Interview Date: 03/18/2011
Run Date: 03/24/2011
All it took was a quick roll in the rose petals to vault Mena Suvari from small parts to full-fledged movie stardom, but while she’s arguably still best known for her “American” two-fer in 1999 – “American Beauty” and “American Pie” – Suvari has amassed a sizable collection of work over the past decade or so. Right now, she’s in the midst of promoting the film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “Garden of Eden,” (now available on DVD) which spent a significant length of time in limbo before finally earning a proper release this year. Bullz-Eye chatted with Suvari about her knowledge of the author known as Papa, got her thoughts on Hollywood’s tendency to play up sexuality over literary, talked to her about working on everything from “Boy Meets World” to “The Cape,” and got a better idea as to whether or not we’ll be seeing her character return in “American Reunion.”
Bullz-Eye: So what was your knowledge of Hemingway before entering into the film? Had you been well-versed enough to even be aware of “Garden of Eden”? It’s not exactly the best known of his novels.
Mena Suvari: No, I hadn’t known of “Garden of Eden.” I knew of Hemingway, but not a great deal. I think just kind of from high school. You know, “The Old Man and the Sea.” But I didn’t know “Garden of Eden,” and after I read the script, I loved it, so I went out and I got the book right away, and I fell in love with the book. I really consider it to be one of my favorite books to this day. I just think it’s so beautifully written and very different from any of Hemingway’s other work. It’s said that “Garden of Eden” is based on Hemingway’s own life, in a sense.
BE: Was it a daunting task to take on something written by Hemingway? There’s a precedent for some seriously classic films to come out of his work.
MS: I didn’t want to look at it like that. I mean, I was just so interested and taken with the story. I’m so fascinated why people do the things they do and the human condition, and a woman like Catherine, so complex like she is, I was just really, really excited to learn about myself through the process of playing her.
BE: I know you and Jack Huston were both in “Factory Girl.” Had you met prior to that, or was that your first encounter?
MS: Yeah, we worked together on “Factory Girl,” but, oh, God, we had known each other a few years or so before that. That was great. I think it’s always wonderful when you know people you’re working with. For me, I’ve been in this business for 18 years, and it’s fun and cool to work with your friends. You’re kind of like a family.
BE: So do those relationships help when you’re doing a film with “adult themes,” shall we say, or does it make it weird because you know each other?
MS: (Laughs) I think it did help a bit. I mean, we didn’t work a whole lot together on “Factory Girl,” but we knew one another. So I do think it helped a bit.
BE: How was it working with Caterina Murino?
MS: Oh, she’s wonderful. I mean, really, everyone was. I think we were all so passionate about this project, and we were really taking it for what it was and were excited to work on it. And, I mean, she’s gorgeous! And she’s so intelligent, and she’s such a wonderful actress. It was so much fun to get to know her and work with her. We were together for about two weeks before we even started filming, so we had the opportunity to, you know, go out to lunches and dinners and hang out and get to know each other. It was a lot of fun. It was really great.
BE: I was pleased to see Richard E. Grant in the film. I’ve been a fan of his for years.
MS: Oh, yes, he’s…he’s a delight! (Laughs) I had so much fun working with him. He’s so charming, and he’s just phenomenal in those scenes where…well, it was just such a pleasure to work with him. He’s such a great guy, and a lot of fun.
BE: I thought it was funny that your character was so giddy about staying so close to Cannes. As an actress, I’m sure Cannes is old hat for you.
MS: I’ve actually only been there one time!
BE: Oh, really? I knew you’d been there, but…
MS: Yeah, just the one time, and it was when I was much younger. I’d love to go back. But we shot the film in Spain, so we kind of cheated. (Laughs)
BE: So is it fun or a challenge to play a character that’s as manipulative as Catherine?
MS: The thing about Catherine, what’s so brilliant about her and how I want people to see her, is… (Hesitates) I know on the surface she comes off like that, but I feel like it’s such a deeper conflict that is going on with her, that she is a woman who’s simply struggling with trying to find her own identity. I think there’s a part of her that she doesn’t necessarily…she’s not necessarily mean-spirited. She just doesn’t know any other way. I think she’s so unhappy within herself and doesn’t know who she is, and she’s grasping at all of these different ideas to fulfill her, but it never does. I would hope that people would be encouraged to read the book, because it’s so powerful. I’ll give you an example. There’s a moment at the end of the film, after she’s destroyed his novel, burned his papers, and all of that, where she says to him…she apologizes, but she says, “I know that I’ve done something to you.” Even at that moment, she doesn’t fully understand. That’s why I don’t think she should be held accountable for consciously being manipulative and mean-spirited. I think there’s this desperation with her. She simply doesn’t know.
BE: To talk about the novel, they certainly play up the fact that it’s the “controversial” novel by Ernest Hemingway on the box of the DVD. Do you wish they’d focused more on the literary aspects of the film than the controversial nature of the book? Because they’ve definitely gone out of their way to point out that, hey, there’s a bunch of sexy stuff in this movie!
MS: (Laughs) Well, you know, from my perspective, that’s Hollywood for you! I mean, yeah, of course, sex sells. I haven’t seen the DVD cover yet, but I can understand that, you know. I think for me that’s part of what I’ve always struggled with in my own life, just from my own perspective, not necessarily agreeing with it. I’m always about the creative aspects and the art of the piece. This is definitely a Hemingway piece, and it’s very much about the literary aspects. It’s about the human condition. So, yeah, hearing that about the DVD box, that is slightly upsetting to me. It’s so much deeper than that surface level. It’s so much deeper than, you know, a guy with two girls. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about people and relationships, how we deal with one another, how we communicate. Are we happy? Do we really fulfill ourselves? Do we know who we are? I mean, it’s so much deeper, in my eyes.
BE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of other things you’ve worked on. I was surprised to see you turn up on an episode of “The Cape.” Did you enjoy the opportunity to do a superhero show?
MS: Oh, yeah, I had so much fun on that! (Laughs) It was a lot of fun. They were great. I mean, I love the whole concept, and I’d never gotten the opportunity to play a character like that. And James Frain is so wonderful. I had a lot of fun working with him. He’s great!
BE: You know, they recently reissued “Boy Meets World” on DVD. So I was able to see your episodes on that show.
MS: (Explodes into laughter) Oh, my God! Wow, talk about a flashback! I think I was, like, 14 or something. My mom always talks about that and how I…I did two episodes of that, because they wanted to bring me back, but then they brought me back as a different character, which was the weirdest thing. The first time I went on, I think I had, like, one line, and my mom always tells me this story and reminds me how I was going over and over and over the line with her, saying it with different inflections. (Laughs) Yeah, those were the good days. I was just so unaware of the business, and I could just have fun. And that’s the thing: as you get older, you’re always struggling with keeping that…what’s the word? That kind of genuine quality about life, that innocence, where you’re still having fun while you’re doing it.
BE: You certainly made a big transition on that front when you teamed up with Sam Mendes for “American Beauty.” When you did that film, was it just a case where you just had to sort of put yourself in his hands and hope for the best, or did he instill you with trust before you ever started filming?
MS: Oh, for sure. Again, I was in a completely different place in my life. I was so young. I mean, I was just so happy to have a job! (Laughs) I literally remember thinking that while I was on set: “I’m so happy that I have a job! And these people are so cool to work with!” I didn’t get starstruck. I didn’t even understand any of that. I just loved doing what I was doing and enjoying it. For sure, Sam was wonderful. I can look back now and understand how he had come from theater, so there was this work ethic that he had brought to the set of “American Beauty” that did kind of set a precedence for me, because I learned that I loved rehearsal. I loved the way I worked with Sam, and that’s still important to me, so I think he helped shape me. At least a little bit, anyway. (Laughs)
BE: What would you say is your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
MS: Probably this project, “Garden of Eden.” (Offers a humorless laugh, no doubt in reference to the fact that it was actually made way back in 2008) But, I mean, I don’t look at material that comes my way in the sense of, “Oh, I have to do this movie because it’s a big studio movie that’s going to make a lot of money, so I can brand myself.” I don’t look at it like that. I never have. It’s always about the characters and the story. Like, I’m so taken with this story and the book itself, and I was excited about it. I hadn’t worked on a project where we were making a film out of a book. For me, a lot of my experience has been people saying, “Oh, the book was so much better than the film,” or, “Oh, the film was so much better than the book,” you know? So it was important to me that the language of Catherine really carried over from the book into the film…and then, you know, it’s out of your hands! I honestly never would’ve thought it would’ve gone so long without coming out. I got to the point where I kind of stopped thinking about it. I kind of stopped asking my agent, “What’s going on with this movie?” And then all of a sudden Roadside Attractions picked it up, and I feel like that was really the saving grace for the film, because it was such a small film, an independent. But I just loved the content so much that…I felt like it was such a powerful story just for people to experience, whether or not they agreed with it, just to get you thinking. See the film or read the book and just think about your own life. That’s all I ever would’ve wanted from working on this movie, I think.
BE: I know we’re coming up against the wall here, but I have to ask you if you’d be up for this “American Reunion” that everyone seems to be talking about all of a sudden.
MS: Yeah, everybody’s been talking about it. (Laughs nervously) We’re in the negotiating process right now, so I don’t know too much, but it sounds pretty exciting, and I think everybody’s looking forward to it.
BE: So all things being equal, if they can work something out, you’d be up for it?
MS: Yeah! I’m kind of excited to see where the world has taken Heather! (Laughs)
BE: And just to wrap up, I wanted to tell you that we kinda sorta have a mutual friend, in that Stephen Tobolowsky is my Facebook friend.
MS: Oh, my God!
BE: He wanted to make sure that I told you he said “hi.”
MS: He’s amazing. Speaking of him, there’s a film that we worked on together, “You May Not Kiss the Bride,” and, again, it’s one of those films that hasn’t come out yet. But he’s so funny in it. He actually called me a couple of years ago – it was on my birthday, and I was in Scottsdale, Arizona – and he said, “I have this movie…” And he was going to play one of the detectives in the film, but he couldn’t because of his schedule, but what happened was that he and Kathy Bates shot a few days after the rest of our production, so he does still play a character in the film. But it’s so funny, and I love my character in that movie. I mean, it’s one of those things that I would hope people would get to see, because it’s a romantic comedy, and my character’s so wacky. It was great. And he’s such a sweetheart. I’m really grateful to him for that. I had a really great time working on that film.
BE: I’d actually brought you up to him because I knew that you had been in his documentary, “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party.” He said that you two had met through Robert Brinkmann.
MS: Yeah, at the time when Robert and I were together, Robert had created that whole concept with Stephen. Robert is a cinematographer, so he shot it and directed it, and Amy Adams was able to be there with her husband, Darren (Le Gallo), and…it was a lot of fun. We shot at Stephen’s house, and, I mean, Stephen’s such an amazing storyteller. (Laughs) He really is!
BE: He said you also had the advantage that you’d heard the stories before.MS: Well, yeah, but I could sit and listen to him tell stories for hours. He’s so good at it! I really admire that. I’d love to have that quality. Tell him I said “hi”!