She’s flying high now in Pan Ambut Bel Amistar Christina Ricci made her name playing goth heroine Wednesday Addams – and she still gives good gloom, writes DONALD CLARKE
CHRISTINA RICCI is just 32. Wide-eyed and compact, she perches on the lush sofa in a manner that suggests Kermit’s nephew sitting on his favourite step of the stairs. An entire basketball team could be accommodated in the space left unoccupied. In short, she still looks like somebody who has an entire life ahead of her.
Two decades have, however, passed since she first became an idol to dark, eyeliner-suffocated youth. When she was 10, she appeared opposite the fearsome Cher in Mermaids. The real boost kicked in with her performance as Wednesday, personification of morbid childhood, in the 1991 version of The Addams Family.Utilising perfect comic timing, making an art of impassiveness, she stole the movie from veterans such as Raoul Julia and Angelica Huston.
Now she turns up as a statuesque Belle Epoque society lady in Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel Ami.
“We had movement classes and lessons,” she says. “There was a lot about the way women sat and held their hands out. The hardest part was you had to sit without using your hands to steady yourself. I am bit clumsy. So that was tricky.”
Then she falls silent. It quickly becomes clear that – for today at least – young Ricci is not a talker.
Maybe the press have burnt her in the past. Perhaps she’s just a little jet-lagged. But she does not come across as the sort of person who, if encountered in a lift, would pin you to the corner with anecdotes concerning her difficult morning. Questions that permit the answer “yes” or “no” are answered in just that fashion. Amusing yarns concerning celebrities are left for another day.
What about that early identification with Goth culture? What did she make of the fact that Wednesday became a heroine to nicotine-stained outsiders? “I never identified as a Goth,” she says.
Okay. But did she understand why the character appealed to that tribe? “Yeah. Because most Goths have a sense of irony.” Maybe it was a stupid question.
Of Irish and Italian descent, Christina Ricci was born in California, but spent most of her childhood in a northern region of New Jersey. Her father was a lawyer and her mother, once a model, worked in real estate.
When she was just eight she began doing voiceover work and appearing in commercials. She maintains that her mother, who divorced in the early 1990s, was never aggressive in managing her career. All that mattered was that the kid was still having fun.The early success must, however, have caused its traumas. We have heard of many child actors who failed to resist the temptations of drugs, booze and bad relationships. The press are always waiting for such stars to fall off their perch.
“That was before the internet really started,” she says. “It was before tabloid culture got quite so prevalent. I still lived in the same town in New Jersey and had the same friends.”
The fragrant Robert Pattinson plays the cynical accidental journalist whose adventures drive the plot of Bel Ami.They must have had some interesting conversations about the pressures that early success can bring. There are few idols more hotly pursued than the star of the Twilightfilms.
“He’s wonderful,” she says. “He’s handling everything very well. He never brought any of what he was going through to the set. He was always incredibly well prepared, very professional and a very great actor. I loved working with him. We joked a lot. Made fun of each other and had a great laugh.”
Did she have advice for him? “Not really. He seems to be handling it all very well. I can’t imagine being as famous as he is.” There comes a point when every teenage actor has to decide whether they will stick with the business for the rest of their lives. Following the patterns set by Jodie Foster, stars such as Julia Stiles and Claire Danes have managed to attend college while still keeping a tentative toe in the theatrical world. Christina did apply to university. But, after several deferrals, she decided that she was fated (or doomed) to live life in front of the camera. If you are hoping for some nuanced analysis of that decision, you are about to be disappointed.
“I liked doing this a lot,” she says. “Then, when I was around 14, I realised this is what I wanted to do. I looked around and thought I really love doing this. There was nothing else I could really do.” The 1990s was the high period for mumbly slackerdom. Young movie-goers demanded sullen actors who always looked on the point of storming off to their bedrooms. Ricci fitted that template perfectly. She has a wonderful way of clipping snarky dialogue. Her stony glare is a fearsome sight to behold. Ricci was superb in Ang Lee’s The Ice Stormas an angry daughter coping badly with her parents’ drift into sleazy 1970s excess. That does, however, just about count as a juvenile performance. Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66saw her stretch towards adulthood. Playing a strange tap dancer kidnapped by Gallo’s even stranger ex-con, Ricci offered ample evidence she was in it for the long run.
What about Vincent Gallo then? The notorious actor, writer, director and musician seems like a very eccentric fellow.
“Yes. He’s very interesting.” In what way? “As you say. He’s very eccentric.” Okay. Let’s try another angle. Did this eccentricity manifest itself on set? “Yes. It did.” She is clearly doing everything possible to avoid expanding. “He is an incredibly talented person and that film shows how talented he is. He is a very flamboyant person, very emotional.”
Did she feel that the film launched her towards an adult career? “I don’t know that I would have had then – or have now – the objectivity somebody writing about me would have. I just felt that I was 17 and was playing a 17 or 18 year old. That’s just what the character was.” Ricci worked consistently throughout the last decade. She was superb as Charlize Theron’s lover in Monster. She tore up the screen as an imprisoned tearaway in the barmy Black Snake Moan. But true commercial hits have proved relatively hard to come by. Happily, the continuing quality of contemporary American television offers such actors a respectable route towards quality material.
In recent months Christina has been starring in ABC’s glossy period drama Pan Am. Playing a senior flight attended on the titular airline, she gets to wear sharp dresses, sashay past modernist architecture and generally revel in the current vogue for early-1960s chic. The series takes an ambivalent approach to the characters’ position in society. They have some power. But they are certainly not properly liberated.
“ Pan Amhas been a really wonderful experience,” she says, brightening up somewhat. “Yes, these women aren’t living in liberated times. But, as long as they play the game and go through certain rituals, they get to live their lives unencumbered. They earned among the top 10 salaries in the world for women. They see the world the way most Americans didn’t.”
Ricci seems like a peculiar creature. There’s clearly an intelligent, articulate person lurking in there. In the next few weeks – as if to prove the point – she begins rehearsals for the role of Hermia in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. But she doesn’t do a great job of convincing us that she retains enthusiasm for her chosen career path. I wonder what else she might have done with her life. It seems like she’s had a busy life.
“Not really. It just feels like my life.” What would she have done if she hadn’t become an actor? “God knows. I never think about that.” What else is she good at? “Nothing. I’m not good at anything else.” She must be good at something. Can she play the piano, do difficult sums or paint landscapes? “No. I have some organisational skills. Maybe I could organise people’s closets for a living.” The room is silent again. Can I go now?
Bel Amiopens on March 9
GOTH MOVIE HEROES
EDWARD SCISSORHANDSfrom Edward Scissorhands(1990)
Or virtually anybody from virtually any Tim Burton film. Look, he has these big sharp fingers that stop him from embracing anybody and forbid any kind of emotional connection. He’s just like you. Now, go to your room and read Emily Dickinson poems to your stuffed raven.
WEDNESDAYfrom The Addams Family(1991)
The original pre-teen Goth, Wednesday was created by cartoonist Charles Addams back in 1938 for the New Yorkermagazine. Christina Ricci’s super performance in the hit movie brought that sulky malevolence to a whole new audience. Was equally good in Addams Family Values.
NEOfrom The Matrix(1999)
Frank Skinner has a good joke about this. He claims that whenever he saw somebody in a long leather coat, he used to sidle up and – adopting Kenneth Williams’ voice from Carry On Matron– camply intone: “Ooo, Matrix!” You either get that or you don’t.
THE CROWfrom the Crow(1994)
On its release, the film was best known for that tragic incident in which Brandon Lee, who plays the eye-liner-heavy hero, was killed after being shot with a dummy bullet. But the character gradually acquired icon status fans of Fields of the Nephilim. Still popular as a Halloween costume.