It’s a difficult thing interviewing someone you’ve grown up watching on film decade after decade. For one, there’s the expectation; the fantastical image of person that you yourself have conceptually quilted together using fragmented, fictionalized personas observed on screen. Then there’s the realization; the subsequent comprehension that an actor is not his or her roles, but is instead a wholly other individual with a life completely removed from the characters he or she has portrayed on celluloid. In other words, throw your expectations out the window, because you sincerely have no idea who this person really is.
It is with this knowledge that I wait for Thora Birch, she of indie film fame and “child actress” categorization, to ring me up for our interview on a Saturday morning. Once she does, I realize that that I do, in fact, know who Thora is, just as much as she is a mystery to me. And I’m ready to get to know her properly.
It’d be misleading to claim that Birch’s beginnings were unassuming—if anything, Thora, whose name is derived from Thor, the Norse god of thunder and lightning, was destined for something special. Born in Los Angeles to former adult film stars, both of whom appeared in the culturally iconic Deep Throat, the young actress quickly rose to fame during her childhood in the 90s, starring alongside Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, Now and Then alongside Christina Ricci, Melanie Griffith, and Demi Moore, and—perhaps most iconic in her canon—a beloved little Disney Halloween flick called Hocus Pocus, a film which saw then-10-year-old Birch’s feisty Dani hold her own against a particularly on-her-game, spellcasting Bette Midler.
While those roles elevated Birch to prominence, they were, for the time being, just kids’ stuff. In 1999, the flip switched when she starred in the Academy Award-winning drama American Beauty, playing the daughter of Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening’s suburbia-suffering couple. The critically acclaimed film became an essential tentpole of 90s filmography, closing out the decade with poignant cinematic, cultural food for thought and launching Birch’s career into the stratosphere, solidifying her status as a Hollywood darling. Despite the celebrity, however, Birch is wise to reveal that award shows and talk-show appearances aside, the most fulfilling part of fame has been the extraordinary opportunities it has awarded her.
“Just being able to work in different parts of the world like Bulgaria and Prague, that would be one thing about my career in general that I really appreciate,” she explains, refreshingly earnest. “Being able to go around to these bizarre places and have very interesting experiences while making movies all over… And it’s rare, too. It’s something unique to a few industries, [being able to travel globally], but definitely the entertainment industry is one of those.”
Since hitting her stride in the early 00s—Birch also went on to star as sarcastic teen Enid in the cult film juggernaut Ghost World, based off Daniel Clowes’ beloved graphic novel of the same name—the actress has spent most of the past decade dabbling in indie films and writing, even going on to produce a film of her own, 2012’s “small indie comedy” Petunia. It is actually in this film that Birch claims to have found the most challenging role in her career, Vivian.
“It was difficult for me from the perspective that I really did not like the character I was playing,” Birch reveals. “Mainly, I like the people I’m playing or I understand where they’re coming from; I get them. She was just somebody that, if I encountered them, I would be annoyed by, let’s just put it that way,” she adds, laughing. “To really abandon myself and get in the headspace of someone who is naturally awful was a challenge. It was something I hadn’t been used to, and it’s harder than playing somebody who is bad that’s fun, like a villain, because you’re not playing that—you’re playing somebody that you just really don’t freakin’ like! But if you’re playing Hannibal or something like that, that’s fun because it’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek.”
Currently, Birch is occupied with an assortment of exciting projects, including working on an indie book, developing a screenplay she’s written, and filming a “small indie thriller in Germany.” There’s also a big budget, sci-fi fantasy film that she’s just signed onto that, while she can’t discuss specific details, she describes as a “weird, out there mix of space, psychology, and Lord of the Rings.” (Consider me sold!) But regardless of where the winds take her, Birch will always be, to me, an inimitable character actress, and someone who has effortlessly created visceral, personal connections between the roles she has played and the viewers who have watched her, captivated.
“I think people have connected to different roles for different reasons,” the actress explains. “In one sentence to go from Dani to Enid… that’s a huge leap! Then there’s people that love both. That’s just how it is with an audience, but I would say that I think people have responded favorably to certain characters because in one way or another, it was a type of character they all recognized and knew… I guess people just like they way I brought those particular characters to life.” Now that I really know her, I couldn’t agree more.
dress, For Love & Lemons . coat, Beatrice B. rings, Amarilo.
writer / Erica Russell
photographer / Ben Cope @ 7Artist
makeup / Mynxii White @ The Rex Agency
hair / Brooke Rodgers @ Artmix Creative
styling / Wilford Lenov @ Celestine Agency