Los Angeles Time - Who's Scary Now?(11-18-99)

Who's Scary Now?

by Michele Willens

NEW YORK--Funny thing about Christina Ricci: She used to seem so much, well, older.

From her memorable performance as the daunting daughter of "The Addams Family" to those young teen roles in films such as "Casper" and "Now and Then," and even into her career-altering role as the sexually active teen in "The Ice Storm," Ricci seemed larger and even wiser than her years.

"I think it was just that my head was always way too big for my body," the 19-year-old actress says flatly. "I've always had the same face, ever since I was a baby. Now I'm finally in proportion."

Whatever. The truth is, when she walks into a hotel bar in New York and sits down with a glass of champagne (she is served, even though New York's legal drinking age is 21) and a pack of cigarettes, she looks shockingly youthful and tiny. "I am still a teenager and so my body is changing," points out Ricci, who has flown in from Paris, where she's shooting the Sally Potter film "The Man Who Cried," to talk about her newest and potentially most commercial film, "Sleepy Hollow." She has seen the film for the first time the previous evening and is still in her highly critical first phase.

"I liked the movie, but I have no perspective the first time I see one of my films," she says. "All I see are my mistakes. The only time I got past that was with 'The Ice Storm,' when I actually impressed myself. I made me cry."

Accepting the role as the love interest of Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane--and potential victim of the Headless Horseman--was a no-brainer for the actress, who, in fact, was cast before Depp. Donning a wavy blond wig and dressed in corsets and flowing dresses in the style of two centuries ago, she is enchanting and decidedly more innocent than we've ever seen her.

"I've loved trashy science fiction, and I always wanted to do movies where I could be a fairy or a princess," she says, "and maybe even have a unicorn. This character is sort of like a princess. It was a good script, I had never done a period piece, and it was [director] Tim Burton. 'Edward Scissorhands' was always one of my favorite movies, and I was really excited when I heard that Tim wanted to work with me."

Neither Burton nor Depp--with whom Ricci is again co-starring, along with Cate Blanchett, in "The Man Who Cried"--lived up to any preconceived reputations as difficult or even slightly off-kilter. "Tim is so enthusiastic and not pretentious," Ricci says. "He sits behind his monitor while you're doing a scene and he builds to the climax along with you, doing all your words and expressions. There's no 'I'm an artiste' thing with him; he's very tongue-in-cheek, just like his movie.

"And Johnny is just very boyish and one of the kindest people I've ever met--totally goes against his image. I've known him since I was 9, but it's just a working relationship. We don't hang out."

Although there is great anticipation around the film, Ricci claims not to think big or small, studio or independent, when either first reading a script or while making a film. Clearly her career has been enhanced, and the "girl-into-woman" disaster has been thwarted, by excellent role choices of late, most notably "The Ice Storm," "Buffalo 66" and "The Opposite of Sex."

"Honestly, I've never thought about my career or image and how best to handle it," she says. "I just look for good material, and the budget doesn't matter. Let's face it, even the minimum an actor gets is an amazing amount of money. 'Ice Storm' [which she took over when first-choice Natalie Portman's parents objected to the part] was definitely the biggest turning point for me, but it didn't feel risky at the time. It was a great role, it was [director] Ang Lee, and it had all these amazing actors in it."

The fact that her previous film had been Disney's "That Darn Cat" isn't lost on her. "It was also Elijah Wood's first movie after 'Flipper,' " she says and laughs, "so we knew we were into new territory."

n fact, she was never a Disney type and most likely never will be. Petite (5-foot-1) as she may be in the flesh, Ricci is still imbued with some kind of slightly dangerous quality. She doesn't apologize for it and, when the subject of role models comes up, even embraces it.

"I do think about those things," she says, "especially when I'm smoking or having a drink. But then it's OK, because I think it's better to have flawed people than perfect ones for role models. I just think it's wrong to present kids with a perfect image, that they'd rather feel maybe you have some of the same problems they do."

As Don Roos, the director of "The Opposite of Sex," says, "Christina has a lot of courage, and for some reason she doesn't need people to adore her."

In fact, she is filled with many of the same insecurities as her contemporaries and then has to go out and face a world of brutal daily judgments. Though she read for it, she did not get the part in "American Beauty," for example, that went to another of her "Now and Then" co-stars, Thora Birch. "They didn't want me, I guess," she says.

"Still, it's better to be rejected for how you read than on your looks or your personality. Even though I live in Los Angeles now, I don't travel in Hollywood circles because I always feel rejected. Everyone else looks so fabulous."

* * *

After reading critical remarks about her weight in fashion magazines, she had a serious bout of anorexia between the ages of 14 and 15, ending up a frightening 85 pounds. "It's all problem-solving for me," she says. "People attacked how I looked and I'd think, 'OK, project!' " Although she says she's past it (her family threatened to hospitalize her), she admits, "Your body image always suffers. That's why I can't diet now, because I know how quickly it can lead to obsession." Still, she was feeling chipper this day because she had weighed in at a svelte 104 pounds.

And don't think it didn't feel grand to appear at the Golden Globe Awards, when she was nominated for "The Opposite of Sex," in a Versace gown. "I knew I wasn't going to win [Gwyneth Paltrow did], but it was fun, and Joan [Rivers] actually said I was very well dressed," Ricci says. While she concedes it would be nice to be on the cover of Vogue, "it's not like my life's goal. My boyfriend always says I should be proud because nothing I've done or achieved has had to do with my looks. But, you know, the grass is always greener."

Dressed this evening in black leather pants and a dark sweater, the cheekbones more pronounced than they used to be, she may in fact end up on the cover of Vogue. But within the industry, she is thought of as something more--gifted, versatile and risky--a young woman serious about her work.

Well, sort of. Ricci claims to take a less methodical approach to every aspect of her career. She receives about four scripts a month ("It's pretty clear whether a script is good or bad"), focusing not on the size of her role so much as whether it is a stretch for her and a character who may be more than she seems: "I hate judgments, so to play someone who is outwardly nasty but then to show why she's that way, is the stuff I respond to."

Once on the set, forget that Method, stay-in-character stuff.

"I can't wrap my head around that," she says. "I'm not particularly intellectual, which is sort of embarrassing at times. But I am intuitive about people. I like to be spontaneous when I work. I feel I'm best when I'm actually thinking of something else. Like if I'm half-naked and I start thinking maybe I should suck in my stomach, the lines always come out better. When I think too much about what I'm doing, I get more nervous."

Roos, who made his directorial debut with "The Opposite of Sex," says Ricci is smarter than even she may realize. "She ends up being intellectual by turning in such smart performances," he says. "They're based on internal exploration rather than analysis on a piece of paper." He also says she is willing to go to dark areas. He had one vision of the character of Dee Dee, and while Ricci was willing to try it, she thought she had a better take.

"She saw Dee Dee as very still and measured, yet very powerful," Roos recalls, "when I had seen her more volatile, more emotional, overtly vulnerable. Christina said, 'Let's let her be as offensive as possible and trust that the audience will come around to accept her.' She had a lot more balls than I did."

Which may be why she maintains a rather blase attitude--thus far--about how her projects, if not her work in them, come out. "I never really cared whether a movie was good or bad," she says. "I think only when you get older do you worry about being associated with failure; it's more about you and your image. I mean, nobody ever blames a child. When I was in my early teens, there just weren't a lot of parts for 13-, 14-, 15-year-old girls. [Actress] Gaby [Hoffman] and I rented 'Now and Then' last summer, and we laughed hysterically. We thought we were such 'actors,' and, my God, we were such freaks. But those were the movies you did then."

* * *

Last year, she took a small role in "200 Cigarettes" because it wouldn't take too long, reunited her with her best friend Hoffman, and "I never got to do anything where I got to try to be funny." She says the script read very well, but things didn't turn out that way.

"All the choices in it were wrong," she says. "But I don't feel bad, because it's not my fault the movie was bad. Though it is my fault that I wasn't good in it. I was very irresponsible in my preparation. I should have learned the Long Island accent better, but they wouldn't pay for an accent coach."

But those carefree days are almost behind her, and the somewhat edgy teen now must come to terms with what lies ahead. In the film she's currently making, she plays what she considers her first legitimate love scenes. "I found them so uncomfortable, I vowed never to do another one," she says and smiles. "But then I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm now an adult woman, it's all I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life!' "

In her personal life too, she is dealing with all the aspects of coming of age. She and her actor-boyfriend, whom she declined to name, moved from New York to Los Angeles a year and a half ago (they bought a house in Los Feliz), "because we felt it was time to grow up," she says. "New York is so conducive to just going out all the time. But we know we want to end up back in New York."

The fears, the contradictions, could almost sound like those of any 19-year-old. Almost.

"I don't necessarily feel older or younger than others my age, I just feel different," she says. "I mean, I put myself in positions so people have to take care of me--having an assistant to make sure I'm dressed properly for the cold, or up on time in the morning. Other times I amaze myself at how much I know, the real-life things you learn from traveling so much. in some ways I like to still feel like a kid, but then I resent being treated like a child."

Coming to the end of her teenage years--the years audiences have grown up with her--may be as hard on her as they are for us to accept. "I like being a teenager," she says, "and I love the idea of rebellion. I don't know how I'm going to keep that alive when I'm in my 20s. Like smoking . . . I want to give it up but for all the wrong reasons. I feel there's no point in being a smoker if you're not a teen smoker."

It seems there has been very little time without Christina Ricci on the screen, though how she subtly slid from round-faced little girl to sultry young woman is a marvel. "It's not like I took a few years off and went to college or something," she points out. In fact, three months is about the longest she's taken off since co-starring in "Mermaids" before she was 10.

"Every time I finish a movie, I think I want to take a year off, and then after a few months, I get antsy," she says. "I mean, would you want to be unemployed for three months?"

It appears to be smooth sailing ahead. There will be more of those love scenes, no doubt. She may even show her breasts "when I'm offered about $20 million for them," she says with a grin. Ask her about her dream leading men, and you won't find the Damons, Afflecks or DiCaprios on the list. "I want to work with John Malkovich so badly," she says, swooning. "I've always been in love with him."

The challenge now will be staying on point and trying to keep out the voices of others, whether they are criticizing the way she looks or throwing compliments her way.

"Sometimes I think I really know how to do this," she says modestly. "But then I keep thinking it's a jinx when people talk about how gifted I am. I'm afraid that all of a sudden I'm going to be really bad."