In 2001, Thora Birch starred as the jaded Enid Coleslaw in Ghost World, a film directed by Terry Zwigoff and based on Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel of the same name. Repulsed by establishment normies and suspicious of those who passively accept the status quo, Birch’s interpretation of Enid—with her stubborn, world-weary demeanor, deadpan humor, and nonconformist style—became an icon for alt and angsty teens everywhere. The film soon became a cult classic.
At the time, Birch, then 19, was an in-demand actor. She had already been working for years, with roles in mid-90’s family fare like Hocus Pocus and Now and Then, and starring as the prickly, bored teen daughter in American Beauty. But then she all but disappeared from the limelight.
Or so it seemed. If you take a look at Birch’s filmography, or better yet, have a conversation with the actress herself, you’ll notice she has worked on a pretty consistent basis since the release of Ghost World. She just happened to side-step the typical fast-rise-and-steeper-fall narrative for child stars in Hollywood, which seems to have worked out nicely for Birch, who prefers independent filmmaking to blockbusters anyway.
Now, roughly two decades after her teen years, Birch is, for lack of a better word, back. The actress shows up for mere moments in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a melancholy story written by and starring Jimmie Fails, a third-generation San Franciscan who struggles to save his grandfather’s Victorian home in the “Harlem of the West” from being reclaimed by the city.
Birch’s appearance is almost a blink-and-you’ll-miss cameo, but an important moment nonetheless. So, how did the avatar for disaffected teenagers in the ‘90s and early aughts, end up in a crucial scene in The Last Black Man in San Francisco?
According to director Joe Talbot, it all comes back to the very film that cemented Birch, in his mind, as a misfit icon. “Thora is one of the great actresses of her generation and her work, in part, inspired me to want to make films. Her performance in Ghost World made me feel seen as a teenager when I was a bit lost,” Talbot explained. “At the end of that film, Thora rides a bus off into the sunset. In our film, we meet her character on a bus in the heart of San Francisco—almost as if she kept riding it all these years, and somehow wound up in the Bay Area working a tech job she loathed. Her exchange that follows with Jimmie, however brief, has been written about and quoted more than any other part of the film.”
The Last Black Man in San Francisco provides an answer to the question, who does Enid Coleslaw grow up to be? The answer is not necessarily what a fan of the character might hope to find, but it is fitting for the witty know-it-all from an unnamed suburban sprawl, and a fun bit of trivia to chew on after watching the movie.
When Jimmie hops on a bus near the end of the film, he overhears Birch’s character complaining to a friend about how much San Francisco sucks now that the Bay Area has been gentrified by tech bros and is overrun with venture capitalists. He tells her she does not have permission to talk about his city that way. “You can’t hate San Francisco unless you love it,” he says. She and her friend appear shocked and scoff, clearly turned off by this exchange, and to have been identified as not so different from the gentrifiers.
In real life, however, Birch couldn’t be further from the character she portrays in the film. She’s also one of the few people involved in the movie who is not from San Francisco, although she is a native of California. As Talbot declared, “Thora is so humble and down to earth, you almost forget she’s Thora Fucking Birch.”
Here, Birch spoke to W about her return to the big screen and being “normal,” as well as being a teen angst icon.
How did you get involved with The Last Black Man in San Francisco?
The director was a fan of Ghost World, which was a film I did that Dan Clowes created through a graphic novel. He’s a San Franciscan. And Terry Zwigoff, who directed the film, lives in San Francisco. [Joe] approached me with the script and I read it, and instantly fell in love with his vision and what he was doing, and the script itself. It was pretty apparent right away that it was a love poem about a city, but also about friendship and it was so rich with many, many different themes. Even though my contribution to it is quite small, I just wanted to be a part of it. San Francisco is my favorite Californian city and it’s a place that I go to quite often, and it’s near and dear to my heart. I thought it was timely as well as a return to this type of independent cinema that I appreciate and love, and so often miss honestly. I think when I first met Joe, I thought, wow this kind of reeks of a budding auteur, you know?
Joe told me he cast you because he was a fan of Ghost World, as so many people are. He also mentioned that he imagined your character in The Last Black Man in San Francisco as a grown-up version of Enid Coleslaw from Ghost World, if she got on the bus and made it all the way up north and landed a tech job.
I think we both got a kick out of that idea and concept! In many parts of the film, there are little crossovers to Ghost World. The whole bus theme, waiting for a bus, old naked dudes. [Laughs.] In some universe, one could make the argument that this is a version of Enid. I tried even with the costume to flirt with that idea, and make it come across as well with the leather jacket, and I don’t know if you can tell, but I have glasses hooked onto a strap on the jacket. We were definitely going there, but we didn’t wanna beat people over the head with it. If you don’t get the reference, you don’t get the reference, but if you do, it’s there for you.
Once he said that, it did make a lot of sense, and I’m sure people will pick up on it, since Ghost World is a cult classic. Have you seen a revival of that film and the early aughts style in the areas of pop culture you consume lately?
For sure! I see kids walking around today and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I think that’s an outfit I was wearing back in ‘97! What’s going on?’ It’s great. I feel like those kind of recycled trends have a cycle on its own. A couple years ago it was ‘80s love, right? Now it’s the ‘90s. Things are coming back. Now and Then is also getting a lot of attention and love. Certain things keep popping up from that era.
Do you ever rewatch any of your old movies, like Now and Then, Ghost World, Hocus Pocus?
I do sometimes. I have rewatched it, but in general no. I don’t know. I’d probably be too busy yelling at the television.
What else do you end up watching instead?
Oh, god, anything that’s streaming. I watch probably a little bit too much! [Laughs.] I watch anything from Ozark to Food Network Star. I really like Succession as well, I think that show’s really clever and entertaining, but also really poignant and on the nose with how some dynasties are, here in America, and in other places, too.
You’ve consistently worked as an actor for a couple decades now, and you’ve played some iconic characters, from Dani in Hocus Pocus to Enid in Ghost World. But at the same time, a lot of people might be asking, ‘What is Thora Birch up to? Where has she been?’ How do you answer that question?
I understand it. I did take a break. I stepped back. I receded from, let’s say, the forefront of the entertainment celebrity world. [Laughs.] But that was kind of intentional. I did want to breathe and reevaluate things. I got my degree, and it all brought me back to realizing that at the end of the day, I still want to just be a part of storytelling. Coming back has been a little bit of a bumpy ride, but it’s actually going really good, and I wish that we had this interview in a couple of weeks because then I would be legally able to tell you what I’m working on now. It’s one of those projects where you sign the paragraph that says, ‘If you talk about it, we will confiscate your organs.’ [Laughs.] So, there’s more to come.
You’re going to appear in a crime thriller called Above Suspicion with Emilia Clarke later this year. Were you a fan before you signed on?
Of the Mother of Dragons? Oh, heck yeah. I had seen a couple of seasons of Game of Thrones, then got distracted with other things and put it down for a couple of seasons. I watched the last one, so I’m an in and out Game of Thrones fan, but I’m a huge Emilia Clarke fan!
You said that you intentionally took a step back from the celebrity aspect of things. Was there a specific moment that made you realize you wanted to do that?
I would say it was a slow realization, but it was also exploratory. I was really in that phase in my life where it was like, ‘Right, did that. What else is there? Who else could I be? What else could I do that would be helpful to society, and that would be fulfilling for me?’ There really, at the end of the day, wasn’t. Maybe it’s because I grew up doing it and this is a passion, and I just know the world through that lens. There’s nothing to complain about when you’re working and doing things that you love, even though it’s not raking in, like, I’m not on the awards circuit or whatever. All that stuff at the end of the day doesn’t mean much. I also fell in love, got married, all that stuff. It’s just like, let’s go try the normal route. [Laughs.]
Do you like taking the normal route?
I like living in a half and half. I like having it both ways, honestly, I’m pretty selfish that way. [Laughs.] I like my anonymity, but if I can whip out the card when I need to, that’s good too! [Laughs.]
People on the inside have been talking about what goes on in Hollywood for decades, but now there’s #MeToo and bad behavior is being recognized as bad behavior. How have you seen the industry of Hollywood change over the last three decades, and how has it affected your career?
Right. You know, everything is so much different. The industry has changed right along with society. Now, I feel like everybody is kind of famous because everyone’s online. Talking about the influencer culture and everything. The “Hollywood” thing has become so widespread. But also, in specifically this industry, the changes have been good. It’s a lot. Studios are now, like, Netflix and streaming and everything, it’s wonderful because we have so many different outlets to express different types of stories. But at the same time, during that process, films like The Last Black Man in San Francisco kind of receded from the forefront, and now to have something like this come along is just great because it reminds me of the indie world of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, when we had all these great directors popping up. Somebody said Joe was like a cross between Wes Anderson and Spike Lee, and I was like, ‘That’s perfect!’
I can see that, the visual style is reminiscent of a storybook. And I can see the connection to Ghost World, too, as a graphic novel adapted for the screen. Do you have a favorite memory from working on Ghost World?
Oh, god, so many. Probably the first time I saw Ileana Douglas’s hair. [Laughs.] That was a big one. That was a surprise! I had so much fun—so much miserable fun—making that movie. Because at that time, I was Enid. There wasn’t a lot of acting going on there from me! I was already in her head space. I was a little bit moody, but I had a wonderful time. I love that story, and I love that character so much, and working with Terry and Dan, that whole cast was beautiful. It was a beautiful moment.
You mentioned influencer culture taking over Hollywood. What’s your approach to using social media?
I understand it from the sense of, it’s another outlet for advertising the work that you’re doing and reaching out and interacting with fans, which is key and important. But there’s so much about it that I am ambivalent about to say the least. There’s a portion of it that is concerning. The depression rate among young teens today is quite high, and you see kids around and they all have phones and they’re all swiping up, down, left, right, horizontally, diagonally, every which way they can. [Laughs.] They’re looking at a false version of everybody else’s life, and I think that that’s maybe not healthy. It could be contributing to those rates, so I don’t want to condemn it because it is here and I realize it’s not going anywhere, but at the same time I don’t want to play with it too much myself. Activism is an area where it can be beneficial today, in reaction to shootings and climate change and hot button issues. It’s a great format for organizing on that level and making a lot of noise. Things are looking up. But looking at cultural aspects that shove income inequalities and lifestyle variations in your face can contribute to those rates.
If you were coming up now as a young actor in 2019, how do you think you would handle the celebrity aspect of things? What sort of advice would you give yourself?
I think if I were that age now, I would be pretty concerned. I would probably have a phase or a couple of weeks where I totally went nuts and did it the way everyone else was doing, and then see the fallout from that and quickly adjust. [Laughs.] I think I might come back full circle to how I am about it now. But I think what kids today are doing is incredible, and there are some that are using it to the best of their advantage. It’s about the individual at the end of the day, how one can navigate those waters. I’m on Twitter, I don’t know why. [Laughs.] But I’m there because I feel like I have to have some kind of message for people who do want to reach out. When you get a little notification of someone that says they live in Australia or Brazil or whatever saying, ‘I’ve loved you since 1995,’ or whatever, and they just want to ask a question or give a nudge or a like, it’s nice to be able to provide that to them because they’re the reason I’m able to continue what I’m doing now.
I saw on Instagram that Mena Suvari, your American Beauty costar, shared a selfie of the two of you together. Have you kept in touch?
We kind of reconnected recently, almost two years ago. We reached out and had lunch. She’ll text me, I’ll text her. It’s great because we’ve had similar but different experiences working together, and it’s just fun to—with different eyes and different brains—to reconnect and compare notes.
When you look back on your career, what do you feel the most proud of?
Hmm. Not dying! [Laughs.] That’s a good one. I’m grateful for everything in its totality. There’s been so many great moments. I’ve gotten to work with so many incredible people. Then there’s been a little bit of dollops of shit here and there, but that’s life. That’s what it is. I maintain that the best project I’ve ever done, I haven’t done yet.
What’s one thing you wish you could go back and tell yourself 20 years ago?
Calm down. Really. Just calm it down. And really think before you speak.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your career?
As long as you keep waking up, there is an opportunity to do something new and wonderful. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but at least you get the opportunity.
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