Thora Birch On The Cult Legacy Of ‘Ghost World’

Getty Image / United Artists

I first discovered Thora Birch in Monkey Trouble, a 1994 film about — get this — a monkey who causes trouble. Apparently, so did Quentin Tarantino.

“I get compliments on that one from the oddest people,” Birch told me. “One time I met Quentin Tarantino, and that was what he knew me from. And this was just not that long ago, not long after American Beauty came out, and I thought for sure maybe that would be the one. And he’s like, ‘No, no, no. Monkey Trouble.’ And I go, ‘Oh, okay’.” Rest assured I’ll be using that story to prove I’ve got great taste in movies.

Birch was one of the surprise guests at the Cinespia at Hollywood Forever Cemetery screening of 2001’s Ghost World, an adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel, along with co-star Illeana Douglas and director Terry Zwigoff. It was a chance to see the impact the film had had on an entire generation in the 16 years since its release, packed into roped-off sections of a field filled with a hundred different shades of Enid Coleslaw, thanks to the many cosplaying attendees. There were Enids in the purple “raptor” shirt, Enids in the sex store cowl, Enids in her 1977 original punk rock look. I sat criss-cross on a “VIP” blanket in a field in a cemetery with Birch looking at younger versions of herself, in a moment so far beyond weird it went past normal and back to weird again.

Is it strange to watch a hundred version of yourself from 16 years ago circling you, I asked?

“It’s a trip to see,” Birch replied. “What’s fun for me to see is how nobody picks one specific look to mimic. They all have a look that speaks to them. From certain scenes and certain moments, and it’s trippy to see that. But it’s not that weird to me, because I just… Maybe it’s an LA thing, or just a West Coast thing, but I see a lot of Ghost World types, in general, just always around. So, I see a lot of Enids. I’ll definitely see somebody walking or just going to work or whatever, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s an Enid.'”

Back in 2001, when it was released a month before September 11, Roger Ebert wrote he wanted to “hug this movie.” And while it didn’t have much of an impact at the box office, it’s a film of earnest and lost sincerity that played off the decade that came before it and set the tone for the unexpectedly false-facing, jaded decade that would follow, a decade without an identity, one we’re still trying to climb out of today by drifting backwards.

“Honestly, I think for this moment in time, it fits perfectly right into the ’90s love that we’re experiencing,” Thora said. “Now, granted, this is a 2000 film, 2001, but it really encapsulated the last of that ’90s vibe. It was a film deeply rooted in a pre-internet culture, kind of, even though the internet was very much there and around, it wasn’t what it became. It was before it invaded everyone’s life. And I think it was this time where I think people felt that culture was becoming stale, and that nothing was real anymore. And there was… Everything was just faux. Faux happiness, faux celebrations, faux jazz, faux all of it. And I think that right now, we’re probably in a time where we’re hoping things aren’t real. So we can look back to this and like, ‘Remember kind of like when we were happy?’ even though this is a film about sadness and misery. We were still like, ‘We were happier then, okay.'”

Ghost World feels like it might’ve been tailor-made to become a cult classic, but those behind the film didn’t think that at the time.

“I certainly didn’t think that. I was just so in love with the character and the world. I mean, I had first read the script, and Enid spoke to me as somebody who was saying a lot of the things that I wanted to say in a way that I wanted to say them. Now, looking back, granted that wasn’t very friendly or approachable, or you know even, conducive to future success… but it was It was largely how I felt, and she allowed me to vent in that way. So because of that, this is a personal film for me. So I was only looking at it from that point of view. And also just steeping myself in Terry [Zwigoff] and Dan [Clowes’] world, and kind of getting their flavor.

“I really wasn’t thinking about the outcome and honestly, I probably shouldn’t even say this, but when I first saw the movie, I was convinced, ‘Yeah, that’s it. My career’s over.” Like, ‘That’s it, forget it.’ Because, I was so close to it, and it was one of those things where, ‘Oh, oh, that’s how I am.’ … I had a moment of, what was I thinking? What was I doing? But then, when people really responded to it, I was like totally… it was this sense of relief, but then I started to see it through their eyes, and I fell in love with it again. But then I had to completely let it go, so that I could eliminate her personality from mine, and get back to the real me, kind of.”

It went past good, and back around to bad again.

“Totally, yeah. It was so good it was bad, very bad. And then bad, it as good.”

It wasn’t easy to get a comic book movie off the ground in 2001 unless you wore a leather body suit and could pop claws. Between the pioneers of the modern superhero movie — the Blade films, the first two X-Men movies– and 2008’s game-changing Iron Man, Hollywood tried to connect to comics-reading audience through the smaller, independent gems you’d find at your local shop. Ghost World was a key part of that.

“It was at the forefront of a slew of graphic novels that eventually went on to [become films]. I mean, there was Ghost World, and then there was some odd ones, like Sin City, and even Road To Perdition. They were odd so, I think Ghost World helped to legitimize the graphic novel/comic world in a different world. Obviously, there’s DC, Marvel and all that, but there’s the underground comic scene that is uniquely San Francisco.

“So this is really a California movie, and you might hear me repeat myself tonight, but to be here this evening is so special to me, because I know a lot of people view Ghost World as a film that takes place in Anytown, USA, but any Angeleno knows, we’re filming all over this town. This is an LA … It’s the unknown LA, in a way. It’s the mundane kind of LA I grew up here, I’m an LA girl, just by birth. Maybe not by personality, but I’m not sure. And so it’s totally this is a full-circle moment.”

Birch spent the rest of the evening taking pictures with fans, watching countless Enids fumble with camera phones and try to work the flash in a cemetery sunset.

If you find yourself reading any part of this and thinking, “What happened to Thora Birch,” just look closer. She’s done everything an actress can do, when you think about it, from starring in Quaker Oats commercials when she was four, to being in a Best Picture winner, to being nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Emmy. In the next year she’ll appear alongside Jack Huston and Emilia Clarke in Phillip Noyce’s Above Suspicion, star alongside Adrian Grenier in the political thriller Public Affairs, and show up in the romantic indie comedy The Competition with Chris Klein. And she’ll continue to remain deeply connected to the generation that grew up watching films like Now and Then and Hocus Pocus, which turned her into a keychain at Spencer’s Gifts. And, of course, Monkey Trouble.

But who would recognize her from that?