Christina Ricci is a fervent believer in seven-year cycles. "My mom told me, 'Every seven years, everything changes: your physical being, your emotional being, the way other people look at you. Everything' … Oh, God," she moans, mocking herself. "This is the kind of shit—if I go into the bookstore and ask for the astrology section, they're always like, 'Oh, a.k.a. the crazy-lady section?' That's where you'll find me. Yep, the crazy-lady section."
The thing is, if you look back at Ricci's life, her loony theory holds up: She's not so much a star as a Hollywood comet locked into a semi-leisurely orbit. And having just turned 28 on February 12, she sees this spring as "the end of a seven-year cycle and the beginning of a new one."
After a very quiet seven-year hiatus, Ricci's wild-child, unhinged turn in Black Snake Moan has set up what could be a noisy 2008. This week, she debuts a newly sincere side of herself in the tweener-friendly, Edward Scissorhands–ish fable Penelope, as a young woman who has been sequestered from the world because she has a pig nose. ("The first nose was hideous and had lots of wrinkles and looked more like a boar nose," she says. "I was like, 'Can I have the keys to the Miss Piggy nose?' And we met somewhere in the middle.") In May, she'll headline the Wachowskis' anime-inspired spectacle Speed Racer, playing a kung fu–fighting, hot-pink-wearing Hello Kitty vamp (no pig nose, but lots and lots of wigs).
"It all comes back around," says Ricci, who swears that in her newest cycle, she's not going to hide behind her notorious sarcasm. "I come from one of these hideous backgrounds where being sincere is like—ugh, you might as well kill yourself," she says. "It's fun to be sarcastic, but now I'm able to express myself in a way that's much more sincere.
"For whatever reason," she adds, "I'm ready to refocus, and I've got my drive back. It's a new seven-year cycle. But then again, my mother told me a lot of crazy things."
THE FIRST SEVEN
Perhaps it's natural that Ricci, who grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, would become nineties cinema's beautiful young freak: Her mother is a former Ford model, Seventeen cover girl, and "starving socialite," as Ricci has joked. Her father is a therapist who specialized in "primal-scream therapy," which Ricci would overhear and playfully imitate.
THE SECOND SEVEN
Ricci's acting career was launched via a spectacular grade-school freak-out. When her elementary school held auditions for The Twelve Days of Christmas, Ricci was in danger of losing the lead to another kid. So she hatched a plot only slightly more diabolical than the one she would later act out in The Opposite of Sex. Ricci taunted her rival so much that he socked her. When she tattled, he lost the part. "I've always been a really ambitious person," she says. "I guess that's the first time it really reared its ugly head. That whole Chorus Line, fucking-other-actors-over thing, I got that out of my system then. Apparently, my 7-year-old self was like, You. Need. This."
A local theater critic noticed Ricci, and soon she was doing ads. She made her film debut in Cher's Mermaids at age 9 and spurred a controversy over the sexualization of children when a pinup-style photo of a bikini-clad 11-year-old Ricci ran in Premiere shortly after her cute-creepy turn as Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family.
THE THIRD SEVEN
"From like 14 to 21, I got a lot of parts in paying films and became more of an adult actress," says Ricci, who also wrestled with more adult problems after her parents split up in 1993. She began the cycle as another slightly spooky sweetheart in Casper, but later she became anorexic and began cutting herself. And her roles started to mirror the intensity of her life: scandal-courting turns in Bastard Out of Carolina,The Ice Storm, Buffalo '66, and The Opposite of Sex, almost always as a strangely seductive outcast. "I think I've always been interested in playing people who are judged very harshly," she says. "I think that's why I get those parts when I audition for them. I hate when people are judged and misunderstood."
Ricci peaked at the box office with 1999's Sleepy Hollow, and Oscar buzz grew around her anticipated turn in a high-profile adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel's strung-out Gen-X memoir Prozac Nation.
THE FOURTH SEVEN
Prozac Nation, of course, was a disaster, denied a domestic release by Miramax. With it, Ricci's career suddenly fizzled, too. "When I was 21, I stopped being as productive," she merrily admits. "I kind-of-sort-of gave myself a break from any ambition that I ever had." Ricci racked up a few solid supporting roles (The Laramie Project, Monster). But almost everything else (The Gathering, Pumpkin, Miranda, Cursed) flopped. Her self-deprecating gloss on this cycle is that it allowed her to achieve relative normality. "I needed time to grow into who I am now. I needed some personal time." She laughs, realizing how ridiculous that sounds. (She still seems slightly amused by her newfound sincerity, as if it's a particularly funny hat.) "So, yeah, I took seven years of personal days."
THE FIFTH SEVEN
Which brings us to the beginning of her new seven-year cycle. It starts with the very sweethearted fable Penelope—though Ricci says there's "a line from Black Snake Moan to Penelope," a new "kind of social consciousness." If the Britney Spears–ish redneck tramp of Black Snake was "the tangible result of all the exploitation of women in our society," then the pig-nosed girl in Penelope is another outcast—a sequestered girl with serious body issues who learns to love herself. And James McAvoy. "It stresses the importance of the individual, which we've been trying to kill with makeover shows and everything."
The Wachowskis' Speed Racer is hardly so uplifting. "Basically, I'm their dress-up doll," says Ricci, who plays the bad-ass, helicopter-piloting girlfriend. "They'd dress me up with matching pink hair and lips and skirt and shirt and say, 'Okay, now we wanna see you kung fu fight.'"
But that's okay: The film still fits in with her master plan, because, in fact, Ricci sees more kung fu fighting in this next cycle. "I'm totally down for more action movies, but I think I'd really like to find my place in sort of the higher echelon of dramatic actresses. Oh! And I'd like to play a spy."
"Well, I'm so small," she says, cheekily mocking her oft-scrutinized frame. "So I always figured I would be the one they send through the air vent if something happened. You know: 'Can fit in small places.'
First published at New York Magazine