Isabelle Fuhrman Has Become One Of The Most Fascinating Young Actors Around

Why do so many child actors struggle? To be a good actor, you need self-awareness and empathy, and those are traits many children don't have. This makes Isabelle Fuhrman's performance in Jaume Collet-Serra's "Orphan" all the more exceptional.

In "Orphan," a Connecticut couple — Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) — is still reeling from the miscarriage of their third child. So, they decide to adopt. They're instantly charmed by a young Estonian girl named Esther (Fuhrman) and welcome her into their home. But Esther shows increasing sadism, culminating in the horrible truth: she's actually a 33-year-old serial killer, afflicted with hypopituitarism that prevented her body from aging with her mind.

"Orphan" — released in 2009 — was shot in late 2007 when Fuhrman was only 10 years old. In what was her second film appearance, she was a child playing the part of an adult who is playing the part of a child. A performance that layered would be demanding even for an adult actor, but the nature of the role precluded one from playing Esther.

Somehow, Fuhrman did the seemingly impossible and pulled it off. She was scary, but not so chilling that it diluted the film's inherent camp value. She also understood the black comedy camp of her role — take her faux-innocent, s***-eating grin whenever Esther lets the mask slip and gets under Kate's skin.

Born in Washington D.C. and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Fuhrman has been acting since she was seven. Many child actors quit the business once they come of age. Almost 15 years on from "Orphan," though, Fuhrman remains an actress — what has she been up to since?

The Hunger Games

Fuhrman was a fan of the original "Hunger Games" books by Suzanne Collins. She even wanted to play the main character, Katniss Everdeen. "I saw myself as Katniss," she told MTV, "but I think everyone does when they read the book, because that's the character that you related to so much because you're seeing the whole story through her eyes. From page one, I was like, 'Oh, I want to be Katniss so badly.'"

She even wrote a letter to director Gary Ross about her wish — and ultimately booked an audition — but was deemed too young for the role. As a consolation, she got the part of Clove, one of the "career" tributes who've spent their whole lives training for the Hunger Games. Fuhrman wanted to play the hero, but was once more cast as a villain.

Part of a pack of four, Clove stands out from her friends in two ways. The other three are all tall blonds, far from the short, freckled, and raven-haired Fuhrman. She's also particularly vicious, favoring knives in combat which required Fuhrman to pick up the skill herself.

"I'm not going to be modest right now: I'm very good at [knife throwing], and I'm very proud of that. That was so hard to learn how to do, because there is a lot of physics involved with it. The knife goes three knife-lengths each rotation, and how much force you want to put into it so it lands with the blade in versus the butt. It was difficult, to say the least, because I did training for about only two weeks before we started shooting, so I had to pick it up pretty quickly."

The film's shaky-cam action direction, unfortunately, doesn't do Clove or Fuhrman's knife-throwing justice.

Fuhrman uses the same sinister smile for Clove that she did for Esther. But while Esther had to conceal her true self, Clove always gets to be who she is and it's terrifying. In her scant screentime, she's often eying the other tributes like a lioness on the hunt. A scene where she tussles with Katniss while trying to stab her brings to mind the horror of "Orphan." Thanks to Fuhrman's young age, Clove actually looks like a child — unlike most of the other Tributes — so her sadism is all the scarier and underlines the horror of the Hunger Games themselves.

Interviewed by Entertainment Weekly before the first film's release, Fuhrman was content with missing out on Katniss and playing Clove instead.

"I'm really happy I get to play Clove. She's so different from me, and [I enjoyed] really getting to develop her psyche and figure out who she is, and develop a backstory for her. You don't really get that kind of freedom with parts."

"The Hunger Games" continued, adapting the rest of the novel trilogy with three more films. Clove, however, meets her death in the first film — bludgeoned by Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) — and so Fuhrman couldn't return in the sequels, not even the two adapting her favorite of the trilogy, "Mockingjay." However, that didn't stop her from taking a glamorous walk on the red carpet at the "Catching Fire" premiere.

Career lull

"The Hunger Games" was the highlight of Isabelle Fuhrman's 2012, but it wasn't her only project that year. Before it, Fuhrman had done the occasional voice acting role, such as in the children's films "Sammy's Adventures: The Secret Passage" in 2010 or the English dub of "From Up on Poppy Hill" in 2011. In 2012, she gave video games a try with "Hitman: Absolution." She voiced Victoria, the Mathilda to Agent 47's Léon. However, she remains a primarily live-action actor.

In 2012, Fuhrman was announced to star in a remake of Dario Agento's Giallo classic "Suspiria," to be directed by David Gordon Green. Fuhrman had broke out as a slasher villain, so turning her into a final girl would've been a flex of her talents. However, the project ultimately fell through. Luca Guadagnino's eventual "Suspiria" remake is a good film, but the potential of the unmade Green/Fuhrman "Suspiria" is still fascinating.

Most of Fuhrman's films during the 2010s weren't widely seen or received well. She had an uncredited role in "After Earth" and a supporting one in the direct-to-video Stephen King adaptation "Cell." Her most notable role was on television — a recurring part in "Masters of Sex" as Tessa Johnson, daughter of the lead Virginia (Lizzy Caplan).

Speaking to Interview Magazine, Fuhrman called working with Caplan "cool," as she had seen "Mean Girls" growing up (Caplan plays Janis in that film). They also bonded over their love of reality TV, "The Bachelorette" in particular. Apparently, the show's male lead Michael Sheen also a fan and joined in on their water cooler conversations.

While Fuhrman wasn't getting big parts at this time, she at least kept trying different ones. She starred in more horror movies — "The Last Thing Mary Saw" and "Down A Dark Hall" but also comedies — "Dear, Eleanor" and "Good Girls Get High" — and romance movies — "1 Night."

Off-camera, Fuhrman attended a pre-collegiate program at Stanford University; she expressed interest in studying at Brown University and majoring in psychology. She didn't take that path after all, instead going to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. College would eventually play an important role in her acting career too.

The Novice

In 2021, Isabelle Fuhrman finally got a star vehicle with "The Novice," an actor-anchored character study written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Lauren Hadaway. Fuhrman plays Alex, a college freshman who is always pushing herself. Even if she gets no enjoyment from something, she has to be the best at it. That's why she's majoring in physics, even though it's her worst subject. She cites JFK's quote about going to the moon to explain her ethos: "We [do things] not because they are easy but because they are hard." One of Fuhrman's greatest acting assets is her intense glare, the perfect body language for a single-minded overachiever like Alex.

Looking for an extracurricular, Alex discovers her university's rowing team. Rowing is a physically intensive sport but one that mandates teamwork — it's all about moving in synchrony with the other rowers. However, the individualistic Alex only sees her teammates as competition to get the highest score and winds up alienating them all. Tellingly, once she does get the highest score, she quits.

"The Novice" is akin to films like "Raging Bull" or "Whiplash," other movies about a person driven to be the best in their field and who takes ambition to self-destructive levels. The physicality of their profession — whether boxing, drumming, or rowing — underscores the lead's drive with a cinematic punch. Speaking to /Film about "The Novice," Fuhrman called her part "a role that any actress would die to play." She continued:

"To really dive into something, not just mentally, but physically, and to really transform yourself and to be able to be on set every single day and be not only, I guess the lead of the movie, but to be a creative collaborator with Lauren, who is probably my favorite director I've ever worked with."

Fuhrman adds that when she read the script for "The Novice," she connected with Alex — "I felt very seen by this person who was very driven and ambitious." To secure the part, Fuhrman went above and beyond, penning a letter to Hadaway and taping an extra scene in her audition. With Clove and Esther, Fuhrman relished the chance to craft characters so different from her real self. What drew her to Alex, though, was empathy and kinship.

Orphan: First Kill

Eventually, "Orphan: First Kill" did release — in 2022, 13 years after the original. To account for Fuhrman being in her 20s, "First Kill" used a multitude of practical effects to make Fuhrman look younger (and shorter), including two body doubles: Kennedy Irwin and Sadie Lee. Fuhrman says that the three of them, "co-developed Esther's walk and mannerisms." According to "First Kill" director William Brent Bell, Fuhrman initially thought she had aged out of playing Esther, but he disagreed. Sensing her passion for the role, Bell convinced her to reprise the role and the studio that they could pull off Esther's return.

When she starts killing the family in the climax, you're actually rooting for her. Fuhrman, who said her "jaw hit the floor" when she read the twist in "First Kill," told Newsweek: "I can't wait to go see the movie in theaters and watch people's reaction to the movie."

Why didn't "Orphan" become the next big slasher franchise? The first film was more of a cult classic than an instant hit. It made decent money — earning $78 million worldwide — but got middling reviews. It has a 58% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 42 'mixed' score on Metacritic.

Secondly, Esther's death in the film is definitive. Kate snaps her neck with a forceful kick and then her body sinks into a frozen lake. Even Michael Meyers would have a tough time coming back from that one. If "Orphan" were to continue, it would have to be a prequel. And that's what happened with "Orphan: First Kill."

Since the audience already knows the truth about Esther, she's more unhinged than in the original. And Fuhrman relishes that. The opening shows how she escaped a psychiatric facility and became Esther. Seventy-five minutes into the film, there's a scene where Esther drives a stolen car, smokes a cigarette, and listens to Michael Sembello's "Maniac." This pushes the envelope on camp even further than the original "Orphan" did — and it's glorious.

"First Kill" also flipped the formula of the first film. It turns out that Esther's first "mother" Tricia (Julia Stiles) is hiding a secret about her real daughter's disappearance. Esther is now at a disadvantage in her battle of wits — and when she starts killing the family in the climax, you're actually rooting for her.

Fuhrman has indicated a third "Orphan" film is coming. Fingers crossed that "Orphan" prequels don't remain the only films she's starring in.