Edgy Actress Interview
In this month’s American History X, Fairuza Balk plays a hate-ridden neo-Nazi skinhead. It’s the latest risky portrayal of a social misfit by the twenty-four-year-old actress, whose refusal to take demeaning roles has both cost her the Hollywood limelight and built a devoted cult around her
Fairuza Balk may not be the most fashionable actress In Young Hollywood, but discerning viewers and casting agents know that one nervy twitch or crooked smile from the Balkster can blow all those creamy poppets and port flibbertigibbets out of the water. (Who cares what they did last summer when Balk bares her brittle soul on screen?) Indeed, there are A-list leading ladles who might covet some of Balk’s emotional firepower. Best known for her power-crazed witch In The Craft (1996), she has shown – in Valmont (1989), Gas, Food Lodging (1992), Imaginary Crimes (1994), Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995), and the TV film Murder in the Heartland (1992) – that she can strip away every sign of technique to reveal raw, quivering humanity. She belongs to the same school of acting as Gloria Grahame and Judy Davis – acting that’s shot through with caffeine and mercury. And the joy is that we haven’t seen the best of it yet.
Shortly to appear in the Adam Sandler comedy The Water Boy, Balk this month plays a neo-Nazi skinhead In American History X. Disowned at one point by director Tony Kaye, the troubled movie will have to go some distance to provide a more powerful portrait of skinhead culture than Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain (1983) or the Australian Romper Stomper (1992), but the presence of Balk, Edward Norton, and Edward Furlong suggests it’s unmissable.
GRAHAM FULLER: Who do you play in American History X?
FAIRUZA BALK: Her name is Stacey. She’s like the queen to Edward Norton’s king of this skinhead group we’re in. He’s the one who is the brains behind the organization and riles them up.
GF: Are they racist?
FB: Beyond racist – it’s like psychosis.
GF: Is Stacey Just a follower, or does she have hatred inside her?
FB: She follows Edward’s character because to her he’s a god – he’s the man. But, yes, I think she’s got her own hatred inside her.
GF: Tell me about portraying somebody like that. Was It a leap?
FB: I was worried. I just couldn’t relate to these neo-Nazi white power groups who hate anybody who isn’t a white Protestant. Those feelings were alien to me, so I went and found several groups of skinheads and hung out with them and tried to find out why they feel that way. For most of them it’s because someone close to them had been violated by someone who wasn’t white, and instead of trying to get over that and heal, they contained their anger so it grew into hatred and they aimed it at the people they thought were responsible. I think what happens is that people who can’t vent their rage seek scapegoats. Also for these young guys, a lot of it is hormonal. When you’re in a room full of them, it’s like testosterone city – it’s crazy. It’s like there’re chemicals in the air and they get off on them.
GF: Did you feel threatened when you were with them?
FB: Yes, because they didn’t know who I was or what I wanted.
GF: Why did you put yourself through that?
FB: Because I had to for myself. Doing the research for a movie is one of the most important and exciting parts for me.
GF: Why do you think skinheads become skinheads?
FB: I think all of us, whether we deny it or not, go through a time of feeling completely alienated from the world, like nobody understands us, like nobody ever could. The groups you’re drawn to provide some semblance of family or security, so that whenever you doubt yourself, they’re there to say, “We’re behind you. You’re one of us. We’ll die for you.” Except I don’t think it’s true.
GF: What do you mean?
FB: I can’t speak for skinheads but I think, tragically, it’s not real. I don’t think it really is a family; it’s not that strong. I may be wrong. It depends on who you are, I suppose.
GF: What was your Impression of the skinhead women you met?
FB: When you see them at a gig, they stand on the outskirts of the room, arms folded, cold as ice, like tough bitches, while the men are headbutting each other and smashing bottles on each others’ heads. Yet whenever the guys go out to cause trouble, the women have to stay at home. It’s a “No, this is a man’s job; we protect our women” type of thing. It’s a kind of idealist theory that’s completely the reverse of what’s been happening with women in the rest of the world. Skinhead women are expected to stay at home making babies and cooking food. But if it makes them happy, so be it.
GF: In the end, did you find It necessary to tap into that racist hatred?
FB: I couldn’t get there anyway. It’s just not part of who I am to hate black people or Mexican people. So instead of trying to develop that, what I did – and this will sound bizarre – was use my hatred for racists or people who kill gay men just because they’re gay. I mean, there are people who beat other people up because they don’t like what they’re wearing. I got beaten up in Texas because my bootlaces were the wrong color.
GF: Who beat you up?
FB: Skinheads. I had red bootlaces on and it was wrong of me to wear them I guess, so I got shit-kicked in an alley.
GF: Was this during your research?
FB: No, it was years before. I’m not saying everyone who’s a skinhead is a bad person. I’m no one to judge; I’m not God. But a lot of skinhead kids get brainwashed into these heinous beliefs.
GF: Was it grueling making the movie?
FB: It was pretty intense, but I got to learn from it. When you pick a film, you want to make sure that what you’re doing is going to be something you can learn from and grow from, that you’re not just wasting your time on some piece of mental garbage. You hope it’s something that’ll help you later in life. This one was like that, but doing it made me feel weird. When I’d come home, I’d have to walk around my house and look at my things and get back into me, because it’s all-encompassing being around that kind of energy.
GF: Do you feel satisfied by the work you did?
FB: I got my chance to do my thing, and hopefully I did it well enough. I’m not one of those people who can sit back and go, “Yeah, I did a good job in that movie.” I’m too much of a perfectionist. The minute you stop getting scared that you’re not doing good enough is the day you should stop. You have to be scared. And you have to want to do it so badly that you’re willing to do anything.
GF: Let’s talk about your upbringing. Your parents met at a Renaissance fair In Northern California, right?
FB: Parents always tell you stories about all that stuff to make it sound more dramatic but, yeah, I think that’s where they met. My father plays flamenco and Middle Eastern music and my mom’s a dancer.
GF: But your father wasn’t there when you were growing up?
FB: No. I was raised by my morn. The first three years of my life we traveled mostly around California, then we moved to Vancouver when I was seven or eight, and that’s when I started making films. Right before my ninth birthday I got Return to Oz (1985) and we lived in Europe – England and Paris – until I was fourteen.
GF: When adolescence hits, most kids enter a self-conscious phase that must be inhibiting to an actor. Did you experience that?
FB: I had a hard time in my teens. It’s a shock to realize you suddenly have to look like Christy Turlington. Everyone expects you to have long legs and big breasts at thirteen. I wasn’t very tall but I had a voluptuous body, to put it politely. [laughs] And I was extremely self-conscious and nervous, but I think I was able to take my discomfort and use it in my roles.
GF: Did working since you were a kid cost you your childhood – to the extent that It comes crashing in now sometimes?
FB: I certainly feel I’m living my childhood now. Because I’m a little older and have more control over my own life, I finally have the freedom to do what I like. When I was little I didn’t, because if I wasn’t working I was doing promotion or I was auditioning or I was flying to a set. It was constant, constant, constant, and it was my own choice. But now I get joy out of very simple things. It’s like you get to a point where you realize that you can’t just listen to everybody else, that maybe adults aren’t always right. And as you start to figure out things for yourself, you connect with who you are. That’s what I think I’m starting to go through in my life, and I’m very grateful that I’m slowly emerging from the chaos.
GF: Did you ever feel that the material benefits of being a child star came too easily to you?
FB: Before I started acting, my mom and I really didn’t have much, then suddenly I was working and we had everything. Then after we came back to Canada I moved out on my own and went back to having nothing again. [laughs] There was a period around then when I had to struggle to get by on my own. I was very poor during that time. It’s not like I was living in this fantasyland where I could have anything I wanted. That’s kept me grounded, because I realize at any second all of this can end.
GF: Why did you move back to Canada?
FB: My mom took one look at me and brought me back. At the time I would wear nothing but black and all I wanted to do was stay at home and read in the dark. I wasn’t Hollywood at all. I spoke with a European accent and didn’t fit into any of the North American molds. The way things were going my morn was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to carve out a life for myself.
GF. Not fitting into any molds has distinguished you from the pack as an actress, however.
FB: Well, yeah, but it has its bad points as well as its good points. When I get down on myself, like everybody does, I think, “Why can’t I be like everybody else? Why can’t I walk on set and go blah-blahblah?” Because that’s what a lot of actors do, especially the young women. A lot of this business is about how you look and who you know. And I sometimes chastise myself for not thinking that way.
GF: Don’t you think you’ve got something more Interesting going for you – a unique screen presence, for example?
FB: I hope so. It’s hard to tell because people often say about me, “Oh, she’s too exotic” or “She’s not girl-next-doory enough.” But looks shouldn’t dictate what you’re allowed to do. Also, I’ve been very choosy about what work I’ve done. I’ve gotten in a lot of trouble in the past for turning down some huge movies where the part I was offered was someone with no brain. I think that’s damaged me in some ways because not that many people know who I am. But ten years from now I don’t want to look back and feel I compromised. I’ve been acting for so long it’s the only thing I really know how to do well – it’s my life.
GF: Have you Irritated your agents with your choosiness?
FB: [laughs] Have I? Oh, boy! But they just didn’t understand that I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I’m trying to get away from that because I’m beginning to get pigeonholed as the girl who plays the crazies and the weirdos – and that’s not the entirety of who I am. Hopefully, the whole point of being in this profession is that you change into anyone you want to be.
GF: Was Shade in Gas, Food Lodging one of those characters that was closer to who you are?
FB: It was like someone had taken my emotions and so many parts of my life and put it all on the page. I’d been looking and looking for something at the time. I was sixteen years old and I wasn’t prepared to play the Hot Teenager or the Dingleberry who lives next door, so it wasn’t happening for me – I wasn’t working. But when I read Allison [Anders]’s Gas, Food Lodging script I started crying. It gave voice to so many of the things inside me that I hadn’t been able to express, that I hadn’t been able to feel, especially about not really knowing who my father is and wondering what he’s like. I also related to Shade being a loner. It affected me deeply, and when I got the job I was so happy.
GF: Have you got to know your dad at all?
FB: Funnily enough I did the summer after we made Gas, Food Lodging. There had never been any contact – no Christmases or birthday cards, nothing. Then, out of the blue, he called me up and said, “Would you like to come and stay with me for a few weeks?” I hung up the phone and I was stunned. I talked to my mom and she said, “It’s up to you. If you want to go, you should go.” And I did. It was not like meeting my father; it was like meeting someone new. And we worked through that. He’s a very artistic man so we got along very well. He taught me how to play flamenco guitar. He’s a very good friend of mine now, although I don’t call him all the time. This last Christmas was the first we ever spent together.
GF: In Imaginary Crimes, you played a girl whose mother has died and who has a complex relationship with her father [played by Harvey Keitel]. Did that resonate with you?
FB: Before we started shooting, I was nervous because I had no experience of having a father. So I went to Harvey and said, “From the beginning of this film to the end, I need you to be my father all the time so I can learn.” And he said, “Fine.” And he never spoke to me out of character. At times I thought he hated me, at other times he was so wonderful, but he was always there for me. That’s a special movie for me.
GF: What else do you want from life?
FB: I want love, because love is the best feeling in the whole world.
GF: Have you got It In your life right now?
FB: Yes, though I don’t like talking about my relationships because I think that’s my business.
GF: You’re happy, though?
FB: I am. I’ve had some major stars over my head protecting me in my life. Sometimes I’m amazed that I’m still allowed to be alive here. You know, everybody has their bad days when they go, “What’s the point? Life’s miserable.” But you’ve got to pull yourself out of that, because it’s such a waste. Also, as an actress, I want to be able to do as much as I can to make people enjoy themselves. Sometimes I think, “God, what am I doing? It’s just acting. It’s not like I’m in Rwanda saving babies.” But you can’t think that way because what you do is important if it makes people feel something.