What Happened to Thora Birch? Why the Critical Darling Fell Off the Radar

Many film fans wonder what happened to Thora Birch. She was once one of the most respected child and young adult actresses, but despite steadily working since her hey day, the projects have gotten far lower profile.

Amber Garrett - Author

Apr. 20 2020, Updated 2:33 p.m. ET

what happened to thora birch
Source: Disney, DreamWorks, United Artists

As a child in the '90s, Thora Birch had a highly successful film acting career, starring in Hocus Pocus, and alongside Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and A Clear and Present Danger. She seemed to be poised to turn into a successful adult career in the sorts of films critics love, like 1999 Best Picture winner American Beauty and 2001's Ghost World. And then, fairly abruptly, she seemed to disappear. 

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So what happened to stall Thora Birch's career?

While Thora has continued to act steadily since her heyday, the projects have certainly had a lower profile, and several factors have contributed to this. 

After portraying Jane Burnham in American Beauty, for which she won a SAG Award and several critics' awards, Thora's film resume took a bit of a left turn with the box office bomb Dungeons and Dragons. However, she seemed to bounce back and find just the right role for her as Enid in 2001's Ghost World. The film, based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, helped launch Scarlett Johansson's career and was a big hit with film buffs.

ghost world thora birch
Source: Untied Artists
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However, at this time Thora also found herself losing roles that eventually served as stepping stones for other actresses. For example, she was fired after three days of filming from the 1999 movie Election\ over differences with director Alexander Payne. The movie was a critical success and became an instant classic, plus it was instrumental in elevating co-star Reese Witherspoon's profile. (Thora had been cast as Reese's rival, Tammy Metzler).

Throughout the 2000s, Thora did work in television movies and several films that did not gain theatrical releases, instead being thrown to the "direct to video" slush pile. And, as she said in a 2014 interview with the Guardian, she thinks she just didn't have what people were looking for at the time. 

"I tried to walk a fine line between being alluring and somewhat glamorous but maintain a strong identity and pursue things that were a little more thoughtful," she explained, "and I guess nobody really wanted women to do that at that time."

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now and then thora birch
Source: New Line Cinema

(L-R): Thora Birch, Gaby Hoffman, Ashleigh Aston Moore, Christina Ricci

Thora also began to see the negative impact Hollywood had on some of her co-stars, which encouraged her to take a step back to pursue academic interests. During the '00s, at least three of Thora's former young co-stars died. Ashleigh Aston Moore, who played alongside Thora in 1995's Now and Then, died of a heroin overdose in 2007, followed by Ghost World co-star Brad Renfro, who ODed on heroin the following year. Then, in 2009, Brittany Murphy, with whom Thora appeared in the direct-to-video thriller Deadline, died under mysterious circumstances of pneumonia, anemia, and multiple drug intoxication.

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After taking a small step back and gaining a slight reputation for being difficult to work with — she felt people thought she should "just shut up" and conform to their expectations — her career went through a definite quiet period but she's perhaps poised for a comeback with a role in the next season of The Walking Dead.

Here are the details on Thora's Walking Dead character, Gamma.

thora birch walking dead gamma
Source: AMC
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Thora portrays Gamma, one of the Whisperers, the current villains of the show. Gamma is not directly based on anyone from the comics, but she will be a devout believer in Alpha's leadership unlike Alpha's own daughter, Lydia. Not much more is known about her role, but the photos of her so far tell us Daryl and the rest of the group should be scared.

The upcoming thriller Above Suspicion, starring Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke, may also breathe new life into Thora's career. Based on the true story of an FBI agent tried for murder, the film is slated for release sometime later this year.

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