Several nights before I meet Fairuza Balk, I am watching The Craft, a movie about four nubile teenage witches. There is a scene where Fairuza, who plays one of the witches, goes absolutely apeshit — in a magical, Tourette’s sort of way — all over co-stars Robin Tunney, Neve Campbell, and Rachel True, several supporting actors and, one can only assume, the director, cinematographer, teamsters, and caterers. It’s part of the movie, yes, but it looks disturbingly natural for Fairuza, with her witchy eyes spinning back into her head, shouting obscenities and flailing around like some kind of methamphetamine-addled Winona Ryder character. I begin to feel a bit uneasy – I think I might be afraid of Fairuza Balk.
Which is precisely why I find myself taken aback when we meet and she almost immediately breaks into a delicate description of the herb garden she’s attempting to cultivate or how she nursed a stray cat to health by licking its fur, or even how she wouldn’t mind being in a movie where she “gets to be pretty.” She’s all fluttery apologies (for being late) and is asking me if I want anything, if she can get me anything at all, her, Fairuza Balk, constantly apologizing and accommodating. She’s attentive, she’s caring and, it would seem, the furthest thing from a ball-crushing goth girl. It’s disconcerting, if not relieving, to realize that Fairuza won’t end our interview by biting the head off a live chicken or asking me if we should, you know, maybe kill someone.
She walks with the loping gait of someone considerably taller than her 5ft 3in and gushes about Star Trek, Ministry records and the novels of Anaïs Nin. She describes with passion an occult store in Los Angeles that she bought after doing research there for The Craft. She discusses her penchant for emotionally disarming would-be assailants (one time, she suggested that a mugger “try the next person down the block” because she was broke; another time, she ended up having to console a nerve-wracked 16-year-old who pulled a gun on her). Nine tattoos decorate her tight, compact frame — including an anarchy symbol with a radioactive symbol around it. Her hair is shortish and sort of hacked, jet black, and set off strikingly against her alabaster skin. Then there’s her mouth, writ large by a set of profanely full lips and trumped only by her huge, piercing blue eyes. She’s got the aspect of a hip grad student, or a budding dominatrix. She’s also got an ever-expanding knife collection.
Fairuza Balk has made a career out of playing off-kilter, dark and often brutal characters. She’s taken turns as an adolescent caught in the sexual games of aristocrats in Milos Forman’s Valmont; a trailer park kid in Allison Ander’s little-seen Gas Food Lodging; a sort of half-feline, half-woman thing in The Island of Dr. Moreau; and a neo-nazi skinhead opposite Edward Norton in American History X. Earlier this year, she made an uncharacteristic appearance as Adam Sandler’s love interest in The Waterboy and is now set to star as a groupie alongside Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup and Frances McDormand in Cameron Crowe’s as-yet-untitled romantic comedy about the 70s rock world, which is set for a December release. “It’s been a pleasure working with Cameron,” says Fairuza. “He’s one of the nicest directors I’ve ever worked with, mainly because he’s very giving.”
But Fairuza is probably still best known for The Craft, a film that scored big points with the MTV set and ultimately touched off the rash of self-conscious, genre-subverting teen slasher flicks that now come out every six months or so, featuring various permutations and combinations of television actresses with three names.
Fairuza, though, has had none of it. After The Craft, she turned down a role in Scream, a movie that featured a virtual catalog of her contemporaries, and instead chose parts in smaller, character-driven films like The Maker and American Perfekt. “Sometimes when you pass on things and then you see them, they’re like the biggest movie ever,” she says. “But you have to stick to your guns. I made the mistake of going against my intuition a couple of times and I always ended up regretting it because I felt really out of place.”
Fairuza’s trippy turn in The Craft became her grand introduction to multiplex mavens, but it was her role in Anders’ Gas Food Lodging – a performance which won her an Independent Spirit Award in 1993 – that cemented her reputation as an “actress” in the minds of indie folk. The film, about a teenage girl who is reunited with her deadbeat dad, chimed with Fairuza, who, at that time, had never met her own father. Soon after the film came out, he contacted Fairuza and they began the long, stilted process of getting to know each other as adults.
Beyond its emotional resonance, the film is important to Fairuza for other reasons. “I want to play people who are a challenge to me and I learn from being them,” she says. “People think I can only play these mad people or these violent people or these crazy people. They say, ‘You’ve never played a soft girl,’ Yes, I have – there’s Gas Food Lodging.”
Her mother, a belly dancer, and her father, a fiddler, met and conceived Fairuza while they were working at a traveling fair. Her father split and Fairuza grew up under the watchful eye of her mother, shuttling between Vancouver, London, and Paris. At her mother’s urging, she began acting at eight and snagged the role of Dorothy in the 1985 sequel Return to Oz. She continued to act, doing TV movies and occasional stage work. With the onset of adolescence, she cut down on the acting and started listening to punk rock and hardcore industrial music. She got the tattoos, dropped out of high school, made an uncannily convincing appearance as a vampire in the ZZ Top video for “Breakaway” and, by her own account, became more introverted and self-conscious.
“It was hard for me to make the transition when i was a teenager. You see teenage girls in movies, they’re always tall with big tits and long hair and perfect skin. I weighed 20 pounds more than i do now and I was very insecure and wore nothing but black and all these hats down over my eyes and did nothing but read like a maniac and drink lots of coffee.”
More TV movies followed, and she won a Cable Ace Award for one called Shame. “That was a pretty brutal one. I get gang-banged by, like, five guys in the mud.” Then came Gas Food Lodging.
In February, Fairuza made her first stage appearance in an off-Broadway play, preceding Dawson’s Creek star Michelle Williams in Killer Joe, a play about – in typical Fairuza style – a girl who falls in love with a hitman her father and brother have hired. She also did another indie, There’s No Fish Food In Heaven, about a graffiti artist who, in an attempt to endear himself to Fairuza’s character, mails himself to her in a big, cardboard box and is accidentally killed by her and her boyfriend.
Fairuza has been living in LA for the past two years but says she feels out of place there. She’s thinking about New York or London. She also loves Paris but says it’s too expensive.
She’s also thinking about buying a gun.