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Mena Suvari Interview

American woman Mena Suvari looks to continue her winning ways with Loser.

By Jane Wollman Rusoff

Last year at this time, she was an unknown but ambitious 21-year-old, a pretty face among a Hollywood cattle call of pretty faces. Then came the double-shot success of American Pie and American Beauty, the much gossiped-about Oscar appearance, and the marriage to cinematographer Robert Brinkmann, a guy 16 years her senior. Now Mena Suvari is the ingénue of the moment, part choirgirl and part erotic object, upon whose sleepy visage fall the rose petals of our society: magazine covers, photo spreads, and obsessive Web sites.

With ten films already to her credit, Suvari obviously didn't spend her teen years taking midterms and hanging out. She began modeling at age 13 and — after her family relocated from South Carolina to Los Angeles so that she could pursue her career — quickly segued into TV commercials and sitcoms, before taking on ever-larger film roles. Now, after her lightning success, she's co-starring in Amy Heckerling's new romantic comedy, Loser, as a college girl involved in an affair with her English professor (Greg Kinnear) who finds herself attracted to her dorky classmate (Pie alum Jason Biggs).

Mr. Showbiz talked to the young star with the charmed life just before she left her Hollywood Hills home to lend her voice to the Nickelodeon cartoon series Angry Beavers. Suvari shrugs off the generation gap between her and her husband (whom she met last summer while working on the upcoming Sugar and Spice), perhaps because of her parents' own 25-year age difference, and is bemused at all the attention she receives. She laughs often and speaks her mind, but she likes to keep the conversation light. Asked her precise height, she quips, "Five-four. Short! I never would have made it as a model!

Have you ever felt like a loser?

Oh yeah. I moved up from Charleston, South Carolina, when I was 14 and didn't know anybody. I was teased because I came from the South. When we had the big l994 earthquake, they teased me that my chickens got loose. To those kids, anything Southern was [in a hayseed drawl], "You talk like this, drive a tractor, and have a farm." I guess I was a loner because I had one friend. It was about doing the schoolwork and making it out of there. It was never about enjoying high school. American Pie was my high-school experience.

You graduated from a Catholic high school. What did you think of that?

I hated it. I was always in detention because I hated the uniform. It was navy and white with argyle socks, and I'd always try and wear a vintage navy sweater with it. It was the same color but didn't have the logo. So I was forever getting detention. We couldn't wear anything wild or funky. It was so repressed.

Was it your parents' idea to go there?

Yeah, but it was better, I guess, because at the public school around where I lived [Burbank, Calif.], there was a lot of heavy drug activity and violence. So I got lucky. I wasn't so exposed to that.

What's the biggest misconception about you?

Thinking that just because I'm 21, I don't know much. And my being 21 and looking 15, they think that even more. And being married — people just don't get it.

They don't get that you're married?

They say, "She's young" and "Oh, I don't get her hair at the Oscars." People might be shocked that I have good input on things. I like to be involved. When we were shooting, I discovered that about myself. I'd go behind the camera — not just because I wanted to see if I look good but because I want to be involved. I love creativity. … But it's taken that I want to see what I look like. Wait a minute, I'm not just an actor. I'm not just some young girl who portrayed, maybe, a pretty or sexy role. That has nothing to do with me. I like to be involved with everything, and sometimes people are threatened by that.

What's the most surprising thing about married life?

That it actually happened to me. I was in a three-year relationship before I met my husband, and it was pretty bad. The individual was never really into family or anything of the sort. So I never thought I'd find somebody who'd be so madly in love with me and that we'd have this amazing connection and relationship.

A lot of people were so shocked that you got married.

We eloped. I wasn't, like, screaming to everybody that I got married.

Had you always gone out with older men?

No. It's never been an issue with me. Somebody doesn't need to be older for me to go out with him.

How did you react when the fashion police said your hairstyle at the Oscars was too sophisticated for you?

Oh, you want to talk about that?

Does it bother you?

Yeah, it did sort of bother me. I have very, very long hair — it's, like, down to maybe half a foot above my bottom — and the dress I wore had a very low back. I wanted to show it off and also didn't want hair in my face. I didn't want to be putting my fingers through it all the time and look gross. … People say that if you're 21, you have to look a certain way. I think it's kind of hokey, because you could be way younger than me and be much more civilized, and you could be way older and not be. I think the hair thing was unnecessary. I felt that I looked pretty nice.

Did you want to be an actress when you were very young?

Nope, ironically. But I was so outgoing and flamboyant and dramatic. I liked to perform for [my parents]. I guess modeling and acting have been outlets. But I wanted to be so many other things: a paleontologist, archeologist, astronaut, and, because of my dad, a doctor. Anything that's civilized. That's why if [acting] doesn't work out, there are so many things that I'm interested in and I can always go back to school.

How did you get into modeling?

When I was 13 in South Carolina, an agency rep came to our all-girls school offering a course in modeling. It seemed like a fun thing to do. I went through the class, and they took some pictures. They had a convention coming up and said I should go. I entered and did really well, and I signed with Wilhelmina and went to New York the summer of the seventh grade. The next summer, I started doing commercials, and Wilhelmina said I should move to L.A. So my parents and I did, and then I started doing sitcoms.

So your family relocated to L.A. for your career?

Yes, the move from South Carolina was for me. It's amazing now, when I look back, that my parents had so much faith in me. I'm obviously thankful that it worked out.

How did your classmates react to your being on TV?

I didn't talk too much about it. I had one friend that I told everything to. But people would see me and then be, "Oh, my God! I saw you on that show!"

What did you plan to do after high school?

I had already done the film Nowhere, and Chicago Hope and ER.. So I didn't want to go to college right away. I thought I'd take a year off. Then I got American Pie and American Beauty, and here I am from that wave. … I think it was a shock to a lot of us that both films did so well. Now I feel I have to be really smart in my decisions in order to keep the success going. It's been very surreal, surprising and unexpected.

Do you find what was originally a fun thing has now turned into something very businesslike?

It's more serious than it was but still a lot of fun. And that's the way I want to keep it. You should be happy in your work. You should have fun with what you're doing. You should, obviously, love your cast and crew, you know? It's really about forming those relationships and having good experiences.

Do you see acting as your long-term career?

I love doing it, but there are so many things I'm interested in. It might lead to something behind the camera, as a director or writer or producer. With my husband being a cinematographer, I'll definitely be involved in this for a long time.

Are you two planning a family?

Oh, yeah. Just not right now. I know that I'm still a kid in lot of ways and have a lot of growing to do. I don't want to have a child when I'm not ready. I've heard stories of women saying that they get to a point in their lives where they think they have everything and yet there's something missing. I'll get to that point, but I have a long way to go.

How did you feel about doing a nude scene in American Beauty?

It was necessary. It was part of the unveiling of the character. It wasn't tasteless in any way. Kevin was absolutely wonderful. He made me feel very, very comfortable.

Your character, Angela, says, "If people I don't know want to, f--k me, it means I have a shot at being a model."

Yeah. That's pathetic, huh?

Do you feel that you're the focus of that objectification now that you're a star?

That's true of everybody.

But there are a number of Web sites devoted to you.

I haven't put one up. There are some out there. But everybody's got admirers of some sort. It doesn't matter what you look like.

Then how do you feel about having millions of admirers?

I try not to think about it. I can't. What's the point? For me, it's really about the relationships I form at work. It's about the work. I wasn't, "Oh, I'm going to take this role of Angela because I think it will win all the awards." I just wanted to play the character. It's nice when people want your autograph, but it's a little strange because I never expected it. I still kind of think, "Oh, who am I?"

What's your key strength?

My husband gives me a lot of strength and support and safety, which lets me focus on other things like my career. I know that he'll always be there. And I try to absorb everything around me. I try to be strong and positive and very responsible and give off that impression because I want to have a long, successful career.

Are you an obsessive type?

Sometimes. I'm very organized. When I come home from a day of work, if I have bags or my briefcase, I must first put them away before I can relax. I have to put my clothes away. I don't just throw my stuff around. Everything has to be in place.

Is there anything you'd want to change or improve about yourself?

I definitely know I have a lot of growing to do, a lot of improvement to go, obviously. I'm only 21. I mean, how dare I think that I know everything?

Being on TV and in movies as a teen, you're lucky that you didn't have skin problems, right?

Maybe I have good skin, but I lost my sight because of it. I only got one [lucky] thing. I'm severely blind and have to wear contacts every day.

How bad is your vision?

The first letter on the eye chart is pretty blurry. I could see you in full definition maybe a foot from me. I am blind!

What is your biggest fear?

Oh, I have so many. The biggest is of dying a horrible death, like being buried alive. Those things have always been terrifying to me, like if you drown or burn. They're horrible ways to go. Or, like, a plane crash because you're aware that you're going to die and can't do anything about it.

I hear that you believed in ghosts as a kid and had an imaginary friend.

I still do. I believe that everything is energy and that we have paranormal activity because of it. There was a rumor that in our house in Rhode Island, a stone mansion built in the l870s, there was a murder: A slave was killed in a fox hunt. And, also, my brother Yuri actually saw things and told me. I believe him. He's 27, so he wouldn't lie. He'd wake up in the middle of the night and see white figures that looked like children playing in a treetop.

Did your imaginary friend eventually go away?

Yeah, because we moved. I never saw anything but always felt it. Once, when I was about 3, our parents were out and AJ, the oldest, was taking care of us. There was a blackout and he was walking us up the big staircase in pitch blackness and my brother Sulev said that all of a sudden his hand touched another hand that felt like a guy's — but it wasn't AJ's or Yuri's. So AJ grabbed us and ran all the way back down to the TV room.

You must have liked the movie The Sixth Sense.

I love all that kind of stuff. I'm really weird: I love horror movies, but I've always sworn that if something ever happened to me, like a poltergeist experience, you'd find me white and dead. I'd be so scared. I can watch movies like that, but I always think, "Oh God, if that was me, I'd be out of there!"

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Mena Suvari Pictures

The natural redhead stripped for American Beauty and she was pleased that she wasn't the only one. She says, "The scene wasn't just a nudity shot--it was an unveiling of Angela's character. I think it worked in the film as a whole. I found it comforting that I wasn't only the one that was naked. Kevin Spacey had a scene, Annette Bening had a scene, Thora Birch had one--so I was like, 'Okay we're all a little involved.' I always said I didn't want to be known for nudity and then this happened. I'm not going to say I'm completely open to it, but I'll never say never."

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