Christina Ricci Breaks All the Rules: The Former Child Star Takes on Zelda Fitzgerald

Amazon’s new Zelda Fitzgerald TV series warns, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” It’s something that Ricci, who plays the Jazz Age icon, has certainly come to know.

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It’s been confusing, and perhaps even frustrating, to chart Christina Ricci’s career.

Her child-star precociousness evolved into a dark, sort-of manic Kewpie doll aesthetic that fueled a wealth of complex and unusual characters at the turn of the millennium, with The Ice Storm’s Wendy, The Opposite of Sex’s Dede, and Monster’s Selby capitalizing on that juxtaposition between rebellious youth and preternatural maturity to make her one of the business’s most beguiling actresses and biggest child-star success stories.

That is, until the stories stopped coming.

While Ricci has worked consistently over the last decade—she’ll compete for a SAG Award his weekend for work in Lifetime’s Lizzie Borden miniseries—the profile of the projects and, typically, the quality, have hardly been as satisfying.

Despite largely avoiding showbiz clichés over her three-decade career, she found herself in the rut of the most established, most aggravating one: Hollywood not knowing what to do with a popular actress as she gets older.

That’s when Ricci discovered Zelda Fitzgerald.

Ricci was going through a career rough patch when she stumbled upon Therese Anne Fowler’s book Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which sets to untangle the myths about the sparkplug better half to F. Scott Fitzgerald at his most hedonistic, and unveil the real human beneath the stories.

“I was sort of at a crux in my career where I was not working that much, certainly not getting the parts I wanted to get,” Ricci says, perched on a sofa at a trendy SoHo hotel in Manhattan, her ever-empyreal wide eyes focusing in. “I’d been fired from something, which was shocking for me. So I was kind of at a place where I was like, ‘Alright, you’re going to have to make something happen.’”

So Ricci had been reading material with an eye out for projects and roles she’d want to translate to the screen when she discovered Flower’s book and Fitzgerald’s story. In fact, the story made such obvious sense to her as TV or film material that, when she called her agents to find out who owned the rights to it, she assumed she’d be discovering whom she’d have to audition for to land the part.

She was shocked to find, however, that the rights were available. She optioned it herself, and suddenly became Z: The Beginning of Everythings co-executive producer. (The series begins streaming on Amazon on Friday.)

“I liked the idea of, yes, they were fabulous stars, and their life was glamorous, and they had these great, impassioned fights and debauchery,” Ricci says. “But what I liked more were the complexities of the marriage and the relationship, and the dysfunction. What I love, too, is getting to understand this myth by examining everything that was going on that created it.”

It’s been nearly 70 years since Fitzgerald’s death, but the legend of the attention-grabbing flapper continues to be a subject of fascination, even if she largely remains an enigma.

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She’s a Jazz Age icon, sure, thanks to her whirlwind romance with Fitzgerald and ensuing explosive marriage, packed with enough boozing, quarreling, and, in the end, battles with infidelity and mental illness to green-light dozens of films, TV shows, and literary analyses.

Yet while there seems to be a boom of interest in Zelda at the moment—Z: The Beginning of Everything will predate two recently announced (and competing) biopics starring Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansson, respectively—her psyche and humanity has yet to really be deeply explored.

Her romance with F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the wildest and greatest stories of the last century. But we’ve never heard her side of it.

“There’s a lot of things about her that I thought that weren’t true,” Ricci says. “She wasn’t an alcoholic. They did a lot of drinking, but he was the alcoholic. She had weird, nervous habits that were interesting.”

She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but years later we know it was probably bipolar disorder. She also was an accomplished writer herself. The Beginning of Everything makes the suggestion that her husband even lifted some of her journal entries into his own writing.

“I do think that people have a great stake in protecting his reputation,” she says. “People don’t want to destroy this great American novelist.”

In our discussion of Zelda it comes up that she was a woman that was beyond her time. Actually, Ricci ventures, she was “misplaced in time.”

“One of the reasons we’re so fascinated by her is that her behavior was very modern for the time,” she says. “That’s why she stood out, and why people have been fascinated with her for so long is that, until now, her behavior didn’t necessarily make sense.”

She thinks that much of Zelda’s behavior—the constant need to get a rise, to provoke, to be the center of attention—comes from an anxious place, something that, as an actor, Ricci can relate to. “If you’re told to behave, you just start freaking out,” she says.

Perhaps it’s born out of that idea that Z: The Beginning of Everything gets its rather resonant tagline, given what’s going on in culture today: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

It’s a phrase that has certainly reverberated in Ricci’s career.

As she grew out of her child-star phase (Mermaids, The Addams Family) and into the teenage years of her career, she began saying erratic things in the press. Basically, she was just an obnoxious adolescent. She’s spoken about unpleasant experiences she’s had on set with male directors (Vincent Gallo, for example), and, as she found herself further and further outside of the young ingénue roles, made waves for the kinds of off-kilter projects she was seeking out for herself.

“What’s the definition of a well-behaved woman?” she asks. “A poorly behaved woman at that time would’ve been somebody behaving like me. I think that, a lot of times, the women I’ve been around who were dismissed as being difficult are usually somebody who has a strong opinion and is willing to say no.”

“Men get away with so much worse behavior than women, it’s insane,” she sighs. “And I used to never believe it. I was always like, ‘No, you know, let’s all be equal.’ It’s not the case.” She laughs and shakes her head: “It’s really not.”

And so there’s a certain power in telling this story of an independent woman who shook things up and didn’t apologize for it, because she didn’t see a reason why she’d have to...because, honestly, there wasn’t one.

“I think we need to remind women of how far we’ve come,” she says. “I think, sometimes, when people don’t realize how much you have to protect, you don’t protect it. So it just reminds us to be vigilant. A lot of people have suffered, and you can’t just give up the fight for something. Because these poor fucking women in the past would be rolling over in their graves if they saw how much we are throwing away.”

Ricci is forced to think about the past a lot. Mainly, because we just won’t let it go.

Read though a smattering of profiles and interviews conducted with her in the past 20 years, and you’ll see an astonishing dominance of questions about her years as a child star.

“I had another writer say this to me: ‘You’re a 36-year-old woman who’s still talking about being a child,’” she laughs.

What is that experience like? It can’t be entirely pleasant.

“I don’t really think it’s that terrible,” she says. “I understand it: it is fascinating, and really bizarre, and so few people have that upbringing. Even I was fascinated for a long time about what it does to you mentally, in terms of your development as a human being.”

We talk about the spate of memes that have cropped up in recent years using a still from Ricci’s performance as Wednesday Addams to illustrate the limited spectrum of emotions of someone who is not amused. In a way, because of that performance all those years ago, Ricci has become the face of a person who is “over it.”

“My whole vibe is ‘over it,’” she laughs. You could make the case that Zelda Fitzgerald’s rebellion and behavior reflects a similar stance. In her own career, is that a mindset that she tends to live in, too?

“Yeah, I think it is,” Ricci says. “I don’t buy into a lot of stuff, and I get very frustrated with people. I guess it’s true. It is a spirit that I have as well.”

In the end, that’s part of what appealed to her about playing Zelda in the first place.

“The thing I really love about her story—and a lot of other stories about women in history—are women who make the best of it,” Ricci says. “She didn’t necessarily love the position she was in. Her marriage was torturous. She wasn’t allowed to be who she thought she’d always get to be. But she made her life special and magical, and we still talk about her.”

She pauses for a second, those unmistakable eyes of hers looking outside the window for just a moment of reflection.

“I think that, sometimes, when you see stories like this, it sort of buoys your spirit a little bit, and, in a weird way, it’s encouraging,” she says, perhaps even unaware that she could very well be talking about herself: “Somebody who’s had a lot of things to fight but still had a great time.”