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Though she’s been acting since she was 7, Christina Ricci is convinced she’s a late bloomer.


“I feel like it took me a really long time to get to where other people are when they’re 22,” she says in second-floor room of a hotel here.


“Which is funny, I always had to pull off this `smart, older thing’ but I think that was just based on the fact that I was insecure and how young I was. And now that I feel older and more mature and able to handle things, I’m acting a lot more childlike,” she laughs.


Ricci didn’t have her permanent teeth yet and was appearing in a Christmas play when she was spotted by an agent who thought she’d be great in commercials. Always small for her age (she’s 5-foot-1) and graced with a perfect heart-shaped face, she was the ideal little girl to hype sugared cereal and dress-up dolls.


But it wasn’t long before she hit the movies and was transformed through them into the shy, contemplative woman she is today.


Early on her mother was careful to differentiate between personal and professional rejection. “Work was always a sanctuary for me,” says Ricci, who’s dressed in a yellow sleeveless sheath embossed with small seashells. “It was someplace I went where I was good at something and I was told every day that I was good at something, so it was incredible for my self-worth. I was with people who had real genuine affection for me and you have, like, a little family. I really liked the structure of it. I think I’m just one of those people who’s particularly suited for this kind of thing.”


Like most young women, adolescence was difficult for her, though she kept working non-stop. “I have to say there were certainly a lot of growing pains that went along with it. I was very self-conscious when I was a teenager and it was just at the age - when I was 15, 16, 17 - that I was doing more adult movies that dealt with sex and sexual issues and I’d be doing an interview and somebody would be asking me about sex or my body or about being held up as a sex symbol.


“And I was just, like. `Oh, God, I just want to go into a hole.’ It was very difficult for me because it was very embarrassing for me and the way I dealt with that was by being very glib and shocking, a little jaded and world weary and cynical. I think that really was me trying to protect myself because I felt so uncomfortable.”


Movies like “The Ice Storm,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “The Opposite of Sex,” “Monster” and her latest, “Penelope” (opening Friday), prove she’s can vanquish the most onerous role. In “Penelope,” she plays a woman determined not to let a facial deformity direct her life. That kind of resolve resides in Ricci herself.


“I’m really ready now to have an adult life and to be successful,” she says, softly. “I think I was somewhat afraid of being successful before and one of the things that’s in this movie is that the only thing that’s standing in your way is yourself. I really had that for a long time where I was very insecure and very fearful, which is something we address in `Penelope.’


“I think I’m finally in a place where I don’t feel like that, and my dream is to just have a career that I can look back on and think, `Wow, I did some amazing movies. And got to work with amazing people and meet the great minds of my time and just have the most incredible experiences that make a life.’”


Her name has been linked with actors Adam Goldberg, Orlando Bloom and others, and Ricci says she has no rules about dating actors. “Why wipe out an entire eligible category?” she says.


“When I’ve gone out with actors I’ve actually found it really great because they understand your schedule and there’s an understanding of what you have to go through and do and they’re not going to freak out because you had to do a sex scene with somebody, if they are also an actor. It’s nice to be with somebody who understands and you don’t have to explain why your schedule is the way it is.”


She says she would like to be a mother someday. “My favorite thing to do is daydream. I love it,” she confesses. “In any situation I can just leave and be designing my new living room or something. And acting to me is a way of immersing myself in the dream, but also a really safe place to express emotion and to try to communicate something; to communicate a universal, human pain.”


Some things are still hard for the 28-year-old. Diving in L.A. traffic can be a chore, she says. “If I get nervous about my car and about driving I think, `I’m Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor would not CARE about how she was driving. So let’s just go, I have places to be.’ I pretend I’m Elizabeth Taylor and it totally gets me through whatever car anxiety I’m having. It’s really amazing.”

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