19-year old Thora Birch was a rebellious teen in the dark Oscar winning American Beauty. In the fantasy adventure Dungeons and Dragons, however, the pretty adolescent shows her versatility as a good Empress trying to protect her kingdom from evil Jeremy Irons. Paul Fischer spoke to her in Los Angeles.
Having spent some time moping about on screen as the difficult daughter in American Beauty, Thora Birch decided it was time to do something a little more uplifting. Hence the decision to step into the fantasy world of Dungeons and Dragons, eons away from its predecessor. “The main reason I wanted to play the Empress was because she was the most sympathetic people on the planet. Her whole goal was to provide a better goal for her people. Coming from American Beauty, it was very easy for me to sort of stay in that film’s mindset that I had worked myself into. To go from that to the Empress was what I needed to force myself to get out of it.”
Based on the 25-year old cult game, the movie version of Dungeons and Dragons is set in the Empire of Izmer, which has long been a divided land. The Mages – an elite group of magic users – rule whilst the lowly commoners are powerless. Izmer’s young Empress, Savina, (Birch) wants equality and prosperity for all, but the evil Mage Profion (Jeremy Irons) is plotting to depose her, and establish his own rule. In order to prevent Profion from taking over her kingdom, the Empress must find the legendary Rod of Savrille that controls the powerful Red Dragons. Enter two thieves, Ridley and Snails, who unwittingly become instrumental in the search for the Rod. They are joined by Mage Apprentice Marina, a feisty Dwarf named Elwood, and helped by the Empress’s expert tracker, the Elf Norda, as they outrace Profion’s chief henchman Damodar to find the magical Rod that will set their Kingdom free.
Birch admits that she had little prior knowledge of the game, that first hooked a generation of .gamers’ a quarter of a century ago. “I’d heard of it but I wasn’t really aware of the cult following it had”. But once the actress was in the movie, “you could really see that the people who HAD played the game were really obsessed with it. They would get really excited about a film being made of it”. Birch adds that despite the long history of the role-playing game, the film will also appeal “to a broader audience of younger kids because it’s just one huge fantasy., and is not concerned that it is being released 25 years after the game’s conception. “You don’t need to know the game to enjoy this movie., she insists.
It seems that young Thora has had a charmed career in front of the cameras. By the time the six-year-old made her feature film debut with a small role in Purple People Eater (1988), she was already a veteran television actress with two years worth of commercial and series work under her diminutive belt.
Probably best known up to that point for her work opposite über-grandad Wilford Brimley in a Quaker Oats commercial, Birch went on to grow up in front of the camera, evolving from Monkey Trouble’s moppet with a primate to a bras ‘n’ boys-obsessed teeny bopper in Now and Then to Kevin Spacey’s rebellious daughter in American Beauty.
Birch, who was born in Los Angeles in 1982, first attracted sizable notice for her role as Elijah Wood’s tomboy friend in Paradise, a 1991 family drama that also starred Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. Afterwards, her visibility began to increase, first with a supporting role as Harrison Ford’s daughter in Patriot Games (1992) (which she reprised in 1994’s Clear and Present Danger), and then as one of the three kids who inadvertently bring three witches back to life in Hocus Pocus (1993).
The actress got her first chance to play a teenaged role in the aforementioned Now and Then (1995), a coming-of-age drama that cast her as the younger version of Paradise co-star Melanie Griffith. Neither that film, nor Birch’s subsequent project, Alaska (1996), made a great impact among critics or audiences, and it was not until the actress was cast in American Beauty (1999) that her career really began to accelerate. Birch, who dyed her hair Goth black and adopted a resolute sullenness for her role as the rebellious Jane Burnham, earned wide praise and a Screen Actors Guild award, and a host of international awards nominations for her work in the acclaimed film. Not that the young actress had such expectations while making the movie. “I was just so happy working with that cast and with such great material, but honestly I was not sure how people would react to it, apart from some critical attention, but I had no idea how the general audience would react.”
After the success of American Beauty, Birch-who also had an uncredited role in that same year’s Anywhere But Here- was suddenly busy with a number of projects. “The film really gave me some wonderful opportunities to do a number of different roles and different to what I HAD been doing.” Birch further felt that audiences would “only come to me with more dark roles or angry teens but in fact the opposite occurred, and I got all sorts of roles, from the sweet and innocent to the worst of the worst”.
Included amongst those were Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff’s screen adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ celebrated comic about two teenage girls trying to deal with life after high school. “It’s this cool psychological thriller where I play a high school graduate who goes through all these different changes in the course of a summer. She’s very confused but at the same time has a distinct sense of humour. It’s very funny in a dry, acerbic way”. Birch also completed shooting The Hole in London. “It’s about four, English public school students who go down to an abandoned bomb shelter for three days just to hide out and have a bit of fun, end up being there for 18 days, but only one comes out alive”.
This petite American beauty has come a long way since her debut at age 6. Confident, bright and beautiful, Birch hopes to eventually go to college but in the meantime is happy acting her heart out, maybe even reverting to theatre if the threatened actors’ strike pervades, “though I’m chicken shit about the stage, to be perfectly frank”.