Christina Ricci: 'Being a child actor is not healthy'
Hollywood actress Christina Ricci says there is a definite price to stardom at a young age
In 1925, anointed by her husband F Scott Fitzgerald as the "first flapper", Zelda Fitzgerald wrote an essay in which she distilled the philosophy of this new breed of woman: "To give and get amusement." Christina Ricci, who takes the role of Zelda in a new 10-part Amazon mini-series, does not play by those rules.
As an actor, she has a talent to unnerve and alarm, beginning with her role as Wednesday Addams, the homicidal 10-year-old in The Addams Family (1990), and reaching her apotheosis in The Opposite of Sex (1998), in which she played Dede, a monstrous teenage homewrecker laying waste to the lives of all around her.
Off-screen, she took a shock-and-awe approach to interviews, firing off provocative declarations - "I'm obsessed with incest"; "I was so perverted when I was a little girl" - laced with irony.
All this seems quite remote from the polished woman who strides into a London hotel room to meet me, a blonde starlet with hair bobbed and curled, hand outstretched. At 36, Ricci is still child-sized, barely more than 5 ft in vertiginous heels. She settles into a sofa and pulls her mouth into a tight smile. In Z: The Beginning of Everything, Ricci plays a woman who was, she thinks, frequently misunderstood.
"The misconception that I was under, which I think is a common one, was that she was this crazy drunk woman who ruined F Scott Fitzgerald's life," she says. "That was all I knew. And it turns out that's what Hemingway, who hated her, taught us. So, I was very surprised to read all the biographies and to find out that these things I thought about her were not… not that they weren't true, but just that they were very dismissive of somebody who was so much more than those things."
It was a novel that first got Ricci hooked on Zelda - Therese Anne Fowler's 2013 bestseller Z, which takes us from her heroine's swooning courtship with F Scott Fitzgerald, through the heady, fast-living days of their marriage, to their eventual mutual undoing. Along the way she recasts Zelda as the true artist in the Fitzgerald coupling.
When Ricci finished the book, she enquired about the rights, convinced that someone must be making it into a film.
As it turned out, no one was (although a separate project with Jennifer Lawrence in the title role is now in development). Ricci then turned producer - which, she acknowledges, is how she got the lead part.
"I can tell you that in my experience, I have never, ever been cast in a role like this and I would never get this part normally," she says. "I'm just not seen in that way. There are categories that people fall into, and types, and I was never a romantic lead. Basically, you couldn't get five people in a room to agree that I should be a romantic lead. I could get one person, but there's always more than one person whose opinion matters."
There were practical considerations, too - the series begins in Zelda's late teens, when she was the most dazzling belle in Montgomery, Alabama - but these were swept aside thanks to the rejuvenating power of CGI. "We did screen tests before the project was greenlit, to make sure that digitally we could change my face enough to make me look 18," says Ricci, her voice taking on an edge of sarcasm as she continues.
"We would have conversations with directors, and they would be like, 'We have to make sure you can really be youthful and enthusiastic', and I was like, 'I'm not going to be one of those actors that pretends to be dumb in order to play young'. You know what I mean? You see people playing young and they end up just playing stupid. And I'm like, well, I'm not."
Ricci has been famous since she was nine years old. When she made her feature film debut, playing Cher's youngest daughter in the comedy-drama Mermaids, she was round-faced, wide-eyed and adorable. But after that she would rarely trade on her cuteness: as a child actor, her power derived from her eerie composure and the unsettling, appraising quality of her gaze. "She looks at you and you get a definite feeling," said Tim Burton, her director on the 1999 gothic horror Sleepy Hollow, "but you're not quite sure what that feeling is".
Before she was cast in Mermaids, she had been auditioning for two years, after being talent-spotted when she appeared in a Christmas performance at her school in New Jersey.
"But this had happened to every single one of my siblings," says Ricci, the youngest of four. "My mother had been a model from the time that she was a teenager, so she always said no, because she didn't like how she had been treated. But by the time it came to me, my siblings were old enough to tell her that she should really let me try it out."
Her mother started taking her to auditions, as many as three or four a day. At the time, her father was working as a therapist, and Ricci has said in the past that she remembers hearing the cries of his primal scream patients rising up from the basement of their suburban home. Her parents divorced when she was 13.
Most tales of early fame end up as cautionary tales. Did Ricci feel she got through those years unscathed?
"I'm here and I'm great and there's no problem," she says flatly. "But I don't think that being a child actor is healthy for people. It immediately takes you out of the shared human experience. Nobody can guide you through it. Who's going to do that? To tell you how you feel, and how you react to things? Nobody. Nobody can. That's why there's a traditional way of raising children. But… it's just the way it is."
By the time she turned 17, Ricci was ready to cast off the yoke of child stardom. One minute she was playing second fiddle to a feline detective in That Darn Cat, the next she was seducing boys in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm and playing the baby-doll ingenue in Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66.
"I was relieved," she says. "As you go into being a teenager, you don't want to be making family films anymore - at least I didn't. When I was 17, I wanted to play 17-year-olds. And I knew myself at 17, so it didn't shock me or seem odd."
Today Ricci has her own child, a two-year-old son with her husband, a camera technician she met on the set of the TV series Pan Am in 2011. Motherhood has changed her, she says; she approaches her work with a new seriousness, creating opportunities for herself when they are not freely given.
"I think what I do with my life matters more," she says. "Before, I didn't care about anything."
So she was a nihilist?
"Well, I didn't hate people," she says, with a mirthless laugh. "It wasn't intellectual at all. It was just recklessness, an emotional detachment from reality, a lack of direction."
When she said shocking things in interviews, her intention was not to entertain.
"I was twisting in the wind, I was like a bug under a magnifying glass in the sun," she says. "People are asking you questions and you have to provide an answer, no matter how uncomfortable you are. I think I lashed out."
She would never have made a flapper.
"There was a light-heartedness to them that I certainly did not have about my own life when I was a teenager," she admits. "And really, I was a human being - not just a source of entertainment."
'Z: The Beginning of Everything' is an Amazon series
Sunday Indo Living