Thora Birch (born March 11, 1982) is an American actress. She had early roles in the short-lived sitcom Day by Day and in Purple People Eater (1988), in which she won a Young Artist Award for "Best Young Actress Under Nine Years of Age". She also starred in other films, such as All I Want for Christmas (1991), Patriot Games (1992), Hocus Pocus (1993), Monkey Trouble (1994), Now and Then (1995) and Alaska (1996).
Her breakthrough role came in 1999 with the Academy Award winning film, American Beauty. Her performance was well received by both critics and audiences and brought Birch to international recognition. She later played the lead role in Ghost World (2001) for which she received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. She appeared in independent films, such as Dark Corners (2006), Train (2008) and Winter of Frozen Dreams (2009).
After taking a break from acting, Birch resumed her acting career in 2016 and played software engineer Morgan in the first season of Carlton Cuse's television series Colony, as well as starring in four independent films.
Birch was born in Los Angeles, the eldest child of Jack Birch and Carol Connors. Her parents, who have been her business managers throughout her acting career, are former adult film actors; both appeared in the film Deep Throat. Birch is of German Jewish, Scandinavian and Italian ancestry. The family's original surname was Biersch. Her name, Thora, is derived from the name of the Norse god of thunder and lightning, Thor; she has a younger brother named Bolt. Because of their own experience with the entertainment industry, Birch's parents were reluctant to encourage her, but they were persuaded to show her photograph to agents by a babysitter who noticed her imitating commercials.
Birch appeared in commercials in the late 1980s for Burger King, California Raisins, Quaker Oats and Vlasic Pickles. She made her film debut in the 1988 science-fiction comedy Purple People Eater, for which she won a Youth In Film Award and a Young Artist Award in the category of "Best Young Actress Under Nine Years of Age". Also in 1988, she guest-starred in an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D., and was cast as Molly in the NBC television series Day By Day, being credited as "Thora". The show aired for two seasons on NBC and earned her two Young Artist Award nominations.
In 1990, Birch had one of the lead roles in the sitcom Parenthood, based on the 1989 film of the same name. It aired on NBC and was cancalled after one season. In the next year, she starred in the drama Paradise, with Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith and Elijah Wood. She won her role over more than 4,000 other young hopefuls who auditioned for it. Roger Ebert felt she played her part with "strong, simple charm" and later earned another Young Artist Award nomination. For the rest of the 1990s, Birch continued to find steady recognition as a child and teen actress through leading parts in numerous comedy and family feature films.
She starred in the romantic comedy All I Want for Christmas (1991), as a girl who plans to get her divorced parents back together for Christmas. The film received mediocre reviews and moderate attention from audiences upon its theatrical premiere, but developed a following on television and on home video the subsequent years. In 1992, she played the daughter of Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) in the spy thriller Patriot Games, which was a commercial success, grossing US$178 million at the worldwide box office.
Birch appeared in the fantasy comedy Hocus Pocus (1993), opposite Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker. The film saw her play the younger sister of a teenage boy who inadvertently ressurects a villainous trio of witches. Hocus Pocus rated average with reviewers and made a modest US$39 million in the US, but became a cult film due to strong DVD sales and large television following. In the 1994 comedy Monkey Trouble, Birch portrayed a girl who adopts a Capuchin monkey trained to pick pockets and burglarize houses. The movie had a mixed reception, but Marjorie Baumgarten, for the Austin Chronicle, observed that her "nuanced performance (a rarity amongst child performers) no doubt lends Monkey Trouble its realistic touch". Also in 1994, she reprised her Patriot Games role in the sequel, Clear and Present Danger, which grossed over US$215 million globally.
In 1995, Birch was cast as the younger version of Melanie Griffith's character in the coming-of-age film Now and Then, also starring Gaby Hoffmann, Christina Ricci, Demi Moore and Rosie O'Donnell. It was released to largely mediocre reviews, but proved to be a profit. She landed a leading role in the adventure drama Alaska (1996) opposite Vincent Kartheiser, portraying two siblings who search through the Alaskan wilderness for their lost father (Dirk Benedict). For the next two years, she did not appear in a film but guest-starred in Promised Land and Touched by an Angel. She subsequently filmed the made-for-television movie Night Ride Home and an uncredited role for Anywhere but Here, both released in 1999.
Also in 1999, she appeared in the Sam Mendes-directed drama American Beauty, as Jane Burnham, the insecure daughter of Kevin Spacey's character. As Birch was 16 at the time she made it, and thus classified as a minor in the United States, her parents had to approve her brief topless scene in the film. They and child labor representatives were on the set for the shooting of the scene. Rolling Stone felt Birch "[glimmered] with grown-up radiance" in her role, for which she later received a BAFTA Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The film was the recipient of the Academy Award for Best Picture and grossed over US$356 million worldwide, emerging as the biggest commercial success of Birch's career to date.
Following her success with American Beauty, she appeared in two films released in 2000. The small-scale drama The Smokers received a straight-to-DVD release in the US, going largely unnoticed, but Birch was called "a scene-stealer" in her supporting role by The Hollywood Reporter. Her other film of the year was the poorly received Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy film based on the role-playing game of the same name. In 2001, she starred with Keira Knightley in the horror film The Hole, in which her headlining credit and highly publicized seven figure salary was attributed to her appearance in American Beauty. The film was released in theaters in the UK, and on DVD in the US, receiving mixed reviews. Writing for Variety magazine, Derek Elley stated that Birch gave "an effectively creepy lead [performance]" in the film, which he called "a clunky British attempt to merge the psychothriller and teen movie genres".
Birch headlined the 2001 black comedy Ghost World, directed by Terry Zwigoff and co-starring Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi and Brad Renfro. The film, focused on the lives of two teenage outsiders (Birch and Johansson) in an unnamed American city, was released in a specialty theatrical run, to a highly favorable critical reception. James Berardinelli found Birch's part to be her "first effectively developed role" since American Beauty and positively singled out the actress for the "quirkiness [and the] underlying sense of melancholy and ennui" in her portrayal. She earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress – Musical or Comedy.
Birch appeared as the title character in the biographical television film Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story (2003), playing a young woman who, after becoming homeless at 15 amid personal tragedies, begins her work to finish her studies. She garnered acclaim for her part, receiving an Emmy nomination. After her professional achievements in the 1990s and early 2000s, Birch's profile decreased significantly in the next decade, as she had more infrequent acting appearances in much smaller-scale productions. Reflecting on her career tragectory the subsequent years during a January 2014 interview, she attributed it to not "taking" the demands the film industry had for her, opting to "maintain a strong identity and pursue things that were a little more thoughtful, and I guess nobody really wanted women to do that at that time".
She played a supporting role in Silver City, a political satire written and directed by John Sayles, which premiered at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. In 2006, Birch had the lead role in the horror-thriller Dark Corners, portraying a troubled young woman who wakes up one day as a different person—someone who is stalked by creatures. The film did not receive a theatrical release, and instead, went straight to DVD. It rated poorly with reviewers, but Birch was considered "convincing as the two halves of this split personality". She followed with the female lead role in the 2008 slasher Train, which revolved around a group of US college athletes who get stalked and killed in an Eastern Europe train. The film received a DVD release, to a mediocre overall reception, with critics comparing it unfavorably to Hostel and Turistas.
She appeared in the 2009 psychological thriller Deadline, co-starring Brittany Murphy. Like Birch's previous few projects, the film premiered directly-to-video in the UK and the US, and went little seen by audiences. Also in 2009, she starred in the independent mystery film Winter of Frozen Dreams, as Barbara Hoffman, a Wisconsin biochemistry student and prostitute convicted of murder in the first televised murder trial ever. The film had a limited theatrical release, receiving average reviews. DVD Talk felt she was "the weakest link in the whole piece", while Bloody Disgusting found Birch to be "the gem" of the film, asserting that she was "very alluring to the eyes as the main subject of this case". During filming, a controversy arose involving Birch's father and his forced presence during Birch's taping of a sex scene.
In 2010, Birch took on the role of Sidney Bloom in the made-for-television movie The Pregnancy Pact, which was based on the allegedly true story of a 2008 media circus surrounding teenagers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, who allegedly agreed to concurrently give birth and raise their children communally. The Lifetime film was favorably received by critics and was watched by 5.9 million viewers. Later in 2010, Birch was cast and scheduled to make her American stage debut in the off Broadway revival of Dracula, but was fired for the behavior of her father, her manager at the time, who physically threatened one of the show's cast members. Birch later admitted to be in a "state of shock" by acknowledging that she had upset a lot of people, while alleging that those people had wanted her to "be not fine."
Birch starred in the 2012 independent dramedy Petunia, playing the role of Vivian Petunia. She is credited as a co-producer in the film, which depicts simultaneously the lives and romantic relationships of the Petunia family. Birch considered the film an "intimate" and "a very modern tale", describing it as "a little bit different from your standard summer fare". Distributed for a very limited release in the US, the film premiered at Cinema Village in NYC, garnering mixed reviews.
After devoting herself to academic pursuits, Birch returned to her acting career in 2015 with a recurring role as software engineer Morgan in the Carlton Cuse series Colony.
Birch is set to star in four films in 2017. She first starred in the independent filmThe Etruscan Smile with Brian Cox, which was shot in San Francisco and Scotland. She then went to Kentucky to shoot the thriller Above Suspicion, based on the book of the same name by New York Times columnist Joe Sharkey, and co-starring Jack Huston, Emilia Clarke and Johnny Knoxville. Birch starred in the political thriller Public Affairs, with Adrian Grenier. The film was shot in Norfolk, Virginia. Most recently, Birch starred in the romantic comedy, The Competition, directed by Harvey Lowry, which was shot in Portland. Birch both starred in and produced the film
|1988||Purple People Eater||Molly Johnson|
|1991||All I Want for Christmas||Hallie O'Fallon|
|1992||Patriot Games||Sally Ryan|
|1992||Itsy Bitsy Spider||Leslie McGroarty (voice)||Short film|
|1993||Hocus Pocus||Dani Dennison|
|1994||Monkey Trouble||Eva Gregory|
|1994||Clear and Present Danger||Sally Ryan|
|1995||Now and Then||Tina "Teeny" Tercell||age 13|
|1999||American Beauty||Jane Burnham|
|1999||Anywhere but Here||Mary||Uncredited|
|2000||The Smokers||Lincoln Roth|
|2000||Dungeons & Dragons||Empress Savina|
|2001||The Hole||Elizabeth "Liz" Dunn|
|2004||Silver City||Karen Cross|
|2004||The Dot||Narrator (voice)||Short film|
|2006||Dark Corners||Susan Hamilton / Karen Clarke|
|2008||Train||Alexandra "Alex" Roper|
|2009||Winter of Frozen Dreams||Barbara Hoffman|
|2017||The Etruscan Smile||Emily|
|1988–89||Day by Day||Molly||Recurring role (21 episodes)|
|1989||Doogie Howser, M.D.||Megan||Episode: "Vinnie Video Vici"|
|1990||Dark Avenger||Susie Donovan||Television film|
|1990||Married People||Emily||Episode: "To Live and Drive in New York"|
|1990–91||Parenthood||Taylor Buckman||Main role (12 episodes)|
|1991||Amen||Brittany||Episode: "Nothing Says Lovin'..."|
|1994||Monty||Ann Sherman||Episode: "Here Comes the Son"|
|1995||The Outer Limits||Aggie Travers||Episode: "The Choice"|
|1997||Promised Land||Allison Rhodes||Episode: "Running Scared"|
|1997||Touched by an Angel||Erin||Episode: "The Pact"|
|1999||Night Ride Home||Clea Mahler||Television film|
|2002||Night Visions||Susan Thornhill||Episode: "The Maze"|
|2003||Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story||Elizabeth "Liz" Murray||Television film|
|2005||My Life as a Teenage Robot||Vega (voice)||Episode: "Escape from Cluster Prime"|
|2010||The Pregnancy Pact||Sidney Bloom||Television film|
Awards and nominations
|1989||Young Artist Award||Best Young Actor/Actress Ensemble in a Television Comedy, Drama Series or Special||Day by Day||Nominated|
|Best Young Actress Under Nine Years of Age||Purple People Eater||Won|
|1990||Outstanding Performance by an Actress Under Nine Years of Age||Day by Day||Nominated|
|1991||Best Young Actress Supporting or Re-Occurring Role for a TV Series||Parenthood||Nominated|
|1992||Best Young Actress Starring in a Motion Picture||Paradise||Won|
|1993||Best Young Actress Under Ten in a Motion Picture||Patriot Games||Nominated|
|Best Young Actress Starring in a Motion Picture||All I Want for Christmas||Nominated|
|1994||Best Youth Actress Leading Role in a Motion Picture Comedy||Hocus Pocus||Won|
|1996||Best Performances by a Young Ensemble – Feature Film or Video||Now and Then||Nominated|
|1997||Best Performance in a Feature Film – Leading Young Actress||Alaska||Nominated|
|1999||SDFCS Award||Best Supporting Actress||American Beauty||Won|
|2000||BAFTA Film Award||Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role||Nominated|
|OFCS Award||Best Supporting Actress||Nominated|
|OFCS Award||Best Ensemble Cast Performance||Won|
|Blockbuster Entertainment Award||Favorite Supporting Actress – Drama||Nominated|
|Screen Actors Guild Award||Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Theatrical Motion Picture||Won|
|Young Hollywood Award||Best On-Screen Chemistry (shared with Wes Bentley)||Won|
|Young Artist Award||Best Performance in a Feature Film – Supporting Young Actress||Won|
|YoungStar Award||Best Young Actress/Performance in a Motion Picture Drama||Won|
|2001||Young Artist Award||Best Performance in a Feature Film – Supporting Young Actress||Dungeons & Dragons||Nominated|
|Golden Space Needle Award||Best Actress||Ghost World||Won|
|TFCA Award||Best Performance, Female||Won|
|Deauville Film Festival||Best Female Performance||Won|
|SDFCS Award||Best Actress||Won|
|2002||Golden Globe Awards||Best Actress Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy||Nominated|
|VFCC Award||Best Actress||Nominated|
|Young Hollywood Award||Talent for Charity||Won|
|Cinescape Genre Face of the Future Award||Female||Dungeons & Dragons and Ghost World||Nominated|
|OFCS Award||Best Actress||Ghost World||Nominated|
|CFCA Award||Best Actress||Nominated|
|MTV Movie Awards||Best Line||Nominated|
|MTV Movie Award||Best Dressed||Nominated|
|Golden Satellite Award||Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical||Nominated|
|2003||Young Hollywood Award||Won|
|DVD Premiere Award||Best Supporting Actress||The Smokers||Nominated|
|Primetime Emmy Award||Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie||Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story||Nominated|
|2007||Nellie Tayloe Ross Award||Won|