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Going at it whole-hog

Christina Ricci Has Cast Youthful Doubts Aside To Exude Confidence Off-screen And On -- Even If The Part Does Call For Wearing A Pig Nose.

January 13, 2008|Pamela Chelin | Special to The Times

CHRISTINA RICCI'S new film, "Penelope," has a lot of parallels to the actress' own journey to self-discovery and self-acceptance -- minus the pig snout, of course.
Her blond-streaked hair is cut into a bob that frames her delicate face, making her green eyes seem even larger, like endless seas. In a room at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel, Ricci sips from a bottle of water as she talks about the title character in this modern-day fairy tale from first-time feature director Mark Palansky about a young woman born under a curse that leaves her with a snout for a nose. To protect her from ridicule, her parents (Catherine O'Hara and Richard E. Grant) never let her outside as they search for a blue-blood suitor to break the curse.
"I like her strength," Ricci says, "and the fact that given this situation, being inside for 25 years and having this pig snout, she was really funny. She made the best out of it and she kind of knew who she was in a way that a lot of people don't."
That's a place it took Ricci awhile to find for herself. "Her journey is a succinct version of the journey that we all get to where we're no longer crippled by our insecurities. When I was younger and I was just starting to become successful," she says, "I was not able to experience it and I was not able to enjoy it because I was so busy hating myself. I was so busy being uncomfortable in my own skin, being self-conscious. I got to a point, now, where you have to say, 'I am going to have to let go of self-consciousness because it's not helping me.' When I did that, I came to understand that I had not been fully living my life before."

Because of her appearance, Penelope is swarmed by the morbidly curious. Ricci too deals with her share of attention. "People know where I live in Los Angeles," she says. "I do have, sometimes, a lot of people come and wait for me to leave the house for the day and follow me, which, to me, is just kind of funny because I don't do anything. I run errands and I'm thinking, 'This can't be entertaining for you.' "

Now comfortable with her fame, Ricci possesses an interesting point of view about her celebrity. "I have seen recognition in people's faces when they look at me since I was 9 or 10 years old, so, to me, nothing about that is weird," says the actress who was 10 when she starred with Cher in "Mermaids" and went on to do "The Addams Family" and "Casper" as a youngster. "My view more is that I just feel really safe in the world because I feel like everybody knows me. So it all seems like a neighborhood, just my big neighborhood," she says and laughs. "But, I would imagine that if you never lived your life like that then someone's curiosity in you might feel extremely intrusive."

Actress Reese Witherspoon is among the producers of the film, which opens Feb. 29, as well as a costar. "For a while, I thought about playing Penelope, but I thought I was a little too old," Witherspoon says by phone from Vancouver, Canada, where she is starring in and producing "Four Christmases." "Christina has such a sense of self-possession and a spirit to her. She's indomitable."

As a producer, Witherspoon was active in developing the script with screenwriter Leslie Caveny, securing finances and working hands-on on the set. "After being in the business for so many years and learning so much about physical production and development of scripts and working with writers developing ideas, I think it was a natural progression," Witherspoon said.

Ricci, a producer herself with credits on "Pumpkin" and "Prozac Nation," appreciated working with one of the highest paid actresses as producer. "With actors, there's somewhat of a common language that everybody can understand. Reese was able to show me things in the film that needed to be reshot and explain it to me in a way that would be easier, with shorthand, more so than with a director or just any producer."

The two emphasize "Penelope's" message for young women. "The main theme," says Ricci, "is that you cannot allow your insecurities or anybody else's negative things they put on you to keep you from being happy and from really experiencing life. I think this sort of thing needs to be established very young."

Witherspoon says, "I am always looking for projects that represent young women in a way that opens up ideas about what is beauty and what is valuable about women. . . . It's important to put these positive messages out to young women."

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