Film & TV

Mena Suvari, American Actress

Having broken her ‘90s bombshell mold, the acclaimed actress is diving back into comedy, head first.
Reading time 6 minutes

Photographs by David Needleman
Styling by Ashley Pruitt/

There is no actress more “all-American” than Mena Suvari. Yes, she has a SAG award and a BAFTA nomination, but one of her most impressive claims is that she’s starred in eight films and shows with the word “American” in the title. Suvari’s jingoism runs the gamut: American Beauty, American Pie, American Horror Story, and most recently, American Woman.

But don’t think she so easily fits the mold of the all-American girl archetype. Having wrestled free from the short leash of ‘90s bombshell, the 39-year-old has been taking on roles that don’t have “blond hair” as a prerequisite since Y2K. As Kathleen in Paramount’s new 1970s-era comedy American Woman, Suvari chews on the meat dished up by Kyle Richards, a former child actress and Real Housewife of Beverly Hills star on whose upbringing the series is based. Suvari describes it as “Sex in the City but in a different time period.” It’s comedy, something she has only dabbled in.

Knowing that a Real Housewife was behind the project, many seasoned actors may have distanced themselves, wary they were walking into a cocktail-tossing schlockfest—a Vanderpump Rules for the Woodstock crowd. Did Suvari have any hesitations in signing on?

“No, not at all,” the actress says over the phone from L.A. “Not only is Kyle a fantastic person but if you're looking at this project on paper, it was surrounded by nothing but fantastic people.” She name checks executive producer John Riggi, producer of 30 Rock and The Comeback, as well as John Wells, who has worked on shows like ER and Shameless.

At only 20 minutes per episode, the story moves apace amid the languid richesse of the ‘70s Hollywood housewives it focuses on. Alicia Silverstone’s character, Bonnie, discovers her husband Steve has been cheating on her. She takes the kids, runs him out of their John Lautner-style pad, and then has to figure out how she’s going to pay the bills when the home goes into foreclosure. Her only marketable skills are typing and picking out a pair of cute heels. Even as a comedy, it’s hard not to clock the rampant misogyny rife during that time period. “When we were together, you never had to worry about anything!” Steve snaps at Bonnie in the midst of their separation.

Kathleen, Suvari’s character, is Bonnie’s best friend. She’s atypical for the time period in that she starts her own company (albeit with daddy’s seed investment) together with her boyfriend, Greg, whom she doesn’t realize is gay. There may be a joke somewhere in there, but the pair, she tells me, are based on a real-life couple. The fact that Greg has to remain in the closet is just another example of the lack of social progress in the ‘70s.

“You get to understand what it was like for a person who was homosexual, who couldn't express themselves, how they had to navigate their lives, where they had to go,” Suvari offers. “It's so crazy. What I love so much about the show is that it's a window into that period. And it gives you that opportunity to create so much conversation around it. I'm sure this new generation is looking back like, ‘What? That's insane! I can't believe you even had to live like that.’”

In real life, Mena Suvari and Alicia Silverstone, two paragons of that canny ‘90s “bimbo schtick,” did have to live like that. “My life wasn't great behind the scenes,” she says, reflecting back on the making of Best Picture winner American Beauty. “I was so happy just to have a job, everybody was just really nice to me. I don't think I really understood what I was doing. It was sort of like a process for me.” 

They have survived the archetype’s detonation where many of their co-stars have not. Thora Birch, whom Suvari starred alongside in American Beauty, has more or less been tossed out of the industry because of her father’s heavy-handed management. Rose McGowan pivoted to activism. Brittany Murphy died suddenly at 29. Stacey Dash became a Republican bullhorn. But Suvari and Silverstone remain.

The last time Suvari saw her co-star Birch was at an anniversary screening for American Beauty years ago. She doesn’t remember Birch’s father being on set of the Sam Mendes film, but she grew close with Birch’s mother.

“[Thora and I] recently reconnected on social media and we kept talking about getting together and have yet to do it, but I'm really looking forward to it. She's such an artist.” When I bring up Murphy, it’s evident that Suvari really cared for her. They acted together in Jonas Akerlund’s 2003 junkie caper Spun. “It makes me want to cry even now. She was so effervescent, she was such a light…”

"I was so happy just to have a job, everybody was just really nice to me. I don't think I really understood what I was doing. It was sort of like a process for me."

That Suvari has managed to avoid much of the destruction that has ruined the careers of other actors in her generation—the lasting trauma of #metoo, the pitfalls of addiction, being phased out of leading roles due to age—makes her a rarity in Hollywood. She’d tell you she’s just doing what she loves.

Next Suvari will play another gone-too-soon cultural fixture: Nicole Brown Simpson. She can’t spare any details about that project just yet, but one of her other goals is to get behind the camera.

“I just want to share my story,” she says. “I've wanted to do it in a much more creative way. And I really want to create something that I'm really passionate about. It's something that I admire so much about Kyle and our show. It's like taking life and turning it into art. And making it into something that inspires and touches other people. To me, that's so awesome.”

Catch all the moments from Mena's shoot with L'Officiel USA in the gallery below.

Hair Walton Nunez using Lanza/TheBrooksAgency

Makeup Roberto Morelli using Chanel/

Stylist Assistant Valeria Leonova 

Photo Assistant Eduardo Valderrama



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