‘I was not being loved. I was just a body’: Mena Suvari on surviving sexual abuse, acting and American Beauty | books

When Mena Suvari’s memoir came out last year, her son was only a few months old and she was dealing with postnatal depression, all while promoting her book, The Great Peace, and talking about the traumas within: rape; predatory older men; drug addiction; and a terrifying and abusive relationship. “So, as you might be able to guess, I was in a state,” she says with a laugh. It felt strange to even have to care about things such as sales. Writing it was the important part: “I needed to express myself. I needed to purge this in order to move on … I very much wanted to let it go.”

But she did rounds of promotional interviews even if, she says, it felt contradictory “to get all made up and pretty on camera. I felt like that’s what I was trying to have conversations around.” For much of her life, Suvari, who is now 43, believed her worth was not just in what she looked like but how sexy she was. The film roles that made her a star – as the virginal Heather in American Pie, and Angela, the focus of middle-aged lust in American Beauty – firmly positioned her as a teenage sex object, although her brutal sexualization of her had begun far earlier. When we speak on Zoom – Suvari in her office dela at home in Los Angeles – she has her hair pushed back from her makeup-free face, looking defiantly anti-Hollywood.

Suvari had worried about how her book would be received but the response was positive. People sent her messages from her on Instagram, relating their own experiences of sexual abuse, and thanking her for writing it. “It was bittersweet because it felt beautiful to feel seen and heard, but it was heartbreaking to hear that others had identified in similar ways. I didn’t want that for them, but overall I feel very proud. We’re living in the craziest time, the world’s on fire, but at the same time things are a lot more open. I always hoped that [the book] could help create some kind of change and initiate further conversation.”

Mena Suvari in American Pie. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

The youngest of four children and the only girl, Suvari grew up in Rhode Island, in a big house with a ballroom, where her father, a psychiatrist (who was already in his 60s when she was born), would see patients. Her early childhood dela was happy, but it became unstable – first, she moved with her mother and one of her brothers dela to the Virgin Islands, then the whole family moved to South Carolina. Her parents were distant. “I struggled to be seen and heard, engaged with,” she says. “But I didn’t feel such a loss of sense of self until I was 12. When I was raped.” A friend of one of her older brothers paid her lots of attention, wrote her love letters, encouraged her into sexual activity, and then raped her several times at her house. He then told other people at school that she was a “whore”. She was so ashamed, she denied that it had happened. “That sucked the life out of me. I think that was just excessive confirmation that no one was going to save me, no one was going to do anything for me.”

When she was treated for a bladder infection as a result of the rapes, the doctor put her on contraception instead of asking her about what was happening to her. What were the adults around her – her parents dela, the doctor – thinking? “I feel like we would have to talk for ever about that.” She smiles sadly. Times were different, she says. She was barely 13, but she was being treated like an adult.

Around the time of the rape, she was signed by a big modeling agency in their children’s division. The following summer, she was going to casting calls in New York, and the year after that, she spent the summer holidays in Los Angeles. When she was cast in a commercial, the agency suggested Suvari move to the city permanently to get her career going, so her parents moved with her to a small apartment.

She found modeling and acting gave her a way to express her feelings, but also taught her the only thing that mattered was the way she looked, and that if she looked “sexy”, that was even better. At her first modeling shoot, she says, “everyone was raving about how I looked 18. But I was 12.” Her voice rises in anger. “What was communicated to me was that I was an adult, therefore I can act like an adult.” There was a pattern of attracting older men who, from her perspective today, she feels used her: the twentysomething photographer who photographed Suvari nude, alone at his home, at 15. One of her business advisers, in his mid-30s, who started having sex with her when she was 16. “I didn’t have anyone telling me, ‘That’s not right, that person shouldn’t be doing that with you’.” Suvari was clever and her grades were good; she was turning up to auditions and doing well, and there was no outside sign anything was wrong. “So, to my own detriment, no one noticed.”

By this time, her mother had walked out, tensions with Suvari’s father getting too much, and Suvari was left looking after her elderly father. Money was tight, and she was taking a lot of drugs, sometimes at school, including methamphetamine (crystal meth). “And that doesn’t put you in a good frame of mind. I think I was desperate. I felt completely helpless, and hopeless.”

Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari in American Beauty.
Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari in American Beauty. Photograph: Dreamworks Skg/Allstar

Life was going to get worse. Soon afterwards, Suvari met a lighting engineer. Their relationship was sordid and abusive, she claims. He would tell her how stupid she was, call her her names her. She felt trapped – she was desperate for her affection, and felt she had nowhere else to go. She took more drugs to deal with it. Then there was the sexual abuse. In her book dela, her account dela is horrific and harrowing, including being coerced into using uncomfortable sex toys, and requiring medical treatment after repeated, rough anal sex. “I was not being loved. I was just a body, a receptacle for his desires, ”she writes.

She says he would ask her to pick up other women to have threesomes with, including those she met on set. She bumped into one much later in a Whole Foods store, after she had become famous, and felt mortified. Another time, she ran into one of the women, and went over to her. “I said, ‘I want you to know that I never wanted to do any of those things’. She was surprised. She said, ‘Oh, he told me you wanted to do that’. It was a huge eye-opener for me, how I was being manipulated and I had no idea. The circumstances had been created for me, and I was just swallowed up by it.”

Suvari is sensitive to criticism that she is being judgmental about threesomes or sex toys, which is something she has faced in the past year: “I’ve never wanted to speak negatively about things that can be very healthy for other people. I was not given the choice or the permission to do it, and that’s what was so destructive for me. It’s a very messed up thing when you experience sexual abuse, because part of it is…” She pauses to think of the right word. “Like, satisfying. But then the other part is an absolute nightmare, so you’re confused, you don’t know what’s right. All of that still weighs on me because I never got the opportunity to discover myself in that way.” She can’t imagine, she says, what it would have been like to have “dated throughout high school and then decided to consensually lose your virginity to one another. That sounds so beautiful to me. All of that was lost for me.”

Her work became a refuge. She had been in several TV shows, then Gregg Araki’s cult indie 1998 film Nowhere, before getting her roles in American Pie and American Beauty. Both were huge hits, the latter picking up critical acclaim, including numerous Oscars, for its portrayal of the miseries of middle-class suburban life. But American Beauty has not aged particularly well. Kevin Spacey’s character develops an obsession with Suvari’s Angela, his daughter’s friend, an insecure but sexually precocious young woman. His fantasy image of Suvari naked and covered in rose petals, which was also used on the film’s posters, became ubiquitous.

“I identified with Angela,” says Suvari. “I knew how to play that role, because I was so schooled in it. ‘Oh, do you want me to be sexually attractive?’ Done I felt unavailable in a million other ways, but I knew how to play that card.” She would go home from the set, where she felt adored, to “the worst relationship of my life, where I was being extremely abused. It was very dark for me at that time, [and the film] felt like a respite, because I could go to work and be important there. I wasn’t called a ‘retard’ and an ‘idiot’.”

Michael C Hall, Lauren Ambrose and Mena Suvari in Six Feet Under.
Michael C Hall, Lauren Ambrose and Mena Suvari in Six Feet Under. Photograph: Channel 4

It is hard to remember now what life was like in the early 2000s for young, famous women – the intense scrutiny and pressure on women such as Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Suvari’s one-time co-stars Tara Reid and Brittany Murphy. After American Beauty, despite widespread acclaim and the Bafta nomination, Suvari still didn’t have much power. On a shoot for a magazine, she claims she was encouraged to take her clothes off her, a giant medallion covering her pubic area. The photographer – who was a woman, she points out – asked her to move her hair to show a nipple. “I just don’t know what the goal of that is. Just sell as much of yourself, as young as you are, for as long as you can?” She laughs, a bitterness to it. “I don’t know what that message is. But, yeah, it felt very much like that: how sexy can you be?”

After American Beauty, she made Sugar & Spice, a teen comedy. Shooting in a different state, she finally managed to escape her abusive relationship, except she swiftly entered into another relationship with the film’s director of photography, Robert Brinkmann, who was 16 years her senior. They married quickly. “I was desperately trying to check the boxes on, like, that’s what an adult does. Maybe I was looking for family.” The marriage did not last, and neither did her second marriage (to concert promoter Simone Sestito).

Since 2018, Suvari has been married to Michael Hope, a prop master she met on set in 2016, and their son turned one in spring. She has continued to work steadily, including roles in the acclaimed TV series Six Feet Under and American Horror Story, some smaller films, and the odd misstep (she played the title role in the true crime drama The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, which was widely panned even if her performance was considered good). Today, Suvari seems busier than ever, including roles in indie thrillers Breakwater and The Dresden Sun, horror film The Accursed, and Dennis Quaid’s forthcoming Ronald Reagan biopic (playing Jane Wyman, the US president’s first wife).

Writing her book, painful as it was, was cathartic. “I think the biggest thing is that, for me, I felt like I wasn’t allowed to consider a lot of these moments as abuse or trauma, because I always excused it. That’s a big part of survival – I had to learn how a lot of things served me then, and they don’t have to serve me any more.” She has had therapy over the years, but it is, she says, “a daily battle. I feel like stuff never really goes away, you just garner a new perspective on it, and a new patience for myself and more compassion.”

Far from anxiety about whether she is considered “too old” for Hollywood, Suvari seems relieved to have left her teenage objectification behind (look, also, to her funny and vanity-free Instagram account, or the removal of her breast implants a couple of years ago). “I never really wanted it. I feel like I can do my work more honestly,” she says. She feels more like the confident young girl she was, a long time ago. “I feel a lot freer. Just more sure of myself.”

The Great Peace by Mena Suvari (Hachette Books) is out now in paperback in the UK

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