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by Michael B. Dougherty | Manhattan magazine | August 24, 2011

“She’s a little sarcastic, kinda sassy, but she’s good at her job.” Christina Ricci is talking about Maggie, the rebellious flight attendant she plays in ABC’s new series out this month, Pan Am, a period drama centered on the globe-trotting lives of flight attendants—or “stewardesses,” as they were known—in the 1960s. But the description of her character is also befitting of Ricci herself. The petite actress, 31, has successfully navigated two decades worth of diverse Hollywood roles, from her early days in off-kilter indie dramas to mature leads for some of the industry’s biggest directors (Burton, Wachowski), all the while keeping her impish charm and avoiding the all-too-common tabloid pratfalls of some fellow starlets. Instead, Ricci consistently turns in honest performances that play to her natural depth and artistic instincts.

Most people chart Ricci’s career from her first film appearance, opposite Cher in 1990’s Mermaids. But it’s more accurate to measure her time spent in Hollywood starting with her role as Wednesday Addams in the following year’s The Addams Family. Anjelica Huston may have vamped it up as family matriarch Morticia, but it was Ricci’s turn that defined the film, presaging her darker, early adult roles. With piercing doe eyes that seemed to dominate her small frame, Ricci played daughter Wednesday with a deadpan, macabre glee. There was something undeniably precious about the budding tween, and something devilish as well.

That rising undercurrent became a torrent with Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Playing the role of the sexually precocious (and predatory) Wendy Hood, Ricci masterfully tapped into the suburban dystopia and moral failings of ’70s Connecticut. A fairly quotidian scene of adolescent experimentation, via some good old-fashioned dry humping in a basement, takes on a sinister shade when Wendy dons a Richard Nixon Halloween mask before declaring to a pre-hobbit Elijah Wood, “I’ll touch it, but that’s as far as it goes.” Caught with their pants down (literally) by Wendy’s father, who demands to know what is going on, she coolly responds, “What do you think is going on?”

“I loved playing the roles that I did as a child. I’ve always been quite happy with the identity they’ve given me as long as people don’t take that too literally,” says Ricci. “I think they gave me a great depth of position as an actress from which to start my adult career.” The teen dripping with sarcasm, the calculating sexpot—Ricci would revisit these tropes again and again over her next few films, including The Opposite of Sex (where she seduces her brother’s boyfriend) and Buffalo ’66 (as Vincent Gallo’s willing kidnap victim). By this point Hollywood was in the throes of the late ’90s indie film resurgence, and Ricci had become one of its pinups.

Two films ferried Ricci from indie to A-list. The first was Tim Burton’s reimagining of Washington Irving’s classic horror tale, Sleepy Hollow. Playing opposite Johnny Depp, Ricci’s lead as Katrina Van Tassel captured all of her Goth appeal—and corseted bosom. The second was a shocking role as Charlize Theron’s lover in Monster. Theron got most of the attention, including an Oscar, for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, but Ricci’s transformation was equally impressive as it showed audiences yet another dimension of her dynamic capabilities.

“My theory, especially when casting an ensemble, is that it’s really important to find people who play different instruments in the symphony,” says Tommy Schlamme, the former West Wing director who is now helming Pan Am. “And nobody else plays Christina’s instrument. She’s so incredibly unique.” Luckily for Schlamme (and he’ll be the first to admit it), Ricci had been looking for the right television role for some time. “[I was] really excited. It seemed like the right fit,” says Ricci, nearly packed and ready to depart the West Coast to continue shooting Pan Am in Brooklyn.

Following the lives of four women, Pan Am takes viewers back to a time when jet travel still had its veneer of glamour—square-jawed pilots, comely flight attendants and those iconic bags—before checked luggage fees and unavoidable delays stripped it all away. With its dashing midcentury mien, Pan Am has already drawn comparisons to a certain other television drama set in that era—not that this bothers Ricci. “It’s a great comparison to get; Mad Men is a great show and I’m a huge fan. But that does focus more on a man’s experience of that time period and this is much more about these women,” she says. “These were really women who were taking control of their lives and living in a very feminist kind of way. They weren’t the average women.” Her character, Maggie, the head flight attendant, often rebels against company policies (like wearing the required girdle). “[What’s] most fun in shows is that blend of comedy and drama,” says Schlamme, discussing Ricci’s exploration of Maggie. “Christina is really funny and she certainly knows how to make a joke work, but then she has this dramatic range. She’s the perfect prototype for what’s best for this show.”

Ricci has been flexing that range more often of late. This month she’ll also appear in the comical farce Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star. Co-written and produced by Adam Sandler, Ricci plays a sympathetic waitress from New Jersey (where, coincidentally, the actress spent time growing up) who aids Bucky in his quest to become a star… a porn star. And Ricci made her first appearance on Broadway last fall, replacing Alicia Silverstone opposite Laura Linney in the Tony-nominated Time Stands Still. The cliché of the screen actor secretly desiring to do stage work isn’t the case here. “When I was younger I had really bad stage fright, and when I got older, I kinda forgot about having stage fright and was more open to doing plays,” she says. Time Stands Still came about at the “perfect time,” and she feels the experience—which garnered Ricci multiple accolades for her performance—opened doors. “I felt less scared, but I’m still really scared,” Ricci says with a laugh when asked if she’d do it again. “I felt less crippled than I have in the past.”

Another first for Ricci was her appearance as guest judge on this season’s Project Runway. Ricci’s been recognized for her sometimes daring fashion choices, such as the spiderweb-channeling Zac Posen dress she wore to this spring’s Met Costume Institute gala, so it seemed like a natural fit. “I thought, ‘Oh, that would be fun!’ And then I thought, ‘Whoa, I’ve never done that before—just talked and voiced opinions while being filmed. What if I sound like a real idiot?’” Luckily, Runway alum Michael Kors was there to reassure her that was, in fact, not the case.

As she heads into the fall, Ricci is already generating buzz for her role in another period piece, Bel Ami (at press time, it’s yet to be picked up for distribution) in which she, Uma Thurman and Kristin Scott Thomas get to take turns being entranced by Robert Pattinson. “He’s great; he’s really an awesome guy. I had a lot of fun working with him,” says Ricci. She goes on to say that, despite captivating legions of teenage girls everywhere (along with most of their mothers), Pattinson maintains a respectable on-set ethic. “He’s so professional,” she continues. “He comes to set with no expectations or attitude. None of those things you worry someone of his level of fame is going to have.”

Getting ready to settle into life on the East Coast, Ricci says she’ll miss her boyfriend, photographer Curtis Buchanan; their two dogs; and family and friends in her hometown of Los Angeles, where she avoids the typical actress trappings in favor of Pilates workouts and comfort food at Little Dom’s.

 

When asked if she’s ever once been seduced by the idea of the branding, the branching out with the fashion line, the vodka label or the pop record, Ricci just sighs. “It seems a little overwhelming. Maybe I’m lazy, maybe I’m not overly ambitious. I think I just like to stick to what I know I can handle.”