“Even as a woman in 1975, she can do it without a man and do it even better,” actress Mena Suvari says of her character, Kathleen, on upcoming Paramount series “American Woman.” The show, set to premiere on June 7th, is executive produced by Kyle Richards of “Real Housewives” fame, who drew from her own life as inspiration for the series.
“Kathleen is a woman from Texas. Her family has always been well off, probably from oil money,” Suvari explains. “She always refers to ‘daddy’: daddy bought her this and daddy bought her that. She has four sisters who are all married and have kids. In 1975, she’s the more eccentric one in the sense that she’s in her 30s, moved out to Los Angeles, and isn’t married yet. You see Kathleen starting this company and, throughout the series, learning how to do it on her own.”
“American Woman” follows the lives of Kathleen and her two best friends, Bonnie and Diana, played by fellow 90s starlet Alicia Silverstone and Jennifer Bartels respectively. “It’s a story about so many things,” Suvari says. “I think it’s really relatable. Even though it’s set in 1975, it’s very current and modernized. You’re seeing the beautiful relationship these women have and how they uplift each other and encourage each other.”
Suvari, now 39, rose to fame at only 20-years-old for her award-winning performance as sultry, wide-eyed cheerleader Angela Hayes in the 1999 drama “American Beauty.” Despite her breakout success and subsequent fame, Suvari remains refreshingly humble and down-to-earth. She doesn’t shy away from talking about her roots in modeling, which served as an entrée into acting. “I went to take a basic modeling class for fun at this place called Millie Lewis—which still exists—and they wanted me to join the agency,” she recounts. “I went to this modeling competition, and I did really well. I met with all the top modeling agencies and Wee Willie’s, which was the kid’s division of Wilhemina, found me.” However, at 5’4”, Suvari was told she was too short for a viable career in fashion modeling. Wee Willie’s suggested she move to L.A. and audition for commercials. She ended up booking one for Rice-A-Roni. “That’s sort of how it snowballed—I moved out to L.A., started high school, kept auditioning, and that was really it,” Suvari says.
Reflecting on her experience filming “American Beauty,” Suvari is struck by how her perspective on acting has evolved. “I can’t believe it’s been almost [20 years]!” she exclaims. “I feel really honored. I look back and I see, as anyone would, my development. I’ve always considered myself, especially at that point, really green,” she recalls. “I had no concept of the business aspect of things at the time. I remember thinking, ‘I’m just so happy to have a job.’ When the film did really well, everyone was like, ‘Oh my god, this is so great, congratulations.’ And it didn’t mean anything to me because I thought everything was that successful. I just didn’t get it. Now, obviously, I have a different perspective when I look back. I see that being able to work with someone like [director] Sam Mendes was such a rare opportunity—and it still is today,” she says.
Since “American Beauty,” Suvari has acted in numerous films and series, most notably Jonas Åckerlund’s “Spun,” Nicolas Cage’s directorial debut “Sonny,” Ernest Hemingway adaptation “The Garden of Eden” and hit television series “Six Feet Under,” “Psych” and “American Horror Story.” Her most recent starring role was as Elyse in “Becks,” an indie drama released in February 2018.
When asked about what draws her to a role, Suvari stresses the art of acting above commercial success. “I don’t want to just say lines. I’ve always been more about the creative aspect of it, the art of it,” she says. “Over time, I’ve actually noticed this sort of symmetry between the types of projects that have been presented to me and where I’ve been at in my own life. Everything that I’ve worked on has challenged me and taught me something about myself. I care about the character and I care about the story, and what it will teach me throughout the process.”
Suvari also cites her roles in “Garden of Eden” and “Six Feet Under” as particularly formative in her career. “I worked on a film called ‘Garden of Eden’ based on a Hemingway novel about a woman, Katherine, who, in the early 1900s, is struggling with her identity and marriage. She ends up cutting all her hair off in different stages. That movie really affected me emotionally. [It] was a role that changed me,” she says. “When Alan Ball presented the character of Edie in ‘Six Feet Under’ to me, I was terrified to do it. It was something I had anxiety over, but I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. It was an amazing experience; it was the first time I had worked on a series. I got to experience this family, this world that everyone had created, for so many seasons. It gave me a thirst for television. Those are pivotal moments for me personally.”
Off-screen, Suvari is active in the animal rights movement. She got involved with the cause in 2017 when non-profit Last Chance for Animals approached her about doing a PSA on animal testing in laboratories. “It was a really heart-wrenching, eye-opening experience. I remember when the PSA was edited together, I couldn’t even watch it,” she says. Suvari went on to film an anti-down advertisement for PETA. “I had a down comforter on my bed and I got rid of it after watching these videos of geese and people ripping their feathers out. They’re alive and bleeding, and none of this has to happen.” Suvari then made the decision to go vegan after watching the documentary “What The Health” on Netflix. “That was a huge turning point for me. I became vegan overnight,” she says. “Right after that, I went cruelty free in my entire lifestyle. I got rid of all my down bedding and my leather furniture.”
In the age of social media and activism that can quickly turn divisive, Suvari remains wary about become aggressive about her beliefs. “I want to encourage [people]. I feel really good about what I’m doing because I believe in it, and if other people are interested in it, then great,” she says.
Suvari is also an outspoken supporter of ERA, a proposed amendment most recently ratified in Illinois, which would federally ban gender-based discrimination. Fittingly, her role in “American Woman” and the show’s emphasis on female solidarity is particularly relevant considering the #MeToo movement and continued conversation on women’s rights.
“In ‘American Woman,’ we talk a lot about the second and third wave of feminism,” she says. “It was interesting working on [the show] and thinking about what my mother had to go through. It’s interesting thinking about how much more we still need, how much more we still deserve, and at the same time what we’ve accomplished,” she reflects. “It’s taken such fearless individuals to talk about what they’ve experienced, and that’s how change is created. I hope that we can continue towards more equality because it’s just right—it’s humane! It’s the same way I feel about animal rights—it’s just ethically correct. No one should be denied services or rights. We’re better than that,” Suvari asserts.
Looking to her future, Suvari hopes for several things: “I hope to still be healthy and alive!” she begins. “I hope to have been given the opportunity to start a family. I’ve also really caught up with my passion for development,” she adds. “That’s something in the last few years that I’ve really focused on—using my own ideas to create content and art, and align with other people to bring projects to fruition. I would love to develop and to produce,” she says. Last but not least, Suvari hopes to continue her first love, acting. “It’s something that I will enjoy for the rest of my life,” she says. “Decades after ‘American Beauty,’ people still refer to it and are still touched by it. That’s what I enjoy about what I do—the art of it.”
Photography and Interview: Indira Cesarine
Styling: Rebecca Weinberg
Makeup: Roberto Morelli
Hair: Alberto Guzman
Photographed at The Untitled Space