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Mena Suvari: The return of an American Beauty

Mena Suvari amid rose petals is one of the classic film posters. But her career didn't quite bloom after that. She tells James Mottram why

Timing is everything. So it seems strange to meet Mena Suvari the day after director Jason Reitman assembled a starry cast to perform a live reading of Sam Mendes's American Beauty at this year's Toronto Film Festival. Our encounter is to speak about her latest film, The Knot, a raucous British marital comedy co-written by Noel Clarke, but it's impossible not to think of Suvari back then. Along with playing the demure Heather in hit teen comedy American Pie, Mendes's 1999 Oscar-winner changed her world. Nominated for a Bafta, this wide-eyed blonde literally became the film's unforgettable poster girl – her modesty protected by just a few strategically placed rose petals.

"I didn't really understand," she reflects now. "Honestly, when those movies came out, I thought every movie made $100m!" Just 20 then, it was only after that the difficulties started. How do you follow a year like that?

"I definitely felt like I had to grow up quickly," she says. "I had to learn about the business." It was what you might call a reality check, her "team" telling her to choose films that would be good for her career. The inevitable sequel to American Pie aside, Suvari did not do what was expected of her – playing everything from a stripper to a hit-and-run perpetrator high on ecstasy.

"I got really frustrated with it [the industry], and I felt very rebellious towards it, because I didn't feel like I was in control of my life, and that bothered me," she says. "I had to stay true to who I was, and pursue the kinds of things I was interested in. I decided to go that route. There were things I chose not to work on, because it didn't do anything for me."

Trouble is, even if small roles in cult films like Edmond and Factory Girl gave her kudos, this rebellious streak meant her Hollywood visibility diminished. What followed flopped – even if, as with the Hemingway adaptation The Garden of Eden, it looked good on paper.

If you're expecting Suvari to be bitter, she's anything but. Petite, perky and polite, she's full of enthusiasm for her work – at whatever level she's at. She's still shocked by people's obsession with celebrity. "I've been to parties where people have walked up to me and said, 'I will do whatever it takes to become famous'. And that's scared the hell out of me!" Now 33, in a year that has seen her reprise her role as Heather for sequel American Reunion, Suvari is hoping The Knot steers her in a new direction. Its London-set story of wedding-day disasters is evidently aiming to tap into the lucrative market that Bridesmaids cracked open.

Suvari, who plays bridesmaid Sarah (to Talulah Riley's bride, Alexandra), claims she was not one of those girls who dreamt of the big fancy wedding.

"Not at all. No. I never daydreamed about it. I wasn't like 'Oh, this is exactly how it's going to be!' And now I got two – I got two under my belt." She chuckles at the thought, though two failed marriages are hardly a laughing matter. She was 21 when she married German-born cinematographer Robert Brinkmann, who was 17 years older than her. They divorced in 2005.

Two years later, she began dating Italian-Canadian concert promoter Simone Sestito. Married in June 2010, they split within 18 months. While she has largely kept her counsel over why both unions failed, she denies it was her celebrity. "I don't let that affect my personal relationships," she told one magazine. "I'm very Aquarius that way." I ask if she's happy now. "Yeah, I'm very happy. I feel unbelievably blessed to have been given what I've been given."

Born in Newport, Rhode Island, her mother (a nurse) is Greek-American and her father (a psychiatrist) is Estonian-American, which accounts for her exotic last name. Her family was moving a great deal – the Virgin Islands, South Carolina and finally Los Angeles, where she began a modelling career. She has "a love-hate relationship" with the city.

"When did it all become about celebrity and perfection?" she sighs. "Especially in Los Angeles." That's the problem with being an American beauty.

'The Knot' opens on 5 October