Thora Birch
Birch in 2023
Born (1982-03-11) March 11, 1982 (age 42)[1]
  • Actress
  • producer
  • director
Years active1988–present
Michael Benton Adler
(m. 2018)
Parent(s)Jack Birch (father)
Carol Connors (mother)

Thora Birch (born March 11, 1982) is an American actress, producer, and director. She made her feature film debut in 1988 with a starring role in Purple People Eater, for which she received a Young Artist Award for "Best Actress Under Nine Years of Age". Birch rose to prominence as a child star during the 1990s through a string of parts in films such as Paradise (1991), Patriot Games (1992), Hocus Pocus (1993), Monkey Trouble (1994), Now and Then (1995), and Alaska (1996). Her breakthrough into adult-oriented roles came with her portrayal of Jane Burnham in American Beauty (1999), for which she was nominated for that year's BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress.

Birch received further acclaim—and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress—for starring as Enid Coleslaw in the cult hit Ghost World (2001),[2] and was nominated for an Emmy Award for her work in the 2003 television film Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story. Her other film credits during the 2000s included Dungeons & Dragons (2000), The Hole (2001), Silver City (2004), and Dark Corners (2006). Birch took a break from acting after producing and starring in the 2012 film Petunia;[3] she returned in 2016 and has since appeared in various independent features, such as The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019). From 2019–2020, she played the role of Mary (aka "Gamma") on the tenth season of AMC's The Walking Dead.

In 2022, Birch made her directorial debut with the Lifetime television film The Gabby Petito Story.[4] She will make her feature directorial debut with an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Mr. Paradise, making her the first woman to direct a Leonard adaptation.[5]

Early life

Birch was born in Los Angeles, California, to Jack Birch and Carol Connors, ex-pornographic film actors who both appeared in 1972's Deep Throat.[6][7][8] She is of German-Jewish, Scandinavian, French-Canadian and Italian ancestry.[9] Her forename is derived from that of Norse god of thunder and lightning, "Thor", which would have been her name if she had been born a boy.[10][11] She has a younger brother, Bolt Birch.[12]

Because of their own experience with the entertainment industry, Birch's parents were reluctant to encourage her to act, but were persuaded to show Birch's photograph to talent agents by a babysitter who noticed her imitating commercials.[13] Birch got her first big break at the age of four, when the babysitter accompanied her to a successful audition for a Quaker Oats commercial.[11]


1988–1998: Television work and film breakthrough

Birch appeared in commercials in the late 1980s for Burger King, California Raisins, Quaker Oats, and Vlasic Pickles.[11][14] She made her film debut as Molly Johnson in the 1988 science fiction comedy Purple People Eater, for which she received a Young Artist Award in the category of "Best Young Actress Under Nine Years of Age".[15] That same year, she guest-starred in an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D.,[16] and was cast in the regular role of Molly on the NBC sitcom Day By Day. The show ran for two seasons and earned Birch a further two Young Artist nominations.[15]

In 1990, Birch was cast in a principal role on Parenthood, a sitcom based on the 1989 film of the same name, which ran for a single season on NBC. Next, she co-starred as Billie Pike in the 1991 drama Paradise, with Roger Ebert commenting in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times that Birch played the role with "strong, simple charm".[17] She appeared in the festive comedy All I Want for Christmas that same year, playing a girl who schemes to reunite her divorced parents. The film was a moderate financial success,[18] but found an audience on television and home video in subsequent years.[19] She then co-starred as the daughter of Jack Ryan in the spy thriller Patriot Games (1992), a commercial success which grossed US$178 million at the worldwide box office.[20]

At age 11, Birch appeared in the Halloween-set fantasy film Hocus Pocus (1993), playing Dani Dennison, the younger sister of a teenage boy who inadvertently resurrects a trio of witches. Making US$39 million in the U.S. (against a budget of US$28 million),[21] Hocus Pocus was not considered a financial success, but quickly developed a sizeable cult following due to strong home video sales and television re-runs.[22][23] "I think the most surreal thing is that it keeps getting more popular instead of the other way around", Birch later said, while admitting the experience was "the most amount of fun I've ever had on a set".[24]

In the 1994 comedy Monkey Trouble, Birch portrayed a girl who befriends a Capuchin monkey. In a positive review for the Austin Chronicle, Marjorie Baumgarten observed that Birch's "nuanced performance (a rarity amongst child performers) no doubt lends Monkey Trouble its realistic touch".[25] That same year, she reprised her Patriot Games role in its sequel, Clear and Present Danger, which grossed over US$215 million globally.[26] She was then cast as "Teeny" Tercell in the 1995 coming-of-age drama Now and Then. The film was largely dismissed by critics upon release,[27] but has since been recognised as a milestone of its genre.[28] Next, Birch headlined the adventure film Alaska (1996), playing one of two siblings who cross the Alaskan wilderness in search of their lost father. The Austin Chronicle found it to be a "decent kids' adventure movie" with an "impeccable" performance by Birch.[29] For the next two years, she did not appear on film but guest-starred in episodes of Promised Land and Touched by an Angel.

1999–2003: Transition to adult roles

Birch appeared in several projects in 1999: firstly, the made-for-television film Night Ride Home, where she played a teenager grieving the loss of her older brother. Writing for Variety, David Kronke called it "a thoughtful and sensitive examination of how a family copes with grief", and said of the performances, "De Mornay … digs deep and comes up with a character that seems true; Burstyn and Birch competently complement [her]".[30] Next, she played the small, uncredited role of Mary in Anywhere but Here.

Birch's portrayal of insecure teenager Jane Burnham in American Beauty, Sam Mendes' dark dramedy about the struggles of a middle class household, was roundly praised by critics,[31][32] with Peter Travers of Rolling Stone writing that she "[glimmered] with grown-up radiance".[33] The performance earned her a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actress,[34] while the film was the recipient of the 1999 Academy Award for Best Picture and grossed over US$356 million worldwide,[35][36] emerging as the biggest commercial success of Birch's career to date.[37] She later said of the experience, "There was a lot of therapy involved … A lot of opening up and sharing things from our own lives about why we related to these characters. Everybody brought a lot of themselves to it. I know Annette did a lot of research about women becoming obsessed with the self-help realm. Kevin was working out obsessively and already in the headspace of [his character] Lester, even in rehearsals. And then there was Wes, Mena and I, who were these kids just incredibly excited to be there and watching [these] masters at their craft — just trying to absorb as much as we could from them".[38]

Following the success of American Beauty, Birch appeared in two films released in 2000: low-budget drama The Smokers, in which Birch was called "a scene-stealer" by The Hollywood Reporter,[39] and Dungeons & Dragons, a poorly-received adaptation of the fantasy role-playing game of the same name.[40] British horror film The Hole came next, where she starred as Elizabeth Dunn, a devious schoolgirl who lures her friends into an underground bunker. In a mixed review for Variety, Derek Elley stated that Birch gave "an effectively creepy lead [performance]", but called the film "clunky" in its "attempt to merge the psychothriller and teen movie genres".[41]

Birch's next project was the satirical 2001 comedy Ghost World, directed by Terry Zwigoff. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the film was released to an enthusiastic critical reception and developed a loyal cult following.[42][43][2] James Berardinelli found Birch's part to be her "first effectively developed role" since American Beauty, commending the actress for the "quirkiness [and the] underlying sense of melancholy and ennui" in her portrayal of Enid Coleslaw.[44] Meanwhile, A. O. Scott said in his appraisal for The New York Times:

Thora Birch, whose performance as Lester Burnham's alienated daughter was the best thing about American Beauty, plays a similar character here, with even more intelligence and restraint. Enid's capacity for scorn is unlimited: her plucked eyebrows might illustrate a dictionary entry for "supercilious," and her quiet voice shoots darts of sarcasm in every direction.[45]

Birch received various accolades for Ghost World,[15] including a nomination for the 2002 Golden Globe Award for Best Actress.[46]

In 2003, she appeared as the title character in the biographical television film Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story, starring as a young woman who, after becoming homeless at 15 amid personal tragedies, decides to finish her schooling. Birch's performance earned her a nomination for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress that year.[47]

2004–2012: Independent films and career lull

Birch played a supporting role in Silver City, a political satire directed by John Sayles, which premiered at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. The independent feature received mixed reviews, but Empire's Angie Errigo thought Birch's portrayal of whistleblower Karen Cross was "terrific".[48] She co-starred in the crime drama Slingshot the following year.

In Dark Corners (2006), a psychological horror-thriller about a young woman who wakes up one day as a different person, Birch starred in the dual role of Susan Hamilton and Karen Clarke. The film received a mixed reception, with Adam DiLeo of IGN praising its surreal, David Lynch-style elements, but criticizing Birch's performance.[49] She followed this with roles in two more genre films: Train—a loose remake of the 1980 slasher film Terror Train, released in 2008—and the psychological thriller Deadline, in which she co-starred with Brittany Murphy, who passed away shortly after the film's release in December 2009.[50] Birch later revealed she had been concerned about Murphy's wellbeing during filming.[51]

In the true crime drama Winter of Frozen Dreams (2009), Birch played Barbara Hoffman, a Wisconsin prostitute convicted of murder in the first-ever televised murder trial.[52] In a review for Bloody Disgusting, John Marrone described Birch's "alluring" performance as the highlight of the film.[53] Next, she took on the role of journalist Sidney Bloom in The Pregnancy Pact, a Lifetime movie based on the true story of a group of high schoolers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, who plotted to get pregnant at the same time and raise their children communally.[54] The film was watched by 5.9 million viewers when it premiered in January 2010.[55] Later that year, Birch was cast—in what would have been her stage debut—as Lucy in the off-Broadway revival of Hamilton Deane's Dracula,[56] but was subsequently dismissed from the production for the alleged behavior of her father—her manager at the time—who was reported to have physically threatened one of the show's cast members during a rehearsal.[6]

Birch played the role of Vivian in Petunia (2012), an independent dramedy depicting the lives and romantic relationships of a dysfunctional New York family. Birch, who is credited as one of its producers,[51] described the "intimate [and] honest" feature as "a little bit different".[57] Given a small theatrical release in the U.S.,[58] the film garnered mixed reviews,[59] though Birch and the rest of the ensemble were praised.[60][61]

2013–present: Break from acting and subsequent return

Birch with Jane Fonda at the 2015 Hollywood Film Awards

After devoting herself to academic pursuits, which included securing a degree in legal studies through Kaplan University,[62] Birch returned to acting in 2015 with a recurring role as software engineer Morgan on the first season of USA Network's Colony.[63] It was later revealed that Birch would not return for the second season because of a scheduling conflict, and that the part had been recast.[64]

Birch starred as a left-wing activist in the 2018 political thriller Affairs of State, which Noel Murray of The Los Angeles Times called "refreshingly smart".[65] In a less favorable review for Forbes, Luke Y. Thompson wrote, "[cinematographer] Horacio Marquinez gamely films everything like it's an art movie, though there's one scene in which he shoots Birch so unflatteringly that you wonder what she must have done to make him mad".[66] She headlined and co-produced The Competition that same year, an independent romantic comedy.[67]

Next, Birch starred in the 2018 drama The Etruscan Smile—an adaptation of José Luis Sampedro's novel—which was filmed in Scotland and received strong reviews.[68][69] The following year, she played a supporting role in the crime thriller Above Suspicion, which—after Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger in the 1990s—marked her third collaboration with director Phillip Noyce. In a positive review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw commented, "There's an interesting cameo from Thora Birch [as the] long-suffering Jolene".[70]

Birch's cameo appearance in The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019), a drama about a young man's pursuit to reclaim the Victorian home built by his grandfather, was considered a crucial part of the film's success.[3] Speaking of her casting and the symbolic nature of the part, director Joe Talbot said:

Thora is one of the great actresses of her generation and her work, in part, inspired me to want to make films. Her performance in Ghost World made me feel seen as a teenager when I was a bit lost. At the end of that film, [she] rides a bus off into the sunset. In our film, we meet her character on a bus in the heart of San Francisco—almost as if she kept riding it all these years, and somehow wound up in the Bay Area working a tech job she loathed. Her exchange that follows with [main character] Jimmie, however brief, has been written about and quoted more than any other part of the film.[3]

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019, where it won awards for Best Directing and a Special Jury Prize for Creative Collaboration.[71] It was released theatrically in the U.S. by A24.

Birch as Jolene on the set of Above Suspicion (2019)

Between 2019–2020, Birch appeared in the role of Mary (aka "Gamma") on the tenth season of AMC's post-apocalyptic horror series The Walking Dead,[72] with Collider commenting that she brought "emotional depth" to the part.[73] Birch called the experience "a fun, massive thing to have been a part of".[62] Next, in the independent drama 13 Minutes (2021), she played a single mother struggling to keep her family together in the wake of a destructive tornado. Rex Reed of The New York Observer felt that the film succeeded on the strength of its "compelling" and "likable" ensemble, singling out Birch as a highlight.[74]

Birch made her directorial debut in 2022 with The Gabby Petito Story, a Lifetime television movie in which she also co-starred.[4] The film is based on the 2021 disappearance of Petito, a 22-year-old who was murdered by her boyfriend during a cross-country drive. Birch said she had been wanting to direct since she was "nine or ten years old" and that it was the subject matter which drew her to the project: "There's an element of abusive relationships in this story that I think so many of us can relate to … [it] captured the entire nation's attention in the middle of Covid … Everyone stopped and took a minute and [said] "Where’s Gabby? What happened to Gabby?" That kind of fascination and focus point was something that I thought was a third character in [the] story".[75] The ethical nature of dramatizing such recent events was met with public criticism,[76] especially as the film—which premiered on October 12, 2022, just over one year after Petito's death—was made without the involvement of the Petito family.[76]

Also in 2022, Birch played Audrey Beach in the ten-part fictional podcast Overleaper,[77] an espionage-style thriller about a female soldier embarking on a top-secret mission. Birch said it was the idea of "a return to the old radio dramas … from the [1920s and '30s]", as well as the luxury of acting with her voice and not having to endure "the harsh physical positions that the character is in", which drew her to the project.[78]

It was announced at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival that Birch's next project as director—her feature debut—will be an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Mr. Paradise, making her the first woman to direct a Leonard adaptation.[79]

Personal life

Birch with Congressman Wiley Nickel in 2023

Birch married talent manager and philanthropist Michael Benton Adler on December 21, 2018.[80][81] Birch is a long-time Democrat who was a delegate at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.[82][83] In addition, she has supported Joe Biden and local political efforts, such as Congressman Wiley Nickel's campaign.[84][85]


Denotes films that have not yet been released


Year Title Role Notes
1988 Purple People Eater Molly Johnson
1991 Paradise Billie Pike
All I Want for Christmas Hallie O'Fallon
1992 Patriot Games Sally Ryan
Itsy Bitsy Spider Leslie McGroarty Voice role; Short film
1993 Hocus Pocus Dani Dennison
1994 Monkey Trouble Eva Gregory
Clear and Present Danger Sally Ryan
1995 Now and Then Tina "Teeny" Tercell
1996 Alaska Jessie Barnes
1999 American Beauty Jane Burnham
Anywhere but Here Mary Uncredited
2000 The Smokers Lincoln Roth
Dungeons & Dragons Empress Savina
2001 The Hole Elizabeth "Liz" Dunn
Ghost World Enid Coleslaw
2004 Silver City Karen Cross
The Dot Narrator Voice role; Short film
2005 Slingshot April
2006 Dark Corners Susan Hamilton / Karen Clarke
2008 Train Alexandra "Alex" Roper
2009 Winter of Frozen Dreams Barbara Hoffman
Deadline Lucy Woods
2012 Petunia Vivian Petunia
2018 The Etruscan Smile Emily
The Competition Lauren
Affairs of State Callie
2019 The Last Black Man in San Francisco Becca
Kindred Spirits Chloe
Above Suspicion Jolene
2021 13 Minutes Jess
2023 The Midway Point Cristina [86]


Year Title Role Notes
1988–1989 Day by Day Molly Recurring role (21 episodes)
1989 Doogie Howser, M.D. Megan Episode: "Vinnie Video Vici"
1990 Dark Avenger Susie Donovan Television film
Married People Emily Episode: "To Live and Drive in New York"
1990–1991 Parenthood Taylor Buckman Main role (12 episodes)
1991 Amen Brittany Episode: "Nothing Says Lovin'..."
1994 Monty Ann Sherman Episode: "Here Comes the Son"
1995 The Outer Limits Aggie Travers Episode: "The Choice"
1997 Promised Land Allison Rhodes Episode: "Running Scared"
Touched by an Angel Erin Episode: "The Pact"
1999 Night Ride Home Clea Mahler Television film
2002 Night Visions Susan Thornhill Episode: "The Maze"
2003 Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story Elizabeth "Liz" Murray Television film
2005 My Life as a Teenage Robot Vega Voice role; Episode: "Escape from Cluster Prime"
2010 The Pregnancy Pact Sidney Bloom Television film
2016 Colony Morgan Recurring role (2 episodes)
2019–2020 The Walking Dead Gamma / Mary Recurring role (9 episodes)
2022 The Gabby Petito Story Nichole Schmidt Television film (also director)
2024 Mayfair Witches Gifford Mayfair Television Series


Year Title Role Notes
2022 Overleaper Audrey Beach Main role / narrator

Music videos

Year Song Artist Notes
2002 "We Are All Made of Stars" Moby Directed by Joseph Kahn
2003 "Eat You Alive" Limp Bizkit Directed by Fred Durst


Selected accolades for Thora Birch
Year Award Category Work Result
1989 Young Artist Award Best Actress Under Nine Purple People Eater Won
1992 Best Actress in a Motion Picture Paradise Won
1994 Best Actress in a Motion Picture Comedy Hocus Pocus Won
1999 San Diego Film Critics Society Award Best Supporting Actress American Beauty Won
2000 Blockbuster Entertainment Award Favorite Supporting Actress – Drama Nominated
British Academy Film Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Online Film Critics Society Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated
Screen Actors Guild Award Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture (shared with the cast) Won
Young Artist Award Best Supporting Actress in a Feature Film Won
Young Hollywood Award Best On-Screen Chemistry (shared with Wes Bentley) Won
YoungStar Award Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama Won
Deauville Film Festival Award Acting Prize Ghost World Won
San Diego Film Critics Society Award Best Actress Won
Golden Space Needle Award Best Actress Won
Toronto Film Critics Association Award Best Female Performance Won
2002 Chicago Film Critics Association Award Best Actress Nominated
Golden Globe Award Best Actress in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical Nominated
MTV Movie Award Best Line Nominated
MTV Movie Award Best Dressed Nominated
Online Film Critics Society Award Best Actress Nominated
Satellite Award Best Actress in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical Nominated
Genre Face of the Future Award Female Nominated (also for Dungeons & Dragons)
Vancouver Film Critics Circle Award Best Actress Nominated
2003 DVD Premiere Award Best Supporting Actress The Smokers Nominated
Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story Nominated
2004 Prism Awards Performance in a TV Movie or Miniseries Won
2018 Boston Film Festival Prize Best Ensemble Cast (shared with the cast) The Etruscan Smile Won


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