The year was 1995. "Waterfalls" filled the airwaves, eBay launched, and Thora Birch inspired a generation of girls to try stuffing their bras with pudding balloons, thanks to her role as Teeny Tercell in Now and Then. And now that the classic flick, in all its bike-riding, Wormer-kissing glory, has landed on Netflix, the world is set to fall in love with it and Birch all over again.
"To be spending the summer I was 12 with a bunch of girls, working for a female director and female producers—to witness these baller chicks who just went ahead and did that—gave me an aspiration that's stuck with me to this day," Birch tells VICE of making the Lesli Linka Glatter-helmed film. "I got to see female empowerment on a set at a time when there wasn't a movement to level out the playing field, so to speak."
But her early exposure to such a gynocentric utopia may have also set her up for years of disappointment working within a system that had little interest in what she had to say.
For most of her adult life, Birch's career has been in the shadows. Soon after American Beauty and Ghost World should have launched her into the A-list, she starred in a string of barely seen projects, was plagued by explosive on-set reports (more on that later), and withdrew from the mainstream.
That's about to change.
A child star is born
The first thing you should know is that Thora Birch is not a stage name. It's the brazenly confident ID given to an infant in 1982 by two adult film stars who thought they were having a Thor and tacked an "a" on the end when it became clear they'd birthed a mini-goddess. (Her little brother is Bolt.)
Being an extremely cute child living in Los Angeles, Birch had cemented her acting career by the dawn of the 90s. But it was her sass that set her apart. By age eight, she had bottled up Winona Ryder's teen angst, which she shot out through an endless supply of exasperated side eye and baby-cheeked half smiles.
In one local TV appearance, a tiny Birch confidently wore a pink princess dress and told the baffled host that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the state of the US housing market. And in her earliest roles she's credited only as Thora, like Madonna or Cher, perhaps indicative of the audience-commanding destiny she was meant to fulfill. Still, that power escaped her.
"Up until a certain point, I wasn't aware that I was famous. It didn't register with me," she says. "When I wasn't working, I was able to just be a kid and go to school. The only thing I had to worry about was answering questions my friends would ask, like, 'Why were you gone for three months?'"
Those stints away involved filming things like Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger with Harrison Ford, All I Want for Christmas, Hocus Pocus—in which she delivered the iconic line, "Max likes your yabos. In fact, he loves 'em"— Monkey Trouble, and Now and Then.
According to one Hocus Pocus co-star, Birch was "10 going on 40" and "the smartest little girl I'd ever met." But after she and Vincent Kartheiser (spoiler) saved a polar bear cub in 1996's Alaska, the roles began to dry up. "I wasn't interested in TV or Disney-type stuff anymore," she says, "and there weren't a lot of roles for that age in film at that time—that kind of 13 to 16 range, right before you become a young, hot adult and you’re definitely not a kid anymore."
On the cusp
While that would have been the end of most child stars, 16-year-old Birch landed the transitional role of a lifetime playing Kevin Spacey's disillusioned daughter in American Beauty. The 1999 film would go on to win five Oscars and earn Birch near-unanimous praise.
Its 20th anniversary will likely come and go with little fanfare this year after numerous sexual assault allegations against Spacey left what Birch has called "a stain" on the film. But at the time, it was the end-of-millennium movie and gave her the cred she needed to move into more serious roles.
"It felt like I was on the cusp of something, but it also made me slightly jaded and an instant critic. I was like, well, now all scripts have to be this good and all material has to be that worthy," she says. "The standard bar went a little bit too insanely through the roof on my part."
So she followed it up with a film her team thought she was "crazy" for considering and a role she had to fight to nab: Enid Coleslaw in Ghost World. Gaining 20 pounds to play the disaffected high school grad, Birch sulked around suburban America with Scarlett Johansson and became the voice of a generation—and a Golden Globe nominee—along the way. (Choice quotes include: "I just hate all these extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemian losers" and "Fuck you, you stupid redneck hick!")
"There was a point not long after playing Enid that I had to do everything I could to get away from her, because her outlook was starting to impede on my personal life," Birch says.
Around that time, American Beauty director Sam Mendes called Birch a “troubled soul” who gave "fascinating" performances, and during those teen years she struggled with what she refers to as "dark moments."
"A lot of things could have gone wrong, I gotta say," she says. "I’m just happy I decided not to jump off a bridge on that one day. It's just a few of those moments that we all have in life. I can just say, 'I survived that.'"
She powered ahead with work, which included appearing in Limp Bizkit's "Eat You Alive" music video and possibly dating Fred Durst for a spell. ("I can neither confirm nor deny," she tells VICE.) So good is she that she was able to turn a 2003 Lifetime movie role into an Emmy-nominated performance, but the post-Ghost World projects were tiny, mostly direct-to-video or limited release films that have been all but forgotten.
Pissing people off
Behind the scenes, the same inherent moxie that elevated her as a child star had by now started working against her. Journalists ran scathing articles about her "moods," and she was booted from playing Tammy Metzler in 1999's Election because, as she told The Guardian, "I read the script one way and it became clear that [director Alexander Payne] had seen something else, so that was it. I just thought, this is ridiculous: why is it written this way?"
In fact, she told the outlet, she "pissed a lot of people off over a long period of time." When I ask her if she thinks those reactions were less about her and more about the state of Hollywood at the time, she partly concedes.
"Now, I think people are more open-minded to at least questioning certain standard dynamics that had been in place for a long time within the industry," she says. "They're starting to analyze why certain decisions are made, particularly when it comes to female characters."
Still, she admits, "I maybe might have been—I can't take my own personal self out of that. Anyone can have a couple of moments where they’re maybe a little bratty. But I'm not 22 anymore. People develop."
Two highly publicized incidents involving Birch's father and then-manager, Jack Birch, only compounded her struggling public persona.
First, Page Six alleged that while Thora filmed 2007 indie film The Winter of Frozen Dreams, Jack threatened the crew and "demanded" to be present for her sex scenes on an otherwise closed set. Jack, who co-starred with Thora's mom Carol Connors in Deep Throat, reportedly gave orders, even going so far as to tell the director "where to place his camera so that Thora would look her best."
But while her parents had been legally required to sign off on and be present for Thora's underage topless scene in American Beauty, by now she was 25 and very much an adult. As one source told the outlet, "It was so wrong."
The second incident occurred just as Thora was meant to make her New York stage debut in a 2010 off-Broadway production of Dracula. Four days before the show opened, the producers fired Thora and replaced her with her understudy. The New York Times reported that, according to the play's director, "the decision had nothing to do with Ms. Birch's acting abilities" and everything to do with the fact that her dad "threatened another actor" who was rubbing Thora's back in a scene. ABC News also reported that Jack insisted on hanging out in the girls' dressing room.
“What I heard was that [the director] felt he was not getting the performance that he wanted from Thora,” Jack told the Times, denying he ever made a threat.
But Thora was in shock. “For three weeks I was just doing my thing, and everything I hear was positive, that the work I was doing was wonderful,” she said at the time. “Maybe it’s some kind of misunderstanding. I mean, there had been no tensions, everything was going wonderfully. Then Friday they just asked me to leave the building.”
(For what it's worth, Dracula ended up a theatrical disaster and closed early after just four shows.)
In the years that followed, Birch all but retreated from acting. But when questioned about those contentious events now, she’s hesitant to blame her father's alleged behavior for any career turmoil that ensued.
"That was a long time ago, so I probably have to take a beat and really go back in my memory bank and think about all of it. But the truth is there were a lot of other things combined with me stepping away," she says. "I had not really gone to college. I had not taken time to just live life and explore myself as an adult. So I did, I took a moment."
She earned a legal studies degree online from Kaplan University and "went through a couple of weird, odd relationships." Said relationships did not include Bill Maher, despite the internet's undying belief that they once made the ultimate odd couple. Instead, Birch says, she and Maher "found ourselves at a party with a group of people who created this website that tracks who everyone dates. I turned to Bill and said, 'Oh man, you should tell them that I’m dating you.' He looked at me like I was totally crazy. I still think it's funny."
But after her bout of self-exploration and foray into possible lawyerhood, she realized her heart was still in acting. "I really just love being a part of the storytelling process and it wasn't something I wanted to give up fully," she says.
And Hollywood was poised to welcome her back.
Ready for her next act
Now 37, Birch finds herself once again on the cusp of something. When we speak, she’s thoughtful and lively, perhaps doing penance for those years of pissing people off, or perhaps just speaking as a woman who's finally at ease.
A few years ago, she began dating manager Michael Adler, whom she credits with encouraging her return to the spotlight. And last December, she donned a Christian Siriano minidress and married him at San Francisco City Hall.
"He's just something I never saw coming. I wasn't looking, didn't believe in the whole true love thing," she says. "We had a very professional, non-personal relationship for about two years. And then we started going to events together, and we’d wind up in a corner giggling like little kids. It just naturally turned into a date one night, and ever since then we have been inseparable."
This year promises to be Birch’s biggest career turn in recent memory. In addition to a small part in Sundance hit The Last Black Man in San Francisco and a role opposite Emilia Clarke in the upcoming FBI thriller Above Suspicion, she's currently in Atlanta filming the 10th season of The Walking Dead, in which she'll play a Whisperer named Gamma.
"What they told me about the character, the whole breakdown for where I'm going throughout this season and who I am, it's exciting," she says. "It’s a unique direction, even for this show."
Showrunner Angela Kang is equally ecstatic to have her on board.
"I'm a huge fan of Thora's work, and she brings both ferocity and fragility to the role of Gamma. She's just willing to go for it in every way," Kang told VICE via email. "When I first spoke to her, we started with a deep dive into the character's psychology and emotional arc, and then she told me as a 'by the way' that if she has to get dirty or bloody or run around all day in the heat killing things, she's totally down. That's how I knew she was one of us."
As for what comes next? Birch is "fully open-minded” to whatever life throws her way.
“In five years, I hope I'm still kicking it—acting, producing, maybe have one directing thing under my belt," she says. "If I'm where I'm at right now, and maybe one or two levels busier, I’d be thrilled.”