Forget 90s revival, alternative beauty Thora Birch was the real deal the first time round.
It’s impossible to overlook the back-with-a-vengeance ‘90s-inspired tartan mini-skirts, tomboy tees and Doc Boots currently favoured by the fashion conscious. ‘The Craft’ might be having a moment, but do they know they’re really just trying to look like decade-defining actress, Thora Birch? The feisty pin-up was a muse for any punk-grunge devotee who actually lived through ‘the decade that style forgot’. Her severe black bob, grungy vintage style and signature eye-roll combined to create a powerful role model for teenage girls on the path to adulthood, yet to relinquish their foundationless angst. Like Thora’s character, the anti-heroine Enid Coleslaw of cult classic ‘Ghost World’, we too wanted to be authentically hard-core, dying our hair shocking pop colours and rebelling from… something, whatever, who cares. Informing naysayers, in Enid’s words, “It’s not like I’m some modern punk, dickhead! It’s obviously a 1977 original punk rock look.”
Before ‘Ghost World’ (which co-starred then little-known Scarlett Johansson), Thora’s star had risen seemingly overnight with the success of the Oscar-nominated seminal late ‘90s film, ‘American Beauty’. Playing a raven-haired misanthrope, she provided a necessary alternative to the ubiquitous ditsy blonde – offering gutsy cynicism in place of the usual feminine archetypes: sunshine or sex appeal. On the cusp of stardom after a career spanning more than 15 years, the LA born-and-raised child actress – of films including ‘Hocus Pocus, ‘Now and Then’ and ‘Patriot Games’ – turned ‘90s style icon paused, reflected and left our collective consciousness for a beat. Meeting up with Thora Birch in LA’s West Hollywood, Indigo Clarke finds out just what the screen siren of our 90s dreams is all about.
When you see yourself in a film is it an uncomfortable or difficult experience? Is it difficult to judge your own work objectively?
It’s probably impossible to be completely objective. I mean in certain projects and in certain phases of my career, my ability to be objective and not judge myself so harshly has altered. For instance when I was 18 I would never go back and watch ‘Mail Man’ or ‘Hocus Pocus’, I just wouldn’t do it.
I watched ‘Now and Then’ for the first time the other night, I was feeling sick so my boyfriend looked up ‘comforting movies’ on google and it came up – it was really sweet. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God! Thora Birch used to be blonde!’
(Laughs) that was a really fun movie to make. We all definitely loved the material we were working on and loved working together, but it did get a little cliquey – not in a bad way, kind of in a sweet way actually. It was fun, we had a blast. Honestly I think my favourite moments were just being in that amazing location, down in Savannah where the film was shot – it was really nice, really memorable.
It seemed to be a girl’s version of ‘Stand By Me’…
That’s how it had been pitched to me! But this was a happier movie than ‘Stand By Me’… If you go and watch it again you realise it’s actually really depressing, it’s really dark. There’s a lot of vulnerability, boys being knowingly unsure of themself. Whereas in ‘Now and Then’ the girls were vivacious and strong-minded. It was part of the ‘girl power’ movement, which is good because I think that’s needed.
So, where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
Well I grew up here, in LA, in this exact neighbourhood actually, West Hollywood.
It’s such a fast-paced neighbourhood – have you seen it change a lot?
Yeah it’s gotten more crowded that’s for sure! But overall it’s still the same.
A lot of theatrical types in this neck of the woods. How did you get into acting?
I started acting really, really young, when I was four. I started out in commercials and stuff like that.
Is that something you really wanted to do, or did you fall into it?
My babysitter got me started actually. TV wasn’t really allowed at home, but when she came over it was the TV was the first thing that would go on. I guess I was imitating things I’d seen on TV and she thought it was adorable and decided that I should be in commercials. So she took me out and got me a kid agent, and started taking me out on auditions.
Wow! How did your parents react?
My parents just thought ‘whatever, they’re having fun, fine’, but they weren’t taking it seriously. In fact, they weren’t actually super-supportive of it, but I started getting commercials right away and they saw how happy it made me. Then when I was five I got my first TV show – a network NBC sitcom. That’s when I first realised how much I loved being on set, in that environment, and just having fun.
What kind of sitcom was it?
It was about a lawyer couple that had given up their day jobs to run a daycare centre out of their own home. I was the sassy smart-alec kid and had all the funny lines. I just remember feeling like I was going to a birthday party all the time, everyday on set. It was a lot of fun.
What about school?
When I started getting older and school became more of a thing, my parents were like ‘now you’ve got to focus on your education’, but I didn’t understand why school would have to stop me from acting. I just kept saying ‘I just want to keep going to play!’ – that’s how I put it ‘I wanna go to play’! So they let me continue because they thought that I’d grow out of it. When I was nine I got my first real feature film called ‘Paradise’, with Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith and Elijah Wood.
Really! I love Melanie Griffith.
Actually it’s a really good drama, and Melanie and Don did an amazing job. They were like this tortured couple that had suffered the loss of a child, and a young boy comes to live with them. I was the next door neighbour that befriends Elijah’s character. It was a dark drama and it was the first time as a child that I really started paying attention to acting as a ‘real thing’ instead of just a hobby. I really tried to think about how somebody else would feel and behave. It was a really great experience. The director, Mary Agnes Donoghue, was really understanding and would talk us through the script, and really get us in the mood and thinking about what our characters were feeling. That was a real turning point for me, and after that I got all these fun jobs. I got to be Harrison Ford’s daughter in ‘Patriot Games’ and ‘Clear and Present Danger’ – which was like ‘Yeeaaaah!’, it was awesome. To me that was hitting the jackpot, I mean, he was my hero.
Totally. I love Indiana Jones.
Yeah absolutely, it’s so stunning visually, and so exciting. The most amazing experience I had on set was probably ‘Hocus Pocus’, which I did when I was 10, because the sets were so engrossing, they built an entire house for it! It was beautiful.
I never really appreciated how much of a child actor you were…
Yeah I really was. I had a really happy childhood though, unlike all the horror stories you hear. I still had to go to school every day – people often think that If you’re a child actor you eschew all that, but there are a lot of laws to make sure you don’t, and there are always state provided on-set tutors.
Perhaps not coming from a film family gave you a sense of stability and perspective…
For sure, growing up I just didn’t really think about what I was doing in terms of building a career. As I got older, perhaps in my high school years, I thought looking back, ‘oh, I guess that was pretty unique’, but as a kid you don’t really know that you’re doing something special or unusual, you just think it’s really cool. I remember one day, I was in fourth grade, and the night before I had been on the Arsenio Hall show, which kids actually watched even though we weren’t supposed to be up that late. I remember after it aired, I walked into class and everyone was like ‘ooooh’, and I thought ‘I’m popular now, great!’
So you were still going to class most of the time?
Yeah, when I wasn’t working I would go to regular school. There was a lot of back and forth between tutoring on set and going to school. Acting was good for me though because I got to travel and be around a lot of adults. A lot of kids don’t experience that, they’re only around other kids, which is good of course, but to have the best of both worlds in that sense was really fulfilling and taught me a lot. I guess it made me precocious – people were always telling me I was. I had a really good time as a kid…
What were you like?
I was a bit of a tomboy, I liked to climb trees and stuff like that. I have a younger brother so maybe had something to do with that.
You’ve always struck me as having a dry sense of humour…
Yes, I guess I was a bit of a smart alec, but in a playful way, not in a combative sense. I think as you get older if you are sarcastic you can appear combative, which I don’t necessarily agree with, but I was always quick with a comeback. I’ve always been like that that. What was I like? Hmm, it’s probably not for me to say… I could be shy, I could also be very rambunctious. I always had a lot of energy.
What music were you into as a teenager, and did it influence your style?
A lot of alternative 90s bands. I also loved The Beatles, Hendrix, Joplin, also the classics like Ella. I liked a lot of old stuff, but then also pop and grunge – I definitely went through a phase where there was nothing but Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. I also had Ace of Bass thrown in there!
Does your curious side feed into your choice in film roles, which have been very diverse?
Yeah definitely. First and foremost when I went through a phase of doing smaller independent films, my interest wasn’t so much in the genre but the character or situation being unique. I was even interested in doing action stuff because it’s something I hadn’t explored, I also got to do a dual role which was a blast.
Which film was that?
The dual role was in ‘Dark Corners’. We shot it in London, it was an odd, eccentric, arty horror film. Not a lot of people understood the plot, which I didn’t mind at all, in fact I really liked that, I was like ‘yeah, figure this out’.
Keep ‘em guessing.
Ha for sure. It was fun because within the scope of a day I would go from being a blonde, saccharine sweet girl to a figment of somebody’s imagination. It was a challenge, like a lot of the other stuff I was doing during that time, because first of all it was what was presented to me, and also it was challenging, so I hadn’t done it before so let’s do it. It was always curiosity, and taking the opportunity to be thrust into something that you might find uncomfortable because it’s new and you haven’t explored it. Similar to what you alluded to earlier about darker roles, when you’re in something successful you do get more of that, I prefer not to call it typecasting, more like convenient, easy casting.
Which film of yours is your favourite?
Oh man, I’ve never been able to answer that – probably because of what we were saying about objectivity. I wish I could, it would be a relief to me to able to answer that question! All the films I’ve worked on are so different. I can say maybe in which I had the most fun…
Yes it was a really happy fun time, but then Ghost World and American Beauty were amazing too. I could easily say American beauty was the most fun, even though I was miserable while making it because that was the character. Maybe that was the most fun because it was so fulfilling.
Do people assume things about you because of the characters you’ve played?
That’s interesting, yes definitely. I went through phases that were similar to the characters I played, probably enhanced by the fact that I was playing those roles. I went through a snarky, dark period…
During American Beauty?
Post I think. I was 16 when I did American Beauty. During the next two years I found it hard to find a project I was as passionate about, because I was really obsessed with American Beauty. It took me forever to actually decide on my next role, which was in Ghost World.
Well it was one of the biggest films of that decade.
For sure, and it was a script that everyone wanted. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a script get that much attention before it was made, it was like a breath of fresh air, everyone thought ‘we remember films like these, we haven’t seen one in a long time’.
Do you look at independent films for that level of quality and character development?
Well some are really, really good, but then others can feel overly high-minded. It’s just really hard to make a good movie, it takes so many different elements coming together perfectly, it’s nearly impossible. The one thing I’ve found to be true is that there’s no way to make a good movie out of a bad script.
Wait someone said that, was it George Clooney?
It’s true! I’m totally ripping someone off right now, I forgot who said it though, it can’t be plagiarism if I don’t know who said it!
How do you feel when you see yourself on screen?
When I look back at some of the younger stuff I think, ‘oh that’s cute, I didn’t know how adorable I was’ (laughs). It’s a nostalgia thing. It’s not that I’m in love with myself, that’s ridiculous, I’m just relaxed about it. But with more recent films it’s harder, I can’t watch them really.
So you don’t like looking back?
It’s not as exclusionary as that, I just don’t want to impede moving forward. Because if you still have one foot in the past tapping to one rhythm, you might not fully embrace the new rhythm.
And do you have other creative pursuits?
Yes, I took some time off to get my degree.
Oh what did you study?
I took legal studies. To finish growing up, expanding my horizons, understanding of the world. While I was doing that I wasworking on a couple of films, and actually started producing the film that I produced: Petunia. It was really tiny, we had a solid cast and a good script – it was rough but we did it, we shot it Brooklyn. That was a couple of years ago. During that time I was still finishing up school, and that’s when I started really developing other hobbies, that’s when I actually allowed myself to believe that I was also a writer…
You’ve recently written a script…
Well I’m trying to produce that now. I’ve had some really good feedback, and I’m at that point now where I’m trying to absorb it and decide whether I agree with it or not, or if it might lead me to alter things. It’s a process.
What’s the best line you’ve ever delivered?
‘Fuck you, you stupid redneck hick!’ – that was my favourite one.
Ha! Enid (Ghostworld) was such a bad-ass. Have you ever seen anyone dress up as Enid for Halloween?
No but I’ve seen it more day-to-day, I went down to San Diego for a ten year commemorative screening and someone had the check dress with eye-hole from the chicken house scene, which was really hilarious. I love Steve Buscemi in that scene. Steve was great.
There was a lot of chemistry between Enid and Seymour…
There was, yeah, it’s true. They just got each other. It was pretty awkward, but it was beautiful. Enid was manipulating him and enjoying it, unfortunately, which is cruel. But young girls are like that, you know like, ‘you like me? Well prove it’. Because we’re so insecure, it’s like ‘I really, really need you to like me, and I’ll torture you until you prove you do.’
Did you ever imagine how legendary Ghost world and American Beauty were destined to become?
I’m not going to lie, I knew American Beauty was going to be big. People were saying ‘oh this is so great’. But then when it won Best Picture at The Oscar’s, I was like ‘wow, I didn’t expect that’. I was so happy, it was one of those really happy moments. With Ghost World I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms, especially after I saw the film for the first time – I just thought it was bad. I didn’t really get it at first.
What was your reaction when you got the script?
Obsessed – I had to be Enid, had to say the things that she was saying. I think because I had spent so much time so heavily in that world by the time I saw the final cut I was in a completely different head space, I had just finally dropped the whole Enid cynical thing. I just thought, ‘I’m sorry guys, I wanted to be sarcastic, but now I’ve got that out of my system’.
So it spoke to early twenties you?
It was a 22 year-old kind of thing for sure, it was all-consuming. I went deep with it, to the point where some of my friendships and relationships at the time suffered, because I wasn’t the person they had known before.
You were adopting Enid…
Yes there was seepage.
She was quite a Holden Caulfield character… Believing everyone to be wrong or misguided or fake, when she’s the most confused of all.
You just don’t tiptoe around Enid, either you fall completely in love with her or you feel nothing. It was a strange experience. I think a lot of people really respond to Seymour because he’s so heartbreakingly honest, but he’s also the male Enid.
But he’s quite broken whereas Enid is going to be ok…
Probably, although he’s resilient, and she’s got fire, but maybe she needs some resilience.
In the late 90s, early 2000s you were hugely famous, an indie pin-up girl, and then you dropped out of the spotlight.
Yes, well I kept working, doing some smaller projects, just focusing on the characters I liked. I just wasn’t really consumed with trying to keep the train on the track. I think I needed a break.
The momentum was so naturally there before, you never had to think about being strategic…
Yes I would say that I didn’t realise the momentum was even there. I just kept looking for films that I liked. There just weren’t a lot of follow up roles around that I wanted, but even if I had been presented with them I probably wouldn’t have taken them on… I wouldn’t have wanted to do an Enid part two.
Basically, you just need someone to write an amazing character for you, or maybe you can write one for yourself!
(laughs) Yeah, well people do write for themselves I suppose, and that’s really cool but I would feel too presumptuous.
And have you got a project coming up?
I’m shooting something at this year, but I can’t really talk about it yet. But the past year has been kind of a turning point. I have been really lucky, I’m not going to say that I have been down the path that I had projected for myself fully, but at the same time I would rather have taken the path that I took than anything else. Knowing all that I do now, I’m actually happy. It’s time to move on, to start again because that’s what people do. You just start over. I’ve got to say that maybe there’s a part of me that’s a little too picky for my own good, but it’s okay, I’m more open now than I have ever been.
Do you have a personal philosophy?
Count your blessings and keep pushing yourself, I guess that’s about it. Oh and ignore regret!
Do you have a favourite film?
I’d have to give you a little pamphlet!
Oh give it a go…
Okay, ‘Waking Life’. I got lost in that movie. They shot it in real life and then animated over it, it’s amazing, made up of little vignettes. It had an impact on me when it came out, I was just blown away. So I’d say if anything was ‘a moment’ for me in film, that was it.
Is there a book that stands out for you?
I’d have to say as far as fiction is concerned, The Decameron is still to this day one of my favourite books. It shows you how from when it was written in the 1300’s to now, nothing’s really changed. It has so much crazy stuff in it like knights fucking nuns, but also salacious, romantic, comedic, dramatic, tragic, uplifting storylines, a real slice of life. A perverted medieval version of pulp fiction. That book really stands out, nobody’s really doing anything like that now.
What are you most excited about for 2015?
It’s such a weird number, whenever I think about the year suddenly I flash back to being eight years old when I thought that the year 2000 seemed so futuristic! I can’t get over it! But honestly I’m in a happy place. I’m finally feeling comfortable, I’ve never really felt that comfortable before. I’m looking forward to spending New Year’s with somebody that I actually love, I’m engaged, I’ve always hated New Year’s but this time I’m actually looking forward to it.