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Mena Suvari: Mena Season

Mena Suvari will always have a special place here at Le Blog. She was the inspiration for the “What the Hell Happened” series. In 1999, Suvari came on the scene with two very different hit movies. She was part of the ensemble teen sex comedy, American Pie, and the Oscar winning domestic dramedy, American Beauty. Then she faded quickly from the spotlight. At the peak of her career potential, Suvari graced the cover of the June 2000 issue of Movieline magazine.

Fame is an unpredictable benefactor. It can creep up on an actor stealthily over time with movie after movie the way it did for Winona or Keanu. It can bless and curse a promising young actor like Leo when a movie becomes a worldwide phenomenon. Sometimes it descends on a completely unknown actor with a single movie that changes everything overnight.

Fame dropped rose petals all over Mena Suvari last year in an almost freakish way when she appeared in not one, but two movies–American Pie and American Beauty–that almost simultaneously captured major critical attention, hit the $100-million box-office mark and won her fans (reread her reviews) and, well, worshipers (read those Web sites devoted to her). What is more, while American Pie may have seemed like a lark aimed at horny young guys, it struck a chord with Gen-X and Gen-Y moviegoers of both sexes, and scored with the Gen-W audience as well. Similarly, the more ambitious American Beauty was targeted at an older crowd, but its deadpan, acerbic take on just how screwed up we all are right now fascinated younger audiences. Suvari’s sleepy, Novocained good looks and insolent, hilariously over-it way with dialogue were an essential ingredient of the success of both movies. On top of that, she had appealing, virginal chemistry with young Chris Klein in one movie and seductive, vulnerable chemistry with the older Kevin Spacey in the other. And for good measure, there was that insinuating body which apparently ignited impure thoughts in some senior critics who probably weren’t ashamed of themselves the next morning.

In both of her American epics, Suvari displayed a screen presence that, with time and more exposure, could spell big trouble for men on-screen. She had the poise of a pro, even though she was just 20 and almost nobody had heard of or seen her before American Pie. Had she just been cruising at lower altitudes on Hollywood’s radar screen, maybe on a sitcom or in smaller roles in smaller flicks? Or was she a natural who’d just emerged suddenly from the ether?

When I meet Suvari for lunch in a popular trattoria in the old-L.A., Young Hollywood-friendly neighborhood of Los Feliz, some of the pieces of the puzzle click into place. Casually groomed, she looks fresh-faced and glowy as she flicks back her long hair. And although she could easily pass for a high school junior, she moves with the ease and self-possession of one who grew up with privilege. The personal biographical details she begins to lay out for me as we start our conversation support that impression.

The daughter of a psychiatrist and a nurse with a 24-year difference in their ages, Suvari was indeed raised against backdrops of money and style. She lived in Newport, Rhode Island, as a child, the Virgin Islands as a young teen, South Carolina in her early high school years and Southern California from the age of 16 on. She derived her first name from her Egyptian godmother and her last name (pronounced “soo-VAHR-ee”) from her Estonian father, Ando. She has three older brothers, Sulev, Yuri and Ajai, each two-and-a-half years apart. As a kid, she spent five years as a Wilhelmina model before graduating to commercials (Rice-A-Roni, Pizza Hut) then to occasional TV work (“Boy Meets World,” “Chicago Hope,” “ER”) followed by small parts in movies (Nowhere, Kiss the Girls, Slums of Beverly Hills and The Rage: Carrie 2), That’s when the one-two punch of American Pie and American Beauty came along. Now Suvari is on Hollywood’s short list and modeling sunglasses in fashion ads. Why her, some ask?

“Why you?” I ask.

“I can’t figure it out myself,” says Suvari with the telltale residue of a New England upbringing in her crisp delivery and the first of frequent giggles. “I never thought I would be where I am right now. Its all exploded for me. There are people who have lived here for decades and haven’t even gotten a commercial. Here I am, a kid who came here with her parents with no thought of being an actor, and now I have people sticking microphones in my face, and I just can’t say anything. I go to an awards show and there are all these people screaming and waving when they don’t even know me. My agent says to me, ‘Turn around and wave frequently just to be nice and courteous.’ And I’m like, who am I? Some of the people out there yelling and cheering are my age.