Jenna Ortega and Christina Ricci Have a Cathartic Conversation About Wednesday
Jenna Ortega, the 19-year-old star of the most recent Scream reboot and A24’s horror freakout X, is graduating from scream queen to princess of darkness as the titular character in the Netflix series Wednesday, a Tim Burton–led reimagining of the Addams Family story as seen through the eyes of their doom-and-gloom daughter. No one knows the challenge of bringing the deader-than-deadpan character to life better than Christina Ricci, who played her in two beloved ’90s movies, and who called Ortega up to talk about child acting, bangs, and everything Wednesday.
CHRISTINA RICCI: Hi.
JENNA ORTEGA: I’m so sorry! I can’t hear you.
RICCI: It’s muffled. Can you hear me now?
RICCI: Where are you?
ORTEGA: I’m in Atlanta. Where are you?
RICCI: Oh, I’m in Atlanta too. I’m here for a weekend thing. That’s hilarious. You’re shooting here?
ORTEGA: Yeah. I’ve been here for two weeks, and I have a little less than a month to go.
RICCI: Oh, good.
ORTEGA: How’s the show [Yellowjackets] going? Because you guys are back.
RICCI: We started last month. It feels like we never left.
ORTEGA: Nice. And that’s in Canada?
RICCI: Yeah, in Vancouver, so I’m commuting back and forth. I know you can relate.
ORTEGA: Oh, yeah. But it is what it is. I like to travel and I don’t have children to look after, so it’s a bit easier for me in that sense, but when you’re not home for awhile, you’re almost uncomfortable being there, which is such a weird feeling.
RICCI: I remember being young and returning from location shoots and just being in my house in L.A. not knowing what to do with myself. I would always reorganize all my clothes or redecorate my house before I could creep back out into normalcy. I remember that feeling.
ORTEGA: It’s very awkward.
RICCI: So I’m just going to jump in.
ORTEGA: Okay, cool. I’ve never done something like this before.
RICCI: I’ve only done it once and I’m always like, I don’t know how to segue into the question. So that’s my awkward segue. You and I were both child actors, of course, separated by about 32 years. Was that a positive experience for you?
ORTEGA: It was very exciting, especially because it wasn’t a situation that I was forced to be in like a lot of child actors. It was something I was very passionate about. I had to convince my parents to let me do it. I was always told if this was not something I wanted to do, I didn’t have to be there. That is a luxury a lot of kids in the industry don’t have. My parents were so wonderful about keeping a balanced life for me. I still went to public school, I still saw friends on the weekend, I still participated in soccer. I had enough of an honest reality so that when I went to work and dealt with that environment, it wasn’t stressful. It was just leading two lives and I enjoyed it. I think that’s part of the reason why I still love my job.
RICCI: My parents did the same thing, actually. I wasn’t allowed to work during the summer, so that I would have a normal kid’s summer off from school and work, and I also played soccer. So you really wanted to do this? Did you grow up loving film or loving TV?
ORTEGA: I really, really loved movies and shows and all that, but I wanted to be a bunch of different things when I was younger. I remember one time I watched Man on Fire with Dakota Fanning and Denzel Washington, and when I came home I was like, “I want to be the Puerto Rican version of this girl.” I also realized that, “Oh, if I were an actor, I could be the first female president and an astronaut rolled into one.” So I felt like I was getting away with murder in terms of, “I’ve tricked everyone into allowing me to be everything.”
RICCI: That makes sense. Man on Fire is a really good movie.
ORTEGA: Yeah. I also was six. There was no reason for me to be watching that.
RICCI: So were you familiar with the Addams Family early on?
ORTEGA: Yeah. I first saw the ’90s films when I was eight or nine and loved them. I could watch them over and over. They’re perfect films, honestly. Obviously, you’re the standout. You don’t always see it, but I have a very dry sense of humor to the point where I get myself in trouble because everyone thinks I’m serious. So I’ve gotten the comparison to Wednesday a lot, and to me that was the greatest honor, especially because after that I became obsessed with Wednesday, I became obsessed with you, and that’s when I had to go through your catalog and found movies like Buffalo ’66. Your gems.
RICCI: Thank you. How did this come about, you being cast as Wednesday?
ORTEGA: I was shooting in New Zealand and had heard of the show going around. People were talking about throwing me out there, and then I got an email saying that Tim [Burton] wanted to meet with me for the part. He just wanted to read the sides and have a conversation. I didn’t really want to do it initially because I didn’t want to do television again. I’ve been trying to get into film for a while, but you can’t really pass up the opportunity to talk to someone like Tim. I had just done a whole night shoot, and I had cuts and prosthetics all over my face. I got on the phone with Tim and he just laughed. We kept talking and talking, and eventually I realized this is something that could be really interesting to be a part of. And then I think I signed on four or five months later.
RICCI: How was it presented to you? What was the concept?
ORTEGA: They told me that Wednesday was going to boarding school, and she got in trouble. It’s like Nancy Drew–esque in the sense that she’s into mystery and is doing this detective thing. She gets into a school with all of these people that have special powers, but she remains an outcast in a sea full of outcasts.
RICCI: Were there specific things that you wanted to do to reinterpret the character?
ORTEGA: Honestly, it was more difficult than I was anticipating because everything that you did is so flawless.
RICCI: [Laughs] It’s a completely different thing.
ORTEGA: Yes, very different, but I’m just saying you are who people see as Wednesday, and that’s just the truth. I feel like the script was very reminiscent of ’90s Wednesday. It was really important to me that I wasn’t doing a knockoff of your performance, and it was different. Another thing is every time we’ve seen Wednesday, she’s been 5 years old, 10 years old. So when someone is saying really dark, twisted things out of a place of pure honesty and innocence, that naive aspect of a child, it’s a bit different when you get older and become a teenager because then you just sound like a bitch. You don’t want her to be nasty.
RICCI: That happened to me when we came back to do the second Addams Family. The note back from rehearsals was now that she’s a teenager, it just sounds nasty and bratty. I wanted to ask you, because I found with a character like this, sometimes when they’re written in such an extreme way, it can be difficult to move a traditional narrative along because the emotional reactions aren’t where people expect them to be—especially when you’re dealing with different directors and different people’s takes on such an extreme character. A lot of times with television, you find the character during the first season, and that must have been so hard with a character like this.
ORTEGA: Yeah, it was very stressful. I’m so glad you mentioned the multiple directors thing because Tim didn’t shoot all of the episodes. We were going from Tim to another director, back to Tim, to another director. I felt like everybody wanted different things from her. I remember Tim did not want me to have any expression or emotion at all. He wanted a flat surface, which I understand. It’s funny and great except when you’re trying to move a plot along, and Wednesday is in every scene. There were a lot of battles like that because I felt like people didn’t always trust me when I was creating my path in terms of, “Okay, this is her arc. This is where she gets emotional.” And then also, we jump into the first episode and so much is happening. You have to introduce the whole story. Meanwhile, I’m still finding my footing, and then it’s the cello lessons and the archery lessons and this and that.
RICCI: That becomes so overwhelming.
ORTEGA: I would call my parents every night in a panic because I felt like it was different from any job I had ever done before where I typically have that time to sit into the character. I got out to Romania and we started training and shooting immediately. We didn’t really have time for rehearsals. I remember it being very stressful and confusing. I did the best I could, but that’s probably the most overwhelming job I’ve ever had.
RICCI: When something is high concept, but other people don’t agree with the concept or the same expression of the concept, it can be so disorienting. I still don’t know how to manage that. Did you find a way to protect yourself from the things that could knock you off center?
ORTEGA: To be completely honest, no, at least not in the beginning. There have never been so many cooks in the kitchen. I was completely lost and confused. Typically I have no problem using my voice, but when you’re in it—I just remember feeling defeated after the first month. So I think something really wonderful that has come out of the show is that I can use my voice in a much stronger way than I ever have. I’ve been so much better about being honest about my opinions and thoughts, which I’m really grateful for.
RICCI: Trial by fire.
ORTEGA: Yeah. It’s like a fight, and you get to a point where, when you love and respect a character enough, all you want to do is protect them. Another way they pitched the show to me was, “Oh, we’re trying to humanize her and make her so that she’s still relatable. But this isn’t like some cartoon.” But it kind of is. I felt like sometimes in the attempt to make her a human girl, they were trying to make her any other teenage girl. I remember Tim being really wonderful about things like that and calling me to his trailer in the mornings and saying, “What are you uncomfortable saying? What do you want to say?” When you have supportive collaborators like Tim, it makes it a lot easier. There were a couple people like that on set who were my rocks, for sure.
RICCI: Yeah, Tim is amazing. I always felt like working with him, I would literally do anything he told me to because you assume it’s the right thing to do. There’s so much trust because he respects and trusts you. Of course, he’s Tim Burton and everything he does is magic gold dust. So, in creating Wednesday’s new look, everybody seems obsessed with the fact that she has bangs. That was in my notes, to ask about the bangs.
RICCI: Did you have a lot of input in that and was that important to you?
ORTEGA: I did have input in that. We went to London to do a hair and makeup test for the show. We tried everything because it was important to Tim that she look different than before. There were even little tiny braids and super long, thick braids. We tried streaks of gray hair. Initially the bangs—I kind of wish they had been kept this way, but I don’t think Tim liked them very much. They were the short, high-fashion bangs like in Fargo, just psychotic. It was weird, but he saw something there and said, “Let’s push it a little bit further.” He was like, “I like the way this is looking like something’s off,” and it was because it was a clip-in, I think. I told the hairdresser to just cut my hair because I think the clips are bugging him. If I have to grow it out, I’ll grow it out—and then we tried it and Tim loved it.
RICCI: There are a lot of nice goth nods without it being over-the-top. When I saw pictures of you, I was like, “Oh, wow. It’s such a great, modern interpretation.” It’s true to the spirit of the character. I didn’t originate this character, so I’m always like, “She’s a cartoon and a TV show. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s the same idea. We keep redoing the thing.”
ORTEGA: That’s what they were trying to do in terms of modernizing her. There’s even times where I’m wearing a hoodie, it was very weird.
RICCI: And you wear pants. I was like, “Oh, my god. The pants were so good.” And you wear creepers.
ORTEGA: Yeah. But at times you miss the dress. You’re like, “Are we straying too far from the original plot?” But again, I trusted what Tim had to say, and also it was Colleen [Atwood, the costume designer].
RICCI: You can’t question Colleen.
ORTEGA: No. I swear she adds three buttons or something and then makes it even better, and you don’t even know.
RICCI: It’s perfect. It’s true.
ORTEGA: It’s witchcraft.
RICCI: What was the best thing about doing the show?
ORTEGA: It was the knowledge I gained in terms of operating on a set. But also the experience. I mean, we were out there for seven, eight months in Romania. I was alone.
RICCI: The war broke out.
ORTEGA: People were going down with COVID left and right. The entire cast never—
RICCI: Never had any hot water?
ORTEGA: Never had any hot water. The boilers in two of my apartments were broken, so I always took cold showers. Everything was closed because you couldn’t do anything. It feels like we survived something. I wear that as a badge of honor now. I won’t be able to compare that to anything else.
RICCI: I remember that morning at 4 a.m., when everybody was in the lounge leaving Romania. You guys were exhausted. I was crazed because I was sure that a nuclear power plant was going to be bombed somewhere near us, and we’d all die. I remember that feeling like we were escaping. We were getting out.
ORTEGA: Yeah. I had, I think, the biggest grin on my face. Not to say that Romania isn’t lovely and wonderful. I have met some of my favorite people that I still communicate with there.
RICCI: Well, it’s really lovely there but it was a lot. You were there forever, basically.
ORTEGA: It was time to go home, for sure.
Hair: Fitch Lunar using Oribe at Opus Beauty
Makeup: Ciara Maccaro at Exclusive Artists
Photography Assistant: Simons Finnerty
Fashion Assistant: Siyon Foster