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What Christina Ricci lacks in stature, the actress makes up for with her adroit acting on the big and the small screens. Now for the first time, she takes a leading role in Pan Am, a TV series that transports viewers back to the 1960s and the experiences of the flight crew and passengers on board the former leading US passenger airline. Ricci sheds light on her learning curves with this series, writes Debashine Thangevelo.

IN the same way Fashion Police’s Kelly Osbourne went from flab to fab, Christina Ricci has transformed beautifully since The Opposite of Sex (1998) and 200 Cigarettes (1999).

The petite star, who started out as a child actress in Mermaids (1990) and The Addams Family (1991), has, over 22 years, honed her craft in a string of films exploring a range of genres.

Although she has crossed over to the small screen, it has been mostly for guest roles in Malcolm in the Middle, Ally McBeal, Joey, Grey’s Anatomy and Saving Grace… until Pan Am came along and she bagged the lead role.

As the title indicates, the show is associated with the former US airline, which collapsed in 1991 after a 64-year run.

This series, however, adopts a more “romanticised” approach. It follows the lives of its pilots, stewardesses and passengers from city to city, unveiling their relationship and societal woes amid an assortment of catch-22 situations triggered on every flight.

Ricci, cast as Margaret “Maggie” Ryan, shares the spotlight with Margot Robbie (Laura Cameron), Karine Vannase (Colette Valois) and Kelli Garner (Catherine “Kate” Cameron).

While Maggie tends to question the rules, Laura, who is somewhat of a celebrity after appearing on the cover of Life magazine, is at constant loggerheads with her older sister Kate, who, unbeknown to the crew, is an undercover agent for the CIA. And then there is Colette, who harbours a lot of animosity towards Germans as her parents, who were French Jews, were killed during World War II. She is also haunted by a yearning to find her brother, who was adopted, while she was placed in an orphanage.

On portraying a host of different characters while working in Hollywood, Ricci says: “Well, I think that’s the thing about this job that’s so great. You spend your whole life still playing the same kind of childhood make-believe games that you’ve played for ever. It’s a dress-up. It’s living in a world of make-believe and making a career out of it. And that’s fantastic.”

As for slipping into the character of Maggie, she says she didn’t have to do any research.

“Maggie is pretty much the character that was written and I’m doing what was written for me on the page. She’s not necessarily based on anybody. Maggie tends to have a problem with authority and often gets into fights.”

Has this show changed her perception of flight attendants?

“I have a lot more respect and admiration for how much goes into what they do and how much work goes into a single flight. I realise now that as much as we’re sitting there being served and everything, they’re working non-stop.

“I have a lot more empathy and sort of… don’t ask for anything because I know they’re busy.”

As for Pan Am being Ricci’s first leading role in a TV series, she offers: “Some of the best writing and concepts are on TV right now. And some of the best opportunities for actors are on TV.”

A fan of shows like Lost, House, Deadliest Catch and The Real Housewives franchise, the actress comments on the specially-designed set – the interior of a plane – saying: “It does provide some challenges, I think, for shot design and lighting. But, you know, we all kind of laugh about the close quarters. And we all just do our best.”

The reigning misogynistic attitude towards stewardesses is an underlying theme in the series.

Although some critics have slated the series, others have commended the writing, the earnest depiction of the era and the excellent casting. And while the story’s trajectory might have been good enough for Ricci to sign on the dotted line, it wasn’t enough to keep the show airborne for a second season.

Back to films now, hey Christina?

• Pan Am, M-Net Series (DStv channel 110), tomorrow, 10.30pm.