Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald’s time is now. The writer, socialite, and wife of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald is having a resurgence in contemporary culture, with Jennifer Lawrence set to play her in a biopic, and Scarlett Johansson as a thinly veiled version of her in an adaptation of The Beautiful and the Damned. But Christina Ricci is beating them both to the punch. After reading the historical novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler, Ricci spearheaded the effort to adapt Zelda’s life to screen for Z: The Beginning of Everything, an Amazon series that debuts its ten-episode first season on January 27. Z takes a look at the tumultuous, gin-soaked marriage between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, from their courtship in Montgomery, Alabama, to their splash onto the New York social scene. At a press junket for the show, Ricci discussed why she recovered Zelda Fitzgerald from history, how she calibrated a Southern accent, and why the famous flapper would have loved Instagram.
Along with Z, there are two movies in development about Zelda Fitzgerald. Why do you think there’s renewed interest in her?
It is interesting all of a sudden that there’s more than one project about her. I think the climate’s right for this kind of story, you know? We’re a lot less judgmental now about people’s lives and journeys. I think also she’s so fascinating because she’s really a woman at a place in time. People were obsessed with her behavior because it seemed so bizarre, but it’s sort of like it took our society this long to catch up to her. I think now, as women, we see ourselves in that behavior and it seems totally normal and relatable.
She would’ve been very good at Instagram.
Oh my God, amazing. She would’ve been great. And Twitter. She’s very witty. It would’ve been like Rihanna and Tina Fey at the same time, right? There probably would’ve been a lot of nude selfies. A lot of nudity on that.
I think she understood celebrity.
Yeah, she came to understand it. In the beginning it was very different, but one of the reasons she was so famous when she came to New York is that she behaved like a famous person. In Montgomery, Alabama, she was a big fish in a small pond. She was famous from the time she was a child. So her behavior just made people elevate her.
Zelda’s a confident woman, especially when she first enters New York. She creates an image of the kind of woman she wants to be.
In New York, she realized that just being her was not good enough. She was very famous in Montgomery for being Zelda Sayre. But coming to New York and being Zelda Sayre is not enough, so I think that look that she came up with was very much her way of saying, “Well, how am I going to stand out? And how am I going to be valued and special? I don’t have anything else. I’m just married to somebody.” She really had to create her own identity. That’s so much what those episodes are about.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about her?
I was surprised by how young they died [Zelda was 47 when she died, F. Scott was 44]. I guess it does surprise me that she wasn’t stronger and able to get out of the situation she was in. I do understand the time period and I do understand that she really did make an effort, but I think also she just felt so bound to him and so responsible for him. Maybe I’m surprised by how complex she was, and fascinated because she just seemed so real.
Why do you think she stays with Scott?
It was very important to me that we constantly ask that question, because I felt a modern audience is going to constantly be asking that question. It’s not enough to say, “Well, she loved him.” That’s not enough for a modern-day audience. It’s not even enough to say, “Well, she was married to him,” because we know better.
Lettie tells her, “You can’t leave him. He’ll fall … It will destroy him.” And she says, “That’s not fair.” It was very important to me that we have that so that we don’t lose our audience, because you have to understand the guilt. I think she really was made to feel like if she left him, she would be the woman who ruined F. Scott Fitzgerald. Little did she know she was going to be blamed for that anyway. I think she just didn’t want to be responsible for him falling apart. She could see how fragile he was.
In some ways, you could see him as ruining her.
He ruined himself, you know? She made a lot of decisions that ruined her own life, too. But I think people don’t like to take responsibility, and you don’t like to blame your heroes. We have no interest in maligning him, but it’s real life. People are flawed.
Were you worried about portraying F. Scott Fitzgerald in a negative light?
Yeah, that’s always the fear of a feminist, right? That people will think you hate men just because you really support women. But that’s not the case. We’re all huge F. Scott Fitzgerald fans, and this marriage could be about anybody. It could be anyone’s marriage, but these are the facts and this is Zelda and this is who she was and this is what she went through.
What about her resonated with you?
The thing that I love the most about Zelda is what her daughter always said about her: No matter what was happening, Zelda always made it fun for the daughter. She always made it seem like this magical, fun world. Nothing else mattered. I think that’s true strength.
She definitely sounds like Gatsby’s Daisy.
Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s one of the concepts behind this — to do the time period right before the books came out so that you really see how much of their lives are in those novels.
Is the goal to tell her whole biography?
Well, obviously it’s evolving. Who knows what’ll happen. We don’t even know if we’re getting picked up for another season, which we should, Amazon.
Do you want to knock on wood?
Yeah, I was just going to do that. [Knocks on wood.]
I’m compulsively like, “Where’s wood?!”
Looking for wood! It would be great if we could tell, not her entire biography and her personal life, but the story of their entire love affair. That’s what I think this series should be. It’s an examination of their marriage from her point of view.
A really interesting aspect is the fact that she contributed so much to his actual writing.
What’s interesting about that — and the reason why it’s important to tell in her story — is it’s one of the factors in her nervous breakdown. Her emotional problems had a lot to do with the environment that she was in. It’s worth seeing all of that so you understand. Who wouldn’t have a fucking nervous breakdown?
And what would she have accomplished …
Yeah, it’s also valuable to see what and who she would be if she was alive today.
Who do you think she would be?
I think she’d be some sort of pop icon. I think she chose literature because those were the big stars of the time. That was the way to really be somebody. She was a brilliant writer, so maybe it was just a natural proclivity for it. But I’m not sure if she would’ve done something else because other things are valued today. You know what I mean? She probably would’ve done whatever the equivalent is today.
What was it like to work as both an actor and producer?
Normally, as an actor, I try to just completely ignore everything around me. It’s an imagination game. But on this, I’d have to be looking at something in between every take or weighing in on a decision, so I wasn’t able to do that. I had to be very present in real life, and that was brand-new for me. That’s just not how I do things. I was at a point like, “Ahhhh, I’m gonna throw up!” But necessity’s the mother of invention, so I learned a new skill.
How did you go about studying Zelda’s accent?
Well, we did a different accent for the pilot that was historically accurate — accurate to where she stood in society, being a Southern belle in this sort of family. It was historically accurate, but it was a little bit difficult, I think, for a modern-day audience. You hear it and you’re like, “That’s a real big accent,” and “Are you sure we should go for this?” That’s the difficulty, is figuring out the balance between accessible and historically accurate. So we changed it slightly for the rest of the series. We made it more accessible.
After the pilot, you recast the F. Scott Fitzgerald role for David Hoflin. I’m wondering what happened there?
I don’t think it would nice to perpetuate that this happened to him, you know, to talk about it more. I would hate that as an actor. I’d be like, “You’re talking about why I was replaced.” You know what I mean? That would be real unpleasant. So I’d rather not talk about it. [Laughs.] David’s great, though.
This interview has been edited and condensed.