Why Christina Ricci gravitates to characters on the fringe, as in ‘Yellowjackets’

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Christina Ricci stars as the slightly twisted Misty in the drama-mystery “Yellowjackets.”
(Elizabeth Weinberg / For The Times)

As “Yellowjackets” became a cultural phenomenon over late fall and early winter, as more and more viewers obsessed over what happened out in the woods to the members of the Wiskayok High School women’s soccer team, one of its stars was only tangentially aware of how big her Showtime series was getting.

“It’s something I understand from people telling me,” Christina Ricci says, “but it’s not something I feel like I have personally experienced or have any tangible evidence of. I think that’s one of the things about fame in general — it’s all happening outside of you. It’s hard to actually feel it’s real.”

You can understand why Ricci might have been a little distracted: After all, she gave birth to her second child, Cleopatra, in December. But as she sits in a Beverly Hills hotel suite in mid-April, the 42-year-old actress now has the perspective to fully appreciate that “Yellowjackets” buzz. “People really like the show, and they really like Misty,” she says, pleased that her offbeat character has resonated. “People tell me, ‘Oh, she’s so crazy, but I love her.’”

Call it a mix of “Lord of the Flies” and “Heathers.” Or the Spice Girls meet the Donner Party. “Yellowjackets” is the best show on TV right now.

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She’s talking about Misty Quigley, the team’s unpopular equipment manager who’s one of the survivors of the harrowing 1996 plane crash that stranded them in the middle of nowhere. Samantha Hanratty plays Misty as a teen, with Ricci portraying the adult Misty 25 years later, still an outsider, still deeply strange and slightly menacing. Ricci is hesitant to attach any specific psychological diagnosis to her character — “I do not have the expertise,” she demurs — “but I do think that she is definitely sociopathic, borderline psychopathic. And I do think her inability to connect as a young person — to read trends, to join groups, to assimilate — is because she cannot empathize or relate to other people.”

(Kailey Schwerman / Showtime)

When Ricci first read the pilot, her adult character appeared in only one scene. But that was enough to hook her. “That scene is really so informative as to the character, the personality,” she says, referring to the reveal of Misty’s occupation as a vindictive caregiver in a nursing home. “People that feel the need to abuse the powerless generally feel extremely powerless, and the pettiness she exhibits is very informative. You take that character in that scene and then just extrapolate.”

Extrapolating has been part of Ricci’s assignment ever since: Like viewers, she hasn’t been given many clues about what transpired out in the forest — how, essentially, the Misty we see in 1996 becomes the Misty of present day. “It is very daunting,” says Ricci of filling in those gaps herself. “I don’t know what happened, either, so I’ve created a whole thing. And as we find out [more], I’m just hoping they line up.”

What wasn’t a challenge was playing someone with a potentially off-putting personality. In a career that began when she was just 7, Ricci has often gravitated to characters who might be considered outcasts, whether it’s the infinitely cool Wednesday Addams in “The Addams Family” or Aileen Wuornos’ emotionally fragile girlfriend in the Oscar-winning “Monster.”

How the ‘Yellowjackets’ star resisted pressure to make her sociopathic character more “relatable.”

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“I’m always looking to play characters that aren’t quite so normal,” Ricci says, “or characters that maybe you haven’t seen before. And those are generally going to be people that are on the fringes of society.” She’s not concerned about being typecast in such roles, though. “People do think of me for that kind of stuff, but I find that to be really flattering. I think it’s OK for people to have specialties — my specialty is making characters that are difficult for people to palate.”

To crack Misty, who’s hidden behind large glasses and a poodle haircut, she considered what actors do for a living — connect with others — and then did the exact opposite. “I was with a bunch of actresses and we were asked, ‘Right before the director calls action, what is going through your head?’” Ricci recalls. “And, mostly, you’re trying to just make yourself completely present — you’re reactive, you’re flexible, you are in the character, but you would react to anything that happens naturally. But with Misty, the whole point is that she’s created such artifice and she doesn’t react naturally to anything. Instead of me being there for the other actor, it’s more like, I’m in my own room. It’s about being really removed.”

“I’m always looking to play characters that aren’t quite so normal,” Ricci says, “or characters that maybe you haven’t seen before.”
(Elizabeth Weinberg / For The Times)

In “Yellowjackets,” the adult Misty keeps a tight lid on her emotions, projecting an eerily banal pleasantness that belies the character’s insidious scheming. When she’s not holding people hostage in her basement, Misty is secretly spying on her fellow forest survivors, always careful to hold a tactical advantage over those around her. “You wouldn’t want to live your life as that person,” Ricci notes, “but it is fun to play people like that — someone who laughs inappropriately and has totally the wrong reaction.”

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Because the series is so much about the difficulty of making peace with one’s younger self, it’s hard not to wonder how Ricci views her early stardom — and whether the “Yellowjackets” acclaim hits differently. “I think it’s nicer now that I’m older,” she replies. “When I was younger, I didn’t have enough life experience to really appreciate what was happening to me. I experienced extreme success at, like, 10, so it is difficult to not take those things for granted — and to not understand how special the world you’re in is. So I’m glad that I had a little bit of a break from everything for a while. Now I’m older, and I get it. I needed to work myself back to a place of success and have that experience of having actually worked really hard for it.”

But even if Misty’s smiling sociopathy is far removed from Ricci’s open, inviting demeanor, she can certainly tap into the show’s exploration of teenage angst. She’s relieved to have those turbulent years in her rearview mirror. “Being young is very difficult,” Ricci says, laughing. “I was talking to someone about being young, and I was like, ‘Do you remember that there was always something wrong? What was so wrong?’ It’s nice to be a little bit older and just be like, ‘Things are fine. The show’s doing really good. We have a second season.’”