Mena Suvari on Surviving Hollywood: The Jezebel Interview

In an interview, the actor opens up about her new MeToo-inspired memoir, The Great Peace, and the abuse she writes about surviving

Mena Suvari on Surviving Hollywood: The Jezebel Interview
Photo:David Needleman (via 42 West)

Mena Suvari says she’s never read a celebrity memoir, and does it ever show. Her own memoir, The Great Peace, is an uncommonly graphic chronicle about coming of age in Hollywood and surviving abuse. Suvari writes that she was “inspired by the courageous women who went public with their stories as part of the MeToo movement,” and her story contains several examples of ways men took advantage of her at a young age. Her manager at 16 let her get high in his apartment, “with him fucking me afterward, but yet also saying, ‘Don’t forget to brush your hair,’ and asking, ‘Do you know your lines?’” She met a 26-year-old lighting designer at a rave when she was 17 and stayed with him for three years, during which time, she writes, he demanded anal sex and, eventually, “kinky threesomes at least four times a week.” She describes the relationship as abusive, writing, “Little by little he whittled away the thin layer of self-worth I had left. I thought this was what relationships must be like, full of stress and fighting.”

In the most-quoted passage leading up to The Great Peace’s release, Suvari writes about her now disgraced America Beauty co-star Kevin Spacey, who in preparation for an intimate scene “took me into a small room with a bed and we laid next to each other, me facing toward him while he held me lightly.” In her book, she writes that the scene prep worked: “Lying there with Kevin was strange and eerie but also calm and peaceful, and as for his gentle caresses, I was so used to being open and eager for affection that it felt good to just be touched.” In a conversation with Jezebel, Suvari compared it to an experience she had with a photographer she refers to in her book as Branden, who took her headshots at 15, undressed and kissed her, refrained from sex, but as she writes “had me in every other way that was barely legal and satisfying.” Many of the scenes of her early years in Hollywood involve older men closing in on her. She married her first husband, cinematographer Robert Brinkmann, in 2000 and divorced him in 2005. He’s 17 years older than she is.

The details are harrowing, but the overall effect of her writing is strangely intoxicating. In unfussy prose that sometimes reminded me of a cross between Go Ask Alice and Soleil Moon Frye’s kid 90 documentary, Suvari transports the reader a drug-hazed youth hangout in the ’90s (“I got heavily into Deee-Lite,” she writes of her raver days). Suvari describes copious substance ingestion (including an intense weed habit and a stint with meth), her shame at contracting herpes, and her time on film sets, including those of her most-seen movies, American Pie and American Beauty, both released in 1999. What’s most impressive is Suvari’s willingness to admit to mistakes and even at times risk coming off as unlikable. She wants people to read and relate to her story, but beyond the notion that the truth has set her free, there isn’t a didactic moral takeaway.

“It’s not like I’m offering all the answers in the book,” she told Jezebel by phone on Monday. “I’m offering all of these moments in hopes that we can have conversations around it, because I don’t know, I’m still figuring all of that out.” An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

Photo:Hachette Books

JEZEBEL: How do you feel about your book today, the day before it comes out?

MENA SUVARI: It was something that I felt so completely compelled to do as far as telling my story. Initially, I didn’t think that I would write a book. I never saw myself as that kind of person. I doubted myself. I think I looked for what I thought would be a more creative way to tell my story. And then upon sharing some of what I found [in her storage unit in 2018]—my diary and the red binder [of other writings] that I made in the late ’90s, which I had titled The Great Peace—I was encouraged to share it as a memoir and really tell my whole story and then add some of the poems and whatnot from the binder into it.

Are you able to sit back and be proud of your work or are you critical of yourself?

I think I’ll always be critical of myself. I wonder if it’s even possible to not be. I’ve never felt I was good enough. So for sure, that’s always going to be there. I’m proud of myself in the sense that I don’t feel like I’m living in fear anymore. And it feels good to be authentic, to be transparent, because I believe that’s why we’re here: to communicate with one another. To learn and hopefully grow and inspire one another. That just feels good for me to do and that overrides the nerves.

I’m trying to showcase in the book the process of me realizing that I always had a voice. That it’s okay for me to talk about these things because I doubted that the whole time. My whole life. I felt like “Well, you know, I didn’t end up in the hospital over it, so it must not have been that bad.” I just suffered silently. “Well, you know, my skull wasn’t cracked open over it, so I guess I really wasn’t abused. I guess I really didn’t experience trauma.” And that’s not cool. I don’t think that it is that black and white.

It simply was that I was inspired to tell my story. And I just started talking from the beginning and I ended up writing too much. I wrote like two books’ worth. And so I had to shape this down. I guess it really just poured out of me. And so the point is that it’s not like this work is done or that I just like wrapped it all up and it’s over. It all came out and and and there’s conversations that are coming up from it. And that’s good. That’s the whole point. That’s what I think makes me feel good about this.

One of the things that that impressed me the most is your willingness to not be the hero in every situation. This isn’t to take away from your trauma or to downplay your abuse, but there are plenty of other things that you put in the book that don’t strike me as, “Okay, here’s someone who’s writing a press release, trying to sell me how good of a person she is.”

God, I hope not. That’s the whole argument. I lost myself for so long in comparison and this idea of perfection. And we’re not that. I don’t want to suffer from that anymore. I don’t want this to be like a wah wah story or a blame game, and I don’t because that’s giving away my power. I don’t I don’t want to give away that power.

I lost myself for so long in comparison and this idea of perfection. and we’re not that.

There’s a tremendous amount of sometimes shocking detail here. It must be a strange thing to balance the sharing of trauma with writing a book that people will want to keep turning the pages of.

That’s just my style. I just wanted people to understand what it felt like so that it could feel tangible. I had to communicate it that way because the whole point was that I was desperately needing someone to hear the whole time. I never forgot exactly what that felt like. I just opened up.

Did all your pot smoking make recall difficult at all? Were there moments were there periods in your life that were too hazy to remember?

I don’t know the exact answer to that because there were other drugs in the mix throughout my life. I would assume that trauma plays a big role in that. Sometimes things are a little hazy for me in memory because of how traumatic they were. And that pertains to moments in my life before drugs were even introduced to me. But I’m also old, so who knows? I’m sure my memory is just going.

Do you think that being positioned as a sex object at such a young age affected your development?

For sure. I think that cemented a particular mentality, an image of myself. All within a few months, my virginity was taken from me [via rape at age 12], I was labeled a whore, and then I’m signed with [modeling agency] Wee Willies and Wilhelmina and I’m in Manhattan. I just wanted to wear high heels because I just wanted to be taller. I just wanted to fast forward on my life. It’s not like I’m offering all the answers in the book. I’m offering all of these moments in hopes that we can have conversations around it, because I don’t know, I’m still figuring all of that out.

But I do believe that it did. I believe it cemented a lot of that for me as to that’s what my value was. That’s just the card that I learned how to play.

I just wanted to wear high heels because I just wanted to be taller. I just wanted to fast forward on my life.

Was writing about having herpes difficult?

Definitely. All of it. The thing is I just lived in such shame and then what was communicated to me is that I was seemingly perfect. I was iconic, right? Talk about a mindfuck. I just was sort of like, “Well then I can’t have all of these issues. Like, those don’t line up. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t have done those drugs.” So I disassociated. I disconnected and what I learned in my midlife crisis at 20 years old, I learned, well, there is the professional Mena Suvari. That’s what I turn on. And then there’s the Mena that I have no clue—and I’m still figuring out to this day—who she is. I played that game and that’s what I’ve been used to doing. “Where do you want me to go? Where you want me to put on? OK, I know how to do that.” That’s the effect. That’s the result. That’s how I do my job. I didn’t appreciate any of that or understand any of that time.

I was diseased for life. Stained,” you wrote about your diagnosis. Have you come to terms with having herpes?

Yeah. It’s not black and white. It’s not like I’m saying that these things are wrong or like, you know, any of the sexual exploration and whatnot that I talk about or plastic surgery… it’s not that I think any of these things are wrong. It’s just that I feel like my ability, my option was lost. Right? The ability for me to learn any of that on my own was lost. It was the context of the situation, the circumstances that it was all wrapped up in. How I contracted that from Tyler and how it was kept from me. The shame and the the pain and the hurt that I applied to myself, because at the same time, I realized my inability to leave him. All of that started even in the beginning of the relationship where, you know, he couldn’t answer the door because he was in the back room with a stripper. I went into that for three years, and so I lived with that. That’s how I saw it: That was just part of how I must have to suffer in life. And so I viewed it as something horrible and as a stain. I viewed all of those things as negative, as wrong, as unhealthy because of how it happened to me. I never would know what it would feel like to be like, “Hey, I’m a mature adult. You’re my mature adult partner. Let’s decide to explore some of these things. Let’s go to like a sex shop and have fun.” I don’t know what it’s like to be like, “Hey, we are [American Pie characters] Heather and Oz. And we’ve known each other for however long and we’re going to decide to lose our virginity to one another.” I didn’t know any of that. It was always around a negative, horrible, painful, shameful context.

What was communicated to me is that I was seemingly perfect. I was iconic, right? Talk about a mindfuck.

A lot of your book’s pre-release press has been about your Kevin Spacey story. Are you surprised the way people have reacted to that?

No. That’s kind of been the story of my life. I understand. I mean something different to everyone. I’m very much the girl from American Pie or the girl from American Beauty. I don’t mean to ruin an image. Those are beautiful moments, that mean so much to me. Obviously everybody has questions about what they’re interested in. But to me, those moments can’t really be taken out of context because it’s to point out the underlying theme throughout my life, my relationship with myself, my relation to others. I offered up that moment on American Beauty and it just happened to involve a person named Kevin Spacey. But it’s just to show where I was as a young woman. And I thought it was interesting how it was just another similar moment in my life. I talk about coming out to Los Angeles and staying at the Oakwood, and I end up in an apartment of a man older than me, a photographer with the headshots. Same thing. It was just kind of like the same theme.

You write so much about your relationships. Do you think that they’ve defined your life as opposed to your work?

I think all of it defines me, right? I’d like to see it that way. I choose to see it that way because I like to find opportunity in my work, as well, to grow. There’s always been this strange similarity with where I’m at in my personal life and like where I need to go and the growth that I need to get me to the next place.

How are you feeling about your career today?

I’m very happy. I feel if anything, more connected to my work. I feel very grateful that I’m able to do what I love. I mean, I’m ultimately doing it for myself and because it’s my path and my journey and not really for anyone else. It just reminds you…someone said to me recently I’m not the it girl anymore.

Someone said that to you?

Yeah, it was just like bringing that up for me and I just thought, like… that’s okay for me. Like, that’s the point, right? I’m 42. Like, I’m okay with that. What are we really saying? That I’m 42 and I need to keep chasing being twenty?

Well, people do.

But we don’t have to. And can we not?

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