Christina Ricci; W Sept 06
At the Sundance Film Festival last year, a young director named Craig Brewer was suddenly the biggest new thing in a business built on overnight sensations. His feature Hustle & Flow—a little movie about a small-time pimp and a scrawny geek who burst through the Memphis music scene with their homemade hits—wowed the snowbound crowd and, more important, sold to Paramount for $9 million. That sale instantly made Brewer's next script, for something called Black Snake Moan, the kind of smoking-hot property that gets read on the studio jets back to Hollywood. No matter that Black Snake Moan was a Southern fable about a God-fearing former bluesman, Lazarus, who chains a trashy nymphomaniac, Rae, to his radiator and tries to cure her of what the town's leering menfolk call her "itch." Big-name talent was all over Black Snake Moan like ducks on a june bug, as they say in Brewer's native Tennessee.
The role of Lazarus was preempted by Samuel L. Jackson, but no one actress could immediately lay claim to Rae's teensy blue-jean skirt.
"Everybody was auditioning for Rae," recalls Christina Ricci, one of the actresses who managed to get a copy of the script in early 2005 because her agent, Toni Howard, also represents Jackson. "I read it and immediately fell in love with her."
The response from Brewer and Black Snake producer John Singleton, though, was "No thanks." They didn't even want to meet Ricci. At 26, she has been in studio blockbusters (The Addams Family), indie classics (Buffalo '66 and The Opposite of Sex), critics' favorites (The Ice Storm) and Oscar fare (Monster). But many of those films came out years ago; since 1999's Sleepy Hollow, Ricci has been flying low with mini movies like Pumpkin, Miranda and I Love Your Work and outright duds such as Prozac Nation and Cursed. Television appearances on Ally McBeal and HBO's critically applauded The Laramie Project were, to those in the movie biz, hardly more than consolation prizes.
So Ricci offered to come in and read for the part of Rae—a humble gesture that suggests she knew her place in Hollywood's finely delineated caste system—and the Black Snake team relented. She prepared for her audition as if for the actual movie, bleaching her dark hair, learning to talk like country trash and smearing on some character-appropriate blue eye shadow. The audition scene featured one of Rae's anxiety attacks, a panicky episode that climaxes in a writhing, crotch-rubbing nymphomaniacal frenzy.
"It's a very strange transition to make," says Ricci with admirable understatement. "That's not my kind of anxiety attack."
When it was over, Ricci asked if she could do a second scene she had prepared on her own initiative: a gut-wrencher in which Rae confronts her mother about her sexually abusive stepfather. The actress tapped such deep reservoirs of secret emotion that she couldn't stop crying afterward. The Black Snake team was blown away.
"I could not stop thinking about her," Brewer recalls. "I like women with guts, like Debra Winger, Faye Dunaway, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn. And I put Ricci in that category."
When Brewer subsequently offered her the role, Ricci accepted on the spot. "I had said to my therapist that if I didn't get the part, I would have had to quit this business," she says evenly, as a breeze plays with her bangs poolside at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. "I would have had absolutely no clue what the f--- I was supposed to be doing as an actress."
In the Hollywood universe, Ricci may be considered a lesser star, but she does have the one thing shared by the giants: a unique identity or, as Brewer puts it, a screen persona that could be caricatured with a few deft pen strokes. Ever since she was in her teens, Ricci has embodied not just a physical type—tiny and ripe—but also an entire worldview, one that is defined by the outcast's droll distance from normalcy. She is, at just over five feet tall, a sexpot for losers.
"You know, I was kind of weird when I was a kid," she admits. "And I've been told that as an adult I can be very unsettling. And I know that the way I like to look is not normal too. But I kind of like it. At a certain point you have to say, "This is who I am and this is how I'm gonna look."
Ricci says that she doesn't exactly feel typecast but that she often has to argue for the chance to be who she is, as an actress and as a person: "I'm really sorry to disappoint all the people in my life who would prefer that I was a little bit more commercial or a little bit easier to package or easier to pin down or explain."
The implication, of course, is that if she hasn't aligned herself with industry expectations yet, it's not going to happen now.
Ricci hasn't had any training as an actress other than what she's absorbed on sets starting with the 1990 film Mermaids and The Addams Family the following year. Director Don Roos asked her to audition for The Opposite of Sex some five years later based on what he remembered of those two movies, and he was initially surprised by the self-assured reading she gave for Dede, a teenage runaway who goes to live with her gay brother and then swipes his boyfriend. Ricci's sense of the character was sharply different from Roos's, and she flatly declined his suggestion to make the character more endearing.
"She said, 'I don't want to give a handjob to the audience,'" Roos recalls. "'I'll play it straight, and they'll like me or they'll hate me.' She wasn't dimpled. She did it her way. I found that with Christina, it's best to follow her. She's very perspicacious. She scared me, naturally."
Many critics would say that Ricci did her best work in 1997 and 1998, when she brought memorable roles to the screen in Buffalo '66, The Ice Storm and The Opposite of Sex, all of which were made during a moment when independent cinema was flourishing. Today, Ricci contemplates her indie period with the wistful air of an industry veteran looking back on some long-past golden era.
"You can say 'low-budget' these days, but you can't say 'independent,'" Ricci says, noting that even movies that begin outside of the studio system today are made to appeal to studio buyers. "So you're still playing by the rules of the studio."
Black Snake Moan, she notes, is the rare example of something different that slips through, if only because it has been "packaged the right way" with a stylized look that disguises the film's otherwise unpalatable storyline. The film is set near Memphis in the 1970s, a world of humid, rural melancholy taken straight out of William Eggleston photographs. Ricci had never spent time in the South before she showed up for the shoot last summer, but she fell for the idiosyncrasies of Southern culture, like the way the Lord kept popping up in conversation.
"Everybody was talking about Jesus," recalls Ricci, who identifies herself as a Christian but nonetheless prefers to keep conversation about faith between herself and her creator. "All these sayings just become part of the day, like 'God bless' or 'Bless her heart.' It's the common language. You end up talking about Jesus too."
Of course, old-time religion coexists with the devil's own music, and Black Snake Moan deals with both. Brewer took the name from a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, and he calls it his "blues movie," as if it were part of a grand musico-cinematic scheme begun with Hustle & Flow. For Brewer, the central metaphor, a clanking chain that ties Rae to Lazarus's radiator, represents the healing power of home, family and faith.
As the movie opens, Rae clearly needs some kind of saving grace. She swishes her tail in front of every horndog in town, and the audience is asked to endure three sex scenes in the first half hour, only one of which is with her boyfriend, Ronnie, played by Justin Timberlake.
"I think I've had enough sex for the next two years of my career with this movie," admits Ricci, who has declined other roles in the past because she found their portrayal of sex "disgusting." "I know that I have a very simplistic, childlike morality, but I believe I can feel somebody's negative intentions in the writing, and if I do, I can't be a part of it." What makes Black Snake acceptable in her view is that it attempts to seriously plumb the emotions of a damaged young woman some might dismiss as a "slut."
"It's about identifying a behavior that I don't think is explored all that often in the proper way," Ricci continues. "I have read a ton—a ton—about child psychology. I have a kind of bizarre fascination with true crime. And I've done a lot of thinking about these sorts of traumas."
Rae's spree of casual sex ends when she mocks the wrong guy's equipment and he retaliates with his fists. Her healing begins when Lazarus finds her beaten body and takes her home to recuperate. Because she tries to flee his ministrations during a fevered nightmare, he locks 20 feet of chain around her waist. Rae fights it with such demonic fury that Lazarus thinks she is possessed—and the audience starts to worry about Ricci's physical well-being.
"She insisted on using the real, 80-pound chain," recalls Brewer, who adds that he pleaded with her to use a plastic dummy chain instead. "There's only so much that a young woman of her size can do, and daily Christina would exceed it, to the point of vomiting after takes."
When things got too hard, Ricci turned to Jackson, whom she calls her "Big Daddy," for comfort. "I'd be like, 'Sam, I don't know if we should do this,'" she recalls. "And he'd be like, 'What's wrong, baby? Come here. I'll take care of it.'"
"I found myself being her protector because she's so willing to try things," explains Jackson, "that sometimes I said, 'No, you can't do that. You can't run out the door blindly with this chain around you because you don't know what that chain is gonna get caught on. That's why we have stunt people.'"
Ricci says she adored working with Jackson—"I could not admire that man any more," she gushes. "When I was 14, I wanted to be Sam Jackson." She also praises Timberlake's performance, and when she makes the point that his work ethic reflects the sterling habits of a former child actor, she might well be speaking of herself. Ricci was born in Santa Monica, the youngest of four children, all of whom were approached to be child actors. Her mother, a former model, resisted until Ricci had her turn. By then, the other siblings were old enough to "bully" their mother into giving Ricci a chance, she recalls.
It's ironic, given the teenage sex queens she would go on to play, that the one role Ricci didn't snag in her early days was as the most famous jailbait of all, Lolita. It was a disappointment that, in retrospect, looks like a lucky break, since she didn't then understand what she almost got herself into. ("I just reread the book two months ago," she says, "and I was horrified by things I don't even remember reading when I was 13.")
Asked whether her parents objected to her auditioning for such a role, Ricci says that both were huge movie fans who would have understood the film's artistic merit. "My mother, especially, thought nothing was ever going to damage me," Ricci explains. "I was never really shielded in that way."
In the past Ricci has openly discussed her struggles with anorexia as a teenager, and one wonders if growing up in the film business didn't lead to her distorted body image. Ricci is almost protective of the movie business—she refers to "this industry" with a fondness most reserve for their hometowns—and she refuses to blame it.
"I was 12 or 13," she recalls. "I was in puberty. It was a horrible time. I saw a television movie, and I was like, Somehow, what Tracey Gold is doing right now is something I'd like to do. So obviously there was something wrong with me." She says she pulled herself out of the self-destructive behavior because she realized it could end her career.
Over the past few years, when fewer screen roles have come her way, Ricci has satisfied that hunger for work with television roles. This year she guest-starred on Grey's Anatomy, an appearance that won her an Emmy nomination announced on the morning of this interview. ("I guess I feel mature now," she deadpanned.)
"This is a girl who spent most of her childhood on a set," says Roos, who has remained close with Ricci since they worked together. "She loves the action, the activity, the focus and the attention. She likes to be around the camera—in front of it, behind it or beside it."
Ricci is also self-aware enough to admit that she sometimes likes to knock the socks off her TV colleagues, who don't have the luxury of the long rehearsals and countless takes that movie sets provide, by whipping out her biggest acting moves, like crying on command. "I'm kind of a show-off sometimes," she confesses. "Acting is the one thing in my life that I actually think I'm good at. In every other area I'm totally retarded."
Ricci's next screen appearance will likely be in Penelope, a modern-day fairy tale about an unfortunate girl from a wealthy family who is born with a pig's nose but learns to love and be loved in the end. (Black Snake Moan was originally slotted for a fall opening but was recently rescheduled for early 2007, when it might benefit from a buzz-building premiere on the festival circuit.) Penelope will no doubt have its place as wholesome entertainment for teenage girls, but Ricci presumably is doing such fluff for financial reasons. She admits that her salary is modest by industry standards and that she has an expensive habit to support: fashion.
"I was told by my business manager that I have to stop buying clothes," Ricci admits. "I'm not allowed to buy any more fur. No more jewelry. I spent a lot of money."
Her ultimate fashion goal, she explains, is to buy enough clothes so that she'll never have to shop again, so that her closets would be like a costume house or a wardrobe trailer, "where I could go in and find anything." She recently removed the books from the shelves of her home library and put her shoe collection in their place. "I have more shoes than books," she reasons. "At first I was so embarrassed I didn't want anybody to come over. And then I was like, 'I'm obviously not an idiot.' So I painted it bright pink."
Ricci favors prim little-girl looks or proper old-lady outfits, with a special fondness for Chanel suits—"Karl Lagerfeld always seems to make the perfect small clothes," she says—and anything in sherbet colors. Although Ricci generally dislikes the ruckus of the front row, she has attended the couture in Paris, and Lagerfeld once made her tingle to her toes when he judged her "très mignon" in one of his designs. Ricci also walked the runway for Louis Vuitton in 2004, the year that Marc Jacobs cast her for the brand's ad campaign.
"It was terrifying," Ricci says. "But it was something I'd always wanted to do. And I'm five feet tall, for Chrissakes, so when else am I ever going to be in a runway show?"
For this interview, Ricci wore a simple sundress and, around her neck, a rose gold anchor with the initials AG. It's a gift from boyfriend Adam Goldberg, who is now on-again after a serious split when the couple sold the house they lived in together. Ricci isn't thrilled that the subject comes up, but after a long pause she decides she will at least explain why they got back together.
"Because I love him and I feel like we were meant for each other," she says through clenched teeth, before adding in a more relaxed mode, "It sounds silly, and he hates it when I say this, but I believe that things are fated. It drives him crazy."
Ricci deflects a question about marriage, saying that it takes two to decide, but she acknowledges that her life is more settled than ever before. She has finally accepted L.A. as her hometown after years of feeling more comfortable in New York, and she feels less professionally flighty as well. Two interesting projects a year would be ideal, she figures.
"I just want to be able to do things that I don't have to lie about later," she says, with the kind of candor one rarely hears in interviews. "I want to do movies where I don't have to go to the press junket and lie, basically. That's my only goal, to be able to say honestly I like what I've done."