Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed as though Fairuza Balk could be the next big thing. And after the young actress made her breakthrough as a teenage witch in cult classic The Craft, the stage was certainly set for her to become a household name. But, these days, Balk is no longer headlining movie posters; in fact, you may not even have seen her on screen for years. So, why exactly did the one-time child star seemingly disappear from Hollywood – and what is she up to at the moment?
Well before Balk made it to Tinseltown, however, she had been born into a family that had more than its fair share of artistic talent. Her mother was a dancer, singer and artist, while her father was a musician. Balk also went to the Royal Academy of Ballet at the age of four, as both her mom and grandmother had done before her. And the future star made her screen debut at a young age, too, appearing in 1983 TV movie The Best Christmas Pageant Ever before she had even turned ten.
But then came the role that would change Balk’s life. While still just nine, the pre-teen auditioned for the part of Dorothy in Disney’s Wizard of Oz sequel, Return to Oz. The odds were against her, too; not only was she up against almost 1,000 other aspiring actors, but she was also the youngest of the bunch. Nonetheless, Balk was successful, and understandably the media started to take an interest in the girl who had stepped into Judy Garland’s ruby slippers.
In 1985, for instance, Balk was interviewed by The Washington Post about her new-found stardom. She was 11 years old by then and had forgotten some of the finer points about how she’d won her Return to Oz role. “You just held up a card, smiled and had a short interview,” Balk explained. “Like, ‘Did you like Oz and would you like to go there again?’”
The creators of the movie were very impressed with their young star, too. And in 2012 Return to Oz’s editor Walter Murch spoke to the Film Freak Central website about the project. It had been a long and hard shoot, by all accounts, but even so Murch recalled that Balk had been “absolutely great – a fantastic ally in the making of the film.”
In that Washington Post interview, meanwhile, Balk had said that she’d like to be a chiropractic veterinarian if an acting career didn’t work out. She also revealed a rebellious streak that would later serve her well in The Craft. Without informing her mother, she’d once sneaked off and had her ears pierced.
At first, Balk had even attempted to perform the procedure herself. “I was fed up with trying to get the nerve to stick a pin through my ear,” she told the newspaper. “So I just said, ‘Okay, I’m going to get my ears pierced’… They put alcohol on and went ka-thunk. It didn’t hurt; it just felt hot.” Her mother, Cathryn, wasn’t impressed, however. “I almost killed her,” the star admitted.
And since then, it seems that Balk has looked back on Return to Oz with appreciation – mainly because of what it taught her about the business of acting. In 1999, for example, she gave a candid interview that was ultimately included on the VHS re-release of the movie . “Towards the end of the filming of [Return to Oz, I got a little tired,” the actress recalled. “And that’s when I began to realize it was work.”
“It wasn’t just, you know, what you wanted to do when you wanted to do it,” Balk went on. “You had to get up every morning and go and be a professional. And as a child, that’s kind of a hard concept to grasp, and you have to get it… You have to be responsible, and I think it makes you an adult very quickly.”
Balk continued to work as an actress throughout the 1980s and 1990s as well as briefly going to high school. In 1992, for instance, she played the teenage daughter of a single mother in the drama Gas Food Lodging, with her touching portrayal earning her a Best Actress Independent Spirit Award that same year.
Then, of course, came the other film that Balk would become primarily known for: 1996’s The Craft. As its many fans know, the horror flick tracks the fortunes of four high school students-turned-witches who ultimately find themselves paying a high price for their new-found power. The Craft was an unexpected hit, and it’s considered a cult movie today.
Balk wasn’t impressed by the idea at first, though. “I was incredibly mesmerized by Fairuza,” actress Sarah Bailey told Entertainment Weekly in 2017. “There was a rebellious authenticity to her that I wish I’d had. We did the screen test and I drove Fairuza home. She was like, ‘I have a feeling this [movie] might be a piece of s**t, and I’m not doing it.’”
Balk also spoke to Entertainment Weekly, explaining that she had had another film in the pipeline at the time. “I had agreed to do Basquiat,” she revealed. “Julian [Schnabel, the director] and I had become friends. Meanwhile, my agent said, ‘There’s this other big movie and they really want you.’”
“I was trying to figure out if we could move dates, and then I got a phone call from Julian screaming at me, saying, ‘You’re doing another movie!’” Balk continued. “I said, ‘No, I’m doing your movie.’ He hung up after cursing me out, and I called my agents. And they said, ‘We accepted The Craft.’”
So while Balk wasn’t part of Basquiat in the end, hindsight proves that her agents made a canny decision. After all, The Craft has since gone down in teen horror history. “I still get tweets about [The Craft],” Balk told Entertainment Weekly. “What an honor to have been part of something that people love so much.”
Furthermore, while working on The Craft, Balk actually began to develop an interest in Wicca – a modern strain of Paganism. And while rumors about the actress’ involvement in the religion spread for a long time, in 2017 she put them to rest. “The true story is [that] I found this occult shop in LA, and I used to go there to ask them questions and do my research,” Balk told Entertainment Weekly.
“[The workers] were really lovely people,” Balk explained. “[The woman who owned it] wanted to retire. She couldn’t put the kind of money into it that it needed to keep it up, and so it was going to be turned into a Chinese restaurant. I thought, ‘For the oldest occult shop in the country, that’s a tragedy.’”
And Balk went on, “There was a man that used to work [at the store], and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. And he was a sort of a teacher to me during [The Craft]. I thought, ‘What a shame this is going to be turned into a Chinese restaurant.’ So I bought [the store] and put some work into it and helped it survive.”
But Balk definitely wasn’t a practicing witch. “People of course were like, ‘She bought an occult shop and she’s fully into this, and it’s all real.’ That has taken on its entire own mythology that’s essentially out of my hands,” she said. “You can tell the truth and talk to people, but they want to believe what they want to believe. What can you do? I’m not involved with that shop anymore. It was a very long time ago.”
Rather than becoming a full-time store owner, then, Balk continued with her acting career. But not all of the movies in which she subsequently starred turned out to be big hits. The Island of Doctor Moreau – in which Balk appeared alongside Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer and David Thewlis – particularly proved to be a disaster. After an intensely troubled production, the movie was released in 1996 to very poor reviews.
And while Balk starred in several more films after that setback, such as American Perfekt, The Maker and Life in the Fast Lane, most of these have largely been forgotten. But the actress’ career wasn’t over just yet. In 1998, you see, she appeared in a drama that’s considered by some to be among the finest ever made: American History X.
American History X tells the story of two brothers – played by Edward Norton and Edward Furlong – who both get involved with the neo-Nazi movement. And Tony Kaye’s gritty feature emerged to some acclaim, with critics praising the film for both its plot and its performances. Norton even ended up being nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Derek Vinyard.
In American History X, then, Balk played Stacey, the girlfriend of Derek. And, interestingly, despite being cast as a white supremacist, the actress herself is part Romani and part Cherokee by way of her father. “For many years, my family told me never to tell anyone about that part of my heritage, fearing that I would be judged or hated or that it would affect my career,” Balk wrote on her website in 2010.
Proving her versatility, Balk also starred in a movie a million miles away in tone and theme from American History X: the Adam Sandler vehicle The Waterboy. And while critics took against the flick, the public didn’t seem to agree. In any case, The Waterboy is still the biggest-earning sports comedy ever.
After that came the 2000 film Almost Famous, in which Fairuza played the character of Sapphire. And in a sense, Almost Famous’ fate proved the exact opposite of that of The Waterboy. While the nostalgic dramedy didn’t make much money, you see, it nevertheless won a lot of praise from reviewers. Veteran critic Roger Ebert named it as the best film of that year, for example.
But Balk’s career subsequently seemed to stall. Throughout most of the rest of the 2000s, she starred in a variety of forgettable films, such as Dose of Reality, Personal Velocity: Three Portraits, Deuces Wild and Don’t Come Knocking. And while 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans earned good reviews, it wasn’t enough to put the actress’ star back into the ascendancy.
In a 2013 interview with the website Dread Central, Fairuza shed a little light on why she may have faded out of the public consciousness. “I always want to stay interested. I never just want to work for the sake of working,” she said. “There has to be ‘something’ there for me so that I can grow from the experience.”
“I’ve never just taken a job because I wanted the check,” Balk continued. “I took the job because either I wanted to do something really crazy like The Craft or get a chance to do a comedy like The Waterboy or do an incredibly powerful drama like American History X. There has to be something interesting for me, or I don’t want to do it.”
“I struggled a lot with being pushed too hard in my twenties, with people telling me that I had to keep taking more and more movies because that’s really only when I’d be relevant,” Balk added. “Hollywood is designed that way. It’s always about the new flavor of the moment, and I’ve always preferred to be a bit more mysterious.”
And in the same interview, Balk also talked about her earlier career-defining role in Return to Oz. “At that age, everything really felt like a game to me, so I had an amazing time making it,” she said. “To live in that world as a child was anything but scary, so I guess I never realized at the time how surrealistic the story and the tone of the movie was going to end up being.”
“The other thing I never realized as a kid was just how beloved our movie was,” Balk explained. “I thought it was kind of popular, but that was about it. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized just how special Return to Oz ended up being. Throughout the years, fans would send me letters or even these incredible gifts with their stories about what the movie meant to them, and I was absolutely shocked.”
Dread Central asked Balk about The Craft as well, and it seemed that the actress was more than willing to open up about the movie. “What I remember really enjoying at the time was doing all the research into Wicca for the role of Nancy, because I had no idea that it was something that was all about empowered women,” she said. “That was incredible – to see a religion celebrating women as goddesses and then using that as an allegory throughout the movie.”
And Balk also revealed how fans of The Craft had reached out to her over the years. “I’ve heard stories from fans who have told me how The Craft helped them accept themselves or gave them the strength to come out or escape from an abusive relationship or even gave them the courage to stand up for themselves,” she said. “And I think that speaks volumes for the movie we made.”
Balk had spoken to Dread Central to promote her 2013 thriller Dose of Reality, which went straight to DVD and video on demand. And, alas, the movie wasn’t well received upon its release. To date, it holds a mere 4.4/10 audience-reception rating on the Internet Movie Database.
Yet Dose of Reality’s relative failure didn’t put Balk off talking to the media. In 2014, anyway, she spoke to the website Shock Ya! about another indie film she was doing, August Falls. And, once again, the star gave some insight into the way in which she approached acting. “People have tended to see me as an actress who has played edgier, darker roles,” Balk explained. “That’s something that, as much as I’ve enjoyed exploring, isn’t necessarily the one thing I want to do.”
Regarding her career, Balk added, “On indies, you forgo certain luxuries and privileges on a studio film. You kiss those goodbye happily and embrace what you’re doing. Both of them are worthy and have the better and less of things. But on indies… you embrace them as team efforts.”
August Falls came out to middling reviews in 2017, after which Balk appeared in the 2018 horror Trespassers. And while the bloodcurdling flick hardly set the box office on fire, there was nevertheless praise for Balk’s performance. The Hollywood News said of the movie, “It is the characterization work that is really effective. Fairuza Balk steals all her scenes. It’s never really that clear which side her character is on, and it’s fun for the audience to try and figure out.”
Over the years, meanwhile, Balk has built herself quite an audience on social media, with more than 40,000 people currently following her on Twitter. She also maintains a personal blog through which she keeps fans informed about her exploits outside of acting, such as making music and traveling across the U.S.
And when Balk was asked about her character in August Falls during her interview with Shock Ya!, the answer she gave could well have applied to the actress herself. “For a great many of us, as we go through our lives, and as we evolve and age, we have to learn to embrace the fact that it isn’t always under our control,” she said.
“Life is going to go the way that it’s going to go,” Balk concluded. “It’s about finding the inner strength and light inside of you and learning to trust that to guide you through the difficult times.” So, although Balk hasn’t had a hit movie in a while, she at least seems happy where she is – and she’s definitely shaping up to be a master of her craft, too.