Christina Ricci knows people judge her. She grew up in the public eye as the Goth girl, the alternative chick, the youthful indie darling. For her, those tacit critiques just provide the excuse to execute another hard turn.
“I’m a natural contrarian. So anytime someone tries to tell me what I am, I immediately change and I’m something else,” she said. “I can’t help it; I’m a total asshole in that respect. I never give people that. Sometimes it’s terrible and I should really just allow people to view me the way they want to, but I have a real desire and drive to define myself and to not be defined by others.”
As a child star, she was best known for her role as the malevolent Wednesday Addams in “The Addams Family.” In her teen years, she demonstrated a fondness for outrageous comments about subjects like death or incest; in her private life, she faced an eating disorder and other self-destructive behaviors.
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“I had a very hard time with fame as a child, being interviewed and being asked about my life,” she said. “I think that the way that I answered questions and the things I said earlier on were just, it was like somebody twisting in the wind. I was very reactive and aggressive and I acted out. No child should be held up for adults to criticize, question, interview, weigh in on. It’s the reason we don’t have pictures of our children up online. It’s the same thing.”
Ricci attributes some of those difficulties to tumbling head-first into Hollywood. After being discovered in a school play, a few commercials followed, and then she landed her first major gig as Cher’s daughter and Winona Ryder’s sister in “Mermaids.” From there, it was years before she slowed down or even thought about the path that was chosen for her.
“I just auditioned and took things. For a very long time, because this wasn’t a career that I pursued, I didn’t have any personal passion, I didn’t really have a lot of understanding,” she said. “It took a very long time for me to have enough real meaning in my life to apply any meaning to the work I did.”
Nevertheless, she found inspiration and an anchor in movies as a fan. “I loved ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ and I just loved [Glenn Close’s] performance. It’s so beautiful at the very end to see all the pain,” she said. “I also looked up to a lot of men when I was younger. John Malkovich [in ‘Dangerous Liaisons’] meant so much to me, and this idea that maybe I could be something like that one day was really important. I was actually also really obsessed with Richard Pryor. There was something about Richard Pryor that made me hopeful about my own success, which is strange because I couldn’t be further from Richard Pryor.”
During that difficult time through her 20s, Ricci still delivered acclaimed performances in films like “The Ice Storm,” “Buffalo ’66,” “The Opposite of Sex,” “Prozac Nation,” “Black Snake Moan,” and “Monster” opposite Charlize Theron. She also dabbled in television, making occasional guest appearances on shows like “Ally McBeal” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” the latter which earned her an Emmy nomination. She made a more deliberate shift to TV in 2011 with the short-lived ABC series “Pan Am.”
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Lately, Ricci has taken on a string of notorious figures from history. In 2014, she portrayed the titular Victorian-era murder suspect in Lifetime’s TV movie “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax,” and reprised the role for the network’s miniseries “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles” a year later. In 2017, she produced Amazon’s Zelda Fitzgerald bio drama “Z: The Beginning of Everything,” which also allowed her to portray the Jazz Age muse.
Now, Ricci stars in another Lifetime TV movie set in the Victorian era. In “Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story,” she plays the pioneering investigative journalist who famously faked insanity to discover the deplorable conditions in a women’s asylum and then published a harrowing account of her experience.
“There’s nothing low stakes about a Lifetime movie,” she said. “It’s all just the most intense, dramatic thing that’s happened in anyone’s life. They’re usually exciting.”
Brave, smart, and a progressive thinker, Bly was also a woman of privilege who had no idea of what she was getting herself into. “She’s somebody who is clearly sheltered. She wouldn’t have gotten into the situation she got into if she had been aware of the danger, of the extent to which she would be trapped,” said Ricci. “To be somebody who’s morally outraged in a place where moral outrage just has no place, in an insane asylum where people are being tortured.”
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Emmy and Tony winner Judith Light plays Bly’s chief torturer, head nurse Matron Grady who has been warped by an abusive childhood. “It’s important for people to understand that abused people abuse others,” said Ricci. “If we want to have this world where everything’s just, then we need to protect our kids. That should be what our focus is on these days — the welfare of our children.”
Protecting and empowering children is a recurring theme for Ricci, stemming back to when she was a teenager. Now, she’s a mother to her four-year-old son Freddie. “Just recently have I actually started thinking, ‘What do I really want to contribute? Who am I? What means something to me?’” she said. “I deserve to do work that I feel good about. I want to contribute to the world, I don’t want to just take from it. I want to do things that I’m proud of instead of being exploited, as I feel I was when I was a child. I am now more in charge of myself and doing things because I understand more fully what life is supposed to be about.”
Producing her own projects is a start, but she’s also open to directing. “There are filmmakers that I absolutely love. My favorite filmmaker who’s not alive anymore is Bob Fosse,” she said. “The way he took well-known constructs and disassembled them throughout his films, it is very similar to the kind of thing that I would like to do.”
True to her contrarian form, she’s drawn to the unusual and unexpected. “My favorite movie recently is ‘The Favourite.’ Olivia Colman’s performance in that, the character [Queen Anne] couldn’t be a better example of what I’m talking about. Somebody who is on the surface so laughable or dismissible, but really so complex and tortured and interesting and powerful in their own way. I don’t like stereotypes, I like individuals.”
”Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story” premieres on Saturday, Jan. 19 at 8 p.m. ET on Lifetime.