Christina Ricci arrives a fashionably 45 minutes late for our interview. Casually attired sporting jeans and a small top, one notices that as diminutive and youthful she is, there is a brooding adult waiting to ump out.
Her top partially masks a tattoo on her left shoulder and carrying a packet of cigarettes, Ricci wants it known that she is no longer the teen of yesteryear, insisting that “‘I haven’t played a teenager in quite a while.” Ricci is an actress who thrives on challenges, though, rarely playing the same character twice. In her latest film, Brit director Sally Potter’s 1930s-set The Man who Cried, Ricci is cast as a Russian Jewish immigrant in search of her father.
The actress won’t be drawn into the difficulties of being drawn into the spirit of a character who seems at opposite ends of this actress. “If you read a script and you don’t get the character by the time you’re done with it, then you shouldn’t be playing that part, so obviously I understood this character enough from the screenplay to play the part.” Obviously. But what did she understand about this young woman, one further asks. “Well, you saw the movie. What did you understand by the end of the movie? Reading a script is the same thing. You get to experience what they go through. This is a person who’s had intense suffering in her life, but is still persevering and surviving and plotting ahead.”
Perhaps Ricci had a greater affinity with this character after all. Coming from a split family, in therapy as a teenager and coping with adulation and fame from a young age, all of which has to have had its toll. Not to mention that, like Suzie in this movie, she had to do an awful lot of growing up relatively quickly. “I know that people think I did because I started acting as a child, but there’s a reason I started acting as a child.” She was “always equipped to do this job. For some reason, the mentality that I’ve always had ever since I was a kid has always been one of being able to deal with a lot of pressure by not even comprehending that it is pressure or stress. I’ve never really taken anything that seriously in my life and a lot of that is the fact that I’ve always had a very easy life, so I don’t feel like I ever had to do that. Certainly, this character does. In a reasonably short period of time, she comes to really understand what’s going on around her and where her place is and what’s happened to her in the past, and that’s something that takes some people years and, of course, because it’s a movie, it must happen rather quickly and she really figures out her situation.”
The Man Who Cried centers around a little girl (Claudia Lander-Duke) in the late 1920s who is driven from her home in a tiny Russian village and lands in Britain, given a new name, Suzie, and is forbidden from speaking or singing in Yiddish. Years later Suzie (now played by Ricci) gets a job as a dancer in Paris, surrounded by misplaced people like herself–a chatty Russian flatmate (Cate Blanchett), a vain Italian tenor (John Turturro) and a Gypsy horseman boyfriend (a gold-toothed Johnny Depp). All the while Suzie carries with her memories of her long lost father (Oleg Yankovsky) who may be waiting for her in America. All of this as the Nazis are advancing through Europe. Suzie is an outsider in this tale of misfits, and as Ricci herself has rarely played the Hollywood game, perhaps the actress sees herself in that light. “I’m a successful actress who lives in L.A. I don’t think I’m an outsider at all. It would be horrible for me to be like, ‘Yes, I’m plagued.’ No, no, I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life and I don’t feel like an outsider.”
Surprisingly shy in real life, one of the appeals of this script, was its relatively limited use of dialogue. She is a listener here, very much an observer. “I like that very much. I find that most scripts are overwritten and you end up saying so many things as an actor. The camera is like a foot away from my face, like people aren’t going to read my expression and get what’s happening? We have to drive it in by a terribly heartfelt line of dialogue? It seems to me like so many times I end up arguing over dialogue and how it’s a little too expository.” Christina doesn’t shy away from an argument. “I end up arguing a lot with people over dialogue.”
In particular the bigger Hollywood movies, “which are usually the ones that aren’t written as well, so you end up fighting a lot more on those.” Ricci has no time for any director who won’t listen. “Filmmaking should be a collaborative experience. You get some crazy egomaniacs who feel that because they’re the director that everyone should listen to what they say and enjoy doing what they’re told to do, so some people don’t respond well, but those are usually the people who don’t have a lot of experience. The more experience you get, I think, the more you realize that you’re going to work with tons of different people and lots of people don’t agree with you, some people do agree with you and there’s an ongoing argument all the time on sets.”
One has the distinct impression that Ms Ricci does not suffer fools gladly. She can’t abide stupidity from any quarters, including the press. Recently asked about her views on pornography, she gave a sarcastic retort which was then misinterpreted. “That guy was strange and sarcasm is all I had left. I come from a family that thrives on sarcasm.”
On Man who Cried, Ricci works for the third time with pal Johnny Depp. The difference this time around, is that they shot some tough sex scenes together “by just laughing about it. What are you going to do? We had strange, theoretical sex scenes in this movie. They’re violent and awkward and just strange. There’s no sexual tension between us whatsoever, so we just kind of laughed.” But dealing with on-screen sexuality is not one of her favorite things. “I don’t think you really deal with sexuality onscreen. There are like 50 people watching you and you’re just like, “Uh, I hope my ass looks good.” There’s no deep dealing with sexuality. Physically, it’s just embarrassing, really. There’s no other way to put it. It’s embarrassing.”
Yet for her next film, Prozac Nation, Ricci did her first nude scene. “The director and I had decided to do it [because] we felt that it was important for the movie and the movie, in and of itself, is just so exploitive of me. Exploitive always has such a negative connotation, but there are some situations in which you exploit everything that you have and I did for that movie so, to me, it seemed like, why not exploit me physically as well? ” Based on the best-selling book by Elizabeth Wurtzel, Ricci, who is also the film’s co-producer, was drawn to it immediately. “The book was amazing. When you think about it, one of the main problems that people suffering from clinical depression have is that it’s not an illness that is easily explained to people who don’t suffer from it. There’s the whole typical thing that we’ve heard a million times that, you can’t just get up out of bed from it and you can’t just shake it off and keep going. People really don’t understand that fully, so when I read the book, she managed to make you feel depression and make you feel the heaviness and the weight of it and at least kind of understand it a little bit better. I thought that if we could do that with the film, it would be such an amazing thing.” Asked whether or not Ricci, who has undergone therapy, could identify with the material, the actress pauses reflectively. “This is a real person’s story. This is what Elizabeth Wurtzel went through. This is her story and I felt that [she was] so eloquent in telling their story and also in giving you a perspective where you could see all the bad things about her as well as the good things. I also feel that talking about my experiences takes away somewhat from the story of the film. I’m sure at some point we’ll do an expose interview and you can read all about it.”
Christina, who works extensively in independent film, has a production company that she uses to develop films that extend her capabilities. Appropriately, it’s called Blaspheme Films, a title that stems from “the fact that people decided what I was without knowing me. Just the idea that you take something that’s outwardly offensive and you think that it really is offensive all the way down to its core, just like a word. Like God really cares what we say, as opposed to what’s in our hearts, so I’ve always thought blasphemy was a ridiculous concept, but that’s, of course, me being a really obnoxious teenager. I named it when I was like 17, so I took out my soap box.”
Now she can utilize that soap box as one of Hollywood’s youngest producers, a job she takes more seriously the older she gets. “I think before I really didn’t like the idea of having any responsibility. I liked being an actor because I liked acting, but also I felt that if a movie was horrible, no one would ever blame the actors. If you’re bad, it’s your fault, so I always shied away from any other kind of responsibility. With producing, you take a little bit more responsibility, but directing, I think you’re ultimately screwed if the movie’s bad, so I’m still kind of safe with the producing side. ” Directing is not on Ricci’s agenda any time soon. After all, she says, “I don’t think I’m ready for that kind of trauma.”