Christina Ricci is on a roll when it comes to playing historical characters. She played Lizzie Borden in Lifetime’s The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, Zelda Fitzgerald in Prime Video’s Z: The Beginning of Everything, and now she stars as 19th century pioneering journalist Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, who published under the name of Nellie Bly, in Lifetime’s Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story.
“I always try to find the most interesting material and the most interesting parts, and truth being stranger than fiction, a lot of times, historical figures are more interesting than anything someone could create,” Ricci tells Parade.com in this exclusive interview.
Bly was an American journalist (1864-1922), who is credited with being a pioneer in her field as she helped launch what we now call investigative journalism. In 1887, she approached Joseph Pulitzer and asked him for a chance to do an exposé on the deplorable conditions at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island for his newspaper the New York World — and he said yes.
Unlike her knowledge of Lizzie Borden or Zelda Fitzgerald, Ricci had no idea who Nellie Bly was before she received the script. So, she read as much as she could about her, she also read stories written by Bly, and then she also researched the society of the time in order to get a feel for both Bly and what other women of the era would have had to deal with.
“I felt that it was very important to understand the society she was a product of and her conditioning, because I feel like it was important in the asylum that she was very clearly of a different set than some of the other women,” she says. “And even if you forgot your name, who you were, and any memory, you would still have your conditioning. I felt that that was very important. At the time, they would’ve been raised as ladies. So, to have the composure to fall back on at the time, I think, is interesting.”
The one connection Ricci did feel to Bly through her research was that they both have the desire to contribute good things to the world, society, and culture, and, hopefully, have some effect on people that is positive, but there were also differences.
“I don’t feel the need to do exposés,” Ricci points out. “I don’t feel the need to put myself in danger, I guess, and maybe I am a less noble individual than she is. I also think that I might be less naïve than she was going into this.”
Bly actually only spent 10 days at the asylum, which she later wrote about in a book entitled Ten Days in a Mad-House, but the conditions were so deplorable, it seemed like much longer and she needed to be rescued but she went in with no exit plan.
“Nellie is so unaware of the situation she’s getting into, and even Pulitzer must be unaware, because if they had any idea of what she was getting into and the real state and conditions of the place, there would’ve been a plan to get her out, and she probably wouldn’t have gone to begin with,” Ricci says. “So that really speaks to what a division there was between the upper class and lower class, even just in terms of them knowing what went on with the lower class, and it speaks volumes.”
Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story also stars Judith Light as Matron Grady, the head nurse who tortured her patients into submission, and Josh Bowman as Dr. Josiah, who is not all he seems to be.
“The way Judith plays this part is very important because Matron Grady is a tortured child who grows up to torture others,” Ricci says. “In most cases, villains are created, and Judith, through everything she does in this character, she always wears that abuse and that hurt child, and I think that’s so important, because as an audience, we really need to remember that when you abuse children, they grow up to be monsters a lot of times, you know? We need to be protective of our kids. If we care so much about the future of this world, then we need to protect our children.”
Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story premieres on Saturday, January 19 at 8 pm ET/PT on Lifetime.