The Cult of Christina Ricci
My obsession with Christina Ricci started well over a decade ago. What follows is a brief, incomplete, and admittedly twisted chronology: In September 2001, a 21-year-old Ricci premiered Prozac Nation, her first film as star and co-producer, at the Toronto International Film Festival. Eighteen at the time, I sat front row at the screening, gawking despite my better judgment. One year later, Ricci and the late Dennis Hopper appeared in “Two White Shirts,” a black-and-white Gap campaign directed by the Coen Brothers. I prowled the local mall late one night and hid behind a dumpster, waiting to steal a discarded poster. (I got one.) Also in 2002, Ricci starred in and produced Pumpkin, the bleakly hysterical story of Carolyn McDuffy, a sorority sister who falls in love with a mentally disabled man. That summer, I tended bar at an Irish pub that sold pizza, where one of the servers knew about my odd fascination. She gave me a Selfridges receipt she’d asked Ricci to sign for her friend, with whom she’d since lost touch. It stayed framed on my home office desk for the next few years, an orphaned, crumpled piece of paper that read, “Dear Phil—happy birthday!”
There were also collages put together from photographs of Ricci (made for me, but also by me); a cardboard cutout of her face glued to the end of a Popsicle stick; a VHS copy of her little-watched 1998 film, Desert Blue; framed photos from magazine editorials. And although it pains me to put this down on record, I even began to mimic the way she claps her hands, the tips of her fingers repelling one another while her palms slap together.
But Ricci, casually radiant at 30, doesn’t know any of this when she invites me into the passenger seat of her black Mercedes on a balmy August afternoon. We’re cruising through Los Angeles in search of a drive-thru, and despite her total disregard for traffic lights, and traffic for that matter, the journey is quite pleasant. Ricci needs a cigarette, but before she’ll take a Parliament from her pack, she needs a Diet Coke, which we find, along with two cherry cola slushies, at a gas station in Pasadena. When we get back into her car, drinks in hand, Ricci, wearing a black sleeveless dress and matching flats, apologizes. “Sorry,” she says, “but my car’s really dirty and it’s starting to smell like bad feet or ass crack. I don’t know what’s wrong with it!”
Passing a 24-hour gym, Ricci changes gears. “I’m obsessed with Pilates,” she says. “I wasn’t working this summer, so I was like, I’m going to be one of those women who doesn’t have a job and goes to seven exercise classes a day.” She lights a cigarette and then rolls down her car window.
Later that day, Ricci and I find ourselves in San Marino exploring the Huntington Library, a sprawling estate with lush grounds and an indoor exhibition entitled “The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs.” Although we’re here because Ricci loves home décor, the surrounding bellows and ebonized oak tables aren’t exactly begging for commentary, and we retreat to a tranquil Japanese garden.
“I guess I wasn’t in love with that stuff,” Ricci says, laughing. Over the next two days, however, she will reveal a laundry list of personal obsessions: crime novels (“I love crime so, so, so much”), walking, theories about Jack the Ripper, Red Bull, hair makeovers, Showgirls, the television show Wicked Attraction, and, perhaps most relevant to our discussion, Eric Bogosian, the actor with whom she co-stars in Time Stands Still on Broadway this month.
Nominated for Best Play at the Tony Awards last year, Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still centers on the strained relationship between Sarah, a war photographer (Laura Linney), and James, a journalist (Brian d’Arcy James). Taking over for Alicia Silverstone in the role of Mandy, Ricci plays the much-younger girlfriend of a photo editor (Bogosian). Mandy, Ricci says, “appreciates art even if she’s not from their world. After some time with these people, though, she’s like, ‘Really? Maybe we’ve been dwelling in misery for too long now.’ She’s not ditzy, she just doesn’t understand why everybody has to be miserable all the time.”
Ricci tackled the challenge of starring in her first theater production much like a high school senior approaches the SATs. “I made flashcards!” she says, with self-effacing laughter. “Learning my lines was kind of like learning the periodic table.” But she’s less nervous about remembering the words, and more concerned with their delivery. “I’m sure I’ll have to learn how to speak on stage,” she says. “I just have visions of me doing a really bad stage whisper, and Eric Bogosian standing backstage, like, ‘Okay, so, did anyone talk to you about how we use our voices in the theater?’”
Anyone who’s seen Ricci on late-night talk shows knows what she’s getting at. “When I have to speak in public, my voice gets really shaky, which is so embarrassing. Presenting at awards shows is a nightmare, because it sounds like I’m crying, and it’s like, I really don’t care that much about this award.”
This isn’t to say that Ricci, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work in Don Roos’ 1998 film The Opposite of Sex, doesn’t care about any awards. “An old roommate and I were watching Mommie Dearest one night, and in it Joan Crawford accepts her Academy Award from home. Her speech is amazing,” Ricci says, before entering into full-on Crawford histrionics. “‘I would rather be here with you than anywhere else in the world…’ He offered to pay me a thousand dollars to repeat that speech verbatim.”
On Ricci-related message boards, couched between questions about nude scenes and her friendship with Johnny Depp, is this: “If you had to give Christina an Oscar for just one performance, which performance would you reward?” With the exception of a few votes for The Opposite of Sex and Sleepy Hollow (and one mysterious nod for her participation in Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain opposite Anna “My Girl” Chlumsky), the overwhelming majority chose Black Snake Moan, from 2006, in which Ricci convincingly portrays Rae, a rape victim who has been objectified for so long that she begins to view herself through the eyes of the men who abuse her. After a brief pause to consider the question, she says, “I guess I’d pick Black Snake Moan, too.”
No matter how proud she was of her performance, possibly the darkest in a career of dark roles, she wasn’t thrilled with how it was marketed. “Blake Snake Moan was about a rape victim,” she says. “The whole point of the movie is how she objectifies herself and is objectified by the world, and then the entire campaign was pretty much meant to objectify me as that character. I was like, Did any of you guys see the movie?” Samuel L. Jackson, her co-star in that film, agrees. “Craig [Brewer, the director of Black Snake Moan and Hustle & Flow] and all the crew guys had ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Nymph’ hats, which is kind of strange because it’s a story about something else entirely,” he says, adding, “Christina’s was one of the braver performances I’ve seen a young actress give in a very long time.”
Jackson also noticed that, despite their obvious differences, Ricci and Rae share at least one similarity. “Some people don’t see Christina as a classic beauty, and nobody saw Rae as a classic beauty,” he says. “She internalizes that when people talk about other actresses like Scarlett Johansson. But I find Christina’s beauty classic in a Raphaelic way, and when she gets dressed up, she’s as pretty as any girl in Hollywood—I just don’t think she sees herself that way.”
As a teenager, Ricci struggled, on and off, with an eating disorder. “I had been really anorexic until I was like 16,” she says. “They were going to hospitalize me, and I was worried about people force-feeding me through a tube. I didn’t want that, so I fought the disease.” Although she has long since recovered, anorexia will always be a part of her reality. “I still think about it, but I could never do it again,” she says. “I remember the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness when I was in the middle of it. My brain had basically become my biggest tormentor. I’d become afraid of myself.”
Her personal struggle quickly became chum for tabloid sharks. “I was outed in a magazine article when I was, like, 17, even though I’d been in recovery for about a year,” she says. “The interviewer talked to a producer, who, being a total jerk, said I wasn’t eating on set. I think that was the thing that caused me to be ridiculously open about everything, so that I never again felt ashamed or embarrassed, or like someone was holding something over me.”
It was that openness, mixed with more than a tinge of adolescent sarcasm, for which Ricci became known during her reign as the queen of independent cinema. When doing press for The Opposite of Sex, Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66, Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, and John Waters’ Pecker (all released between 1997 and 1998), Ricci would joke about her interest in incest and serial killers, which didn’t do much to dispel her reputation as an angst-ridden anti-ingénue. “I wasn’t very… marketable back then,” she says, laughing. “I always said crazy shit. I was living in New York, and I was uncomfortable and angry. I was going clubbing all the time, partying with Chloë Sevigny and the cool kids. I woke up one day when I was 19, and it was like I hadn’t seen the sun forever. So I moved to L.A., where it was okay to be responsible, so that I’d stop acting like a crazy maniac.”
Look at that lizard doing push-ups!” Ricci says, squealing with delight as dusk coats the Huntington Library gardens with an orange glow. “That’s what they do when they stop walking!” She has been an animal lover—some might say animal collector—since she was a child living in New Jersey with her mother, Sarah (who, according to Ricci, is “the most fabulous WASP who ever lived”), and her father, Ralph, from whom she is estranged.
She now lives in the hilly district of Los Feliz, Los Angeles, with her boyfriend, 29-year-old photographer Curtis Buchanan, and their three dogs: Ramón Novarro, a French bulldog named after a Mexican film star; Walter Matthau, a German shepherd/boxer mix formerly known as Walter Murch, after the film editor (“When I first got Walter, I thought he liked editing, but now that he’s older, it turns out he’s into broad comedy”); and Karen Carpenter, a dachshund/chihuahua mix. (There was a time, however, when Ricci and the animal world butted heads: In 2006, after appearing on the cover of W wrapped in reindeer fur, Ricci briefly became an Olsen-level target of PETA vitriol. “I’m sorry, but I was being shot by Mert & Marcus,” she says. “I wore what they told me to wear, and guess what? So would you. But I didn’t realize I was wearing reindeer. Of all the things I could have worn, I wore Rudolph.”)
When I suggest that some people have preconceptions about actors being narcissists who sit around talking about “the cinema” for hours each day, she cries through an eruption of laughter. “Oh, god no!” she says. “The level of trash that’s consumed in my house is incredible. It’s like, Next Friday’s on—definitely record. Let’s make some Kraft dinner! Sometimes, all of a sudden, Curtis and I are like, ‘Are we going too far with this?’” Despite the fact that Ricci seems to have more in common with Jeff Spicoli than André Bazin, the paparazzi who camp outside her house make it near-impossible to ignore her star power. “They go on day trips with me,” she says, visibly amused. “They love going to the gas station with me, and they quite enjoy grocery shopping. I like to take them for manicures. They love that, too.” They’re also fond of the ocean, apparently. “Curtis and I got in a huge fight this summer because he wouldn’t go hiking with me. He didn’t want paparazzi pictures of him hiking, and I was like, Ugh, none of my girlfriends care about this shit! Curtis hates paparazzi.”
Ricci has shared screen time with Hollywood heartthrobs her entire life—Depp (on three separate occasions), Justin Timberlake, and Orlando Bloom—but the collective scream reached fever pitch earlier this year when she filmed Bel Ami, an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s story of corruption and social climbing, with Twilight superstar Robert Pattinson. Featuring a stacked deck of formidable actors, including Uma Thurman and Kristin Scott Thomas, Bel Ami tells the story of George Duroy, a scheming, power-hungry womanizer brought to life by Pattinson. Ricci plays Clotilde de Marelle, one of Duroy’s many conquests. “I read the book when I was 13,” she says. “It was one of my tutor’s favorite stories, so there was a lot of discussion about it my entire life. Getting the part was one of those things that made me sort of believe in…” Realizing she’s stumbled dangerously close to earnest territory, she cuts herself short, and then, with a slight eye roll, says, “Well, fate. But, yeah, Rob’s fans are crazy. We filmed in London, and they were always around base camp, gathered at the barriers.” Actor Eva Mendes, who lives just up the street from Ricci, can’t believe how detached she is from that type of unwanted attention. “Eva’s always like, ‘How can you live right on the street with those big bay windows?’” says Ricci, who recently wrapped production on California Romanza, a short film directed by Mendes. Taking a break from the editing room, Mendes says of its star, “Not only is Christina funny, which I want more people to know, but she’s also the most beautiful thing on the planet.”
Inspired partly by Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, Mendes’ directorial debut follows Ricci’s character, Lena, on Christmas Eve as she looks for love in all the wrong places. “Before there was even a script, Christina was like, ‘I’ll be there for you. Count me in,’” Mendes says. “But since we’re neighbors, I have a feeling I would have just walked down to her house and hounded her anyway.” We drive past Ricci’s neighborhood en route to the W Hollywood, where she has kindly agreed to drop me off. “Sorry again about the smell in here,” she says when we reach our destination. “My backyard smells like this, too. I found some dead thing there last night. I couldn’t sleep, because I was lying in bed thinking it was some sort of message, like Leatherface was hiding somewhere.”
After a few hours in her company, having discussed dead things and eating disorders and personal hang-ups, I decide to tell her, more or less, that I’m a crazy, psycho fan-nerd. The admission comes out sounding less creepy than I’d initially feared, less aloof than I’d hoped. Pumpkin is one of my absolute favorites, I tell her, leaning a little too heavily on the word “favorites.” She looks over and, smiling, says, “Aw, that’s so sweet. The people who don’t hate that movie really love it. It’s so weird and awkward.” But it’s also really funny. “Yeah,” she says, “But like everything I do, I took the joke way too far.” Believe me, Christina, I can relate.
Photography by Yu Tsai. Styling by Christopher Campbell.