We Found Thora Birch

Photographed by Janell Shirtcliff. Top and pants by Lela Rose.

the ’90s starlet gives us life advice

The following feature appears in the February 2016 issue of NYLON.

I considered myself to be a Ghost World fan. I referred to shitty bands as “Blues Hammer,” and shitty art as “tampon in a teacup.” I was well versed in the survival mechanisms of pre-Internet teenagers, which this particular film portrayed so well. Enid and Rebecca knew what my friends and I knew: that the only way to avoid dying of boredom in a cultural wasteland was to put on your ironic armor and embrace everything you hated.

So, in 2008, when I was a senior editor at NYLON and tasked with writing an homage to the 2001 cult classic, I did zero research. I knew the movie so well that fact-checking seemed redundant…or so I thought.

Imagine the horror when it came to my attention that I had called Enid “Edith”—in print. I still don’t know how it happened. Even worse, it didn’t register until we received a note from a reader who pointed it out. We ran the letter, I felt intense amounts of shame, and then moved on.

Recently, however, the opportunity to interview Thora Birch—the actress who made Enid Coleslaw who she was, who made her everything I loved, who owned the Y2Ks with this role as well as a starring one in the Academy Award-winning American Beauty—fell into my lap like some kind of gift from the universe. Finally, a chance to right my wrong!

I was also dying to know what Birch has been up to for the past decade and a half. Instead of taking the path one would expect of a critical darling with back-to-back blockbusters under her belt, she went on to appear in straight-to-DVD horror flicks and TV movies. She never stopped working—next month she’ll appear in two episodes of USA Network’s alien drama “Colony”—but for the past few years, Googling her name turned up mainly “What happened to…” articles. 

When Birch and I meet up in Los Angeles, she’s just finished her NYLON shoot at the West Hollywood Library, a lifelong favorite spot for the voracious reader, and is back in her own clothes: embellished jeans, high-heeled black boots, and a sparkly purple sweater. She speaks with a nervy laugh and obvious intelligence, like a sagacious friend who’s been there, done that, and is down to do it again. She’s also the first to admit that what actually did happen to her was not something she expected, nor was it something she particularly enjoyed. Regrets, though? She has none. 

“Every experience was an experience,” she says. “What became bothersome was that it started to become more and more apparent that there were expectations. That seemed like something I should be supplying to myself, not something placed on me. I fought against it, I was kind of nasty, and that didn’t really help. I’m sorry, everybody!” 

Photographed by Janell Shirtcliff. Turtleneck by Tamara Mellon, shorts by Femme d’Armes, shoes by Jerome C. Rousseau, earrings by Nocturne.

You’d been working for more than a decade before you made American Beauty at age 17. Did the attention you got from that film change things for you?

The aftermath was pretty wild. I didn’t feel particularly different, but people around me got different. That kind of threw me—the fame thing.

It seems like fame is something very conscious for adult actors, but kids might not care about it.

This is what I’m wondering now, and I’m worried about it for the next generation. When I was a kid it was that way. “Fame” was the name of an old movie, right? Nobody was looking for it. Everybody was looking for work—good work. But now with the Internet, I feel like it’s the exact opposite. Now everyone wants to be known. 

You did a topless scene in American Beauty, even though you were underage at the time. What kind of conversations went into that decision?

The studio, I think, was probably ready to throw their hands up in the air and say, “Fuck it. Cut it out.” But it was not a sexual moment. I think that saved it. It wasn’t written that way, and that’s why I never had a problem with it. It was right. It was honest. I tuned out [the aftermath], because I didn’t want to know. I was like, “If you guys can’t figure it out, I’m not going to sit here and try to fucking explain it to you, OK? That’s not my job. I did it, and that’s it.” It did create a creepy element of that type of fan out there, which bothers me more now than it did then. But the Internet is a larger monster now than it was then.

What do you look at on the Internet?

Oh, I look at everything. I’m so voyeuristic it’s not even funny. I’ll read anything about anybody. Not the silly, solicitous gossip things. I’m more checking out what’s happening at AFP [Agence France-Presse] in the morning, you know what I mean? I sign online petitions. If I could be an activist, I would be an activist, but I can’t. I’m just a really pathetic, cheap-ass activist. No money coming from me, baby, but I will sign your petition, yes. 

Do you use social media at all?

I got sucked into the whole Myspace thing. God, I’m so embarrassed by that. But, no, it’s not an interesting world to me. There’s nothing really cool happening on Twitter. If you’re going to say that it’s helping revolutions, let’s analyze those revolutions that are fucking
starting, OK?

How did your role in Ghost World come about?

None of my people liked it. When I was telling them that this was what I wanted to do, they were like, “You want to follow up American Beauty with that? Are you crazy?” For me, Enid was saying exactly what I wanted to say at that time.

Like what?

“Fuck you, stupid redneck hick” was a personal favorite of mine. Honestly, I did have problems with her, too, because I was always a little bit more sympathetic toward people than she was.

What did you want for your career after those two films?

Well, I wanted it to continue. That would have been a nice start. I wanted more roles along those lines, but they weren’t coming because they weren’t being created. Then it got worse—the only kind of stuff that I did like didn’t have the support system that a big film like American Beauty had. A number of things went wrong in a number of films, but that’s OK, because at least I know at the end of the day that I actually liked every role that I ever played, and it all meant something to me at the time. It was a disappointing trajectory there for a while, but, hey, there’s nothing I could really do to avoid it. 

What kinds of projects were you looking for?

There are just certain things that really make you go, like, “Wow, man, yes—that’s what I’m talking about.” [Projects that] can change people’s opinions, where you can make them think—and if you can make them think in entertainment, then you’re really actually making them think. I want to tell those kinds of stories, but it’s really hard to do. They don’t make money.

What do you want to make people think about?

Well, the human condition, for one thing. It’s at the heart of all of the issues that I’m concerned with. I think people need to be nicer to each other. Also, power structures: how power is abused, used, built, broken, all of that. And, just interpersonal dynamics. It’s fascinating, all of that stuff.

Did you ever consider doing something else?

Somewhere around 25, I was like, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to get a four-year degree.” I’m pretty opinionated about everything, and I was like, “Maybe I should go verify some shit first.” Legal studies was my wheelhouse, but at the end of the day, I came back around. I don’t know if I’m doing the right things or if I’m in a place that I really want to be, but this industry, this world, is still the world I want to be in.