Interview with Christina Ricci
Christina Ricci was just visiting Prozac Nation, but the side effects were brutal. Now she's easing off the fruitcake for a taste of romantic-comedy flummery.
By Nick Compton, May 2001
There are bombs going off and the weather is hostile and Christina Ricci, the former roly-poly little bat-faced girl, is staying put in a tiny suite at London's Lanesborough Hotel, a grand oak-paneled pile overlooking Hyde Park. "When I'm alone, I don't like a big place where I can't see all the corners," she admits. "I don't want to some where there are places for people to hide."
And today, England is having a dankly medeival moment: Not only is a splinter faction of the IRA making trouble with TNT, but the shires are piled high burning animal carcasses as farmers attempt to stave off the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. Miranda, the high-cal "romantic-comedy -thriller" that has brought Ricci here, was supposed to include a lot of rolling-hill ribaldry in the Yorkshire Dales. But as the Arcadian backdrops are now folded up in a corner, the cast, including Kyle MacLachlan and John Hurt, have been forced to rusticate indoors.
If you're a twitchy young American actress, all this contributes to a general sense of menace. Then theres the small matter of another celebrated guest currently bunking at the same hotel- Oxford-Union orator Michael Jackson - whose presence has the paparazzi infesting every entrance. Far from the fusillade of flash bulbs, we stay in her suite and order up beers, talk incidents and accidents in a place with no hiding places.
Christina Ricci is just 21, but she has an impressive arsenal of films behind her; her 30th clock is this year. All but a handful have come and gone quietly: Many were funky little indie things; well-meant, poorly executed by overexcited chums, too cute or not cute enough. Some were big-budget bungles. The great-on-paper disappointments include her last movie, The Man Who Cried. Sally Potter's tale of occupied Paris, co-staring Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp, and John Turturro. But the critical or commercial winners-The Addams Family, The Ice Storm, The Opposite of Sex, Buffalo 66 - have this in common: their capacity to confound, shock, or scare the audience.
This year, Rucci takes the lead in a film adaptation of the book Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel's bleak riff on familial dysfunction, sagging serotonin, and misfiring mental circuitry.
"More than anything, I was relieved when I met Christina," says Wurtzel. "Any other actor can fake mental illness; Angelina Jolie has built a whole career out of it. But you can't fake being smart. And I was always worried about how some dumb actress was going to play me because I am smart," says Wurtzel, a Harvard hatchling. "I didn't have to worry about that with Christina.
But nothing indicated how prepared Ricci was to wake her latent Wurtzel. "There were only four days in the filming that I didn't gave to cry or have a nervous breakdown," says Ricci. Amid all the high drama, the film's crew threatened to walk out. "That movie almost killed me," Ricci admits. "Because of the amount of self-hate that I would make myself experience in scenes."
The producers attempted an emotional rescue, Ricci remembers. "'Look, it's only a movie,' they said. 'You don't need to go that far.'"
She'd lost a lot of weight - slimming down to re-create Wurtzel's Ritalin-riddled figure - and there was concern about the former anorexic's well-being.
Ricci was also sharing accommodations, on and off set, with pal Michelle Williams - better known as Jen, the chatty repentant slut on Dawson's Creak. "We would go back to our hotel room in Vancouver and just feel uncomfortable in our won skins," says Ricci. "We're, like, freaking out all day long, over and over again. And then we're supposed to go home, read a book, and go to bed? Me and Michelle would go out and get drunk. It was a little intense."
Ricci neatly sidesteps questions about whether she's suffered from depression herself, arguing that Prozac Nation is not about her. But perhaps it came to be about her.
"There were some pretty traumatic things going on," observes Williams. "Christina says she's not Method, but she really threw herself into it. You really have to excavate, go deep and dark with something like that."
Ricci characterizes it merely as a learning experience, just another splice for her reel: "I know how ugly my ugliness is, and now I can handle it."
"More than anything, Christina's got balls," says Don Roos, who directed Ricci in The Opposite of Sex. "There were times we were making that movie when I suggested that she could kind of wink at the audience, make her character a little more likeable. She told me that those kinds of films were for losers."
Christina Ricci's not one for repressing her true feelings, and perhaps that's in her genes: Her father, among other things, was a primal-scream therapist. Her parents divorced when she was 13, and though she remains close to her mother, sister, and two brothers, it seems she entrusts much of her care and feeding to the extended family of the film set., making father figures of her directors and brothers out of the key grips. "When you go on location, you can actually create a really sheltered little world," he says.
After a couple of years making commercials - she was on the audition circuit at the age of 9 - Ricci starred in Mermaids, a larely forgotten relic from an era when Cher was considered a serious actress. "By the time I was 14, I knew this was really what I wanted to do," she says, tiny in her sweatpants and cropped-T, a fist size tattoo of a sweat-pea bouquet bleeding across her lower back.
Such was her love for film making that she would tell peopler her idol was Scott Rudin, the demonic man-child who produced the two Addams Family movies and is celebrated for his titanic tantrums. (Rudin was once asked by the producers of Sleepy Hollow to vouch for Ricci's mental stability.) Now she's producing, too, with five films in development, including a Joel Silver sci-fi blockbuster in which she'll play a kung fu super babe. "I'm really athletic and good at stunts," claims Ricci, a string to her bow few would have imagined.
For such an indie-film princess, she knows the importance of being commercial. "I don't regret stuff like That Darn Cat" - a dismal Disney flick co-starring Doug E. Doug - "because it made a shitload of money, and that meant studios were prepared to hire me."
Ricci says she likes the wheeling and dealing, the pitching and playing, the miasma of manipulation: "I can walk into a room and know immediately what those people want to hear." She is no longer the teenager who snidded at the idea of romantic comedy because "this is not a happy planet." For a long time, Ricci was the anti-Jodie Foster, the girl most likely to grow up and rob a convenience store. She could be counted on to say silly things about guns - looking forward to her 18th birthday so she could buy one - and incest ("They share the same genes as you but they're just other people. It's such a natural thing to have sex with them.")
"I would get really irritated by stupid interview questions," Ricci explains today. "People would say, 'Oh, you're readings this book about incest. Do you like incest? So I'm, like, 'Oh, yeah, I love incest. I think it's completely natural and everyone should do it!' I was being sarcastic."
Neurotica segued into anorexia: Ricci says she developed the disease in 1994, when she was filing Now and Then alongside Demi Moore. She took yo burning her arms with a cigarette lighter as she was forced to deal with the sort of fetishistic interest that faces any child actress whose figure is starting to ripen. Ricci broke with her kiddie-flick past at 18, taking sex-tabby parts in The Opposite of Sex and Buffalo 66. "I had an interviewer come into my house recently and start talking about porn and ask me if I'd seen some scene in a movie where a woman is taking it at both ends and sucking dick. I actually felt really offended. I'm thinking, "I'm in my own home and I'm 21, but I don't feel that I'm enough of an adult for you to sit here and talk to me about stuff like that."
Ricci maintains she's outgrown her "rebellious and strange" phase.
"I'm really happy to be over that - just to be able to come home and stay in and not feel the need to go out and just tear shit up.
In Los Angeles, Ricci holes up in her Los Feliz house with her new boyfriend, actor James Oliver (her ex was similarly not a brand-label actor). For years, she refused to leave New York and regularly dissed L.A. But maturity melted the resistance, along with many other arguments with the world. When she does go out, she puts on pajama bottoms and drops into dive bars with "craggy old men and dartboards." She has dogs - Rottweilers - and she likes to take them for walks. But mainly she stays close to home, watching TV, she says, starting with The Simpsons at 6:30, through Friends, Seinfeld, and the entire adolscentangsty WB lineup (she has an acute analysis of how the WB manages to balance temperance and girls with nice tits), Friends again, Frasier, and then to bed.
But London is her once and future second home; after wrapping Miranda, she's staying on for another shoot, and she thinks she might buy a house here. "It's like New York is a big high school and London is a the grown-up version," she says brightly, observing that England has a more relaxed attitude toward drinking - and the use of the word cunt: "It's indicative of a more forgiving culture, an understanding that humans have weaknesses."
A truly Prozac Nation, in other words.
Christina Ricci walks into the living room of her home in the Hollywood Hills, sits down, lights a cigarette, and takes a swig from a bottle half-filled with orange swill. "What's in the bottle?" I ask.
"You mean The Crack?" she says. "It's lemon juice, water, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. I'm on a liquid fast. When I'm done I'll feel cracked out."
It's understandable that Ricci feels the need to load up on an energy drink - at age 21 she's already made 26 movies. But Ricci is not just another Hollywood workaholic. She's done more in her career than almost any other actor her age, and she's mostly done it her way. She's never been the cute wholesome kid who befriends an orphaned alien, the young ingenue who rides a black stallion or the Juliet to anyone's Romeo. This is the kid who stole the show from her Addams family, who stole her half-brother's boyfriend in The Opposite of Sex and who seduced the preteen son of her neighbor in The Ice Storm. The youngest of four siblings, Ricci grew up in L.A., New Jersey and Manhattan. When she was 12 and already had a blockbuster under her belt, her parents split, and she entered a dark period. Therapy and anorexia were part of her teenage years. She enjoyed walking on the wild side and speaking her mind. Shock was good; it was fun. Though she's still as opinionated as ever, Ricci is now 21 and looking at the long run. After making a rash of indies (200 Cigarettes, Pecker, Desert Blue) for which she earned several sterling reviews, she upped her star profile two years ago by starring as Johnny Depp's mysterious, alluring leading lady in Tim Burton's commercial hit Sleepy Hollow. Since then she's opened a production company, Blaspheme Films, and developed not-exactly-mainstream fare such as Prozac Nation, and adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel's best-seller, and Pumpkin, in which she plays a sorority girl who falls in love with a disabled boy. Both will be released later this year. This summer, she's starring as a Russian woman who romances Johnny Depp in the high-profile, classy World War II drama The Man Who Cried.
In person, Ricci seems much older than 21, though she still looks 16. She comes off as professional, polite, direct and unshakeable.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: Was turning 21 a big deal for you?
CHRISTINA RICCI: It's a big deal because everyone talks about their 21st birthday and all the things you have to do, like go to bars, show your ID. The bartenders all tell you to get drunk. Apparently this is the ritual.
Q: Did you go through the ritual?
A: Yeah. I went to this restaurant down the street and then to this dive bar, Ye Olde Rustic Inn. I like dive bars. [Suddenly gets up and turns off some lights] I live with my boyfriend and my roommate, and they don't turn the lights off.
Q: Are you compulsive?
A: My roommate and my boyfriend, they both know I am compulsive and controlling. You see my house - it doesn't look like an obsessive-compulsive person lives here, but if the keys are not in the middle of the coffee table, I'll complain about who moved them.
Q: Are you controlling when you're working?
A: No. When I'm acting in a film that I'm not producing, I stay myself. When I made The Man Who Cried, the director [Sally Potter] was very into talking. I've never seen anyone so moved by their own material. I'm the main character in every scene, so the rehearsals would be two-hour conversations with other actors. The first couple of weeks made me feel weird, and I began to feel that nothing I did had any honesty, so I stopped. In my real life I have the normal insecurities anybody my age would have, but when I'm acting I don't feel self-conscious. To talk about it makes me feel self-conscious.
Q: This is the third time you've worked with Johnny Depp. Is each time different?
A: On Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, he was being Hunter S. Thompson; he wasn't being Johnny. Sleepy Hollow was great. We had fun together. In this movie it's weird because we're having sex in almost every scene we're in, and it's rough sex. The first time we tried to be serious about it, we both started laughing, saying, "This is ridiculous." Then there were all these scenes where we're rooting around like pigs.
Q: Do you have a sisterly feeling toward Johnny?
A: It's almost more like he's my big- brother's best friend and all of a sudden we're in sex scenes together.
Q: Did people in the industry treat you differently after the success of Sleepy Hollow?
A: The movies I made early on may not have been great, but they were all commercially successful. I was always viewed by studios as a component in a movie that made money. Sleepy Hollow helped me back to that.
Q: What made you want to produce and star in Prozac Nation?
A: The fact that in the memoir the author was able to made people feel the nature of depression through this monotonous tone was amazing to me. It made something intangible tangible. And I thought if we could make a movie that honestly reflected this without apologizing for it, how amazing would that be?
Q: Does this movie stick closely with Elizabeth Wurtzel's memoir?
A: No, we just filmed the segment dealing with her freshman year in college.
Q: How do you feel about Prozac Nation so far?
A: It's upsetting. My character is extremely self-destructive. She attempts suicide. Crazy, manic behavior. And it's ugly. After watching it, it was, Ughh. But we didn't want to made it easy for anyone to swallow.
Q: How deep does it go into you own darkness?
A: This movie was the most difficult experience I ever had. People told me to make sure I protected myself before doing this movie, and I was like, What? I didn't prepare.
Q: You've talked about having two therapists in real life, one on each coast. How does this work?
A: That's the dumbest quote ever. What I was saying was I had a therapist when I lived in New York, and then when I came to L.A. for six months to make a movie, what was going to do, not have a therapist for six months? So I found a therapist in L.A. But I didn't have two therapists at the same time.
Q: Did you start therapy when you were six?
A: We went to family therapy when I was six. But I didn't really start going to therapy myself until I was 12 or 13. I had a really fabulous therapist when I was recovering from anorexia. I went to her for a year and a half. Right now I'm not in therapy and haven't been in a year.
Q: Do you ever get tired of your own problems, or do you find there's never enough time to talk about what's going on inside your head?
A: Prozac Nation was a great exorcism for me. My problems don't affect my life anymore. I'm able to see them. That's something I got out of being in therapy for so long. I can see the reasons behind my actions. I don't allow that stuff to fuck with my life anymore.
Q: Are you taking any antidepressants now?
A: I take Wellbutrin because I'm afraid of going into stores. I'm afraid people are going to yell at me.
Q: What kind of stores?
A: I used to be afraid to go anywhere by myself because I thought people were going to yell at me. In New York I couldn't take the subway because I'd get so nervous at the tollbooth, I'd do something stupid and the tollbooth people would yell at me. I couldn't handle it. I take Wellbutrin to make me more able to slip through.
Q: Do people still yell at you?
A: No, not anymore. I don't do stupid things anymore. I'm not freaked out.
Q: So you may not need the medication?
A: I don't know.
Q: You've spoken of having a deep-running anger. Do you know where that comes from?
A: Not really. You see all the stuff that comes out of the ‘80's, it was really hideous - in terms of the values people had then. Then you read some of the writings from people who were teenagers or in their early twenties during the ‘80's - it's so ugly and cynical.
Q: Many of your contemporaries look up to you. Do they ever approach you?
A: I don't meet that many actors. And I'm shy. If I go out it's with two friends and I don't talk to other people. People think I'm snobby because of that, and I know that, but I can't help it. I just get awkward. I know that a lot of young actresses look up to me and like that I haven't had to compromise too much, but it wasn't like I decided not to compromise. I just couldn't. I'm a short 21-year-old girl who's not skinny. I don't have a sunny disposition, but I'm not gothic either. I don't have a gimmick. So I shouldn't really be successful. I tried hard to be pretty and be what I thought I was supposed to be and I couldn't do that. People think, "Wow, she never compromised," when the truth is that I couldn't compromise, so I had to do my own thing.
Q: You must be flattered when actresses say they want to work with you.
A: I'm really paranoid, so when an actress my age says she wants to work with me, I don't think it's because she thinks I'm a good actress. I think it's because she wants to show she's better than me. I think everyone is competitive.
Q: Julianne Moore recently made the remark that in Hollywood, you're never pretty enough. True?
A: Yeah it would seem that way.
Q: Does it matter?
A: Ultimately, no. Because you can convince anyone that you're pretty enough. Really. There are people you see who aren't typically beautiful, but we're all convinced they're gorgeous, so we accept them.
Q: Which famous person had made you especially nervous?
A: When I met Martin Scorsese I was really nervous. Before I went int to read for Gangs of New York I was sitting outside his office thinking, This is the biggest audition of my life. I kept saying to myself, "You'll be so good." But I walked in, started reading and felt my face twitching. I knew I was smiling. Then it went to laughing. I stopped and just looked at him. He said, "Why don't we try it again?" And I said, "Without the face twitching and the inappropriate smiling?" And he said, "Yeah." It was funny.
Q: Are there any actors you would like to work with?
A: James Woods. He's one of my favorite actors of all time.
Q: How do you feel you're perceived in the press?
A: I think people think I'm crazy, really wild. But I'm not
Q: How would you describe yourself to someone who didn't know you?
A: I'm a pain in the ass. I can be very abrasive and I'm hostile to people I like the most. And I can be silly.
Q: What are your best features?
A: I'm pretty smart
Q: What do you like most about yourself?
A: I entertain myself all day long.
A: My horrible, dark temper.
Q: Are you happier making independent or studio films?
A: The better material is the riskier material, and of course they're not gonna want to spend as much money on them, so they end up being low-budget films. That's fine. I don't feel the need to be making, like, two million dollars a movie.
Q: Have you reached the million-dollar stage?
A: I can't talk about something like that. It's tacky.
Q: Can you talk about what you've been offered in the past two years that you've decided not to do?
A: Most of the films I decided not to do were offensive.
Q: What would offend you?
A: I recently read a script where in the first scene this college girl is getting wasted, deciding to have sex for the first time with this boy she likes. But then he ends up with someone else, and she's so drunk that some other guy takes her up to a room. She comes out of a blackout and she's being raped by two different guys. And then she's vomited on, and they proceed to continue to have sex with her while she's passed out. There's no reason for this. It's just disgusting. It breeds more contempt for other people. I don't feel any need to put myself in a position where I'm representing that.
Q: Of your 26 films, which most satisfied you?
A: The Opposite of Sex was an important film for me.
Q: It made you a sex symbol.
A: Yeah, that was strange.
Q: Did you really find out about sex when you were five?
A: That's true. Everyone at school talked about it. Also, we had a facts of life book and my sister read it to me.
Q: Have you ever thought about going to college?
A: For a while I wanted to, but I didn't like people telling me that I had to. It was as if I had to prove I was intelligent by going to college. That really pissed me off. So I applied and got into a really good college - Columbia - and that proved it. I said, That's fine, I don't need to go for four years to prove to you people that I'm smart. It seems to me that so many young actresses do that - it's like we're told that the really smart actresses took four years off and went to school. But they're not such smart actresses. They just did what they really wanted to do in life for those four years. Everyone talks about Jodie Foster going to Yale. Yeah, she's amazing. But I don't need to prove that I'm intelligent by doing the same thing someone else did.
Q: How did you do on the SATs?
A: I got a 760 in verbal. But my math was like a 480. I couldn't do math.
Q: Are you happier at work or play?
A: My favorite place to be is on a movie set. Because my partner and I produced Pumpkin, we wanted to make everybody happy. I threw three parties for the crew. I ran around in my pajamas when I wasn't in wardrobe. It was fun, acting like a big jackass and not caring.
Q: You've said that there are many manipulative people in the movie business.
A: There are manipulative people in every business, but this is a business that affords people the luxury of being emotional - people are allowed to behave any way they want because we indulge people's emotions. They react more without thinking. They're childlike.
Q: Is winning an Oscar important to you?
A: I think most people would want that. The awards mean something to me. If none of this meant anything I wouldn't do magazine covers. There's something about celebrity that's really alluring.
Q: Do you have an Oscar speech in your head?
A: A couple of years ago I decided if I ever won an Oscar I was going yo give the speech from Mommie Dearest. She's too freaked out to go to the Oscars, so she listens to it at home on the radio. There are people outside her house, and when she wins, she comes out and gives a speech, while they're honking their horns. It's the craziest speech you've ever heard. People will think I'm insane for saying it, but then later they're realize it's from Mommie Dearest and they'll laugh.
Q: What are your favorite films?
A: I love Scorsese's movies. If I ever can't sleep I put them on because I find them comforting. My father liked those films when I was little.
Q: Some of your father's patients would come to the house and go through primal scream therapy. How did hearing this affect you?
A: I developed a sense of the ridiculous. When I was 10, after I went to bed, these people would start arriving around mine o'clock and by 10 there would be full-blown screaming while I was trying to sleep.
Q: Is it true that as a child actor you were the primary bread-winner in the house?
A: My father supported us.
Q: How traumatic was it for you when your parents split up when you were 12?
A: It wasn't traumatic at all. Everyone had left to go to college except for me. We had a feeling that would be the time when they would split up.
Q: What's your relationship with your father today?
A: I haven't talked with him in six years.
Q: Are you sorry about that.
Q: Does he ever try to contact you?
Q: A few years after your parents split, you starved yourself into thinness during Now and Then. Was that a cry for attention?
A: Maybe it was boredom, as well as an obvious cry for help. It wasn't all that serious - well, anorexia is serious, but I got over it in a couple of months.
Q: You've been overweight, you've been underweight. How much of a problem is it for you?
A: I get really thin for one part, go back to being normal for another, get thin again.
Q: If you could exchange bodies with anyone, who would that be?
A: I enjoy being small. I guess Winona Ryder. People don't realize she's tiny.
Q: What about faces?
A: I like my face.
Q: Is your boyfriend an actor?
A: Yeah, he's been in the theater for 15 years. His name's James Oliver and we met through friends a few months ago.
Q: How many boyfriends have you had?
A: Not an excessive amount. Five.
Q: How obsessed with TV are you?
A: I love television. I'm a huge "X-Files" fan. I love "Law & Order," watch the reruns on A&E all the time. "The Simpsons," "Friends." My favorite new show is "Will & Grace."
Q: Do you have a favorite rock group?
A: The Red How Chili Peppers for a long time, and I still love them. Now I'm obsessed with Tom Petty and The Ramones.
Q: I know Anthony Kiedis, and when I told him I'd be seeing you, he said, " I think she was into us when she was a teenager and has since moved on to more underground, hipper and esoteric musical outfits." That True?
A: That's not true. I was in love with Anthony Kiedis. When I was 11 I told all my friends at a party, "Give me 17 years, I will be married to that man."
Q: What's your favorite novel?
A: The Fountainhead because the writing is so beautiful.
Q: What about The Catcher in the Rye?
A: I hate The Catcher in the Rye. It's so whiny and incredibly self-involved. The fact that it was supposed to represent what we were going through in our teen years - I was just like, fuck you. I can take responsibility for my emotions and actions.
Q: Who are your favorite poets?
A: Dylan Thomas, Edgar Allen Poe and Rainer Maria Rilke.
Q: What does money mean to you?
A: It means I get to buy lots of fun things.
Q: Such as?
A: I got a car that I wanted ever since I was little: a Porsche 996 - the new model of the 911.
Q: I heard you have a plastic Jesus on your dashboard.
A: No, it's the Virgin Mary - she's actually an air freshener. Someone spilled beer in my car and it smelled horrible.
Q: What else did you spend your money on?
A: I bought myself this ring [three small diamonds].
Q: If you could have three wishes connected to the movies, what would they be?
A: I'd want to remake The Fountainhead. I'd like to run a studio. I want to have the capacity and ability to make films - I don't have it right now.
Q: Would you say you have a large ego?
Q: If you could live inside a painting for a while, which would you choose?
A: Edvard Munch's "Vampire." It's a woman embracing a man. It's no because she's a vampire - it's the colors and textures. The painting is so passionate and alive.
Q: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
A: In conversations I'd like to be able to push a pause button and think, What should I really do here? I'm really bad at pausing and reflecting. I'm really impulsive.
Q: Do you really believe that, with your teen years behind you you've already lived through your most interesting years?
A: God, I hope so. They were such a pain in the ass I'd like some banality now.