THE EMPIRE INTERVIEW: CHRISTINA RICCI
Small-screen Zelda Fitzgerald biopic Z: The Beginning of Everything sees Christina Ricci return to the limelight. The enigmatic actress tells Empire how she's survived lifelong fame.
PUBLISHED IN EMPIRE #133, MARCH 2017.
It’s early in New York City and Christina Ricci is dreading talking to the press. She doesn’t mean right now – not to brag, she assures us Empire is “wonderful” – but the coming weeks, as she is grilled about her new Amazon Studios show, Z: The Beginning of Everything. She was nine when she made Mermaids with Cher, she was Wednesday Addams a year later. Although in recent years she has stepped out of the glare, generally taking supporting roles and doing few interviews, she's a veteran of the game and knows what's coming. “You’d be shocked at the insulting things people say directly to you, and then ask you to comment on,” she says, laughing. “It’s like, fuck you! And I have to polite to you still?!”
But for the first time in Ricci’s life the project she’s here to talk about is entirely her baby, so she’s sucking it up and telling herself, “It’s going to be awesome,” like a mantra. She stars in and produces Z, a series about the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott. Zelda is currently in vogue, with both Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence set to play the flapper icon in separate biopics, but Ricci is up first. It's not difficult to see why this story would speak to her: it's a story about an extraordinarily famous yet enigmatic woman, and the challenges she faces in navigating celebrity without being torn apart by it.
As a kid, Ricci never spoke to her schoolmates about her experiences on the set of huge movies, fearing she wouldn't be accepted if she was different. Now 36 years old, married adn the mother of a two-year-old, she is guarded in the way anyone would be if they've had to talk to journalists since they were a kid. She apologises for her answers coming off sounding as if she’s just thought of them, but to be fair, that’s exactly what’s happened. "Come back in like five interviews and I'll have it all memorised but right now I am just making this up as I go."
What did you find so fascinating about Zelda Fitzgerald?
Sometimes it’s much more interesting to go in and really explore the minutiae of somebody’s life when the flipside of their life is legendary, mythical, in story and being and character. I think that we minimise real human experience in favour of fame-whoring. Like, it’s not an achievement to raise a child, but it’s an achievement to be a movie star.
She was one of the first people famous for almost no reason, by dint of who she was married to.
Exactly. And I don’t think that people really understand what it feels like to be that famous instantaneously. I mean, it’s like a drug. If you give someone that so early and effortlessly, imagine what the rest of their life is like, trying to chase that feeling forever. It’s like being a drug addict. And I think it can really make people crazy.
Did fame make you crazy?
I was too young so I don’t remember before and after. But I do remember the high: thinking the rest of your life is going to be that intense and exciting and wild. And I remember the feeling of expectation that’s put upon you, that if all these people are paying so much attention to you, you better do something.
Some child stars melt down from the pressure. You’ve managed to avoid all that keep your adult private life private. How have you done it?
I don’t know that I’ve really done anything that would have been good tabloid fodder. I didn’t marry a celebrity, I lived in Brooklyn when I was pregnant, so I didn’t try to avoid the press there just didn’t happen to be any paparazzi there. I’m really casual about big things in my life and I don’t make announcements because I think that’s weird. I think that’s a weird thing to announce to the world that you’re pregnant. How do you know people give a shit? I just feel like it’s very presumptuous to think that people give a shit.
Did other kids treat you weirdly at school?
I was smart enough at the time to immediately understand that I would not be accepted by my peers if I spoke about my career when I came back to school, so I never talked about it. I made a point of ignoring it and avoiding it. I was able to be very focused and disciplined in a way I think people were surprised by because it's not necessarily a trait children have very often. But other than that I think I was pretty normal.
Are you sick of people still asking about The Addams Family now? I just did it. I’m so sorry.
No! [laughs] It’s a great thing, I’m lucky to have had something that people are still fascinated by. I come from that school of thought of longevity, and of making an impact, so for me it’s something to be proud of, that it’s survived this long and that people are still interested in it.
Who’s your favourite actress?
I have lots of different ones. My favourite classic – not “classic”; God, what is wrong with me? Sometimes I sound like a teenager still – is Elizabeth Taylor. My favourite movie is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I love watching her.
Have you ever seen her in Boom!?
It’s John Waters’ favourite movie and he says if you watch Boom! and you don’t like it, you can never be friends with John Waters. It’s got Richard Burton in it. It’s terrible and I love it.
It’s not the one where they’re all stuck at the airport together, is it?
No, that’s The V.I.P.s. In Boom! she’s a rich woman and Richard Burton arrives and she hates him to start off with and then they end up hooking up. There's a bit there Richard Burton looks down from a cliff and says, "Boom!"
I’m going to watch this immediately. How do you spell it? [Writes down the title] Thank you.
You’re welcome. Looking back at your career, is there one film you see as having been particularly pivotal for you?
I think the first movie I did that was more sort of my taste at the time was The Ice Storm. For me that was a big turning point, because what followed after that were more serious adult projects which were what I was looking for. As an actor, if you are able to plan your career then you are in a very, very lucky position. For the most part you are at the whim of somebody else’s desire. But I think there’s a much more entrepreneurial spirit amongst millennials and the generations coming up, and I think that is influencing the way that actors feel. They’re like, "Well, I act in movies so why wouldn’t I produce them or create them?"
With Z and The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, you also have a producing credit. Is that so you can have more control over the material?
Yes. For a woman, I think that’s it’s a very difficult process psychologically to age as an actress. And I don’t want to be worried about all the petty things I’ve been worried about as a younger person – I’d rather get more into the material and the art, and have more control. Being an actor can feel very much like a powerless position and I don’t want to go into my forties being powerless anymore at work.
Have you previously been afraid to speak up in case you're thought of as difficult?
[Long pause] Ha, I was going to say a lot of things there, but yes, that is pretty much the situation. I hate to say it, but I found this to be true as an act-ress, you have to have the title to back up your opinion.
Are men more likely to speak up?
That’s the case everywhere.
Yeah, it’s no different. People make a big deal about women in Hollywood but it’s every industry. Going through this process of producing was really surprising to me, even in terms of casting. There are so many act-ors that won’t come in and audition and you’ve never heard of them in your whole life! Me and my peers – other women – we go in and audition all the time for things. There’s a reason why there are a lot of women in charge of our show.
You still have to audition?
You’d be surprised at the people who do. I don’t hate auditioning, it’s one of those things where I’ve been doing it for 30 years and I have to do it so regularly that there’s no point in having a bad attitude about it. But I do think that at this point I have enough movies, and I’ve played enough parts, that you can watch them and get an idea of what I’d be like. But what do I know.
I read you were up for the role that ultimately went to Thora Birch in Ghost World. What happened there?
I wasn’t up for it, I was attached to it. It became a scheduling issue and I couldn’t do it.
Were you a fan of the comic?
I was! Daniel Clowes is amazing.
How did you feel with Pan Am not continuing? When it started it felt like something big.
I had a lot of fun on that job. But what I learned from that show and what drove me into producing my own show was there can be a sort of diluted vision with television because of the way television’s made. A lot of people end up involved in the decision making. Sometimes you can work on projects where you ask, "What is this scene? Should I be playing this pure drama, or is this comedy, dark comedy?" and I’ve had the experience before where somebody will say, "Well, a little bit of both." That’s not an answer! And then you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.
In Prozac Nation you played Elizabeth Wurtzel, a woman struggling with depression and substance abuse. And Zelda Fitzgerald's story involves infidelity and alcoholism. Do you get nervous approaching dark material?
I don’t get nervous, but I kind of dread it because it’s a lot of work and I’m pretty lazy. And I get anxious. But it doesn’t make me nervous like I’ll worry I can’t do it, I just know it’s going to be a lot of work.
You were nude in Prozac Nation but I don’t remember there being a merkin as huge as the one in episode four of Z.
Oh God, I guess that they haven’t done the digital effects to the copy that you saw.
It was enormous! It was bigger than your whole head. What did you think when you saw it?
Well, things look very different on camera, especially at different angles, so that was something we put on knowing that they could digitally bring it down. [Laughing] I’m glad it gave you a good giggle.
I read that you once said, “If I hadn’t gone into acting, I probably would be one of those weird runaways on Hollywood Boulevard, no it’d be uglier, I’d probably be dead.”
When was the date that I said that? Was I a teenager? Like most people in the world I’d rather not be held to statements I made as a teenager. All of a sudden people ask you to talk about yourself and things that you have no experience to talk about. I felt like it was so insane and ridiculous to be asked my opinion about these things. Somebody said to me, "What would you be if I wasn’t an actress?" and I said, "Oh, a prostitute on Hollywood Boulevard." You know what I mean? It’s like, what do you want me to say? I’m 17! I don’t know what I would be! I could still be so many things.
Zelda made up imaginary infidelities to bring drama into her life, and there’s a quote from you in 1998 issue of SPIN magazine where you said you used to cheat on boyfriends just to create a little drama.
That never happened! I don’t even remember saying that. I’ve never cheated on anybody in my whole life! I mean, at 18 I think I probably didn’t even have a boyfriend. I think I had one boyfriend — that was it! Again, somebody puts the microphone in front of your face like, "Go for it!" and I don’t know what the fuck I said. I remember at the time thinking, "I have no idea about anything." I didn’t go to college, I barely graduated high school, I’d been on movie sets my whole life. "I don’t know what you want me to say." So that is really the explanation for all the ridiculous stuff I said early on. People seemed to get angry at me if I was honest and said I didn’t have any experience.
If you didn’t train as an actor you couldn’t even fall back on this-is-my-process chat.
Exactly! I didn’t even have a process! I was a child and every set you go to you’re expected to conform to whatever the adults are doing. And am very much a product of being a child on set. It’s a very different position. But you’re right, there was very little to talk about so I just said dumb things.
Another time you said you had a fear of plants.
I was being hyperbolic because I thought it was funny that there was a word for that! Botaniphobia. I think that’s hilarious. I don’t like plants inside because I think it’s gross because you’re bringing dirt inside and I don’t like dirt and I don’t like nature very much. Especially ferns. I don’t like ferns.
Was there any one line that you remember that you regret saying?
There are a lot of them, but repeating them would only make it be printed again. I know better than that now.