Mena Suvari: Take a chance on me

Cheerleader, drug addict, 'angel' next door: Mena Suvari's played them all. Andrew Gumbel meets a Hollywood risk-taker
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The Independent Culture

Mena Suvari has a fine, full-lipped mouth, which was certainly one reason why Marc Evans, the director of the new psychological horror film Trauma, decided to show it painted throughout with shiny blood-red lipstick. Maybe it was her mouth, too, that induced him to have someone thrust a large spider between her character's lips.

Mena Suvari has a fine, full-lipped mouth, which was certainly one reason why Marc Evans, the director of the new psychological horror film Trauma, decided to show it painted throughout with shiny blood-red lipstick. Maybe it was her mouth, too, that induced him to have someone thrust a large spider between her character's lips.

A mean trick to play on a pleasant young actress, I couldn't help thinking as I met up with Suvari at a Zen tea house in West Hollywood. She was polite, impeccably turned out in designer jeans and an embroidered cotton shirt, and poised in a way that did not immediately suggest a ready familiarity with hairy arachnids shoved under her tongue. So, naturally, I had to ask her about it.

"They used a mouth double," she confesses. A mouth double? "Yes, she was an American woman living in London. She'd known the spider before. She put in a mouth guard and everything. It was serious business, I'm telling you. This was a very professional, well-behaved spider."

There is a fresh-scrubbed, wholesome quality to Suvari, which is no doubt what first attracted casting directors to her and landed her part after part as the teenage cheerleader type. She herself admits that she doesn't do well when it comes to daredevil stunts. "I never was a risk-taker," she says. But she is also anxious to move away from the stereotyped image Hollywood appears to have of her, and prove she can be effective in a wide range of parts and dramatic modes. Being risk-averse has not affected her willingness to be gutsy as an actress. Quite the contrary.

A couple of years ago, for example, in the little-seen druggy adventure Spun, Suvari played a crystal-meth addict. "I had resin on my teeth. I didn't wash my hair for a week," she says. "I even had to take a poo on camera."

Did she do that for real, I ask, or was there a bottom double for the close-ups? Suvari laughs. "No, they didn't show that part. They did show the poo, though, which was a well-softened Reese's peanut butter cup. I'm telling you, when you soften a Reese's peanut butter cup, it makes for a very convincing poo."

Suvari, it must be said, has not had a whole lot of luck marrying these more adventurous parts with the kind of box-office success and public attention she enjoyed five years ago with her two bona fide hits, American Pie and American Beauty. And one wonders whether Trauma will serve her any better in this respect. Superficially, the film has plenty to recommend it: compelling visuals, the precedent of Evans' previous sleeper hit My Little Eye, and a male lead, Colin Firth, playing magnificently against type as a man unsure whether a car accident has left him without a wife or without his marbles.

In the end, though, the film ends up feeling uncomfortably derivative - Seven and Memento come to mind - without sufficient pay-off in plot twists or emotional depth. Suvari plays Colin Firth's improbably angelic next-door neighbour Charlotte, who takes pity on him and acts as one-woman spiritual balm for his fevered soul. We, the audience, are not sure until close to the end whether she is real or a figment of the Firth character's imagination. What spoils it, though, is that Suvari is saddled with some of the most painfully cliché-ridden dialogue that recent British film has to offer. "I can sort of see your pain in your aura," she says to Firth's Ben on their first encounter, and her insights don't get any sharper.

Suvari herself does nothing wrong. In fact, her beatific presence lends some much-needed oxygen to an uncomfortably airless film. But even she can't compensate for a character who has no discernible motivation and a background of pure incoherence. How to explain why her Charlotte, a New Age free spirit, is also the daughter of a building magnate, who chooses to live in a grimy converted hospital?

Where Charlotte seems to belong is not in some seedy London housing development but here in the Japanese tea garden where Suvari and I are sitting. I gently suggest this, but Suvari isn't interested in picking up on my hint of criticism. She is very much the loyal team player, here to do her job of promoting the film.

Evans, she says, was someone she "really loved - so visual, so talented". And her time in London was "wonderful". Not that I have any reason to doubt her sincerity. Who wouldn't have a great time with a flat in Cleveland Square to play in for three months, Colin Firth for a co-star ("I think he played Ben perfectly!"), and lots of bizarre toys such as the ant-hill which features in the film?

Clearly, the darkness and enigmatic qualities of the script were what attracted her. Suvari had been in London shooting adverts for Lancôme when Evans first approached her for the part, and she jumped at the chance, not least because she had seen My Little Eye and liked it. "This movie was so psychological, not a typical horror film at all," she enthuses.

Despite the speed with which she climbed the great Hollywood beanpole five years ago, Suvari is now very much the working actress, struggling for her parts like anyone else, and fighting against the mentality that says you should be cast in parts that resemble what you have already done in the past. "For a business based on creativity, I have to say there isn't much," she says. "The attitude is, if you haven't done it before you can't do it. It's so frustrating - why can't they take a damn chance? Doesn't anybody believe in anybody?"

Not that she is bitter. She has worked consistently and learnt many valuable lessons even from the films that weren't hits. (On Spun, her co-stars were Jason Schwartzman, Mickey Rourke and Brittany Murphy. In Sonny, Nicolas Cage's 2002 directorial debut, she worked with James Franco, Brenda Blethyn and Harry Dean Stanton.) "About a year or two ago I finally figured what I was doing in this business," she says. "Instead of people just telling me what to do, I'm now learning more about myself."

When fame first hit, she was really too young - just 19 - to understand the enormity of what was happening. "When I was working on American Beauty [as the cheerleader who arouses Kevin Spacey's lustful attentions], I was just happy to have a job," she says. "I felt I'd just fallen into it. I mean, I worked hard, I did my job, but I didn't do that much. I hadn't had that long struggling period to appreciate the success."

The struggles came later - the realisation that all anyone wanted to cast her in were teenage parts, the frequently thwarted desire to branch out and extend her range. "I didn't want to keep playing high-school roles," she explains. Even at 25, she could probably still pass for 18 on screen. Suvari's great appeal in her early films is that she looked convincingly like an all-American girl, with just a whiff of something more exotic, no doubt down to the fact that her mother is Greek and her father is Estonian. It's not exclusively a high-school look, but casting directors don't necessarily appreciate that. It has been her choice - and to her detriment, commercially speaking - not to fall for the obvious and keep repeating - "like a robot" - what she has done in the past.

There are signs that her gamble is beginning to pay off. One recent coup was landing a part in the acclaimed television series Six Feet Under, the black comedy about undertakers dreamt up by American Beauty's screenwriter, Alan Ball. (Suvari plays the lesbian lover of one of the lead characters.) Another was landing a role in an as-yet untitled project starring Jennifer Aniston as a woman who suspects her mother was the model for the Katherine Ross character in The Graduate.

Suvari started shooting that film earlier this summer, only to find herself in the middle of one of the most sordid intrigues to hit Hollywood in years. First the cinematographer was fired, then the director, Ted Griffin, who had written the script, and then roughly half of the principal cast. Ever the diplomat, Suvari is unwilling to discuss what exactly transpired - there are rumours that everyone from Kevin Costner, the male lead, to Steven Soderbergh, the executive producer, had conspired to bring Griffin down.

Instead, she describes how she had shot her early scenes and was about to take a break of several weeks when she heard something might be up. "I was terrified for a week I was going to get my ass kicked off the film," she says. "I don't know what happened. It was a very stressful time, and my heart goes out to Ted. He's such a great guy."

Not that she had anything bad to say about his replacement, Rob Reiner, for whom she is now about to shoot all her early scenes again. "Obviously, they have to start from scratch, because there's a new director with his own vision," she says. "I will do cartwheels for Mr Reiner if he asks me to."

And with that, our tea-time chat is over. Charming, polite and just a tad impenetrable - Suvari may have aspirations to be an alternative film actress, but in this particular foray into her publicity duties she came across as a seasoned old pro.

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