I had a meeting once with a director,” recalls Mena Suvari, “and in the middle of it, he interrupted me and said, ‘You know, you’re actually kind of smart.’ And I remember thinking, is that a compliment?”
Why did he assume otherwise—because she’s an actor? She’s beautiful? She’s a woman? “I don’t know,” says Suvari, between bites of a vegan burger at a swank West Hollywood restaurant. It was probably all three.
The 38-year-old’s biggest roles remain two from 1999, when she played choir girl Heather in the blockbuster American Pie, and cheerleader temptress Angela Hayes in best-picture winner American Beauty. “I had no clue,” she says now. “I thought every movie made $100 million. . . . I was young.”
From time to time since then, articles or blog posts appear, asking “whatever happened to Mena Suvari?” In truth, Suvari has worked nonstop for 23 years, sometimes on several projects per year — including, most recently, the indie film Becks, premiering February 9, and the TV series American Woman, coming to the Paramount Network in June. Her story traces the effects of conferring sex-symbol status on a gifted actor at a young age—and what happens when she, like many women in Hollywood right now, grows tired of being defined by others.
Why, though, does that old narrative persist? “I have thought a lot about why Mena has flown under the radar in recent years,“ says Daniel Powell, co-writer and co-director of Becks. He calls American Beauty “both a blessing and a curse. . . . Being cast specifically as an object of desire may have given the wrongful impression that her beauty was more vital to her success than her talent. The fact that she has the talent of a character actor but also bombshell good looks is confusing to this industry. Her acting skills have been criminally underrated.”
In Becks, she plays a suburban housewife whose world is upended by a singer-songwriter—the title character, played by Broadway star Lena Hall. Suvari’s performance is nuanced, grounded, and electric. “I was blown away from the first rehearsal,” says Becks’s co-writer and co-director, Elizabeth Rohrbaugh.
Suvari has certainly encountered that sort of confusion before. While working on the 2002 indie film Spun, “someone said to me on set, ‘You’re the girl from American Beauty?’ Because I was playing a meth addict. To them, they couldn’t understand. Like, you play Angela Hayes and you stay there. You don’t go play a drug addict. You need to just be young and sexy.”
A Young girl
At the end of American Beauty, it’s revealed that Angela was only pretending to be a seductress; in reality, she’s a normal teenager, terrified at the prospect of actually sleeping with her best friend’s father. (That character is played by Kevin Spacey, whom Suvari declined to talk about.) Suvari herself started modeling before her teenage years began. “I was in New York when I was 12, walking down the streets with heels on. I had this impression that that is what I had to offer. . . . Ultimately, I was just a young girl. But I was so used to playing the game,” she says, adding with a laugh, “That’s probably why I got the role [of Angela].”
On one of her first photo shoots, the photographer put his leather motorcycle jacket on her—and the crew exclaimed that she looked 18. “On the one hand, that was acceptable,” Suvari says now. “On the other hand, that’s so fucked up.”
After the success of American Beauty, she was offered similar roles. In the 90s and early aughts, there were usually only two options anyway: “There was a lead role. She was the pretty girl, but not so deep in character. And then there was the best friend. She wasn’t as pretty. And she was more interesting. I would want to play that. And they wouldn’t want to see me for it.”
Now, at least, that’s changed. “I’ve gotten to this point where people sort of gave up, because I just did enough weird shit”—roles like a woman possessed by a demon (in South of Hell) and another druggie, this time one who hits a homeless man with a car (in Stuck).
Role Elyse in Becks
Mostly, Suvari’s career has been a string of indie films. “I love character stories,” she says, when asked what drew her to the role of Elyse in Becks. “It’s just about navigating through life and relationships. It’s real. . . . It’s beautifully written.” She credits her latest performance to the skill of the ensemble cast: “I have had moments in my career where there’s not a lot going on opposite you, and it’s hard.”
Suvari also co-stars in another ensemble this year: American Woman, which features Alicia Silverstone and Cheyenne Jackson as well. The series was inspired by the life of Real Housewives star Kyle Richards, who serves as an executive producer. Her new pattern, then, seems to be playing aging, beautiful women—which can be some of the most nuanced roles of all. And there may be many more of them to come, particularly if the Time’s Up movement results in an uptick in female producers. Still, Suvari is quick to note that progress will only happen when pay is equal: “We have to have the legal framework behind it. We are not really protected.”
Never pushed any boundaries
Supporting the E.R.A. is one of her pet projects. She is also a vocal supporter of animal rights. She mentions, without judgment, that some celebrities support that community less openly “because they are afraid of how it’s going to change their image or something like that.” Suvari understands that fear; she used to live by it. “I was like, ‘Go do this, be super-nice to everybody.’ I never pushed any boundaries. But I ultimately wanted more for myself.”
A few years ago, Suvari began moving into development, with the intention to produce ideas she sells. “To be on the other side of the table, to be having a creative meeting about an idea I have, and be taken seriously for that? As a woman? It’s awesome.” Rohrbaugh also has hopes for Suvari’s career: “Character actors naturally age into success,” she explains. “To me, that’s her next stage.”
Whatever is coming, Suvari is ready. “I’ve had so many moments in life when I’ve been knocked down by other people,” she says. “You start to convince yourself to stay in the safe lane. And then—whether you want to call it age or whatever—I just didn’t give a shit anymore.”