Mena Suvari hit the big time in 1999 with sexy turns in hormonal teen comedy American Pie and Sam Mendes' Oscar-winning drama American Beauty. After playing the teenage vamp yet again in the critically reviled American Virgin and American Pie 2, she was at risk of getting typecast. From there she resolved to do films without the word 'American' in the title and even dirtied up her teeth for drug-addled drama Spun, before rolling around in ants and blood for Marc Evans' London-set psychological thriller Trauma.
Having recently made gritty, independent films like Spun and now Trauma, is it fair to say that you're dissatisfied with the roles that are being offered to you by mainstream Hollywood?
No, it's not that. It's just what I've chosen and for me that has to do with the story and also finding roles that I think are really good for me - something that I'm passionate about and interested in. The way it has worked out is that those films just happen to be independent and not studio. I don't want to do the same thing over and over again. I want to challenge myself and I don't want to be the pretty girl with her tits hanging out, honestly. I know that's how I've gotten here today so it hasn't led me to say strategically that I'm not going to do any more studio films. But I also think there's more creativity in independent filmmaking.
After doing so many teen roles, did you relish the chance to play someone closer to your own age?
Oh yeah, it was great. I work really well with my agent, we have similar tastes and he knows what direction I want to take. I definitely don't think it would be a good thing for me to be in another high school ensemble comedy, you know what I mean? From that point in my life, I've grown so much in terms of who I am, what I'm interested in, and what I want to do. With this film I liked how different and dark it was, and it was really creatively written.
What was it particularly about the character that drew you in?
The role of Charlotte was just very different from anything I'd ever done, it wasn't the classic "two people meet and end up having sex" kind of thing. Yeah, there was some intimacy there but it was really tragic and torn - it could never be. I also liked the idea that Charlotte could be a figment of this guy's imagination. There's a lot of symbolism as well. I was really excited to do it because I'd been waiting a long time to do something that I liked. I've passed on a lot of things in the meantime because I really need to be passionate about what I'm doing.
Is it true that you attended a séance in preparation for this role?
It wasn't really a séance. My character is really into Reiki [a type of spiritual healing] and I did learn how to perform that and experienced it myself, but I went to what was an intervention basically. There were two mediums that conjured up... spirits, I guess, and one of them would draw the deceased person and the family members would talk to them.
What kind of impression did that make on you?
It was definitely unique. I'm not religious myself but it was fascinating. The most important thing - in spite of any scepticism I would have had - is the reaction of the people and how emotional they became. That's something that really helped me as far as understanding where my character was coming from and her motivation.
Trauma is quite a harrowing film to watch. Was it a similarly intense experience making it?
Well my character is really separated from what Ben [Colin Firth] is going through. Charlotte is who she is, and a healer of sorts, so that's the mindset that I had, and that's how we played it. And Colin, I just can't speak enough of him, because he's so wonderful, experienced, talented and down to earth. He's also very charming and funny and not in any way affected by the business, so it was a wonderful experience working with him. Also, before this, I'd never worked with anyone who was so eager to give you insight - telling me what he thought, and asking me if that was OK, and what I wanted to do. You know, you don't always get that. And Marc is also really good with actors.
Charlotte has to eat a spider in the film - did you pull a Nicolas Cage and eat it for real?
I'd love to say that I did, but I didn't! It was a real spider though, and it did touch my lips a few times in that scene - you can tell - but it wasn't put in my mouth. I definitely wasn't down with that. I mean, I did consider it, but in the end I just couldn't. The girl who did it had a mouth-guard to protect her, and I must say the spider was very professional [laughs], but it's just that at a moment's notice the thing could bite you. For me the thought of that was just... eugh! Not appealing.
You also had rather a lot of ants to contend with...
My God, those ants... Those ants were all in my hair. That really was me. I was drenched in bottles of blood and these ants were all over the place and biting me, which wasn't very nice - obviously. The thing is, when they feel threatened they release a form of acid, so I was like, "Stop! They're hurting me! They're hurting me!" and when they started to go in my eyes I just said, "Cut!" I couldn't handle that. I was covered in dead ants and blood afterwards and I had to take a shower in my trailer, which I must say, I've never done before [laughs] - because they're just so tiny and the water is always freezing! But even back at my hotel, late at night, I was finding dead ants in my hair.