The young and cute eccentric star landed her most noteable role in the 1999 movie "American Beauty". The source of Thora Birch's unique name lies in the fact that her gender came as a surprise to her parents: having picked the Norse god of thunder, Thor, as the namesake for the boy they anticipated, Jack and Carol Birch were forced to improvise on March 11, 1982, when a daughter was born to them. While they resolved this quandary in a rather unlikely manner -- through the feminization of their original choice via the addition of a vowel -- the end product proved to be a suitable name for a child who would undergo an uncommon upbringing. It is not rare that someone being raised in Los Angeles be exposed to certain aspects of the entertainment industry, yet Thora was privy to a side of Hollywood that even most insiders are denied. Both her parents had performed in a number of adult films (her mother appeared in 1972's Deep Throat under the name Carol Connors, and the couple had worked together in such features as Sweet Savage and Candy Goes to Hollywood), and while it is doubtful that Thora would have been brought along for any tours of the set, she was afforded the opportunity to meet such characters as Hugh Hefner, a family friend who frequently played host to the Birchs in his mansion. From a young age, it became clear that Thora was made to pursue the same line of work that her mother and father had followed, although perhaps not in the same genre. A babysitter had noticed Thora's tendency to imitate television commercials, and suggested to the family that she try out for some auditions. Initially reticent because of their knowledge of the difficulties that came with the occupation, Thora's parents were eventually persuaded to show her photos to agents. In 1986, 4-year-old Thora landed her first professional gig, in a California Raisins commercial.
For a toddler, Thora's career took off at a remarkable rate. After appearing in a string of commercials, she was cast in the short-lived television series, Day by Day. At the age of six she made her feature film debut in the children's movie, Purple People Eater, in a role that won her a Youth in Film Award. Two years later, Thora found herself acting with the young Leonardo DiCaprio on another doomed sitcom, Parenthood (a series derived from the 1989 movie of the same name), and in 1991 she beat out 4,000 other hopefuls in winning a part alongside Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson in the film, Paradise.By the time she was 14, Thora had compiled an impressive professional resume, having appeared in eight feature films between 1991 and 1996. Included among them was the role of Harrison Ford's daughter in 1992's Patriot Games and its 1994 sequel, Clear and Present Danger, as well as the part of a younger version of Melanie Griffith in 1995's Now and Then. In spite of these accolades, 1996 marked a change for the worst in Thora's career. In a development that could perhaps be attributed to Thora's transition into her teenage "awkward" years, the job offers simply stopped coming. Thora opted to take a hiatus from acting, one that lasted three years.
Thora made her return to entertainment with a part in 1999's Night Ride Home, a TV movie that went largely unnoticed. While this role didn't make much of an impact in terms of a comeback, Thora's next one, later that same year as the angst-ridden teen Jane Burnham in American Beauty, certainly did. The film garnered a host of awards and Thora's performance in it was the object of a great deal of critical praise, launching her again into the public eye and onto the calling lists of casting directors. Thora followed up American Beauty with appearances in The Smokers, The Hole and Dungeons & Dragons, none of which proved to be memorable features. She rebounded with another introspective teen role, that of Enid in 2001's Ghost World, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination, the Best Actress Award at the Seattle International Film Festival and the title of "Actress of the Year" by the Toronto and San Diego Film Critics Societies. As of late, Thora has begun extending her professional experience into producing, and is currently at work behind the TV movie Mata and the feature film Miss Meadows.
Thora Birch: The Hole
After "American Beauty" you must have had numerous offers – what attracted you to "The Hole"?
I was actually surprised when I got the script because I just assumed I’d only get offers for very dark, solemn, quiet, meek, young girls and yet this one had such a wide range of emotion and gave me a huge gamut to run so I was all over it.
You play an English schoolgirl – how did you get the accent?
That was also part of what made the role difficult, I was wondering would I be able to pull it off? I worked with a voice coach for a month beforehand but a lot of it just came on the day - plus working with an all English cast and crew in England helped me to stay in that groove.
Would you go into "The Hole" in real life?
If someone dared me to I might. Unfortunately I haven’t had many opportunities to fulfil a lot of dares but I can be a little saucy.
Are you sick of playing teenagers?
No, I think there’s still a lot I can do with the whole teenage thing so I’m not knocking it. I’m still only eighteen and I definitely don’t want to be playing twenty-two-year olds before I can legally drink!
Thora Birch: Dungeons and Dragons
Have you ever played the game?
I haven't. But I've heard a lot about it. When I first told my friends they went "Oh my God, they're doing a movie of it. Finally!" It seemed to me to be quite an obscure type of game. All my friends said "Usually, only the really weird kids play that game." I had never even heard of it.
What made you choose the role?
I admired how intense the director's passion was. He had already been trying to make it for some insane amount of time. His dedication was still strong. You can see him light up when he talks about it. He becomes very animated.
How do you see your character?
Mostly when you see the Empress, she's in her chapel and always alone. She has this lone battle in protecting her empire, which everyone seems to think she's not capable of controlling and probably shouldn't have. She's very frazzled - her father's just died, but in a short amount of time, she tightens up and gains control of herself. You realise she's a very strong able person. She's very in tune with the people, though in her heart she's not very regal.
What stunts have you had to perform?
I get to flip over a dragon that's coming towards me. Certain characters can use only certain weapons - as Empress, I have my sceptre which controls the dragons, so I don't have to deal with swords and knives. That's too gross and gnarly for an Empress.
Thora Birch: Ghost World
How would you describe Enid's journey through the film?
She flip-flops constantly, and she goes through some interesting relationships. She separates from her best friend, and develops a relationship with Steve Buscemi's character - he's the geek. If there was ever one nerd, it was him. She takes pity on him, and finds him interesting in the fact that he's so pathetic. Eventually, she comes to sympathise with him, and understand him, and appreciate that he's different.
You shot "Ghost World" right after "American Beauty" won its Oscars. Was that a good thing?
Yeah. Shooting "Ghost World" enabled me to really let go. Working the circuit - or the circus - kept me within that whole fuzzy grey area, but the character in "Ghost World" snapped me out of it. She's completely different. She says what she feels and has a very odd look at the world. Her sense of humour is more developed. She's older, and yet younger in some way. With "American Beauty", I didn't even have a chance to sit down and analyse how I felt about the success of it. That was nice. I'm glad that happened. It was definitely time for me to get back to work. You get into a groove. You find yourself meeting the same people at the same type of shows.
It seems like you're making some really interesting and intelligent choices...
I'm trying. I try to only do things that I'm really very passionate about and roles that I'm intrigued by, or that I think are a little different, or that I could bring something new to.
Thora Birch: An American Beauty
19-year old Thora Birch was a rebellious teen in the dark Oscar winning American Beauty. In the fantasy adventure Dungeons and Dragons, however, the pretty adolescent shows her versatility as a good Empress trying to protect her kingdom from evil Jeremy Irons. Paul Fischer spoke to her in Los Angeles.
Having spent some time moping about on screen as the difficult daughter in American Beauty, Thora Birch decided it was time to do something a little more uplifting. Hence the decision to step into the fantasy world of Dungeons and Dragons, eons away from its predecessor. "The main reason I wanted to play the Empress was because she was the most sympathetic people on the planet. Her whole goal was to provide a better goal for her people. Coming from American Beauty, it was very easy for me to sort of stay in that film's mindset that I had worked myself into. To go from that to the Empress was what I needed to force myself to get out of it." Based on the 25-year old cult game, the movie version of Dungeons and Dragons "is set in the Empire of Izmer, which has long been a divided land. The Mages - an elite group of magic users - rule whilst the lowly commoners are powerless. Izmer's young Empress, Savina, (Birch) wants equality and prosperity for all, but the evil Mage Profion (Jeremy Irons) is plotting to depose her, and establish his own rule. In order to prevent Profion from taking over her kingdom, the Empress must find the legendary Rod of Savrille that controls the powerful Red Dragons. Enter two thieves, Ridley and Snails, who unwittingly become instrumental in the search for the Rod. They are joined by Mage Apprentice Marina, a feisty Dwarf named Elwood, and helped by the Empress's expert tracker, the Elf Norda, as they outrace Profion's chief henchman Damodar to find the magical Rod that will set their Kingdom free.
Birch admits that she had little prior knowledge of the game, that first hooked a generation of 'gamers' a quarter of a century ago. "I'd heard of it but I wasn't really aware of the cult following it had." But once the actress was in the movie, "you could really see that the people who HAD played the game were really obsessed with it. They would get really excited about a film being made of it." Birch adds that despite the long history of the role-playing game, the film will also appeal "to a broader audience of younger kids because it's just one huge fantasy", and is not concerned that it is being released 25 years after the game's conception. "You don't need to know the game to enjoy this movie", she insists.
It seems that young Thora has had a charmed career in front of the cameras. By the time the six-year-old made her feature film debut with a small role in Purple People Eater (1988), she was already a veteran television actress with two years worth of commercial and series work under her diminutive belt. Probably best known up to that point for her work opposite über-grandad Wilford Brimley in a 'Quaker Oats' commercial, Birch went on to grow up in front of the camera, evolving from Monkey Trouble's moppet with a primate to a bras 'n' boys-obsessed teeny bopper in Now and Then to Kevin Spacey's rebellious daughter in American Beauty.
Birch, who was born in Los Angeles in 1982, first attracted sizable notice for her role as Elijah Wood's tomboy friend in Paradise, a 1991 family drama that also starred Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. Afterwards, her visibility began to increase, first with a supporting role as Harrison Ford's daughter in Patriot Games (1992) (which she reprised in 1994's Clear and Present Danger), and then as one of the three kids who inadvertently bring three witches back to life in Hocus Pocus (1993).
The actress got her first chance to play a teenaged role in the aforementioned Now and Then (1995), a coming-of-age drama that cast her as the younger version of Paradise co-star Melanie Griffith. Neither that film, nor Birch's subsequent project, Alaska (1996), made a great impact among critics or audiences, and it was not until the actress was cast in American Beauty (1999) that her career really began to accelerate. Birch, who dyed her hair Goth black and adopted a resolute sullenness for her role as the rebellious Jane Burnham, earned wide praise and a Screen Actors Guild award, and a host of international awards nominations for her work in the acclaimed film. Not that the young actress had such expectations while making the movie. "I was just so happy working with that cast and with such great material, but honestly I was not sure how people would react to it, apart from some critical attention, but I had no idea how the general audience would react."
After the success of American Beauty, Birch-who also had an uncredited role in that same year's Anywhere But Here - was suddenly busy with a number of projects. "The film really gave me some wonderful opportunities to do a number of different roles and different to what I HAD been doing." Birch further felt that audiences would "only come to me with more dark roles or angry teens but in fact the opposite occurred, and I got all sorts of roles, from the sweet and innocent to the worst of the worst."
Included amongst those were Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff's screen adaptation of Daniel Clowes' celebrated comic about two teenage girls trying to deal with life after high school. "It's this cool psychological thriller where I play a high school graduate who goes through all these different changes in the course of a summer. She's very confused but at the same time has a distinct sense of humour. It's very funny in a dry, acerbic way." Birch also completed shooting The Hole in London. "It's about four, English public school students who go down to an abandoned bomb shelter for three days just to hide out and have a bit of fun, end up being there for 18 days, but only one comes out alive."
This petite American beauty has come a long way since her debut at age 6. Confident, bright and beautiful, Birch hopes to eventually go to college but in the meantime is happy acting her heart out, maybe even reverting to theatre if the threatened actors' strike pervades, "though I'm chicken shit about the stage, to be perfectly frank."