Actress Thora Birch: An 'American Beauty' resurfaces

Photo by Getty Images Thora Birch with Kevin Spacey in director Sam Mendes’ 1999 drama, ‘American Beauty.’

Thora Birch is best remembered as the striking young starlet in the Academy Award-winning "American Beauty," who captivated the screen alongside an all-star cast featuring Annette Bening, Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari.

After garnering widespread acclaim for her performance, Birch largely fell off the radar, taking roles in a series of unnoticed films.

After a four-year hiatus from the big screen, Birch re-appeared last summer in "Petunia," an independent movie she co-produced about a wild circle of twentysomethings in New York City.

Birch’s career began when she was a young child and included screen grabbing performances in movies like "Patriot Games," "Hocus Pocus," "Paradise," "Clear and Present Danger" and "All I Want for Christmas."

While much has been written about child actors who regretted not having a normal life, Birch looks back at her time as a child actress differently. "I loved every second of it. It was like going to a party everyday," she said in an interview with The Eagle.

She started acting in commercials at the age of four after being encouraged by a babysitter, and appeared in Quaker Oats commercials with Wilford Brimley.

Birch’s career peaked in 2000 after "American Beauty" won multiple Oscars. In the film, the 17-year-old Birch played a self-described "very disgruntled, angry, confused" teenager. The movie provocatively explored high school life, the modern family, workplace, drugs and other social issues.

Her impact was often non-verbal, like the great silent screen actresses Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor and Mae Marsh before her.

She remembers her first time reading the script. "It was weird, awkward, funny, it read harsh," Birch said. "It was unlike anything I had seen or read."

Acting with Bening and Spacey, was "incredibly remarkable ... to be around them when they were in the zone," she said.

The script called for Birch to undress in a window while a neighborhood boy watched. Birch had permission from her parents, though "they weren’t jumping up and down" with joy, Birch said.

"To shoot the scene itself was definitely a nerve wrecking moment," Birch said. It showed the character in a "vulnerable" light, but "not sexual," she said.

"To me, it made sense. It wasn’t something that shouldn’t be in there. It’s something that would happen."

She understands it made some uneasy. "Some people got upset," Birch said.

After "American Beauty," she played an empress in "Dungeons & Dragons." In "The Hole," Birch showed glimpses of her talent playing a mentally distraught student in a psychological thriller.

She was nominated for a Golden Globe as Enid in "Ghost World" as a young, socially awkward student who becomes involved with the older Steve Buscemi. She identified with the role. "I really like Enid," Birch said. Buscemi was "such a cool guy," she said.

What followed were movies which created little buzz; movies like "Silver City," "Slingshot," "Dark Corners," "Train" and "Winter of Frozen Dreams."

"I was surprised I wasn’t reading better scripts," Birch said.

Before "Petunia," Birch last appeared in the 2010 television movie "Pregnancy Pact," playing a blogger who brings to light a group of Massachusetts high school friends who agree to get pregnant. "It’s a problem," Birch said about teen pregnancy. "Whatever we’re doing right now, is not working."

Birch described "Petunia" as "a real New York City piece" and "dark little comedy." She played a self-described "bad girl" who is married and pregnant.

The story involves a "modern girl who likes to have a lot of fun," Birch said.

Her first credited movie role was at the age of six in "The Purple People Eater" with Ned Beatty, Shelley Winters, Chubby Checker and Little Richard. She remembers learning to dance on the set, an activity she still enjoys.

She next starred on the television show "Day By Day", with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, before Louis-Dreyfus hit it big as Elaine on "Seinfeld." Her character was "not very dissimilar to Elaine," Birch said. "She was very self-centered." Off screen, Julia was very friendly, Birch said.

At the age of 9, Birch starred in "Paradise," playing a girl exploring the outdoors with Elijah Wood, the future hero of "Lord of the Rings."

Birch called herself a "city girl" from Los Angeles and said it was a culture shock being "thrown into the wilderness" of South Carolina for the role.

"There was kind of a sadness to my character," Birch said. "I knew why she was upset. I was a mature 9-year-old... I knew it was a really good role."

In her next film, "All I Want for Christmas," she nearly stole the screen from the legendary Lauren Bacall and comedic actors Kevin Nealon and Leslie Nielsen.

Birch was aware of who Bacall, wife of the late Humphrey Bogart, was. "I watched a lot of older movies," Bich said. "It was like having a dutchess on the set. The crew wore ties."

At the time, Birch said she was a "bit of a tomboy." For the movie, she was given "prim and proper clothes... It was so glamorous."

In "Hocus Pocus," Birch played the bright young light being chased by witches Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker on Halloween. "It was one of the best times I ever had on a movie," Birch said.

She acted with a monkey in "Monkey Trouble," with Harvey Keitel. "He was very nice. He made the movie for his daughter," Birch said of Keitel. "He was very concerned about being scary," Birch said.

In 2011, Birch earned a degree in legal studies through Kaplan University. In 2012, she was a California delegate for President Barack Obama at the Democratic Party convention. She has detailed her concerns about the environment and human rights on a blog.

Now 32, Birch is carefully searching for her next acting role. "I am paying more attention to stories now," she says.

To reach Nathan Mayberg: or (413) 496-6243