Single Copies

A Conversation with Thora Birch

By Brennen Matthews

Photographs by J Squared Photography

Growing up I was a film fanatic. I couldn’t wait for the weekend when my dad would take us to the movie store, and we would hungrily grab the new movies that we’d been timing – if they were in, that is. Most new releases would disappear pretty quickly. In those early days, home entertainment was a new thing and we all rushed to take hold of those magical clunky VHS tapes. As a young person, I of course preferred younger talent. In the 1980s, I grew up watching Corey Feldman, Corey Haim and River Phoenix among many others of that age group. And then came the 1990s and everything started to change. Technology transitioned to DVDs and Hollywood championed a slew of new young talent. It was about this time that I discovered an impossibly cute, undeniably charismatic young actress named Thora Birch. This little girl made scenes come alive and felt natural in every character that she played, be it in the Christmas classic, All I Want for Christmas, or as Harrison Ford’s daughter in Patriot Games. In an industry of pretty faces and short careers, something about her stood out.

As I got older, my taste in film changed, and Birch’s roles followed right along, maturing, diversifying as she too came of age. She starred in cult classics like American Beauty and Ghost World, films that struck a chord with audiences. Then as if out of nowhere, inexplicably, but again, this is not unheard of in Hollywood, Birch seemed to just disappear. We stopped seeing her on the Big Screen. Out of sight, out of mind they say. Entertainment is a fickle industry, and we are fickle people. But then, again, as if all of a sudden, she began to appear in projects once more, and she has not slowed down since.

Now with a wealth of roles under her belt, Thora Birch is back in the spotlight with her directorial debut of the The Gabby Petito Story, for Lifetime, and laser focused on where she wants this season of her life and career to go.

Your foray into the entertainment industry came at a very early age, when you were only four years old!

My very first commercial was for California Raisins. It was the last commercial that they shot using actors instead of those little dancing raisins. The premise of the commercial was the crazy things that young children would do to procure snacks. It was just a montage of different images. My image was that I was sitting in front of an empty fridge… all the contents are spilled out on the floor. It was like one of those “ah, gotcha” moments, and I remember them handing me this hotdog and a jar of peanut butter. They were like, “Okay, dip the hotdog into the peanut butter!” I was like, ‘That’s disgusting, but okay, that’s what they want me to do, so…’ (Laughs) That’s the only memory I have of that.

Then you jumped right into a diversity of movie genres. All I Want for Christmas (1991), which is a really great movie with Ethan Embry, then Patriot Games (1992) with Harrison Ford, followed by Hocus Pocus (1993) with Bette Midler.

I also did Paradise (1991) when I was nine, with Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. That was my first real film. It was based on a French film, Le Grand Chemin, and Mary Agnes Donoghue was the director. I worked with Elijah Wood, as well. That was the first encounter I had with the concept of “acting,” instead of just performing. It was the first, you know, this is a character, this is how she feels, this is how she thinks. Mary was really good at getting us to… you know, nine- and ten-year-old little kids, we can get a little rambunctious from time to time. She was really great at grounding us and taking us into a more somber place to hit some of those notes. That film informed the kind of projects that I wanted to do after that. With Patriot Games, that was just like, let me sign away my life right now, so I can work with Harrison Ford. (Laughs) Whatever we need to do, let’s do it! He was my hero at that time.

Were you a fan of Star Wars?

No, Indiana Jones was my jam. You know, when you’re that age you watch films over and over and over. Indiana Jones was on my loop of those films that I watched repeatedly.

Do you remember being starstruck when you first met him?

Oh yeah! I was nervous as all get-out. I don’t even know how I got through the audition with him. Honestly, maybe it helped that I was so nervous, because at some point, they were like, “Bust through this door, act like you are really really scared, like you’re crying, like someone’s coming to get you, and you just need your dad to protect you, and everything.” I was, ‘OK, I’m so nervous right now, I could totally do that! I am terrified! I do want to cry! I do want my dad!’ (Laughs)

How was he to work with?

A dream. You know, he had a really sardonic delivery in everything he does, but for me looking at him at that age, I was just too nervous to be around… I wanted to observe and not draw attention to myself. I wanted to see what the real Harrison was like. Okay, he’s not Indiana Jones, got that. Who is he then? But he was super cool, really, really dedicated to the technical aspects of the craft and what his job was. He was very circumspect about every little choice, and very collaborative. Getting to observe that was a real eye-opener, too. There’s a level of care and dedication that professionals employ when it comes to it. And that really stuck with me. That, and Altoids. (Laughs)

At that young age?

Well, yeah, after lunch, you know, he would pop one. (Laughs) Other times too! After lunch one day he was like, ‘Would you like an Altoid?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know what that is, but I’ll try one.’ (Laughs)

Were you excited about Hocus Pocus, because that seems like a fun picture for a kid to do?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, I remember getting the script, which at the time I thought was overly dense, because it had all this information about the background of the witches, and my ten-year-old brain was like, ‘Come on, get to the story, guys. Where’s the dialogue? What are we doing? What are we saying?’ But you know, Halloween always was, is, and will always be, my favorite holiday, so getting to play that kind of sassy Dani Dennison who always had some kind of sharp comeback was a lot of fun. The sets were amazing. I loved working with Vinessa [Shaw] and Omri [Katz]. I was super excited to just be working on such a cool project. I had familiarized myself with Bette Midler, and a little bit with Kathy [Najimy], but, you know, we didn’t get a chance to work with the witches THAT much. But when we did, those days were like a blast. And the sets were so amazing, and Kenny Ortega, our director… There are so many great things to say about that movie, but I guess the downside of that is that when it first came out, it was a bust.

It never did well when it first came out?

Not, not really. It was critically panned. Yeah, and it didn’t make that much money and then like five or six years later people started talking about Hocus Pocus again and it really hasn’t stopped. Like, it gets really loud around August. (Laughs) People start screaming about it.

Now, your parents were also in the entertainment industry.

Were they? (Laughs)

I won’t go too far into the weeds with that, but as adult performers in the 1970s they weren’t naive with the types of characters and dangers that their daughter could be running into. How did you first get into the entertainment industry and were they very protective?

I grew up in one of those clean living, no TV households, for kids. But when my babysitter, slash friend of the family, came over, that was the first thing that came on. And she got this idea that I was super cute because I would run around imitating commercials that I had seen on TV, and she was like, “You should get her a headshot,” “You should take her to auditions,” and I think that at first, my parents were like, “What, no, that’s exactly what we’re not trying to do right now! We’re not even wanting her watching TV. You think that we want to put her on it?” (Laughs) But she was persistent, and they said, “OK, fine, if that’s what you want to do when you’re babysitting her, that’s fine, at least it will get you out of the house.” And I just started booking right away. I enjoyed the work, and I think when I got the television show Day by Day (1988) for NBC, that’s when they were like, “Oh, Oh, okay…” Also, I was six and at that point and it was time to, you know, enroll in school, and start your life, basically. But I didn’t want to stop doing commercials or whatever it was I was doing on set. I wanted to keep doing that. And I didn’t get why going to school would mean that I couldn’t work. I was very confused. I was also six. (Laughs)


They did become incredibly protective. But for a long time, it was really great, because I really needed that. I remember there was one project (Interview with a Vampire) … I don’t know if I even made the right call, but I remember at the time that it was a big deal, and everybody was super excited about the idea of me playing this role, because it was such a big deal. I liked many aspects of it, but there was one element of the character, and her trajectory, and her relationship with an older male actor, that kind of made me uncomfortable.

Another movie that you did that I really like because of the whole nostalgic aspect of it is Now and Then (1999). It was sort of the girl’s coming-of-age drama answer to Stand By Me (1986).

Yeah, that was the whole intention with that film, to be a slightly more upbeat “answer,” as you said… that was the mission that Demi Moore and the Todd sisters had. It was largely the first female helmed/produced/controlled, creatively envisioned, executed film that I had worked on. It was only the second female director that I’d worked with. And then seeing all these baller ladies putting this movie together, that was super cool. I wanted to have an experience of having a core “clique” of girlfriends, because that was something that when you’re in and out of school for three months at a time – because back then that’s how long films used to take to make – you’re in, you’re out, you just don’t forge those long-term friendships.


You know, we weren’t texting. So, reading that script, and having that nostalgia, I considered myself like a little hippie chick. I really kind of worshiped the 1960s and 1970s and all that; the music, the clothes, everything related to that time and then, specifically, the character of Teeny, who I responded to because she was so funny. In my mind, she was mature for her age in a certain way. It was a lot of fun. The problem became, though, everything that I wanted, I got. (Laughs) Now I’m on-set with a bunch of girls! They’re 13 and 14 and they’re not very nice! (Laughs)

Now that you’re in your 40s, have you found that nostalgia is a characteristic that you’ve carried throughout your life? Do you look back as much as you look forward?

I certainly can have nostalgic moments, but not outside the norm. Sometimes I feel like I’m trapped in an era when it comes to music preferences or sometimes if an old movie that I’ve seen like a hundred times is on, for some reason I’ll think, ‘Okay, I’m gonna put that on, it’s good, I like it.’ But as far as feeling trapped in an era or anything like that, no. I’m definitely about looking forward.

So, you transition from a child actor where your roles were predominantly the very cute, precocious, little girl, to, let’s say American Beauty (1999), and you’re now transitioning into young adult roles. For a lot of young people, especially women, the industry starts to have very different expectations for what a young woman is going to bring than what a child is going to bring. What was that like as you were moving into more mature roles?

Well, I think that you can look at the roles that I played during that period and probably draw a lot of conclusions that are broadly accurate. I internalized a lot of that. I certainly felt like there was a level of expectation for me that I didn’t necessarily agree with or have for myself per se, but didn’t know how to fully express why I didn’t have those same [expectations] for myself.

And then it’s dealing with a changing body, and hormones and insecurities and budding sexuality and all of that stuff. I had insecurities about being a late bloomer.

I had a lot of struggles, like a lot of young women in that era, making that transition, because I felt like I didn’t have full ownership. Of myself. Of my goals. In how I wanted to present myself. And also, there was a side of me that, you know, I was that sassy kid, I was a tomboy, maybe a little too stubborn, I don’t know exactly how to define it, but I had a fight in me. But the way that expressed itself was through me emulating who I looked up to at that time and all of them were male!

I wanted to have a guy’s career, so again, I emulated how I wanted to be, the type of performer, entertainer, on-set person that I wanted to be. I wanted to emulate Brad Pitt! Christian Bale! Leo [DiCaprio]! Basically, I wanted to find out, ‘How do these guys operate? What do they do?’

You made a couple of interesting creative choices and then around 2012, you had a bit of a departure from the spotlight for maybe, three, four years?

Yeah, basically what happened was, I think I was twenty-seven or something like that, I hit that place where all of the things we’ve just been discussing kind of came to the forefront and I had to confront it and address it. My resistance to chase whatever type of success that I thought people had been wanting me to chase or whatever. I had to really confront how I felt about all of this, and I also noticed that I really needed to take a moment to find, me. And, okay, did all that stuff – loved acting, loved storytelling, loved the creative process, loved being on the set – hate pretty much everything else about it, so what do I want to do with my life?

And, by the way, I never went to college when I should have. Okay, so, let’s address all of that. Let’s take a moment. And let’s see what we’re gonna do. So, I got my degree in Pre-Law and that took me to thinking that I was going to be a writer. (Laughs) Then I wrote a play and a screenplay. Then I noticed, wait a minute, you really do want to be still making a moving image, telling stories through a moving image. You still want to do that no matter what, no matter how you do it, that’s what you really want to do. So, let’s go back to it and see what happens.


At first, trying to explain that in an audition or in a casting room or to an agent or Anybody, you realize, ah, the culture really hasn’t changed that much. (Laughs) You know, that’s a really long-winded explanation… people are like, “Look, man, I gotta go…” (Laughs) But then, you know, you keep hitting the pavement and something’s gonna pop, and one thing will lead to another, and then I got representation, and I started doing gigs again, The Walking Dead and all of that, and now I’m acting. I directed a film for Lifetime. I’ve got four projects in one or another phase of development in that area. I’m in a nice place for right now. I’m happy.

I was a huge fan of The Walking Dead for the first three or four seasons, but you came on in Season 10. By that time, the show had really changed. It felt a lot darker in Season 10 than it was in the early seasons. Were you a fan of the show prior to joining the cast?

No, I had heard a lot about it as we all did, but I, you know, it’s interesting because as far as many dabblings I’ve had in the horror world through small indies... I’m not a horror fan. I feel like there are two types of people: you’re either a zombie person or a vampire person. I’m a vampire [person]. So that’s what kind of kept me away from it. But then when I was approached with the opportunity to participate in Season 10, I figured, well you know, maybe I should educate myself. So, I did a slam through. I made it to about season four, five, until I had to go into production. I felt bad for having such an attitude about the show without knowing anything about it. It was honestly really engrossing.

What was the atmosphere like on-set?

Well, there’s this whole thing about the “The Walking Dead family.” The show considers that to be a mix of the cast, crew, and fans. My experience of what it means to be a part of it is that you are all in it together and get along so well because you all are completely miserable at the same time and in the same way. It’s just awful work. I don’t know what sort of person who delights in the pain of others decided to shoot in the SUMMER in Atlanta! You can do the winter in Atlanta; it’s not going to snow! (Laughs) But it’s a bonding element. Even when you’re out and about, I could see someone who was in four to seven episodes of Season 3 and you’ll see somebody out at a party or something and it’s like, ‘Oh, hey! You were on the show!’ There’s no other reason you would know this person, other than you were on the show. So, it’s a fun, massive thing to have been a part of.

And also, just the process of filming. They practically have the whole state down there. It’s like a 300-acre studio. All those neighborhoods are built. The set is the same. Some people live in those houses on the set. It’s its own community. It’s a living beast. When you enter in Season 10 of something like that, it’s such a well-oiled machine. Yeah, you’re a part of the family, ‘Welcome!’ You feel very welcomed, but also you know, or feel – at least I did – ‘Yeah, but I’m not one of the OGs on this, am I?’ (Laughs)

The Gabby Petito Story, your directorial debut with Lifetime. This was such a hot button and emotive story because it captured the entire nation. And it was also still very raw. What drew you to want to tackle something that was so controversial and front-page news at this early point in time. Were you concerned at all about it being too early to do the film? How did you get attached to it in the first place?

I had a successful history with Lifetime. I had been speaking with them off and on here and there about maybe directing something for them. It didn’t always work out, but this round of conversations I said, ‘Okay, well, what are you guys interested in? What are you guys looking at right now?’ And then they brought up the Gabby Petito story. Now, I had heard about Gabby, but I didn’t follow the story. I heard about it because I was out of the country and friends and family members were asking me like, ‘Are you following this Gabby…’ and I’m like, ‘What? Gabby? Oh, yeah, I guess I saw something on my news feed about that. That’s horrible. I feel so bad.’ Whatever, but it wasn’t anything I was… I wasn’t invested. So, I didn’t know too much about it. But when Lifetime brought it up, I started to look into it and researched it as they were writing the script. I was fascinated by so many elements just from what I was seeing and discovering in my own research. Everything from the controversy over the police stop to why people knew about her in the first place to him and his family and their journey and all of these areas.


All of these crazy things that were colliding within one simple story about a couple that just didn’t belong together. But it brought in all these other elements. A COVID trapped society that’s obsessed with true crime, and now a bunch of people think they’re going to solve it quicker than the FBI will. All that crazy stuff. I was like, ‘Wow, this is a lot to tackle here. How are you going to do that in an 84-minute Lifetime movie? That’s a daunting task. I wonder who could even attempt to do that and not have it come out as a total disaster?’ I’ll try it! (Laughs)

Did you have much of a say as a director in the script’s development?

So, the process is... Just because they’re getting a script written doesn’t mean that it’s automatically going to be a Lifetime movie. The network says, ‘Okay we want this,’ then everybody comes running to them like, ‘Let us do that for you,’ and then they look around and pick who they’re going to hire to write it. So, it’s a different kind of– getting the green light, let’s just say, is something that a director on one of their films doesn’t have a lot to do with.

Lifetime said, ‘Here’s the script.’ I gave some notes. Well, I gave a lot of notes. Some were listened to. And then it was, ‘Okay, you have 18 days to do this and you’re going to be in that state. You’re going to be working with this person, that person.’ The casting process was probably more my number one concern.

Yes, I did have those concerns. I did have the awareness that people were going to be very angry, and that no matter what I did they would not like it. So, I decided to forget about it and just try to find my understanding of the two humans that this actually happened to, out of respect for everyone involved, because so many people are still living from the fallout from this and there are so many injured parties. And that is something to be a little precious about. It was something that I know my actors were very concerned with. It does require a large amount of sensitivity, but at the same time, you still have a job to do, and to do it right, there has to be a certain amount of emotional... not detachment, but a layer of protection for yourself so that you can focus on the work and not on what people are going to say about the result.

The actors that played Gabby Petitio and Brian Laundrie did an amazing job.

I loved Skyler Samuels. I loved Evan Hall. They were such a great team together. I mean, casting that was so stressful. There were so many different requirements that each role had from the visual to the physical to the behavioral– all of it. I think they just did great. I really really lucked out with those two.

Evan Hall looks very much like Brian!

He really really does. The first time I saw him in one of his outfits– I mean my costumer was excellent with all the research she did. Every single item that they are wearing are actual brands, clothes that had been documented. So, the first time I saw them come out of the wardrobe trailer in one of those outfits, I got the chills. I got creeped out. But he had that effect on a lot of people.

It is a very human story, a very tragic story. People are complex. There were key elements to that story and I think you brought them out well.

Thank you, I really appreciate that. I don’t want to get too in the weeds of it, but with domestic violence there is no black and white. An abuser is an abuser and that is a crime and those people should be prosecuted, but it takes two to tango. And when you’re young, what you think of as an okay relationship is not how you’re going to think about it 10-15 years down the road. Also, when you’re in that situation, maybe you shouldn’t be isolated with one another traveling across the country in a small van completely cut off from society, other than some photos that you may or may not be able to upload. I think it’s a bit of a cautionary tale.

Another theme from the film that I love is road trips. The film takes place in one of the most beautiful stretches of the country, the whole of Utah, Moab valley.

Absolutely. Utah had so many wonderful vistas, so many great places for us to shoot. Tough finding Florida in Utah.

Did you grow up in a road trip family or are you personally a road trip person?

I have spent an inordinate amount of time in cars. I think if I were to calculate it I have probably spent a solid twelve years in cars. I do love a good road trip. I like them a little bit more now, but I’ve always been okay in cars. Road trips specifically are great. I still have to do the entire cross-country thing though. I drove back from Utah to California and that was fun. I feel like that’s not exactly half way, but I’m getting there.

So, have you ever done any of Route 66?

Yes, oh yeah. Even growing up in Southern California you are kind of always confronted with Route 66 or the signs… I know all along the 15 and into Nevada… I think it cuts into Santa Monica Boulevard at some point?

It ends at the Santa Monica Pier.

It ends at the Pier, that’s right. Then, yeah. I’m always on Route 66.

You recently celebrated your fourth wedding anniversary. Congratulations! Your husband, Michael Benton Adler, is a talent manager with the same firm that your own manager works at. How did you guys meet?

It was kind of like, well, I mean, they work together. I knew him a little bit and at first we didn’t really get along. But then I kept running into him at events and we discovered that we shared many viewpoints, had things in common, sense of humor. All the good best friend qualities and things. Then one night, you know how things go, it turned romantic and pretty much after that, we were practically married. We had a three-year engagement or whatever, but we were already, we just became an instant married couple.

Looking back at your career and life, what things are you most proud of in your first forty years?

Probably being able to tap into my resilience when I most needed to. For a long time, I attempted to be my own therapist, whether it’s good or not. I’m sure, many times it’s not. There’s a self-reliance emotionally that I think I can be proud of. I’m also proud of my relationship with my husband and how we navigate that so far, seven years on. I’m proud that I am where I am now and not anywhere else.

What type of music genres do you listen to?

Well, I’m all over. I like a lot of different genres. I was an alternative-chic.

You’re on an island, you can only bring 5 CDs. What artists do you take?

Only five! You know what, don’t even… I’d rather be music-less. Let me see, okay. Just 5? Really, man? Okay, I’m going to have to do these out of order, because there are so many great albums. Let’s go with bands. Pink Floyd. Red Hot Chili Peppers. Fiona Apple. Beatles, gotta have them. And then the last one… The last one has to be split between Weezer and Counting Crows.

Those are all great groups!

I left out so many. Tonight, I’m going to be up and thinking, ‘Man, why didn’t I say them? I forgot about them!’


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