What a difference 20 pounds, a colorblind wardrobe, Coke-bottle glasses, combat boots and a severely unflattering haircut can make. Last spring, Thora Birch put on all of the above to play Enid, the chunky slacker at the center of Terry Zwigoff's new film "Ghost World." Earlier this month, Birch showed up at a Beverly Hills cafe in defiantly non-geek mode: sheer silk designer blouse, black skirt, heels, auburn hair tastefully tied back. Enid, she will explain, is, like, history.
But little more than a year ago, Enid was all Birch could think about. A self-taught actress who started making TV commercials at age 4, Birch began taking a total-immersion approach to her roles when she portrayed sullen teenager Jane Burnham in the 1999 Oscar-winning "American Beauty." "When I make up my mind or for some reason have it in my head that I'm going to play a part," Birch chirps fervently, "the character will invade my life. I'm not taking her on; she takes over me ."
Enid was no exception. In "Ghost World," opening Friday in Los Angeles, Birch's tart-tongued character spends the summer fresh out of high school clomping through strip malls, yard sales, minimum-wage jobs, porn stores, blues clubs, art class and coffee shops. Although uncertain about her own future, Enid confidently mocks everything and anyone that crosses her path.
Describing the transformation, Birch says, "It probably sounds amazingly pretentious, but the only way I can explain it is, halfway through 'Ghost World' one day it hit me that I wasn't reacting to anything the way Thora normally does. I would see something and make a comment like Enid would, or I'd burst out laughing at things that I wouldn't myself find funny. And that's ... not such a great thing, because it can really affect your personal life. Like, I had to go back and apologize to so many people for my behavior and for things that I said. I did a lot of penance for playing Enid, a lot of penance."
When "Ghost" director Terry Zwigoff first met Birch, he had a hard time visualizing this actress, with her porcelain skin and inquisitive eyes, as his clunky, myopic antiheroine. Zwigoff needed his on-screen nerd to have some grit. After all, Zwigoff demonstrated deep empathy for world-class misfit and comic-book genius Robert Crumb in his 1994 documentary "Crumb." That movie earned a Sundance Grand Jury Prize, critical kudos and, for a nonfiction film, relatively handsome profits.
Zwigoff found the feature scripts that subsequently came his way "hopelessly contrived," so he decided to collaborate with his second-favorite comic-book artist, Dan Clowes. Together, the San Francisco malcontents adapted Clowes' serialized comic book "Ghost World" as a screenplay. Script in hand, Zwigoff nearly cast Christina Ricci as Enid four years ago, but financing fell through and Ricci moved on. He couldn't muster much enthusiasm for the bankable teen stars potential investors were insisting on. "They had people like Jennifer Love Hewitt and Melissa Joan Hart," Zwigoff recalls. "I kept saying these people are fine actresses, but they're too mainstream, they're just not troubled in the least. They have to be a bit of an outsider."
Then Zwigoff saw Birch in "American Beauty." They met. Zwigoff wanted to cast her as Rebecca, Enid's conventionally cute best friend, ultimately played by Scarlett Johansson ("The Horse Whisperer"). "I told her what my misgivings were," he says. Next came the lunch-that-was-really-an-audition. "We had another meeting about two weeks later and Thora was acting more like Enid," recalls Zwigoff. "It's not like she cut her hair or put on glasses or anything; it's hard to even explain because it was a very subtle thing, but I sensed Thora was slowly changing herself into Enid."
From the outset, Birch had her own ideas about what made Enid tick. "Terry would go, 'She has to have a really dry sense of humor.' I'd go, hmmm.' I didn't think that was the heart of it. I saw Enid as very vivacious in a lot of ways; that was the one thing I was always fighting to put on the screen, was her energy. Because the other is so easy--the dry, sardonic thing--that's very easy for me to do."
Ignoring the plate of fruit she's ordered, Birch leafs through the "Ghost World" comic book and says, "This is like what actually got me obsessed with it: Dan's ability to control the mood. Just the way Dan drew it, and the medium of it being a comic strip was something that really intrigued me. I could picture Enid's actions more. I viewed her as someone who has a lot of problems, but it is purely out of a major fear of becoming bored. In her situation, her surroundings, you know, I would be incredibly bored."
Enid's love interest, loosely speaking, is Seymour (Steve Buscemi), who bears a striking resemblance to Robert Crumb as portrayed in Zwigoff's documentary. Both love old blues and hate homogenized pop culture. Both collect 78 records. Both slouch. Both dress in drab vintage slacks. But it's actually Zwigoff, not Crumb, who's the doppelganger.
"I told Dan, in order to make this thing interesting to me I have to make it more personal," says the director. "So I added that character Seymour, which is basically me, poking fun at myself." That said, Zwigoff credits Crumb with "the whole cultural critique I try to imbue the film with. Robert changed the way I see the world. All the hypocrisy and paranoia and cynicism, all of America becoming one big corporate shopping mall. It's really kind of horrifying, to watch one monoculture creeping over the Earth."
Birch rolls her eyes when the subject of Zwigoff's worldview is brought up. "We love Terry, and I loved having Seymour, who is basically Terry, to play off of, but I never said, 'OK, I have to work on viewing the world this way and taking on these opinions.' It just sort of happens
Enid's wacky outfits surely helped get Birch into character. "If anything, Enid's an extrovert," says Birch. "I mean, come on, look at the way she dresses! I would never walk out of the house looking like that. She's in love with being an individual, she's obsessed with it. I mean, she gets up every morning and thinks, 'How am I going to make myself so I get the most amount of attention possible?'
"But at the same time, it's not in an 'I'm so fantastic' way. It's like, 'I am a freak! and I want people to love me for being a freak,' and that's what she's not getting; she's not getting the respect for her individuality, which is what I think she's seeking. She kind of finds it with Seymour, but in a sort of not-quite-how-she pictured-it way.
Nineteen-year-old Birch, on the other hand, suffers zero career ambivalence. By junior high school, she recalls, "I knew I wanted to do acting more than become a cheerleader. For some people, that is their goal: They get the boyfriend, they're going to go to the college, they're going to, you know, have spring break in Florida and it's gonna be awesome. And, to me, working with Kevin Spacey was a little bit more of an awesome idea."
But four years ago, the Los Angeles-based actress had hit an awkward age, too old to play the juveniles she'd perfected in films like "Patriot Games" and "Hocus Pocus," too young for twentysomething parts. Offers slowed to a trickle. "I was kind of down; I was working a little bit but it wasn't going anywhere. When 'American Beauty' came along, it was this great character that I hadn't played before that was kind of like me at the time. I guess I was entering my vaguely rebellious stage. ... I had always done really light, happy, giddy stuff and this was like a 180-degree turnaround for me. So I was sort of obsessed with that." After "American Beauty," Birch portrayed Empress Savina in the costume fantasy epic "Dungeons and Dragons." The film flopped at the box office but gave Birch a chance to go toe to toe with Jeremy Irons. The picture also released Birch from the clutches of her "Beauty" character, she says.
"'Dungeons and Dragons' was something I wanted to do because I needed to snap out of Jane. She was going to choke me, she was going to, you know, inebriate me socially, so I needed to do something very light and fun, more like what I had done as a kid."
Around the time Birch completed high school via a home study computer course, she received the script for "Ghost World." Here was a chance to play teen angst again, but this time with a flamboyant comic twist.
"All the attention 'American Beauty' got, that was kind of surprising.
As for the man who invented "Ghost World" in 1993, Dan Clowes says Birch nailed Enid. "It would been a real mistake to play Enid as just a world-weary slacker, because that's actually the opposite of what she is in the end. Thora picked up on that. The girls have this sense that the world is not that exciting on its exterior, but if you have a good imagination you can find ways to make it interesting."