For better or worse, Christina Ricci is not the first actress who leaps to mind when you're casting the role of a wild-eyed, sexually carnivorous redneck nymphomaniac. Or the second. Or third. In fact, when the producers of the pulpy, button-pushing fable Black Snake Moan were searching for someone who could play a sexed-up Southern spitfire haunted by personal demons, Ricci was nowhere on their list. So she lobbied for an audition. She nailed it. And they tossed out their list.
''They didn't even want to sit in a room with me at first,'' says the 27-year-old actress over lunch at a Los Angeles cafe, her small hands folded on the table to reveal a flowery tattoo on her right wrist. Ricci doesn't sound bitter. With her unconventional looks wide-set, Kewpie-doll eyes, heart-shaped face, broad forehead and dark-hued tastes, she knows she's never been the easiest actress to cast. Still, since breaking into movies at age 9 with the 1990 Cher starrer Mermaids, Ricci has carved out an idiosyncratic but thriving career, often as a snarky, brooding oddball, in everything from kiddie films (Casper) to art-house dramas (Monster), comedies (Anything Else), horror flicks (The Gathering), and TV shows (Grey's Anatomy). Now, with the provocative, often downright shocking Black Snake Moan, she delivers her riskiest and most attention-grabbing performance yet.
Ricci plays Rae, an emotionally damaged woman so scarred by childhood sexual abuse that she offers her body up to every man who crosses her path. Left for dead on the side of the road after one violent episode, Rae is taken in by a former blues musician (Samuel L. Jackson) who tries to break her of her slutty ways and heal her psychological wounds by...chaining her to a radiator. The actress has portrayed vixens before, but in earlier films like The Opposite of Sex and Buffalo 66, she says, ''I was just a kid playing dress-up.'' For Moan, Ricci, who considers herself ''a prude'' (''I still get uncomfortable watching sex scenes''), bared herself in every sense, remaining nearly naked even when the cameras weren't rolling. ''Sam would be like, 'Put some clothes on!''' she says. ''I was like, 'No, you don't understand. I'm doing something important.'''
The film's requirements were nothing short of extreme, including a jarring opening sex scene with costar Justin Timberlake. Bound by a heavy chain for much of the shoot, plumbing gut-wrenching emotional depths in scene after scene, the petite actress was pushed to her physical limit. Sometimes, she would vomit between takes. ''Her fingers were blistered and cut from yanking on this 70-pound chain,'' says writer-director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow). ''I said, 'Christina, we can use the plastic chain.' She just said, 'No, let's keep going.'''
The New Jersey-raised actress credits that kind of rigorous work ethic with enabling her to survive the perilous transition from child star to grown-up actor: ''It never occurred to me to be a movie star. I was just like, 'Wow, I get to leave school for six months at a time!' I understand how I could have really destroyed my career and my life. But it's a lot harder to self-destruct when all you're thinking about is actually working.''
Not that it's been easy. Over the years, Ricci has watched actresses around her vault to greater stardom and has wondered if she should dial down her quirkiness or alter her appearance to fit the industry's standards of beauty. In fact, that's the theme of Penelope, an indie fairy tale opening April 6, in which she stars opposite Reese Witherspoon as a girl born with a pig's snout due to a family curse. ''I could make little changes to my appearance,'' says Ricci, who has acknowledged suffering from anorexia as a teenager. ''If my hair wasn't quite so dark or if I had bangs, stupid things like that, I'd be more commercial, because my forehead is so goddamn big. There's not really a lot of value in foreheads. I mean, giant lips are sexy, but a giant forehead there's not really much you can do with it.'' Recently, Ricci was watching an episode of Extreme Makeover in which a woman had her hairline surgically lowered and wondered aloud to her boyfriend, actor Adam Goldberg (Zodiac), if she should consider such a thing: ''He was like, 'Stop. You're not allowed to discuss that.'''
Still, for all her occasional flickers of self-doubt, don't expect Ricci to start pursuing cookie-cutter ingenue roles say, the girlfriend part in the next Michael Bay flick anytime soon. ''I've done things that are cheesy and found it really unfulfilling,'' she says. ''I think there's only a certain amount of time you can do things you don't believe in before it takes a toll.'' Picking at her plate of nachos, she smiles to herself: ''I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be a super-happy, not-very-smart person being forced to play rape victims,'' she asks. She pauses, then answers drily, ''That would really suck.''
Christina Ricci's Must List
the bird and the bee
Ricci is friends with the indie rock duo. ''Their music is a bit loungey but also kind of trippy. It's really catchy.''
'The Archivist' 1998
Martha Cooley's bleak novel appeals to Ricci: ''I've always been fascinated by the number of women who had nervous breakdowns in the '40s, '50s, and '60s.''
'Law & Order'
''Right now I'm really into the Angie Harmon years,'' she says.
Ricci got hooked on HBO's soap while shooting Black Snake Moan. ''Sam [Jackson] was obsessed with it.''
'Little Miss Sunshine'
''For anybody at any age, what [Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin] did would have been difficult,'' says Ricci.