By the time six-year-old Thora Birch made her feature film debut with a small role in Purple People Eater (1988), she was already a veteran television actress with two years' worth of commercial and series work under her diminutive belt.
Probably best known up to that point for her work opposite über-grandad Wilford Brimley in a Quaker Oats commercial, Birch went on to grow up in front of the camera, evolving from Monkey Trouble's moppet with a primate to a bras and boys-obsessed teeny bopper in Now and Then to Kevin Spacey's rebellious daughter in American Beauty.
Birch, who was born in Los Angeles on March 11, 1982, first attracted sizable notice for her role as Elijah Wood's tomboy friend in Paradise, a 1991 family drama that also starred Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. Afterwards, her visibility began to increase, first with a supporting role as Harrison Ford's daughter in Patriot Games (1992) (which she reprised in 1994's Clear and Present Danger), and then as one of the three kids who inadvertently bring three witches back to life in Hocus Pocus (1993).
The actress got her first chance to play a teenaged role in the aforementioned Now and Then (1995), a coming-of-age drama that cast her as the younger version of Paradise co-star Melanie Griffith. Neither that film, nor Birch's subsequent project, Alaska (1996), made a great impact among critics or audiences, and it was not until the actress was cast in American Beauty (1999) that her career really began to accelerate. Birch, who dyed her hair Goth black and adopted a resolute sullenness for her role as the rebellious Jane Burnham, earned wide praise and a Screen Actors Guild award, and a host of international awards nominations, for her work in the acclaimed film.
After the success of American Beauty, Birch -- who also had an uncredited role in that same year's Anywhere but Here -- was suddenly busy with a number of projects. Included among them were Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff's screen adaptation of Daniel Clowes' celebrated comic about two teenage girls trying to deal with life after high school; The Smokers, a teen drama that cast Birch as a drug-addled schoolgirl; and Dungeons and Dragons, in which she played an empress whose mystical kingdom is threatened by an evil wizard (Jeremy Irons).