WHen’s memoir Mena Suvari came out last year, her son was only a few months old and she was dealing with postpartum depression, all while promoting her book Great Peace, talking about his traumas: rape; Older predators drug addiction; A terrible and abusive relationship. “So, I was probably able to guess, I was just in case,” she says with a laugh. It was even weird to care about things like sales. His writing was the important part: “I needed to express myself. I needed to get rid of this in order to move forward… I wanted so badly to let it go.”
But she did do rounds of promotional interviews even if, she says, it felt inconsistent “being makeup-up and pretty in front of the camera. I felt like that’s what I was trying to have conversations about.” For most of her life, Suvari, 43, believed her worth was not just in how she looked but how sexy she was. The movie roles that made her a star — as virgin Heather in American Pie, and Angela, the focus of midlife lust in American Beauty — positioned her firmly as a teenage sexual object, even though her brutal sex had begun earlier. When we talk on Zoom — Suvari is in her home office in Los Angeles — her hair has been pushed away from her makeup-free face, and she looks defiantly anti-Hollywood.
Suvari was concerned about how her book would be received but the response was positive. People have sent her messages on Instagram, relating to their own experiences with sexual assault, thanking her for writing them. “It was bittersweet because it was nice to feel seen and heard, but sad to hear that others defined themselves in similar ways. I didn’t want it for them, but I feel proud in general. We live in the craziest of times, The world is burning, but at the same time things are more open. I always wished that [the book] It can help bring about some kind of change and start another conversation.”
Suvari, the youngest of four children and the only girl, grew up in Rhode Island, in a large house with a ballroom, where her father, a psychiatrist (he was already in his 60s when she was born), met patients. Her early childhood was happy, but it became unstable – first, she moved with her mother and one of her brothers to the Virgin Islands, and then the whole family moved to South Carolina. Her parents were away. “I struggled to be seen, heard, and interacted with,” she says. “But I didn’t feel a loss of a sense of self until I was 12 when I was raped.” A friend of one of her older brothers paid attention to her, wrote love letters to her, encouraged her to have sexual activity, and then raped her several times in his house. Then he told other people at school that she was a “whore”. I was very ashamed and denied that it happened. “This sucked the life out of me. I guess this was just an over-emphasis on that no one would save me, and no one would do anything for me.”
When she was treated for cystitis as a result of the rape, the doctor put her on contraception instead of asking her what was happening to her. What were the adults around her – her parents and the doctor – thinking? “I feel like we’ll have to talk forever about it.” She smiles sadly. Times were different, she says. She was barely 13 years old, but she was being treated like an adult.
Around the time of the rape, she was signed to a major modeling agency in their children’s department. The following summer, she was about to make calls in New York, and the following year, she spent her summer vacation in Los Angeles. When she was cast in a commercial, the agency suggested that Suvari move to the city permanently to continue her career, so her parents moved with her to a small apartment.
She found that modeling and acting gave her a way to express her feelings, but it also taught her that the only thing that matters is how she looks, and that if she looks “sexy”, that’s even better. On her first photo shoot as a model, she said, “Everyone was raving about my appearance of 18. But I was 12.” Her voice rises in anger. “What was communicated to me was that I was an adult, and therefore I could act like an adult.” There was a pattern to the attraction of older men who, in her view today, she feels exploited: the photographer in his twenties who photographed Suvari nude, alone in his home, at the age of fifteen. Having sex with her when she was sixteen years old. “No one told me, ‘That’s not right, this person shouldn’t do that to you.’” Suvari was smart and her grades were good. She was attending exams and doing well, there was no outward sign of anything wrong.” So, on Personal account, no one noticed.”
By this time, her mother had left, tensions with Suvari’s father had grown, and Suvari was left to look after her elderly father. Money was scarce, and she was taking a lot of medication, sometimes at school, including methamphetamine (crystal meth). “And that doesn’t put you in a good state of mind. I guess I was desperate. I felt completely helpless and hopeless.”
Life was going to get worse. Shortly thereafter, Suvari met a lighting engineer. She claims that their relationship was sloppy and abusive. He was telling her how stupid she was, calling her by her name. She felt trapped – she was desperate for his affection, and she felt like she had nowhere else to go. I took more medication to deal with it. Then there was the sexual abuse. In her book, her account is harrowing and horrific, including being forced to use uncomfortable sex toys, and seeking medical treatment after repeated anal sex. “I was not loved. I was just a body, a receptacle for his desires,” she wrote.
She says he will ask her to pick up other women for threesomes with her, including those she met on set. I bumped into one later at Whole Foods, after she became famous, and got freaked out. Once again, I ran into one of the women and went to her. “I said, ‘I want you to know that I never wanted to do any of these things.’ She was surprised. ‘Oh, he told me you wanted to do that,'” she said. I had no idea. Circumstances were created for me, and they just swallowed me up.”
Suvari is sensitive to criticism that she makes judgments about threesomes or sex toys, something she has struggled with in the past year: “I’ve never wanted to talk negatively about things that could be so healthy for others. I didn’t get the choice or permission to do it, and that’s what It was so devastating to me. It’s so rotten when you’re sexually assaulted, because part of it…” She pauses to think of the right word. “Such satisfying. But the other part is an absolute nightmare, so you’re confused, not knowing what’s right. It all still weighs heavily on me because I never had a chance to discover myself in this way.” She can’t imagine, she says, what it would have been like to “dating all through high school and then decide to lose your consensual virginity to each other.” This looks very nice to me. It’s all lost to me.”
Her work became a refuge. She was in several TV shows, then Gregg Araki’s indie 1998 film Nowhere, before she landed her roles in American Pie and American Beauty. Both were huge hits, the latter receiving critical acclaim, including several Academy Awards, for its miserable depiction of middle-class suburban life. But the American beauty did not age very well. Kevin Spacey’s character develops an obsession with Angela from Suvari, the girlfriend of his daughter, an insecure but precocious young woman. His fictional image of a nude and rose-petaled Safari, which was also used on movie posters, became ubiquitous.
“I got to know Angela,” Suvari says. “I knew how to play that role, because I was educated in it. ‘Oh, do you want me to be sexually attractive?’ He did. I felt unavailable in a million other ways, but I knew how to play that card.” She was coming home from the set, where I was adored, to the ‘worst relationship of my life, where I was so abused. It was so dark for me at the time,’ [and the film] I felt comfortable, because I could go to work and be important there. I was not called ‘retarded’ and ‘an idiot’.
It’s hard now to remember what life was like in the early 2000s for famous young women—the intense scrutiny and pressure of women like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan and Suvari stars who once co-stars Tara Reid and Brittany Murphy. After American Beauty, despite wide acclaim and a Bafta nomination, Suvari didn’t have much power. In a magazine photo shoot, she claimed she was encouraged to take off her clothes, a giant medallion that covers her pubic area. She noted that the photographer – who was a woman – asked her to move her hair to show the nipple. “I just don’t know what the point of that is. Just sell as much of yourself as you can, as long as you’re young, for as long as possible?” she laughs, bitterly to her. “I don’t know what this message is. But, yes, I felt a lot about this: How attractive are you?”
After American Beauty, she made Sugar & Spice, a teen comedy. She shot in a different situation and was finally able to escape her abusive relationship, however quickly entered into another relationship with the film’s director of photography, Robert Brinkman, who was 16 years her senior. They got married quickly. “I was trying really hard to check the boxes, like, this is what adults do. I was probably looking for a family.” The marriage did not last, as well as her second marriage (party promoter Simon Sestito).
Since 2018, Suvari has been married to Michael Hope, the prop master she met in 2016, and their son turned one year old in the spring. She continued to work steadily, including roles in the popular television series Six Feet Under and American Horror Story, some smaller films, and The Strange Fault (she starred in the true crime drama The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, which was widely criticized even as Its performance is considered good.) Today, Suvari looks busier than ever, including roles in the independent thrillers Breakwater and The Dresden Sun, the horror film The Accursed, and the upcoming Dennis Quaid biopic of Ronald Reagan (playing Jane Wyman, the first wife of the President of the United States).
Writing her book, despite her pain, was cathartic. “I think the most important thing for me was that I felt that I wasn’t allowed to take so many of these moments as abuse or trauma, because I always excused them. That’s a big part of staying — I had to learn how a lot of things served me in that time. And they don’t have to serve me anymore.” She’s had therapy over the years, but it’s, she says, “a daily battle. I feel like things never go away, you just gain a new perspective on them, new patience with myself and more compassion.”
Far from worrying about whether she’s considered “too old” for Hollywood, Suvari seems comfortable leaving her teenage avatar behind (also look at her hilarious, vanity-free Instagram account, or having her breast implants removed by a couple years ago). “I never really wanted to. I feel like I can do my job with more honesty,” she says. She feels like the confident girl she has been for a long time. “I feel more free. Just more confident in myself.”
The Great Peace of Mina Suvari (Hachette Books) is now published.
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