Christina Ricci's film career began early — at just 10 years old, she played the adorably malevolent Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family. From there, she went on to play fascinating and often dark and damaged characters, making a name for herself as an actress who could tap into complex roles.
Ricci's latest project is no exception: She plays Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Amazon's biographical series Z: The Beginning of Everything. Zelda was known for her beauty and high spirits — her husband said she was the first American flapper — but she also struggled with mental illness and alcoholism.
Ricci explains a common misconception about Zelda: "that she was this alcoholic crazy woman who ruined F. Scott Fitzgerald's life, and if not for her he would have had a great life." It's an idea that was popularized by writer Ernest Hemingway. But as the actress points out, "He was a huge misogynist." The truth, she says, is much more complicated.
On Zelda's story
She was in a very dysfunctional marriage with F. Scott Fitzgerald. She was very young when she met him. They were both incredibly arrogant and narcissistic. And what she loved about him was that he recognized in her a talent for writing, an intelligence, a creativity that nobody had really recognized in her before. And so, initially, she loved this and she felt that by being his muse, she would then be allowed to have a career of her own. But it turned out that he was not comfortable with her ever achieving any success even close to his. It was a very competitive relationship. And no matter what she tried to do, she was never allowed to be anything more than his wife, and that wasn't enough for her. And it ultimately led to her nervous breakdown.
On the challenges Ricci faces when it comes to casting
I think until this I haven't really been viewed as a romantic lead. And I think in some ways the image I presented of myself throughout the years has caused people to have a hard time casting me. ...
One of the things that has actually been hard for me, in terms of being cast in things, is that I am very youthful seeming. The way that I speak, the way that I act — it's very young. ... And I also tend to speak like a teenager. I just have a very teenaged thing, which I'm trying to overcome. You're very easily dismissed if you're a small woman who looks young and then talks like an idiot, or a teenager. It's not a good look. ... I say "like" a lot and "you know" a lot and all these things and I'm trying to fight them.
On how she looks back on her career as a child actor
I don't regret having started so young because I'm in such a great place and I've been so incredibly lucky in my life. But having gone through it, I can objectively say I don't think children should be making life decisions. ... I think it's very difficult for children to contextualize fame. And if there's no reference, there's no life experience, they can't necessarily contextualize achievement. So then there's no barometer. If the first exposure to society is crazy fame and awards, where does a child put that? It becomes something that isn't special. So what comes after that?
On what she would say if her son told her he wanted to be a child actor
I would wait until he was an adult and have him treat it like a real art form and a craft and go to school for it and have respect for it, and respect for any kind of achievement. Anything he achieves in this industry I think shouldn't come too easily.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Christina Ricci's career in movies began early - really early. She was only 10 when she played the adorably malevolent Wednesday Addams in "The Addams Family." She went on to play fascinating, often dark and damaged women. And she became known as an actress who could tap into complex roles.
Her latest is that of another complicated woman. She plays Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of the famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald. He called her the first American flapper, known for her beauty and her high spirits.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "Z: THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING")
CHRISTINA RICCI: (As Zelda Fitzgerald) The night smelled of khaki and cigarettes. The war was finally here in all of its disordered grandeur. I felt its urgency. If I waited, it might be gone forever.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Zelda struggled with mental illness and alcoholism. But actress Christina Ricci learned there was much more to Zelda Fitzgerald's life.
RICCI: The only thing I knew about her was sort of this common misconception that she was this alcoholic, crazy woman who ruined F. Scott Fitzgerald's life and, if not for her, he would have had a great life. And, you know, the truth is always way more complicated than that. But in this case, it's very, very untrue.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. She suffered from, possibly bipolar disorder but what we believe to be schizophrenia. Do you think that she was misunderstood? For people who might not have seen the series or read the book, you know, what did you discover about Zelda?
RICCI: Well, she definitely was misunderstood. And she also lived at a time when, you know, they couldn't make that diagnosis of schizophrenia. And we can't now retroactively make the diagnosis of her being bipolar.
For somebody who doesn't know anything about her, she was in a very dysfunctional marriage with F. Scott Fitzgerald. She was very young when she met him. They were both incredibly arrogant and narcissistic. And what she loved about him was that he recognized in her a talent for writing - an intelligence, creativity that nobody had really recognized in her before.
And so initially, she loved this. And she felt that by being his muse, she would then be allowed to have a career of her own. But it turned out that he was not comfortable with her ever achieving any success even close to his. It was a very competitive relationship. And no matter what she tried to do, she was never allowed to be anything more than his wife. And that wasn't enough for her. And it ultimately led to her nervous breakdown.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it hard as an actress to find these complicated roles as you get older? I mean, you've been an actress in so many different periods of your own life. You had to bring this to Amazon yourself. Is it hard to find these complex roles?
RICCI: Well, for me, I wouldn't necessarily have been cast in this had I auditioned for it, even if I gave the exact same performance I gave in the show. And it's because of how I'm viewed.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you think they see you?
RICCI: I don't know. But I know I'm not really the typical romantic lead.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you had to play a range of ages in this. And you start with Zelda when she's extremely young. I think she was 19.
RICCI: I go from 18 to 20 in this first season.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. I think I read somewhere that you didn't want to play young as stupid, which is what a lot of people do.
RICCI: Yeah. I definitely think people play young as stupid. And I think, you know, one of the things that has actually been a hard part for me in terms of being cast in things is that I am very youthful seeming. The way that I speak, the way that I act - it's very young. And so for me, I didn't necessarily play her younger. I just played her as she was written, what she was going through. You know, I'm lucky in that I just kind of have a more teenage demeanor. Lucky for this, not lucky generally.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not lucky - you still get carded, for example (laughter).
RICCI: Yeah. And I also tend to speak like a teenager. I have a - I just have a very teenage thing, which I'm trying to overcome. You're very easily dismissed if you're a small woman who looks young and then talks like an idiot or a teenager (laughter). You know, I say like a lot and you know a lot and all these things. And I'm trying to fight them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We all have those tics. I certainly do as well. You're a mother now, though.
RICCI: Yes. That is another reason to not be a teenager.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Has it changed you?
RICCI: Yeah, definitely. I think it's probably the most growth I've ever - it was the biggest growing experience for me ever. In one year, I feel like I aged, emotionally, 10 years.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you look at your son, you having had the experiences that you had, I read that you wouldn't advise being a child actor to anyone - that it was difficult for you. If he wants to go into the family business, what would you tell him?
RICCI: I would never let a child make a decision that's going to affect the rest of their life. You know, I would wait till he was an adult and have him treat it like a real art form and a craft and go to school for it and have respect for it and respect for any kind of achievement. Anything he achieves in this industry shouldn't come too easily.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Christina Ricci is in the new Amazon series called "Z: The Beginning Of Everything." She joined us from our New York bureau.
Thanks so much for being with us.
RICCI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.