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Christina Ricci’s Search for Authenticity


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Christina Ricci’s Search for Authenticity

LOS ANGELES — Christina Ricci knew there were great roles out there for her. She just had to wait until she was older. Not old — just older. Old enough to no longer be judged for how sexy she was (or wasn’t). Old enough that the men in the room didn’t think about her in that way.

This was in the early aughts. Ms. Ricci was in her 20s and already a full-fledged movie star. Just a few years earlier, she had played the rosy-cheeked, towheaded Katrina Van Tassel opposite Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s adaptation of “Sleepy Hollow.” She had hosted “Saturday Night Live” and appeared on television talk shows and the covers of major magazines. She was ambitious. She wanted to build a lasting career.

But this was also the era of romantic comedies, when actresses like Kate Hudson, Rachel McAdams, Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Love Hewitt dominated the screen. Could Ms. Ricci try to be a little more like that? You know, feminine. Relatable. Easy to laugh. Friendly. The girl next door. Still sexy, of course, just with a little less edge. None of that dark, goth stuff. It was cute when she was younger, but come on now, it’s time to grow up.

Some of her films around this same time — “I Love Your Work” and “The Gathering,” specifically — had flopped. It was OK to have one or two failures, but in this industry she needed to be careful. Irrelevance lurked just around the corner.

This kind of talk bred insecurity and made her impressionable. Other people’s opinions of what scripts to like and who she should be mattered more than they should have.

So she auditioned this new version of herself. She was likable, fun, normal. But she was told that her look was too specific. Was she really a leading lady, she wondered? Whenever she said “I love you” for the camera, it never felt that convincing anyway.

“When I watch myself and I’m trying to be afraid,” she said, “I always find I’m just a little too blasé about the whole thing.”

Now, at age 42, Ms. Ricci is playing Misty Quigley, a terrifying nurse who owns a pet parrot named Caligula and knows how to disappear a body. She is part of a standout cast in Showtime’s “Yellowjackets,” which premiered last fall and has quickly become one of the network’s most successful series. The show alternates between 1996 and the present, telling the story of a high school girls’ soccer team whose plane, en route to a national tournament, crashes in the Canadian wilderness. The team survives for 19 months before being rescued, and, in that time, possibly practices cannibalism.

One reason she has loved this role is because she doesn’t have to pretend. “With Misty,” Ms. Ricci said with a little smile, “I never had to play any of those annoying emotions.”

Her character is the team’s bespectacled, curly-haired equipment manager, who lacks the charisma of the more popular athletes around her. Ms. Ricci portrays her as a passive-aggressive weirdo, whose syrupy sweet voice is laced with an unnerving amount of hostility. America’s sweetheart she is not.

Ms. Ricci explained this all to me one recent morning as we hiked up to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, where she strode briskly up the dirt path. Her face was obscured by large sunglasses, and like everyone else on the trail, she was dressed in athleisure. When she stopped to pet a friendly dog, its owner pulled out her phone to take a picture.

I asked Ms. Ricci if people recognize her a lot, and she shrugged, as only someone who has been famous her whole life would.

It can be hard to keep up with Ms. Ricci’s body of work. She has never stopped performing, appearing in a film or television series (or two or three) almost every year since she started acting as a child. She’s played a cursed heiress with a pig’s snout for a nose (“Penelope”), a privileged sorority girl who falls in love with a person with disabilities (“Pumpkin”), Zelda Fitzgerald (“Z: The Beginning of Everything”), the writer Elizabeth Wurtzel (“Prozac Nation”), a con artist (“Miranda”), an ax murderer (“The Lizzie Borden Chronicles”), a yellow crayon (“The Hero of Color City”) and a lawyer on “Ally McBeal,” among many others.

By the time she was 10, Ms. Ricci was a celebrity. She made her film debut alongside Cher and Winona Ryder in “Mermaids” (1990). A year later, she played Wednesday Addams in “The Addams Family” (the character is being reprised in an upcoming Netflix series, directed by Tim Burton and starring Jenna Ortega; Ms. Ricci is also part of the cast), in which she made an indelible impression as a cherubic-looking, precocious little girl who had a flair for sadism and spoke with the deadliest of deadpan. Despite her sociopathic tendencies, there was an innocence to Ms. Ricci’s Wednesday that still endeared her to you.

In real life, she was just as intelligent and charming. The media loved her confidence and her lack of interest in performing for grown-ups. By the time she was 15, she had already made eight films, including the mega-hits “Casper” and “Now and Then.”

A few years later, she started appearing in indie and dramatic films: “The Ice Storm,” “Buffalo ’66” and “The Opposite of Sex.” In all these films, she played characters who were less innocent, teenage girls who tested the boundaries of the adults around them and had grown up a little too loose and too fast.

Her body — visible for the world to judge — had changed, too. She now had hips and breasts. At 19, she had breast reduction surgery because she couldn’t stand the way people talked about her body. A few years before that, she had developed an eating disorder. Anxiety became a constant companion in her life. Uncomfortable with the attention, she began to act out with the news media, saying hyperbolic and provocative statements in interviews, including a crack about incest to a reporter who wanted to discuss the brother-sister love affair in Jean Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles” after Ms. Ricci expressed her appreciation for the French novel. This confrontational attitude, she believes, probably cost her roles.

Navigating her career for the next two decades was challenging. It wasn’t that she was unlucky. Incredible opportunities presented themselves. She worked with marquee directors including Wes Craven, John Waters, Lana Wachowski and Woody Allen.

But the pressure got too intense. So she stopped caring what part she did or didn’t get, she said. She began to have no emotional attachment to her work. It was hard to feel any sort of passion. She’s not complaining; after all, it’s the life of an actor to hear “no.” Still, the rejection never hurt any less. To cope, Ms. Ricci used to tell herself none of it — this world, this set, this part — was real. “I used repeat to myself over and over again, ‘You don’t exist,’” she said.

If there is a through-line, a way of making sense of how Ms. Ricci traversed a male-dominated and occasionally unimaginative industry from little girl to adult, Ms. Ricci pointed to her decision to do “Monster” in 2003. The year before, she had read Patty Jenkins’s script and loved it. She had a meeting with Ms. Jenkins and Charlize Theron, who had signed on to play the lead, Aileen Wuornos.

The film told the real-life story of Ms. Wuornos, a sex worker and serial killer in Florida who murdered and robbed several of her johns. Ms. Jenkins and Ms. Theron wanted Ms. Ricci to play Selby Wall, Ms. Wuornos’s girlfriend. They explained they weren’t trying to make some salacious film. Theirs would be grotesque and unflinching. (To become Ms. Wuornos, Ms. Theron gained 30 pounds and wore fake teeth.) Ms. Ricci wanted to say yes. But some of the people in her camp worried it was a mistake. She’d look too ugly. And be too unlikable. There would be no turning back.

She did it anyway. She worried, of course. At the time, there was a set path to being a movie star, and she wanted the guidance of those who knew how to get there. “Monster” deviated from this.

Yet the film was a critical and commercial success. The relationship between Ms. Wall and Ms. Wuornos is so twisted, and what happens is so horrific, it is impossible to look away. When Ms. Theron won the Academy Award for best actress in 2004, she stood in front of millions of viewers and thanked her co-star as her “leading lady,” saying: “You are truly the unsung hero of this film.”

Ms. Jenkins recalled that Ms. Ricci “knew she was playing the role to set up another actress to succeed.” “That’s a very brave thing to do as a young woman,” she said.

Even though Ms. Ricci’s performance received less attention than Ms. Theron’s, she took the experience as a lesson to trust her own instincts. That an industry obsessed with precedent may not always have her best interests at heart. That there was nothing wrong with who she was.

“When people are constantly asking you to change, they can feel it,” Ms. Ricci said. “They can sense the insecurity, and so they never really buy what you’re selling. The more I tried to change and be a different person publicly — I’m sure it just seemed so false and confusing.”

“When I was 20, I was afraid to go to the post office because I didn’t know how it worked,” Ms. Ricci recalled. We were having dinner on the deck of Nobu Malibu, with a view of the ocean. “A roommate took me and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want there to be things in life that I don’t know how to do because I’m a celebrity.’ I’ve always really tried to live as normally as possible.”

Ms. Ricci was wearing a blue plaid dress with black ankle boots, but she was cold, and had wrapped herself in one of the restaurant’s throws. The place was crowded. A woman called out her name and waved as she walked over to our table. She was a fellow mother from the school Ms. Ricci’s eldest child attends. They made the kind of small talk that only parents are capable of — their intimacy born from a moment in life when you form new friendships with people because of your children.

In 2014, Ms. Ricci gave birth to her first child, Frederick Heerdegen. At the time, she was married to James Heerdegen, a dolly grip and cinematographer she met while filming the television series “Pan Am.” In 2021, People magazine published an article that stated Ms. Ricci had sought and obtained a domestic violence restraining order against Mr. Heerdegen. Mr. Heerdegen denies that he ever physically abused Ms. Ricci. She and Mr. Heerdegen are now divorced.

Last year, she married Mark Hampton, a fashion and celebrity hair stylist, and gave birth to their daughter, Cleopatra Ricci Hampton. Motherhood has changed the actress in profound ways.

“I was pretty nihilistic before I had my son,” she said. “I didn’t know I had the capacity to love somebody so much. When that happens, it opened the floodgates. All of a sudden, I had feelings about everything.”

When I suggested that some of these shifts in her career and her life could also be attributed to leaving a conflict-filled marriage and being happily in love, she didn’t disagree.

“That experience, while I could have lived without it,” she said, “has made me a better actress in many ways.”

In 2017, Ms. Ricci began to do the convention circuit, speaking at popular events like Comic Con. Actors are known to show up to these gatherings when they are in a Marvel franchise, for example. Or if they starred in a cult film from the ’90s, like she had. They’re less glamorous than splashy red carpet events or award ceremonies, but they’re lucrative and an important way to connect with influential fans.

To her surprise, Ms. Ricci found her encounters at these events meaningful. She kept meeting people who had grown up with her, who had loved her before she tried to contort herself into someone she knew she couldn’t ever be. She was able to see herself — her more authentic self — through their eyes. In doing so, she began to see her value as an artist again.

The experience made her want to look for projects that gave her this feeling, she said. That felt true to who she was. Eventually, she decided to change her manager, publicist, and more, keeping only her television agent.

When I asked what roles reflected this transition, she paused and then said: “I’d say Misty, actually.”

Ms. Ricci likes the anger in Misty. She likes how Misty has been dismissed — that she has been pushed to the margins but refuses to go away. That she weaponizes her lack of sex appeal.

“Misty began as a character who wants nothing more than to connect to people and is unable to,” said Bart Nickerson, who wrote “Yellowjackets” with Ashley Lyle, his partner. “What is the most extreme version of that person? How warped and traumatic can that be? To what length will that person go to be seen or understood?”

Melanie Lynskey, one of Ms. Ricci’s “Yellowjackets” co-stars, said: “Christina does a lot of things with Misty that are so weird and so good. She strikes that balance of being someone who — if she were your co-worker or a classmate — would drive you absolutely crazy, but with Christina, you cannot take your eyes off of her. There’s a lot of physical stuff to her performance, like that funny little walk she does. Or that strange little laugh or unnerving eye contact. She isn’t like that in real life.”

Mr. Nickerson said that what is so compelling about Ms. Ricci’s performance is that she can “reach into the darkness of Misty.”

“It’s not that she’s Wednesday Addams,” he said. “That facility was on display then and it’s on display now — they’re two very distinct things that are united by her performance.”

I told Ms. Ricci a theory I have. That “Yellowjackets” owes its success, in part, to the range of women’s stories it tells. That the emotions she and her fellow actresses (who include Ms. Lynskey, Juliette Lewis and Tawny Cypress) portray and the challenges they experience are true to the female experience, and this truth underscores the drama of the series. These women can be fiercely competitive, insecure and violent. They are selfish and deceitful. Some of them are — at their worst — capable of murder.

But they are also kind and loving. They are characters who possess a sense of interiority, whose wants and needs feel real to us. They have agency. And it’s both threatening and thrilling to watch. Male characters exist, but they serve mostly to advance the plot (and a few of them — spoiler alert — end up dead). This is rare — rarer than you think — for television.

Ms. Ricci agreed. “We did talk about the fact that the cast was almost all women, which was fun. And — not to generalize — but there was less ego on set.” Ms. Ricci had been pregnant while filming, and had been exhausted by the long hours, but she had confided in her castmates early on in her pregnancy, which helped build camaraderie.

“The truth is, Christina has always been an artist more than she was a young ingénue,” Ms. Jenkins said. “She had to fight a lot harder to be her authentic self, but the irony is that once she made it to the other side, it sets her apart. The people who are trading only on their looks and appealing qualities when they’re younger don’t have much to go for when they’re older. Christina — because she’s such a complex and interesting person — has a massive reservoir to draw from for the rest of her career.”

Whatever it is that Ms. Ricci possesses as an actress — a deep sense for the transgressive, an ability to make you root for her characters even when they are damaged or awful — is also rare.

Ms. Ricci, who would eventually like to be behind the camera directing, is contemplative. “I was willing to change or do anything to make my career succeed,” she said. “I thought if I could just trick everyone, then once I was powerful enough to make my own work, I’d be OK, but it didn’t work like that. I couldn’t change who I was.”


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The actress, who grew up in the public eye, finally finds the role she’s been looking for.

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