Thora Birch has been in the business since early childhood, and she's been one of Hollywood's most highly regarded young actresses for years.
But as Jane Burnham, the dark and brooding outcast who bares her breasts for the neighbor boy's videocam in American Beauty, Birch became so emblazoned in the moviegoing public's memory that some people now have a hard time seeing her any other way. "I know--I hate that!" says the actress, cracking a grin. "I can laugh! I can have a good time!" Birch may have guessed that American Beauty would drastically change her image, because before the Oscar-winning film was released she signed on to play a do-gooding empress with magical powers in Dungeons & Dragons: The Movie, an adventure fantasy based on the popular role-playing game. "It's full of special effects and dragons and demons," beams the 18-year-old. Birch has more change-ups in the works, too. In the John Malkovich-produced Ghost World, an offbeat comedy based on the serialized comic book story by Daniel Clowes, she stars as an ultrahip teenager opposite Steve Buscemi and Illeana Douglas. Then there's The Hole, a psychological teen thriller in which she plays a very disturbed young woman. "Four English kids go down into this abandoned bomb shelter to have a private party for three days," she explains. "But they get stuck down there for 18 days and only one comes out alive." Having done three films as a follow-up to a career-maker like American Beauty, Birch hasn't had time to fall in love--and doesn't mind. "I'm 18. How serious could anything be?" she shrugs. "I date. I'm taking care of my needs."