IT'S NOT clear that Mena Suvari is even remotely interested in being a glamorous actress. Now 29, she entered the national consciousness in a forceful and disturbingly sexual way almost 10 years ago in "American Beauty." Her character, Angela Hayes, rapidly became a shorthand reference for precocious teen libidinousness and the effect it can have on middle-aged men trapped in depressing suburban cul-de-sacs and airless professions.
Suvari was young enough at that point -- yet sufficiently wise in the ways of Hollywood, where she had been working since she was 14 -- to develop a career that hinged on big-budget movies punctuated with the occasional cred-preserving indie detour. Instead, she decided to make more distinctive and, as she likes to put it, "challenging" choices.
Of course, we've heard that from actors about 10,000 times, but in Suvari's case, her decisions back it up. Since "American Beauty" in 1999, she has appeared in two "American Pie" movies; "Spun," an exploration of the crystal meth subculture; as a lesbian poet in several episodes of "Six Feet Under"; as Warhol superstar Richie Berlin in 2006's "Factory Girl"; and in numerous other downright strange roles. This Friday will see the release of "Stuck," her second collaboration with Stephen Rea and director Stuart Gordon. Just for the record, the last time she worked with Gordon, on 2005's David Mamet-scripted "Edmond," she was credited simply as "whore."
"Look, I could put on a bikini and make a lot of money," she says. "But I'm trying to stimulate myself as an actor."
Suvari makes no apologies for a style that's anything but meticulously prepared and often executed at high speed. "Sometimes, I like to work that way, in an intense filmmaking process," she says. In "Stuck," she plays Brandi, a nursing home caretaker with an appetite for Ecstasy and a drug-dealer boyfriend who can keep her supplied. One night, while high, she hits Stephen Rea (a downsized white-collar guy who's ended up on the streets), who crashes through the windshield of her car. There he remains for most of the film, trapped in a garage, slowly bleeding to death from a variety of gruesome wounds, while Brandi hopes he will "just go to sleep." The plot is based on actual events that occurred in 2001 in Fort Worth.
"I never had my jaw hit the floor so many times reading a script," Suvari says. The resulting film is a distinctive blend of criminal farce, light horror and black comedy. Its closest antecedent is 1990's "Misery," with Rea taking the place of James Caan, desperate to escape his gory fate. Suvari portrays Brandi as a bewildered, white-trash victim of a single terrible decision but also as a merciless angel of death, determined to get rid of Rea. She wears her hair in cornrows, maintains ghetto-fabulous nails and appears mainly in baggy hospital scrubs (so much for the bikini). Suvari insists that she wasn't playing Brandi for laughs -- "she's an inherently good person" -- but at numerous points in the film, a queasy hilarity bubbles up from the grim premise, and Suvari runs with it.
"Sometimes I surprise myself with what comes out," she says, calling her acting an "organic process" and the relatively quick "Stuck" shoot "emotionally taxing" and "heavy."
In two films, she has certainly earned the respect of Gordon: "She's fearless. A lot of actresses are worried about how they'll be perceived, but she likes to explore the darkness." He was particularly impressed with how she managed the appeal of a character who is basically a murderer. "Brandi could easily have been a monster, but Mena makes you care about her."
Ultimately, for Suvari, making movies like "Stuck" has enabled her to overcome personal as well as artistic boundaries. And the fact is, she's a bit of a weirdo, drawn again and again to material that other actresses might sample but never revisit. "Early in my career, I got very lucky, but I didn't know what to do with it," she says. "I thought there were feelings and emotions I couldn't perform. But now I'm pushing myself to an extreme emotionally, and I know I can't be afraid to do that."
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Where you've seen her
When Mena Suvari says that, since "American Beauty" in 1999, she's worked a lot, she isn't kidding. She's appeared in more than a dozen movies and also contributed the voice of Aerith Gainsborough to several iterations of the Final Fantasy video game franchise, including the computer-generated film "Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children." On television, she got her start in "Boy Meets World" and by 2004 was playing Edie the Sapphic artist on a season of "Six Feet Under." She previously worked with Stephen Rea in "The Musketeer," a martial-arts re-imagining of "The Three Musketeers." She will also appear in the upcoming film version of Michael Chabon's novel "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh."