that beautiful equals thin equals beautiful claims more and younger victims, the stars who help promote the myth – and so often suffer from it’s consequences – should do something to debunk it. Never mind the “awareness ribbons”, the most sisterly act that the female film stars of the world could preform would be to sign a solemn pact to eat what the hell they wanted until they’ve all put on a stone.

Yeah, like, that’s going to happen.

Ricci, like Winslet, is now more at ease with the shapeliness of her shape. But still, you can glimpse what she’s up against when she says how at 16 her weight went up to 9 st and how that was “the phase when I was really heavy”. Nine stone isn’t “really heavy”. Now she weighs 7st 9 lb, “and I’m regular again”. And happy? “I’m not skinny as most actresses are, but that’s fine. I’ve been successful in spite of it”. I begin to wonder what Julia and Gwyneth and Winona and Jennifer – what there is of them – must look like up close, or whether you can see them only when they are magnified up on to a movie screen.

Ricci grew up with parents who loved films, but not each other. Her father loved Scorcese. Her mother, sister and two brothers preferred Spielberg. They lived in the suburbs, in Montclair, New Jersey. When she wasn’t away working, Christina went to the local school, church and Sunday school (Presbyterian, though her mother is Catholic and Ricci is now more attracted to that faith”. Was it a happy family? “As much as anybody’s family is. Actually, some people have happier families.” Her parents divorced when she was 13. “We all knew it was coming. When you live with people for years, you know that eventually it’s gonna fall apart.” There was no violence, but “they yelled at each other. We all yelled at each other. I can’t stand yelling to this day.”

She and her mother moved to New York. Her father moved “really far away” and she doesn’t see him much. Her mother had been a Ford model in the Sixties and given it up to have children. Is she very attractive? “She’s very pretty, yeah.” Was she, Christina, very conscious that her mother had modeled? “I was conscious of that fact that I looked nothing like her. That was weird.” Why? “She had been…….. validated*. To have someone say, ‘Yes, it’s fact, she’s pretty’, and you look nothing like them and have everyone say you look nothing like them, that was very strange.” That must have been hard? “At the time it wasn’t that hard. In retrospect I realize it made me feel like I wasn’t really that pretty. And in junior high I was always called, like, plain.”

This was after you had started acting, after people had started writing, “Christina Ricci looks weird, big forehead”, etc.? “Yeah, I just thought I was kind of weird-looking. And I held onto that until people told me, ‘No, you’re just really plain.'” Was that a big problem for you? “Not really.” Ever resent you mother? “No.” Ever thought, I wish I looked like her? Pause. “No.” She ever try to make you look like her? “No. My mom wasn’t like that. She always thought modeling was the stupidest thing ever. She always made me feel like the fact that I had talent was so much more valuable.” Christina was first spotted in a school play by another pupil’s mother who was a casting director.

In big studio films, I ask, because I can never tell, how much is acting and how much is looking nice? She says: “There’s a lot of pressure now for studios to make really good films because of how big all the independent films have got, but yeah, there are lots of films where you go, “Aw, come on, you’re just being pretty.'” And does she have the sense that she is really acting, or being a different version of herself? “Well, you have to translate it into your own terms, otherwise it wouldn’t be convincing. But that’s me. It’s not Method.”

There followed a silence, me thinking that maybe I should ask more about her “process” but unable to summon up to the interest. Then, revving up my best Hugh Grant impression, clear throat, ahem, rather delicate, hate to raise the subject, deep breath… I asked about her breasts. What did she think of all the attention paid to them in the press? “I don’t like it. I don’t like the idea of a gross man or some adolescent pimple-faced boy jerking off to a picture of me. It’s gross.” Trying to look as ungross and unpimpled as possible, I pressed on. I don’t know about America, I said, but in Britain we’ve become obsessed with breasts. “I know! It’s weird. You are obsessed with boobs here!”

She lived in London for six months while filming Sleepy Hollow, so she had plenty of time to soak up the vogue for young British actresses, singers and presenters taking their clothes off in magazines. “I know! Naked! Like Gail what’s-her-name?” Porter? “That was crazy, crazy! Although, she’s gorgeous. And what is it, page six? Page three?” I ask her what she makes of this new raucous, act-like-a-man feminism and she says, “I’m conservative. I’m from a don-talk- about-sex kind of background.” (This attitude does not entirely square with the current issue of Movieline, in which she is pictured wearing a black bra and knickers, adopting a cliched pornographic pose astride a chair.)

Nor does she much approve of the converse – the feminism of young men, especially as evidenced in the young actors she meets. “Young male actors are very strange, I find. It’s sort of feminine to care about you image – I just find it’s really unattractive (in men).” These guys do all that, do they? “Well they have to, it’s part of their job.” She says that she plucks Matthew’s eyebrows for him.

Times nearly up, and I finish things off by saying how I interview a lot of people whose image is weird, or zany, or fast-living, and then they run out to be living hardworking, ordered, methodical lives, and here she is saying she’s another one of those. But, I always think, there must be something* different about these people, some drive, some steel, to have achieved the prominence that others have not. So, what has she got? True to form, she answers with a disarming self-awareness not present in many three times her age. “I’m really really competitive and I’ve always wanted to win. That’s all I cared about when I was little. It didn’t matter what I did so long as I won.” She reckons she might be growing out of that now. “I think it’s a real teenage thing.” She will be 20 in February.