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Despite Outward Appearances, She Found the Role Becoming

Thora Birch transformed herself into her 'Ghost World' character so completely, she had to apologize afterward.

July 17, 2001|HUGH HART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday July 20, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Comic books--Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books publishes the comic "Ghost World." The name of the publisher was omitted from a story that ran Tuesday in Southern California Living.

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."

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