Once Upon A Time…
by Jay S. Jacobs
Working in Hollywood is not usually a good lifestyle for a child, so it is nice to see that no matter how adventurous her role choices may be, Christina Ricci has grown up to be a smart and sane young woman. Ricci first caught America’s eyes as a girl playing the young goth daughter Tuesday in the movie version of The Addams Family. She followed it up with a role in another beloved franchise – Casper the Friendly Ghost – and she has not looked back since.
Since then, Ricci has grown up before our eyes and moved out into fascinating directions as her career became more and more quirky and interesting. Over the years she has played offbeat roles like the lesbian lover of serial killer Charlize Theron in Monster, the local girl who bewitched Johnny Depp in Sleepy Hollow, a depressed and drug-addled woman in Prozac Nation and most recently a bad girl being broken of her lusts by bluesman Samuel L. Jackson in Black Snake Moan.
She will soon returning to her roots in playing another classic TV character. This time it is Trixie in the upcoming live action movie of the Saturday morning cartoon series Speed Racer, with Emile Hirsch of Into the Wild. Before Speed roars into the multiplexes, though, she has another more personal and quirky project hitting the screens.
In Penelope, a modern fairytale and story of personal growth, Ricci plays the daughter of an upper crust clan who is victim of a family curse and forced to live with a pig’s snout rather than a nose. The only way the spell can be broken is if Penelope finds someone to love her – but first she must learn to love herself. Produced by actress Reese Witherspoon (who also has a supporting role) and co-starring James McAvoy (who has turned so many heads in the critically-acclaimed Atonement), the film is a charming mix of whimsy and romance.
Recently Christina sat down with us and a few other websites in a conference call to discuss her experiences on Penelope.
Can you tell us how long it took to put on that pig nose everyday?
It took about an hour and a half to put the prosthetic on. Then I would go into regular hair and makeup and get normal beauty makeup put on over that.
Did that get a little old after a while?
Generally the hair and makeup trailer in the morning was actually kind of fun. The only thing that got old was I had to not talk at all while the nose was being put on my face, because you can’t move your mouth when there’s something being glued to it. (chuckles) Sometimes being silent for that long I had a problem with, because I am a compulsive talker.
Has the movie or the script changed the way you view people at all?
In a way it has. I don’t think it was the movie itself or the script, but it is more people’s reaction to the movie that has changed my opinion about the world in general – actually what people are hungry to see. You always fear when you’re making a movie that has a moral to the story that people are going to reject the idea of being taught a lesson. Or you worry that people are going to somehow feel that they’re being talked down to, or that it’s cheesy to make a movie that’s about self-acceptance. But I’ve found that all the press I’ve talked to – and I’ve been all over the world promoting this one – and everyone seems to really be sort of grateful in a way for a movie that has this theme in it. A movie that celebrates being an individual… being different. It made me feel like, wow, people are hungry to not have to live up to standards that don’t apply to them.
That’s very true.
I was really happy about that – the fact that people are really ready to celebrate being a very specific different person. I am so thrilled to know that the world is ready to accept and celebrate the individual.
In the film, Penelope is chased by photographers. What do you think about the paparazzi, the tabloids and gossip sites?
Well, I think it’s a little bit sick in a way. I definitely am guilty of having picked up those magazines. I read them on planes. At the same time I think they can be really cruel. One thing that people don’t necessarily understand about gossip about actors is that it can actually have an effect on their careers. People tend to take an actor’s career as… it doesn’t seem as real as somebody’s job at a big company, or their career as a CEO, or their career as any other thing. The fact is when these people are really mean or really slanderous [they] are hurting the way in which somebody supports themselves and their families. So, it’s a little bit irresponsible I think, culturally.
You talked about the message of the film a little bit. A secondary message, sort of intertwined is the love story with Max. Can you talk a little bit about Penelope’s journey about learning of love, and how Max makes her view the world?
Yeah, I think getting what Penelope has gone through for years and years she really does not believe in love. That’s why she is willing to settle in the film. That’s why ultimately… they misunderstand, they don’t get together. It really has to do with Penelope’s experience of men is that they would reject her. Max really teaches her that there are people – there is someone out there for everyone. There is true love. It’s great that in the movie she can’t find it until she really learns to love herself, because I think that’s a universal truth.
Speaking of men, how was it working with James [McAvoy]?
It was great. He was awesome. He’s such a talented actor. Really a great partner to have onscreen or in a scene. I loved working with him.
How do you go about preparing for a role like Penelope?
Unless it’s a specific accent, or something about physicality you have to change, I am generally not such a conscious actor. Usually it’s a mix of being on a set and being surrounded by a certain production design really informs you of tone. Then reading with different actors and getting a feel of what the story is and who they are. Then your hair and makeup has a huge impact on the way you behave. So, generally I don’t do a ton of preparation.
This is a fantasy film. With films like Big Fish and other fantasy films not doing really great in America, but still being good films, are you at all nervous about how American audiences will perceive of this film?
Everybody that I’ve spoken to, in terms of the press, has responded really well to this. We’ve had test screenings, and they’ve done really, really well. I think this is one of those movies that a certain group of people will be immediately attracted to. But, then I feel like this is one of those movies people will talk about. Because of that it will spread in popularity. I don’t think people are going to dismiss this one just because it’s a fairy tale, because really this movie isn’t a fairy tale. She sort of uses the fairy tale structure in order to employ a lot of metaphors that are really telling a very realistic, human, universal kind of story.
It seems to me what is interesting was other than one bad feature, the film had Penelope be a normal attractive woman that sort of had to be hidden for fear of being ostracized. What do you think that says about the beauty culture? And was that a conscious decision to not make her a complete ogre, but an attractive woman with one really bad flaw?
Well, I’m not so sure that was a conscious decision. I kind of feel like having an animal part on your face as a human is sort of a big deal. (laughs) I don’t think we needed to add insult to injury in any way. But I do think that one of the things we’re trying to say with this movie is that there’s nothing wrong with beauty culture. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating beauty. But, in the movie her looks become so secondary to who she is and what is charming and endearing about her and her personality and talents and her strength. What the movie is saying is that it sort of takes away the importance of stereotypical beauty.
While, like you said it certainly has a fairytale structure, there are some really adult issues touched on as well. What was it about the script that appealed to you?
What really did appeal to me was the message. It was the way the message was framed and presented. I felt it was done in such a way that… she uses the fairy tale structure, which we’re all so familiar with. We assume we know what’s coming next. Then she really flips it on its head. By doing that, drives a very important message home in a way that is not preachy or patronizing or manipulative. That, to me, was great, because I felt here is a chance to actually say something that is really important, but not in a way that is going to feel insulting to people.
This is not the first time in your career that you’ve taken on a role that’s had fantastical or supernatural elements. What is it about that sort of film that intrigues you?
I’ve always loved fantasy. I was a big sci-fi fantasy geek when I was a teenager, secretly, in my room. (laughs) So, I’ve always wanted to do a fairy tale; I’ve always wanted to be in a fantasy kind of film, or science fiction. I am naturally attracted to things that are a little bit out of this world.
What do you look for in a role?
It’s always something different. In this instance, the message of this movie I thought was very important one. It could be a story that I feel hasn’t necessarily been told yet. It could be a director that I’ve always wanted to work with and I don’t care what script it is, because it’s Martin Scorsese. There’s always some element. I can’t really explain why the things I have been in have been so different seeming to everybody. (laughs) It’s not like I made a decision to be in really different kinds of movies. It just sort of has happened that way.
Do you find that fans follow you pretty much wherever you go?
Do you mean in terms of following the films?
That your fans have the same sensibility that you do in picking a role?
I do find that. People really do appreciate it. They do appreciate it and I’m grateful that people appreciate my tastes. (laughs) Or the movies I invest in. It’s great to have people express a trust in my choices. I do hear people say, ‘We know if you’re doing it there has to be something interesting about it.’ There couldn’t be a more flattering thing to say. To me, it’s just great.
You have this coming out about three months from Speed Racer. How do the two compare?
They’re very different stories. I think that the one thing they have in common is they’re both kind of message movies in a way. Larry and Andy [Wachowski – the screenwriter/director brothers who had previously done the Matrix movies] wanted to make a film that was very much about the underdog and about staying true to who you are and what you believe in. That’s really what Speed is going through in Speed Racer. Again I get to play a really awesome, strong girl that I think people will really like. She’s like the girl I always wanted to be. She fights. She kung fu fights. She does gymnastics. She races. She flies a helicopter. But she has a special outfit for each activity and is also incredibly girly and always has lipstick on. That, to me, is what I hope that all women felt that they were completely within their rights to do.
How did that compare to playing Penelope?
It’s similar in that Penelope is a very, very strong girl. The things that she does she has no qualms about. She expresses herself as an artist, freely, without questioning that. She has enough strength that despite all of the things that are supposed to keep her from going out and living her life, she does it anyway. They’re both really strong women. The one thing that’s missing is that Trixie obviously does not have any self-esteem issues. (laughs)
You said to Premiere magazine in 2006 that your openness is just part of the job. You let people do what they need to you for the film.
I think many Hollywood actresses would have hesitated to wear a pig’s nostril. Do you have any hesitation when you consider a role like this one?
I think what is specific about what you just said is that I’m willing to let people do to me whatever they need to to get across a specific message in a film. I won’t just do anything I’m told. (laughs) But if it has merit and if it adds value to the story and what we’re doing with the character, then I’m very, very open. I don’t want it to sound like I’m the good-time girl who will do anything. But it never crossed my mind that playing a girl wearing a pig’s nose would not be a good thing. It just never occurred to me to think that that could be at all judgmental.
You’ve also said you still have to audition for movies. Did you have to audition for this film?
I was wondering what it was like to work with Mark [Palansky], who is actually a first-time director. And also to work with Reese [Witherspoon], who’s both a costar and producer.
This movie I didn’t actually have to audition for. This movie Reese submitted directly to me. That was great, and very flattering. I have a lot of respect for Reese. I’ve known her for a couple years, and over the years we’ve had many conversations about the business and women’s issues. How her views of the world have sort of changed ever since she had a daughter. So I was very flattered that she chose me. She’s great to work with. She was a great producer for this movie to have because she was just so strong in making sure that this film always stayed true to its initial intention. As far as working with Mark, Mark is an incredibly talented director. He’s technically so incredibly proficient, having been a second unit director for so long. Then also artistically the visuals he comes up with, what he sees in his head and is able to manifest are just really beautiful and very impressive. The biggest challenge for him and what might have scared him the most on this movie is that it would be the first time he’d be really dealing with actors that much. He had a wonderful sort of collaborative, not overly authoritative, approach to it.
Shooting in the United Kingdom, how did it come about? What was that like shooting in London?
I think we shot in London because of finances. But also because the way the movie looks – they felt there were people who were much better at creating that look in London than in the States. But I’m not sure. That would probably be a better question for Mark or somebody. But it was great. I’ve made a couple of movies in London now and it’s one of my favorite cities to spend any amount of time in.
I know you said that you don’t feel that the role was brave. What was it about Penelope you felt the need to add to your résumé?
I just felt like the message was a really valuable one, and one that I hadn’t really seen put out there in a very long time. The message movies have kind of disappeared a little bit. Movies geared towards kids used to always incorporate some sort of moral or message or be teaching them something. I feel like all the movies geared towards kids these days, they don’t really have that strong a message anymore. I also feel just so sick of all the negative messages that are out there for young women. I would jump at the chance to be a part of something that sends what I think is the right message.
What aspects of Penelope’s experience and journey will most resonate with [young women]?
I think the idea of being sort of crippled by insecurity. People – women especially – allow their insecurities and the negative things other people put on them to overwhelm them – to trap them in a way, and keep them from really experiencing or enjoying life. When Penelope finally says, ‘I’m not going to be trapped in this house the rest of my life and miss the world because of something wrong with my face,’ that’s a huge moment. That’s something that a lot can be learned from. She goes out there and she experiences the world in spite of it. She says ‘I’m going to accept that this is on my face and is not going to change. I’m going to go out there and I’m going to enjoy the world. Live my life and have experiences.’ A lot of women will agree that they’ve been in situations that should have been fun but all they could think about was the way they looked, what they were wearing, their weight… so they couldn’t relax and have a good time. That’s such a sad thing to look back on and something I just don’t feel like people need to suffer through.
It was amazing watching you work with Catherine O’Hara. What was it like working opposite her?
It was so much fun. I was so excited when they cast her. She’s one of my favorite actresses ever. When I was a teenager I think I saw Waiting for Guffman five times in the theater. Working with her was great. She’s just as much fun to work with as she is to watch. She’s such a wonderfully warm and open person that she actually one day sat down and after Simon [Woods] and I kind of gushed to her about how much we loved her and I told her that her drunk is the best drunk I’ve ever seen in my entire life – she sat down and showed us how she created her drunk. Where this part comes from. ‘Then I saw a man doing a drunk and he did that.’ It added that to the thing. She really broke down her drunk and showed us how she did it and encouraged us to be braver and take more chances and be more improvisational. Also she said, ‘Go out there, look at the world and work on your drunk.’ (laughs) I was just like, this is awesome. It’s amazing to have someone of her talent who will talk to you in such a straightforward level about acting. It was a wonderful memory for me.
I wanted to talk about the artist Mark Ryden. Some of his art is in the film.
Any connection there with how you got involved in the project?
No. I got involved with the project through Reese. Then, when they were talking to Mark about directing – Mark Palansky – he said ‘I love Mark Ryden, the painter. That’s so funny, because he paints you.’ I was like, oh, hilarious. (chuckles)
So it was just a coincidence?
Yeah, it was.
Which was worse, wearing the nose or wearing the mask?
Oh the mask. The mask was terrible. That Halloween mask, you’re talking about?
No, just wearing the scarf all the time…
Oh, the scarf. I liked when I got to wear the scarf because that meant I didn’t have to wear the prosthetic. So I preferred the scarf wearing.
And the Halloween mask?
That’s just the end of the movie, but it was very uncomfortable. (laughs)
Do you have a dream project you’d like to work on?
No. I think my dream, dream project would be that Wally Lamb book, She’s Come Undone. But I’m not sure they’re ever going to make that into a movie.
I don’t know. I know they were going to years ago but I’m not sure if it’s going to happen. That would be my dream role.
What about it is attractive to you?
It’s such a beautiful story and specifically one that you don’t hear too often. The way in which this woman grows up and expresses her pain is something that is very different than what we normally see in film. I think it’s not something you see in film all that often because it is considered in our culture particularly disturbing. But this is a woman who is in an incredible amount of pain. I would love to show someone expressing their pain in the way she does. But, also, it’s a survivor story because it goes through and shows how she heals and how she evolves and becomes someone who is good to herself and other people. To me – those are my favorite stories.
We’ve already discussed the other cast, but I’m a huge fan of Peter Dinklage as well.
Yes, he’s awesome.
Have you had experiences with paparazzi like his character?
No. You know, I have a very different approach to the paparazzi than most people do. I’ve decided that the best approach is… you know, they’re human beings, too. They might be doing something that irritates you, but the best approach is really to be friendly and nice. When there are four cars following you, I like to view us all as sort of a caravanning team. I’ll talk to them, I’ll pull up and roll down my window and ask, “Is there anything specific you’re out here for today? I’m just going to run errands.” And they’ll usually say, “No, we just want some fashion shots.” But I find that if you are nice to people, they are generally nice back. Also, it’s going to happen anyway, so why allow it to drive you crazy? It’s really not that big a deal – unless you have something you really don’t want people taking pictures of.
Were you one of the first people cast in the movie?
Yes, I was. (proudly)
Did you have any say in how the casting went?
Actually, the first meeting I ever had with Reese and Jen Simpson, her producing partner, we talked about it and I was like – I think Catherine O’Hara would be amazing for the mother. They were like, “Well that’s exactly who we’re offering it to.” So, yeah, we all kind of were of the same mind with casting.
I read you had braces as a kid. Any similar feelings yourself to what Penelope was going through?
Um, not with braces or anything really physical. I went through an adolescent period where I didn’t really like the way I looked that much, but I think that most teenagers go through that. But I had more of a very deep-seeded shyness. I just now am getting over being socially kind of frightened. I used to have a lot of trouble socializing and speaking to strangers when it wasn’t work-associated. I’m getting over that now. I’m learning to actually go out and meet people and not be so scared. (laughs)
Was it interesting how people reacted with you in the prosthetic? Did that influence how you wanted to play Penelope’s reactions?
Well, not really, because everybody on set loved when I had the pig nose on. They loved it so much. They thought it was so cute and so awesome. Then, when I would actually go on set to the scenes where I’m not wearing it, they’d kind of look at me, do a double-take and then say, “Aww… Where’s the nose?” (laughs) So that sort of gave me more of a sense of, yeah, Penelope is awesome. I don’t know what these people are talking about.
Have you seen it with a group yet and is there feedback you’ve been hearing that let you know you’re on the right track with the message you wanted to get out there?
I haven’t seen it with a group of young people, but I’ve heard that we’re getting tremendously positive responses. Not only does it have this message, but there is also a huge romantic pay-off. It’s kind of a great romance movie in a way, too. I hear there are literally tears in the theater for the romantic payoff at the end. So that’s awesome. I did see it with a group. I saw it, funnily enough – I like saying funnily even though I know it’s not a word – so funnily enough, I happened to see it in Toronto sitting next to Sam Jackson, because he took me to the premiere. And Sam was moved. I think if the baddest man in town is moved by something, it’s probably a good endorsement.
Did you ever wear the pig nose out in public to see what kind of reaction you’d get from people off-set?
I didn’t. There was a thing in the beginning that they didn’t want anyone to see the pig nose. They were trying to keep the pig nose a secret. But then, ultimately decided that wasn’t the best approach. I didn’t really walk around with it on. Every once in awhile, we’d be on location in London, and I’d say, why don’t we walk down to that Starbucks? And then I’d be like, oh… because I have a prosthetic pig nose on. (laughs)
You mentioned fairy tale movies and how movies with messages resonated with you. What fairy tales or movies with messages you did you feel strongly about growing up?
When I was a little kid, I feel like every book I read had a message to it. I feel like even the Disney movies had morals to teach us. I was really enamored by all of the Hans Christian Andersen books. The Ugly Duckling, I loved, and the actual Hans Christian Andersen Little Mermaid story was my favorite.
This movie was shot I think a couple of years ago. Has the delay between production and the release given you any different perspective on your experience with Penelope?
Yeah, I think definitely to play a part, you have to sort of get lost a little bit in their emotions. I certainly was existing in a place of a lot of sort of – not self-hate, but maybe a little bit of self-loathing – because she has to have that. So, at the time we were shooting, I was experiencing a lot of self-loathing for the character. Now that I’ve had so much time away from it and have some perspective, I can now just watch it, view it and feel good about myself and have fun watching the movie. When I was doing it, it was fun, but there was also this element of always having to have that feeling of self-loathing.
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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 22, 2008.