“When I was a little girl, one of the people I totally adored was Ginger on Gilligan’s Island. That’s who I wanted to be when I grew up,”-says Fairuza Balk, looking decidedly un-Ginger-like with tinted blue hair, silver nose ring, and eyeliner extended towards her temples. At the moment, the 22-year-old Balk finds herself not on Gilligan’s Island, but in The Island of Dr. Moreau; not with Skipper and Gilligan, but with Val Kilmer, Marlon Brando, and David Thewlis, in the third screen adaptation of H.G. Wells’s science-fiction thriller. Sitting on a well-worn couch at a friend’s house in the Hollywood Hills, Balk recalls the eight-month shoot that took her on location to Australia. She takes a drag from a Rothmans, using an empty cat-food bowl as an ashtray. ” The film that’s come out is not the film I signed on to do,” – says Balk, explaining how over the course of filming. director Richard Stanley was fired and replaced by John Frankenheimer, and how actor Rob Morrow left and was replaced by David Thewlis (with whom Balk is now romantically involved). They brought in writer after writer after writer,” she continues. ” The story changed drastically. Every day there was a new script. Basically, they turned my role into ‘the girl,’ and that was never anything I strove to become.”
Anything but “the girl” describes most of Balk’s roles: an adolescent caught in the sexual games of aristocrats in Valmont; a trailer-park kid in Gas, Food, Lodging (a performance which gained her an Independent Spirit Award for Best Actress); a heroin-addicted hooker in Things To Do In Denver When Your Dead; and, most recently, a teenage witch in The Craft. She’s currently shooting The Maker, in which she plays a lesbian juvenile delinquent.
Unconventional roles suit her, since everything about Balk is, well, unconventional. She was conceived by a dancer mother and fiddle-playing father while they were working in a traveling Renaissance fair. Her mother opted for a natural childbirth, without doctors and anesthetic. “My mom didn’t want the first thing I ever saw to be white walls, clamps, doctors, nurses, and then be taken away from her,” Balk explains. Her mother’s idea must have been agreeable with Balk. Leaving the womb, the newborn didn’t scream or cry. Just a little smile and a pair of startling blue eyes, prompting her parents to name her Fairuza, an Arabic word meaning “turquoise.”
Her parents’ gypsy lifestyle took Balk from California to Vancouver, Canada, where at the age of eight, her mother took her to an audition for a TV movie called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Balk walked out with the lead. “Then I just kept working,” she says. “I was really lucky. It just kind of happened to me before I even knew what to do with it or what was really going on.” She relocated to England with her mother a year later when she won the coveted role of young Dorothy in Disney’s Return To Oz. She stayed in Europe for the next five years and continued to work. After shooting Valmont, 14-year-old Balk returned to North America and drifted from city to city, wherever jobs took her. Early this year, she tried to create a base for herself in Los Angeles by renting a flat in a courtyard apartment on Franklin Street, which she later found out belonged to late Doors singer, Jim Morrison.
She had to leave four months later when The Craft became a surprise box-office hit, and autograph hounds started knocking on her door and peering in her windows. “It just got loony,” says Balk. “I mean, really crazy. I’m a very private person, and it became uncomfortable for me to be in my own home. So I’m nomading it once again, which seems to be my perpetual state of living.” The Crafts success even brought Balk to the tabloids’ attention first time. A story in The Globe filsed the witching theme from the movie with Balles moving out. “They printed this whole thing that I’d been run out by Satanists and witches and said there was animal blood all over my wails,” says Balk, amused. “I was like, ‘How the hell did it get turned into that?’ ‘ The upside from The Craft was discovering Panpipes, an occult shop she came upon while researching her character for the movie.
When Balk heard the store was going to be torn down, she bought it. “It was one of those crazy things I decided to do,” she says. “I own it, but I don’t run it. It’s a neat little store. It happens to be the second-oldest occult shop in America and it used to be the old Hollywood jail, so it’s also a landmark. When I found out they were gonna bulldoze it, I bought it to preserve it.” Balk hopes it will be a better investment than the time she bought a Porsche she couldn’t drive. “It was a standard, and I don’t drive standard,’ she explains. “At the time I thought, I should learn. I mean, what if there was some emergency and the only car around was a standard?” That idea didn’t quite pan out. “It gave me total anxiety. It’s a ’76 Porsche, and the shift from first to second is enough to give a person tendinitis. It caused me too much stress, so now it’s being rented out for a movie by one of the producers from Things To Do In Denver.”
Another stress point for Balk was school. Though she’s been tutored since the age of nine, she did try to go to boarding school one year in England, but “I was raised working, and not able to go out and have friends, so I couldn’t relate. I just said, ‘No way,’ and did correspondence.”
She stopped her education in grade nine, when, back in North America, her mother thought it would be a good idea for her to try going to a high school. “She enrolled me and I laughed and left in a week,” says Balk sourly. “Sticking a child back with other kids when they stop being a kid doesn’t really work.” Balk still has a hard time relating to people her own age. “I don’t know anyone who’s 22,” she admits. “I have no friends who are my age that are girls, so it’s always strange for me to work with young people.” One would think a movie like The Craft, which starred three other girls Balk’s age, would be a perfect opportunity to bridge this gap. Not so. “They were very sweet, but it was more work-based, says Balk, pausing for a moment to try and find some better explanation, before resigning herself to one simple fact: “I’m a weirdo, what can I say?”