Something happened to Christina Ricci since the last time I spoke to her—and it's not just that she blossomed from an awkward, flippant 17-year-old into a buxom, poised young woman. Ricci found a sincere respect for acting—a dramatic turn from a few years back.
"I take more pride in it now than I used to," confessed the 21-year-old Ricci of her career, which began at the age of 8 when she was discovered by a local movie critic in New Jersey at an elementary school pageant, The Twelve Days of Christmas. The impressed critic, whose child was one of Ricci's classmates, convinced Ricci's parents to secure Ricci an agent, and soon she was working in commercials, followed by her film debut as Cher's daughter in the 1990 film Mermaids. She's been working steadily ever since in such films as The Addams Family (and its sequel), Casper, Now and Then, and That Darn Cat.
Continued Ricci, "I used to think that to say acting was a talent was bragging—that I would be talking myself up or loving myself too much. So, instead, I would say, 'Acting's easy.' 'It's stupid.' 'It's how I make money.' But as I've gotten older, I've learned to appreciate it more. I've learned that acting is not just about me. It's about tons of other people who do this as their artistic expression."
What brought about this profound change in Ricci's attitude? Like nearly all child actors, Ricci reached her teenage years and found that the industry didn't know quite what do with her. She was no longer the precocious girl the world had come to know so well. Her body was in the midst of developing. She had gained some weight and—dear God—she had breasts, all of a sudden.
In order for Ricci to keep acting, she had to redefine herself as an actress. Though Ricci acknowledged that luck played a major part in that reinvention, she nevertheless made the most of her opportunity to portray the brooding, sexually curious 14-year-old character Wendy Hood in Ang Lee's 1997 Watergate-era film, The Ice Storm.
The part was originally offered to Natalie Portman, who turned it down because her parents were uncomfortable with the script's sexual content. Thankfully the role ultimately went to Ricci (then 16), who proved that she was capable of far more than what many of us realized.
"I'll show you mine if you show me yours," says Wendy in the film to a petrified boy (Adam Hann-Byrd) whom she corners in a neighbor's bathroom. The line is innocent enough, but as said by Ricci, it becomes almost wickedly dangerous. Ricci's performance in this scene and in the rest of the film was a revelation. Who knew she could really act?
At the time Ricci did the film, she did not think that her work in The Ice Storm was such a big deal. She knew that she had the depth and the acting chops to pull off the part. What she didn't realize then was that the rest of the world did not have that same confidence in her.
Commented Ricci, "One does not necessarily have the limited view of oneself that other people do. So, to me, it was like, 'Of course I can do this part. I know myself and I know what I can do.' But then the movie came out, and I saw that people were so impressed. It never occurred to me that people would think that I couldn't do it."
Ricci soon followed the critically lauded Ice Storm with two other well-received performances: in Vincent Gallo's inventive Buffalo 66, in which she played an impressionable young woman kidnapped by an ex-con to pose as his wife, and in Don Roos' satirical comedy The Opposite of Sex, in which she pulled off a sardonic performance as an acid-tongued, conniving nymphet who seduces her half-brother's gay lover. A few more indie flicks later (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Desert Blue, John Waters' Pecker, 200 Cigarettes), Ricci returned to the mainstream fold with Tim Burton's hit film Sleepy Hollow, as Ichabod Crane's (Johnny Depp) love interest.
With her most recent effort, Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried, Ricci once again reintroduces herself to audiences—this time as a woman. With a maturity we haven't seen before, Ricci plays the orphaned Suzie, a singer/dancer who falls in love with a gypsy (Depp) on the eve of Germany's occupation of Paris during World War II. It's a highly lyrical, epic costume drama that announces, once and for all, that Ricci is officially a woman, as well as an actress to be reckoned with.
"I sort of feel like you should have a World War II drama in your bio somewhere," said Ricci with a hint of sarcasm that has long been her trademark. "Well, here is mine."
These days, Ricci chooses her work according to her instincts, which so far have steered her well in her career. She'll next appear in Pumpkin, one of several films she's producing, in which she plays a college student who falls in love with a disabled man. That will be followed by the screen adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel's novel Prozac Nation, which Ricci is also producing and in which she stars.
Asked how she goes about choosing her projects, she said, "I think my career is just a reflection of my own personal taste. I don't do anything very consciously. I'm more impulsive and, I guess, emotional."
When asked to comment on directing Christina Ricci, Ang Lee once said, "We have a saying that the face is not just a face but a reflection of the mind. Christina may not know it, but that is her power."
Indeed behind the haunting splendor of Ricci's luminous face and huge brown eyes lies a cavernous reserve of emotions that can be brought to the surface when cued. While most actors rely, in part, on technique to emote, the self-taught Ricci has always been a purely instinctual performer. She can also say more with just one look than most actors can with an entire page of dialogue.
As Ricci told me, she's never felt the need to seek out professional training. She continues to do what she's always done—trust her instincts.
"I think a lot of times when people start to train as actors it's because their surroundings have squashed a lot of their instincts," said Ricci. "Training helps to bring out all this stuff that's been repressed, whereas if you start as a child, it just remains at the top. I've been doing this so consistently that none of these things could ever leave me."
Some actors may scoff at the fact that Ricci has made it in this business without any formal instruction. However, it is her honest and direct response to the work that makes her so compelling to watch.
The only drawback to Ricci's instinctual approach to acting is that it can be emotionally draining. Take her recent work in the upcoming Prozac Nation, which deals with a young woman battling depression. Ricci described it as the most demanding role she's ever played.
"I think every time you do a film, you're using a different part of your personality," said Ricci. "But, for Prozac Nation, basically everything I had in me was used."
She also finds that celebrityhood can be arduous at times and often feels that she has to put up more of an act in front of the public than when she's in front of the camera.
"I'm kind of a shy person in a lot of ways," revealed Ricci, whose on-screen persona has been anything but that. "I don't like performing in a room, socially. I'm not a terribly social person, but in this job I meet different people every five minutes, and people touch me all the time. I have to have intimate conversations with strangers. That's the thing I don't like. I constantly have to be aware of how I'm behaving, and sometimes it's just so exhausting."
As much as she prefers the privacy of her life outside the public eye, she acknowledged that fame definitely has it perks.
"I'm not going to lie," she told me. "I like being famous. I like being well respected. I like that people don't laugh when they hear my name. I like being able to get tables at restaurants and discounts on clothes. So I can't complain. My life is exactly the life that I wanted for myself."
While she may have fallen into this profession accidentally and had a number of lucky breaks along the way, Ricci no longer has to rely on chance, as so many actors do and as she did for years. Now she's got clout—a result of combining her immense talent with wise and often risky choices. BSW