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Mrs. Brightside

Christina Ricci Hopes Her ‘Yellowjackets’ Comeback Isn’t a ‘Fluke’

The actress reflects on being a Nineties "dickhead," starring on TV's hottest show, and somehow finding happiness in Hollywood
Photographs by Max Farago

I f your perception of Christina Ricci is burned into your brain from the Nineties — when she broke into the public consciousness as the sullen child at the heart of the original Addams Family movie, then went on to play a sullen teen in Casper, a sullen tomboy in Now and Then, and a sullen new kid in Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain — you’d be forgiven for struggling to see her any other way. She does, too. Over the course of an hour-plus lunch on an overcast December day in Los Angeles, Ricci will describe herself as “lazy,” “unpleasant,” “prickly,” “immature,” “unfriendly,” “a contrarian,” “a killjoy,” and “a party pooper.” She will voice strongly negative opinions about seemingly beneficial things like salads (“a waste of time”), vitamins (“I hate swallowing pills”), and houseplants (“I don’t like bugs”). But she will also prove herself a deceptively good hang.

In a seafoam-green sweater and checkered Vans, Ricci, 43, exudes the laid-back cool of a Southern California native, which she is. She seems downright giddy to be out to lunch — a rarity, perhaps, for a mom of two young kids — and orders with gusto: a glass of red wine and a croque monsieur (“I almost got a steak,” she admits). She enthuses about how she’s been getting more into nature — “I actually really like birds now. Recently, I’ve started noticing trees” — flashes her dry sense of humor, and gushes sweetly about her children. Tucked into the clear case of her cellphone is a fortune, from a cookie long since eaten, that no self-respecting pessimist would save: “Your goal will be reached very soon.”

It’s hard to imagine what goals could remain unmet for Ricci. On a personal front, there’s her thriving family life with the two aforementioned kids and her husband, hairdresser Mark Hampton, who she married in the fall of 2021. (He cut her hair in the photos for this story.) And professionally, Ricci is in the midst of a full-on revival. Over the past year and a half, she has starred in not one but two of the biggest shows on television. With the Netflix Addams Family spinoff Wednesday, she made a cheeky return to the franchise that made her famous 32 years ago, appearing as the central character’s evil botany teacher. The series was a massive hit, beating Stranger Things 4 for most hours viewed within its first week, at 341 million. And in Yellowjackets, Showtime’s time-hopping supernatural thriller about a high school soccer team that gets stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash (Season Two debuts March 26), Ricci steals every scene she’s in as the adult version of Misty Quigley, a social outcast who grows up to become an angsty, sociopathic nurse. The performance earned her an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress and made her a fan favorite, especially on Reddit and other fan forums where the show is analyzed in minute detail. 

Still, the only person who remains slightly skeptical about the Ricciassance is Ricci herself. “When you’ve gone through periods of great success and then a dry [spell], you kind of end up having this feeling things are going to end,” she says. “It’s a little panic-inducing. You don’t want it to be a fluke, for people to be like, ‘Oh, actually, she’s lost it.’ So I have this feeling of ‘OK, we’ll just hold on tight, and this will be over soon.’”

IN THE FIVE or so years before Yellowjackets, Ricci was mostly a stay-at-home mother. She worked about once a year, mostly in forgettable fare like the thriller Distorted and the dark romantic comedy Here After, and made money from fan conventions. She laughs about how she had time for frivolous errands like buying extra holiday decorations. “You were so bored!” she tells herself, adding wistfully, “But it was so nice.”

That life was a far cry from the late Nineties and early aughts, when Ricci had profiles in every major magazine and the media dubbed her the “Anti-It Girl” thanks to her unconventional look and morbid sense of humor. On the cover of Rolling Stone in 1999, at 19 years old, she was described as a “hazardously sexy teen who will say anything.” She sported pink lingerie next to a line that screamed “Nice and Naughty.” “It’s not how I would have chosen to be dressed, but it’s very much of its time,” she says. “Not great.”

Ricci as Ms. Thornhill, the botany teacher, in Netflix’s Wednesday.

By then, she was a grown-up Wednesday Addams — though still petite, at five feet one, and armed with a deadly eye roll — who smoked cigarettes and burned them on her arm just to see if she’d faint from the pain. She became famous for giving Gallagher Brothers-like interviews, where she’d entertain journalists with her thoughts on death, incest, and how anorexia made her look like E.T. “I was a bit of a dickhead,” she says. “I could have handled it in a way that was less teenage.”

Ricci tries to be a lot more careful in interviews now, which she does constantly to promote her shows. “In movies, there’s a buildup, and the movie comes out, and then it’s done,” she explains. “For TV, [the press cycle] never ends. I find myself starting to feel a little bit more devil-may-care about the things I say. And that’s not good for me. I always go too far. I never realize how awful a thing I’m saying is until someone else is like, ‘What the fuck?’”

Another thing she’s careful about: making time for family. To shoot Yellowjackets, Ricci began commuting back and forth between Los Angeles and Vancouver three to four times a month, refusing to spend more than five days at a time away from her eight-year-old son, Freddie, and her one-year-old baby, Cleo. (She had Freddie with her ex-husband, producer James Heerdegen; she filed for a divorce in 2020, which was finalized last December.) She even brought Freddie with her a couple of times, where he got to hang out on set, use the clapperboard, and high-five the camera guys.

“They’re attached at the hip,” says Melanie Lynskey, who plays the guilt-ridden BFF-backstabber Shauna Sadecki on the show. “They’re about the same height, so they’re this cute little duo going around together.”

That said, Yellowjackets is not exactly a family show. The action shifts between 1996 and the present as the survivors of the crash — including Misty, Shauna, Juliette Lewis’ recovering addict Natalie, and Tawny Cypress’ uptight state senator Taissa — grapple with their past trauma in different ways, from dabbling in risky sex to performing bizarre satanic rituals. Misty is by many standards the most complex character; at times, it’s unclear if she suffers from any trauma at all. Flashbacks suggest her twisted behavior may not be a consequence of the crash but more ingrained. After her first-aid skills come in handy at the site — and she overhears her teammates say they’d be lost without her — she discovers and destroys the plane’s flight recorder, eliminating any chances of their being saved. This carries over into her adult life, where she is desperate to be wanted and will do whatever it takes to make it happen — from guilting dates into coming home with her to helping her old teammates cover up a murder.

Before shooting for Season Two began, Ricci prepared by rewatching the first. Her son had been begging her to watch it, too. “I sat with him so I could fast-forward any inappropriate parts, which there are a lot of,” she says. She’s right: It’s one thing for a kid to watch his mom in a curly blond wig, talking to her pet parrot. It’s another to watch her withhold an old lady’s morphine while whispering, “Don’t fuck with me,” in her ear. “I liked the idea of playing someone who’s so petty and small they abuse old people,” she says. “Where do you come from to abuse someone who is elderly and completely vulnerable?”

Noting Misty’s lack of empathy, Lynskey says of her co-star, “A lot of people would read Misty and give her a layer of accessibility. [Christina] doesn’t try to sweeten it up at all. She brings so many different levels to it.”

Instead, Ricci presents Misty with this icy exterior, slowly unraveling a deeper sadness across the episodes. “She’s very aware that she can’t fit in,” Ricci says. “She cannot connect. Always says the wrong thing, always does the wrong thing. She’s aware of the fact that [the other women] are right to shun her, and that makes her resentful and self-hating. But no matter how many years have gone by — and how, intellectually, she knows no one’s ever going to like her — that compulsion, that need, forces her to keep trying, keep grabbing. And that is sad.”

Something Ricci didn’t anticipate: All this darkness and inability to understand basic social cues can inadvertently result in great comedy. In the first season, Misty walked into a room where her friends were standing over a dead body and said, “Aren’t we a bunch of gloomy Guses!” She became the hero and seized control of the situation, assigning each of her friends tasks in disposing evidence of the body. She gazed down at his bloody corpse. “Oof, boy. He sure was a gusher, huh?”

But Ricci is seemingly befuddled at the notion that she’s funny. “Comedy has never been my thing,” she explains at our lunch. “It is such a skill, and I feel like a fraud. The problem is that if you’re not trying to be funny, everyone thinks you’re hilarious, like [the] Joe Pesci [character in Goodfellas].” As her croque monsieur arrives, Ricci eyes the salad next to it and looks up at our waitress. “Does this mean we’re not getting french fries?”

Ricci and Elijah Wood on Yellowjackets Season Two. “If [Misty] had to have any love interest, I’m so happy it’s Elijah,” Ricci says. Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

IN THE FIRST EPISODE of the new season of Yellowjackets, Misty role-plays a cop interrogating Shauna for the murder of Shauna’s illicit boyfriend, Adam. She speaks into a voice generator in the dark, asking tough questions, as Shauna sits alone at a table. Suddenly, Misty breaks character, turns on the lights, and tells her friend she was a disaster. “The only thing you should ever say to the police is, ‘I want my lawyer,’” she scolds. “That’s why I put it on a cookie!” She gestures to the baked item on the table, with red and white frosting spelling out the words in intricate cursive.

“I don’t know if she really understands how good she is at the comedic bits,” Lynskey says. “It’s still a struggle for her. She understands Misty’s darker side on such a deep level, and that is the thing that’s so interesting to her. She doesn’t want to be the comic relief, which she absolutely isn’t. I’ve had this conversation with her, where I’m like, ‘You’re doing so much more than that.’”

When Ricci and I have a phone call in late January, she admits she’s been wrestling with our discussion about her comedic chops since we spoke. “I’ve been thinking about this every day since we had lunch,” she says. “The comedy thing has been an ongoing dispute in my brain. Why? Because the truth of the matter is that I love comedy. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be Richard Pryor and the really sarcastic Seventies guy who was in Fletch. Who’s the guy? Chevy Chase. He was one of my heroes. So I do love comedy, and I like the idea of being good at it. Seth Rogen wrote to me and was just like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re so funny in this show. I love it.’ And I was thrilled.

“With Misty, she’s sometimes written in a way that could be interpreted as wacky,” she continues. “To play her and to ground the character, I have to come from such an internal place. But then when people talk about how funny she is, it’s like I’m her, being laughed at. I’ve overidentified with the character so that I can’t separate myself as an artist from the actual person I’m playing.”

This isn’t the first time Ricci has done this. When it comes to Wednesday Addams, the sadistic, macabre-obsessed goth wonder that broke her career (in 1991’s Addams Family and the 1993 sequel, Addams Family Values), she’s legitimately unable to tell if the character influenced her personality, or vice versa.

“There’s a lot of chicken-and-egg kind of thing,” she admits. “I’d been doing commercials, and I wanted to kill myself. When I started doing actual, real, dramatic acting, it was a big relief. I really enjoyed that part. I was not a happy kid, so the idea that I wouldn’t have to pretend to be was really great.”

Born in Santa Monica, California, the youngest of four children, and raised in Montclair, New Jersey, Ricci made her screen debut at 10 years old, starring in 1990’s Mermaids with Cher and Winona Ryder. Ever since then, her mother, Sarah, commemorates all of her roles by buying a bottle of champagne and writing the job on the cork. The kitchen drawers are now full of them.

Where most child stars flounder as young adults, Ricci kept afloat in films like Ang Lee’s angst-in-the-suburbs drama The Ice Storm; Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, starring Johnny Depp as her love interest; Prozac Nation, the film adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir about depression and drug abuse; and Pumpkin, about a party girl who dates a handicapped young man.

But she credits indie films like Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 and The Opposite of Sex (tag line: “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll be offended.”) for providing her a true spotlight and ample room to grow.

“When I was growing up, the second you looked like a teenager, you had to quit,” she says. “I got very lucky, because [I] coincided with independent films wanting to cast actual teenagers to play teenagers.”

Ricci says she was anorexic for a year in her teens and was depressed and anxious. “I had trouble processing my childhood and adjusting to being an adult,” she says. “I had a lot of very feral moments.” In signature Ricci fashion, she makes dark jabs about her mental health at the time: “I was never clinically depressed. I would just joke that I wished it was worse so that I could go to a hospital, have a fucking break, and I didn’t have to make choices. ‘Please, take all my choices away from me.’”

Ricci believes things have improved for women in Hollywood. There are more opportunities in the streaming era, and society is more aware of sexism and body diversity. “The amount of years spent obsessed with trying to make sure nobody could criticize you for your appearance … I really have embraced this body-positivity thing,” she says. “It’s such a fucking relief to know that nobody’s allowed to call you fat. [When] people complain about things like that, I’m always like, ‘Haven’t you heard? We don’t have to worry about that anymore!’”

When I ask her how having children changed her — and made her a little less Wednesday — she answers without hesitation. “I had gotten to a very nihilistic place by the time I had my son,” she says. “So it made me more emotional, and more willing to admit that I’m human.”

RETURNING TO THE MIND of Misty for Yellowjackets’ new season was challenging at first for Ricci. “The writing for your character changes, and you have to figure out how to maintain your character while they’re in really different situations — even the physical differences,” she says. She’ll have to re-create the awkward waddling and quirky body language she was praised for in the first season, which occurred naturally since she was pregnant with Cleo. And, much to her surprise, Misty has a love interest: Walter, played by Elijah Wood.

“I did all this press talking about how I thought she was not interested in men and would never have had a relationship, and then they’re like, ‘Bam! Season Two, love interest!’” she says with a laugh. “I was thrown off by the idea, and whether the characters do become romantically involved or not is something to be discovered as people watch this. But if I had to have any love interest as this character, I’m so happy it’s Elijah, because he’s just so wonderful to work with.”

In addition to Wood, Lauren Ambrose joins the cast as the adult version of the gritty redhead Van, while Simone Kessell plays current-day spiritual guru (and possible witchy woman) Lottie. Their arrival helped the success of the show fully sink in for Ricci, who had a difficult time processing it the first time around.

“I might be a very, very dumb Luddite type,” she says. “My need to have things be real in front of me, it doesn’t smack of great intellect. [But] we had a lot of new cast and crew who were excited to be on a show that had been so successful. That outside perspective, that enthusiasm, can be really contagious.”

Ricci claims she’s similar to Misty socially, and that she doesn’t do well in group hangouts. But Lynskey disagrees. She mentions Ricci’s concern for her colleagues — from checking in about Lynskey’s daughter’s ear infection to texting Kessell, “Beautiful work today,” after a rough shoot — as well as her refreshing ability to dispense with bullshit. What comes through, it seems, after all of Ricci’s ups and downs in Hollywood, is her authenticity.

“She’s never trying to make other people happy just for the sake of getting along,” Lynskey says. “She’s someone who’s just not concerned with niceties. As a person who’s very concerned with that, I’m envious. I look at her and I’m like, ‘Gosh, you’re really getting to the point and living your life and spending your time doing things that you want to do.’”

Those boundaries extend to Ricci’s fandom, too. There are limits to how far she will go in celebrating the Ricciassance, even if it would extend her influence in the cultural stratosphere.

“I still am uncomfortable with the fame-oriented aspect of all of this,” Ricci says, adding, “I’ve been told I need to get on TikTok, which I don’t want to do. I’m a 43-year-old woman. What am I going to do? Videotape myself doing laundry?”

Production Credits

Hair styled & Cut by Mark Hampton. Makeup by Allan Avendaño at A-Frame Agency. Photography assistance by Ross Fraser. Production assistance by Myles Johnson