Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Christina Ricci was still in single digits when she began acting, and it didn’t take long for her career to take off in a big way, thanks to scoring a debut film that found her co-starring with Cher and Winona Ryder (Mermaids), but the true turning point came when she secured the role of Gomez and Morticia Addams’ daughter, Wednesday, and subsequently stole all of her scenes in the feature film version of The Addams Family. Although it was only a few years later that she made a shift away from youthful fare like That Darn Cat into more thematically mature material, the shift was ultimately a successful one: Ricci has worked steadily on the big screen ever since, making occasional forays onto the small screen as well. She can currently be seen in Distorted, a psychological thriller co-starring John Cusack.
Christina Ricci: The film was something that came to me through traditional channels, and I thought that it seemed like a fun, very relevant concept, but what really drew me to it was that the character I’m playing is recovering from the loss of a child in infancy, and I’d never played anyone who was dealing with that or grappling with that. It seemed like a pretty good challenge.
The A.V. Club: How would you describe Lauren in a nutshell?
CR: Well, she’s an artist. She’s struggled with emotional instability and perhaps mood disorder medication complications in the past. She’s married, and they have a baby, and then the baby dies in a horrible accident. So she’s recovering from that, and I think that level of grief is really what defines her character. We find her at that level of grief, guilt, and insecurity, and she’s just trying so hard to start over.
AVC: Part of the film involves Lauren investigating the effects of subliminal messages, in advertising or otherwise. Did you have an opinion about subliminal messages before doing the film?
CR: I hadn’t really thought too much about it. I mean, I believe that it goes on, but I really hadn’t given it too much thought.
Mermaids (1990)—“Kate Flax”
Cher, “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss)” (1990)—actress
AVC: In looking back at your career, it’s hard to definitively identify your first on-camera role. Mermaids was obviously higher in profile, but did you film that before or after you did the episode of H.E.L.P.?
CR: I think it was the episode of H.E.L.P. that came first.
AVC: Do you remember anything at all about the character or the experience in general?
CR: I don’t remember that much. I think I was about 8. I remember being in a car with an actress who was passed out and just doing my lines into a phone. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place? Did you just have an interest in it as a child, or was it a case of your parents seeing potential in you?
CR: In second grade, we did a Christmas pageant, and I was in it. Afterwards, someone approached my family and said, “You should see if she does well in commercials,” and they gave my parents the information to sort of get me all signed up if I wanted to do it. And I was the youngest of four, and everybody in my family thought it was a really great idea, so I did it!
AVC: To hit on Mermaids while we’re here, that’s not a bad first film to have on your list of credits.
CR: No, it’s not. It was amazing. That whole experience was so… You know, for a child to have a normal suburban life and then all of a sudden to be flying to Boston to audition with Cher and then back to New Jersey that night, and then finding out at, like, 11 p.m. after I got back that I got the part. The whole thing was really incredible. And earth-shaking. It changed my life forever.
AVC: Did you have any familiarity with Cher at that age?
CR: No, I didn’t really. Once I knew I was going and auditioning for it, my mother told me all about her, and I’m sure they showed me stuff. But my real knowledge of Cher comes from firsthand experience, and I count myself so lucky, because she is just such an incredible human being.
AVC: Have you stayed in touch with her over the years?
CR: I haven’t in a long time. But I did for about 10 years after the movie. We were in touch, but we have since lost touch, which I regret very much, because she’s an incredible person.
AVC: Do you have any memories of doing the video for “The Shoop Shoop Song”?
CR: I remember it was really fun. I couldn’t believe that videos shot so late. We were up really late, and then Cher took me to her house in Malibu to sleep over afterwards, and we had, like, a pajama party. It was just great.
AVC: That’s a pretty awesome memory.
CR: Yeah! It’s really just a fantastic, idyllic memory.
CR: I’ve always loved television. I had come back from doing Black Snake Moan when they approached me, and I think Grey’s was either the first or second season, so it was still a relatively new show. But they approached me with an arc for the Super Bowl episode, and I said, “Yeah, of course!” And I went, and it was really fun, and all of the actors were incredible. It turned into more than I thought it was going to be, for sure.
CR: Oh, wow! That just sort of… happened. I knew Nick [Swardson] socially, and he approached me and said, “Would you be interested in this?” And I said, “Yeah, that’d be so fun!” And that’s kind of how that happened! It was really fun. I’d never done a movie where it was all comedians, and they definitely work differently than traditional actors. So it was great. It’s always fun to do something new and to try a different technique, and that was definitely what that experience was.
AVC: Prozac Nation was your first time both producing and starring in a film, and it was also based on a memoir. Did you have a lot of interaction with the author, Elizabeth Wurtzel?
CR: Not a ton. We met, and we had one or two hangouts. That was it. But I loved that book. I was at the right age for that to really speak to me. I really, really wanted to stretch as an actress and see what I was capable of, and that was a very difficult part. That was one of the more taxing, emotionally devastating parts I think I’ve done.
AVC: But was it ultimately worthwhile?
CR: Yes. Because I learned a lot from that experience and I was able to see how unprepared I was to do that! [Laughs.] I learned what I would need in the future if I was going to play such an emotional role.
CR: Now And Then was so much fun. Gaby Hoffmann and I met on that movie, and we stayed best friends up until college. No, past college. We were best friends into our twenties. But doing that film was just a great time. It was a coming-of-age movie, but it was certainly that time in life for me as well.
AVC: You and Gaby reunited a few years later to work on 200 Cigarettes.
CR: Yeah, we were out all night in New York in our teens filming that movie, and it was so much fun. I was Gaby Hoffmann’s guardian, because I was 18 and she was 16.
AVC: Just that concept alone seems like a situation ripe for trouble.
CR: So much trouble! Yeah, it was not a good idea.
AVC: Are there any safe-for-print anecdotes that can be told?
CR: No. Not a single one. [Laughs.]
[We reached out to Gaby Hoffmann to get her reaction to Ricci’s description of their 200 Cigarettes setup. Her reply: “I totally disagree. It was a GREAT idea.”]
CR: Z was a book that I read and loved, and I took it to a producer, Pam Koffler, and we took it to Amazon and had it set up. So for me, it was the first time that I’d produced a television show and gotten from the idea and conception to full fruition on the air. I learned so much about TV. We got a second season, and then they canceled the second season. It went back and forth, so it wasn’t ultimately successful, in that we didn’t get past one season. But in terms of what it did for me, in letting me know what was possible and what I was capable of, it was like gold.
AVC: You said you’d read the book, but had you been terribly familiar with Zelda Fitzgerald prior to that?
CR: No, I wasn’t really, and I think that was what I was sort of excited about. I wasn’t someone who had bought into the lore or the hype or the stories of her, so when I read this book, I really had this idea to make a television show that was from her perspective, her memories. We never really got to hear what Zelda thought of herself in her own words, so this was sort of her chance to tell her story. That was the idea.
CR: Casper was a great experience. I was 12? Or 13. But to be that age and to be on the Universal lot making a movie for Amblin for nine months, it could be a lot worse! Bill Pullman was great to work with, everybody was fantastic. It was a really nice experience.
AVC: Given your age when you started your career, was there any particular actor who served as a mentor for you?
CR: Not specifically a mentor. I think that when I was young, though, I was sort of thrust into this world, and my parents weren’t actors, and I didn’t know any actors, so I really learned to do what I do by watching other people. So I would say that every single actor I worked with in that first two or three, even the first four or five movies, I just sort of absorbed everything I could from them.
CR: Pumpkin was really fun. It was another of the first movies that I produced and that I was really creatively involved in, and it’s just a very different movie. We’re doing [our lines] like it’s 1960s TV, and… there’s not a lot like it! It’s definitely an original. It’s unique and it stands out with its tone. And I’m proud of that.
CR: That show was so fun. You know, it was really hard work, long hours, and ultimately not successful, but it really was just so much fun in terms of hair, makeup, and wardrobe. It was a good time.
AVC: It’s a gorgeous show.
CR: Yeah, it was beautiful. It was really well made.
AVC: It did, however, feel like it could’ve been so much more.
CR: Well, I think it should’ve been on… It should not have been on network television. I think if that had been [on] a cable show or streaming, they would’ve been able to do so much more. Making a show about that period of time and having to be so PC, it doesn’t make sense, because there’s no substance there.
AVC: Some have said that it felt like they wanted it to be the next Desperate Housewives, just set in the ’60s.
CR: I think that was definitely the struggle: What were we making? We couldn’t make a Mad Men-type show for our network, so it was, like, “Are we making Desperate Housewives? If not, then what are we even doing?” And I think that was very confusing for a lot of people involved.
CR: That was an incredible experience. I was just in awe of Charlize [Theron] and what she was doing the whole time, but I really felt very strongly that I was there to support her, because she was doing something important. I really loved being a part of that and being there for her.
AVC: You were obviously watching it unfold, but how staggering was it for you to see her transform into that character?
CR: It was crazy! The first time I saw the pictures and the camera test, I said, “You’re not really doing this to her, are you?” [Laughs.] I was, like, “This is just a try, right? This isn’t the final?” I mean, it was really quite shocking to see her that way when you had just seen her as beautiful Charlize Theron. But it’s funny: Over time, Patty [Jenkins] and I would joke that we got so used to her looking like that, we almost missed it when the movie was over.
CR: Speed Racer was so much fun. I was so excited to be a part of that. I loved the Wachkowskis, and I loved watching them work. They’re just so brilliant.
AVC: That’s certainly a film that’s evolved into a major cult classic over the years.
CR: Has it? Oh, wow! I didn’t know.
AVC: Were you thrown by the initial reception to the film? “Outrage” might be too strong a word.
CR: I think I was aware of the disconnect that was going on at the time, and I was sort of watching and… Not that I expected that, but I knew that there would be problems, because I knew that people were expecting something very different than what was actually going to be delivered.
AVC: Whether you like it or don’t like it, it’s hard to take your eyes off of it.
CR: Definitely. Yeah, again, it’s a case of something that’s just beautifully made.
AVC: Seriously, did anyone on that film have any idea what it was going to end up like?
CR: Well, we shot it three times, so no. [Laughs.] I mean, I couldn’t keep it straight. By the time we went to shoot the last version, I was so confused that I actually had to ask, “So are we doing the version where that person is my brother or my boyfriend?” It was one of those studio movies that just got horribly screwed up.
CR: Penelope was a really fun movie. I loved making it. I’d never done anything where I’d worn a face prosthesis like that. I liked the tone of it. I like fairy tales and fantasy, and it was just fun.
CR: Well, that was a case where I saw that play, and then I heard they were making a movie out of it, so I asked my agents if they could get a part for me, and they came back with that one. That was really exciting, just to be a part of it, and it was such an incredible group of actors. Being able to watch some of their performances on set was, well, it was just heartbreaking. I was there when Terry Kinney makes his speech. He played Matthew Shepard’s father, and he makes this speech about his son in court, and it’s the most heartbreaking thing when you see it in the movie, but being there and watching him do it, it was just devastating. He’s such a beautiful actor.
CR: That was a movie that turned out very differently than I thought the movie was going to be, but as an actress, I’m proud of it. I think my performance in it is everything I intended it to be and is in line with my beliefs. I made that movie because I’d been working with RAINN—the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network—for a long time, and to play this survivor of sexual assault was really important to me, and to show the cyclical effect that sexual abuse has was very important to me. And as an actress, to be able to play that was something I wanted to know I could do.
AVC: As dark in tone as the film is, one would hope that the set was at least somewhat lightened up by Samuel L. Jackson on occasion.
CR: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It was actually so much fun filming that. Sam was great, Justin [Timberlake] was great… Despite the subject matter, it really was a great time.
CR: Well, those movies have clearly had the biggest impact on my career and life. I spent a lot of my childhood working on them and promoting them, and I’ve spent the rest of my life talking about them. [Laughs.] So both of the Addams Family movies, they’re huge in my history, and Wednesday… I feel very inextricably bound to her, because I feel, like, who can say how much influence being that person at that age for the amount of time that I was her, the amount of positive reinforcement from playing that character. It’s like a chicken-or-egg debate: Did I influence her as a character, or did she as a character influence my personality?
AVC: That’s something I’d always been curious about: How much of Wednesday was in you before you took on that film, or if you could even tell.
CR: The way memory works in childhood, it all blurs. So I don’t have a sense of who I was or what I felt like before I was an actress, essentially.
AVC: Now the hard-hitting question: If pressed, do you have a preference between M.C. Hammer’s “Addams Groove” or Tag Team’s “Addams Family (Whoomp)”?
CR: [Laughs.] Uh, I think if pressed… It’s probably “Addams Groove.” Because, I mean, it’s M.C. Hammer. And we had so much fun working with him. He’s, like, the nicest guy ever.
AVC: And how were Raúl Juliá and Anjelica Huston as on-screen parents?
CR: Amazing. I count myself so lucky to have had such legendary actors to learn from as a child.
CR: Again, it was such an incredible cast and such an incredible group of actors, and… I was there, and I don’t know that I necessarily knew what I was doing at the time, but I was doing my best. You know, it’s a movie that I’m really, really proud of, and it’s one of the best movies, I think, that I was in. It’s a movie that, if I hadn’t been in it, I would still love it and it’d be one of my favorite films.
AVC: Was there a particular film that you can pin down as being the one where you began your evolution from young actress into adult actress?
CR: Well, I do think that Buffalo ’66, The Ice Storm, and The Opposite Of Sex were sort of the first movies that really were kind of my first legitimate adult movies and adult roles.
AVC: Was it difficult to make that transition? Or was it easier because they were so categorically adult in nature?
CR: I think it was easy to make the transition. It was difficult for me personally to navigate being an adult celebrity versus being a child celebrity. It was also difficult to all of a sudden be a famous person when I was a child, and I didn’t really necessarily know who I was at the time, let alone what image of myself I wanted to project into the public arena. I think when you become famous as an adult, you sort of decide who you are and who you want to be known as, but when you’re growing up and you’re famous, you don’t have that ability or that objectivity. So for me it was very confusing being a young adult and being a celebrity.
AVC: Did it feel like an abrupt transition for you?
CR: Yes. I don’t even think I had the objectivity to see it as abrupt. I was just in the middle of the whirlwind and reacting. Constantly just reacting to things. It definitely felt very unnatural. And now that I’m sort of more of a stable adult looking back, I definitely think [Starts to laugh.] it wouldn’t be my choice for another person, let’s say.
AVC: The reason I asked about the abruptness in particular is that, even though I was aware of all of these films when they originally came out, it wasn’t until I was putting together the list of projects to ask you about that I realized that That Darn Cat and Buffalo ’66 came out within a year of each other. That’s staggering.
CR: Yeah, it’s a strange thing to have been a child, really, and protected, but at the same time encouraged and allowed to say anything and do anything, and then sort of released as this adult into the world, but an adult where people are still recording everything I say and… There’s a reason why there’s a traditional childhood. There’s a reason why family is still important. And why peers when you’re growing up are still important. I definitely had a very hard time as a young adult.
AVC: Do you feel like you came out of it relatively unscathed?
CR: It took a very long time. And I think when I finally had my son, I was able to really understand what life is all about and what’s most important in life. And that has very much stabilized me.
AVC: Was there any point where you thought about just transitioning out of Hollywood rather than continuing beyond your years as a child actress?
CR: I did when I was a lot younger. But, you know, this is a pretty good job. And I really love acting itself. I love filmmaking. I love being a part of it. The fame stuff, I could do without it, to tell you the truth. But the work itself? It’s my passion. I couldn’t do anything else.