There are so many things Mena Suvari never wanted you to know. And there were ghosts of her past all over this town, willing to keep her secrets. Like the woman she ran into once at Whole Foods — a woman with whom she’d had a threesome.
“I was mortified, because I was famous then, and she knew me when I wasn’t,” recalls Suvari, one of the most popular young actresses around the turn of the millennium. “I never wanted to be that person to her. Our paths crossing again was uncomfortable and weird, and I found myself in a situation where I had to apologize.”
It wasn’t that she felt bad about sleeping with women, or doing it freely. It was that she’d spent so much of her life sacrificing her own desires to please men. In one particularly toxic relationship, a boyfriend had pushed her to solicit women — including this one now at the grocery store — to participate in a porn-inspired menage a trois featuring painful sex toys.
That sort of behavior didn’t jibe with the actress’ public image. In the two 1999 movies that made her famous — the teen comedy “American Pie” and the suburban drama “American Beauty” — the central narrative revolved around her characters’ virginity. She was meant to exude sensuality but practice purity, a common theme for female stars of that generation, including Jessica Simpson, Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon.
But it’s been two decades, and Suvari, now 42, says she is tired of pretending. So she’s written a memoir, “The Great Peace,” that will not only shatter her saccharine reputation but also, she hopes, free her from shame.
The book is a relic of Hollywood’s pre-#MeToo era, documenting the ways in which Suvari says she “looked like a Faberge egg on the outside but was hollow inside.” Beginning to model at age 13, she grew to believe her looks were primarily what she had to offer. She now thinks she confused that kind of attention for love.
“I took the easy path and bought into the image the magazines, TV shows, and paparazzi had created for me,” she writes in the book. “I was exceptional, a star, special — too special, in fact, to have problems.”
She tells a story that is harrowing from the outset: At age 12, she writes, she was raped by her brother’s friend. After she moved to LA as a teenager, a photographer took — and kept, she alleges — naked underage snapshots of her. She writes that when she was 16, one of her representatives — 20 years her senior — would have sex with her and then remind her to learn her lines or brush her hair before an audition. She contracted herpes, she says.
She got married and divorced twice — first, when she was 21, to Robert Brinkmann, a 37-year old cinematographer she met during a movie shoot. Ten years later, she married Simone Sestito, an Italian concert promoter who, she claims, bled her financially and got physical with her during heated arguments. (In a statement, Sestito denied Suvari’s allegations: “It’s very sad and disheartening that Mena would have to make up lies about me to try and sell her story; it’s a disservice both to herself and real victims of abuse.”)
Suvari says she numbed her problems with marijuana and, at one point, meth. She grew critical of her body, getting breast implants only to have them surgically removed years later because they embarrassed her.
Suvari is actually topless when she greets me, inviting me to sit on the bed where she is attempting to breastfeed her 4-month old son, Christopher.
“Oh, you’re gonna take over the interview now,” she says, trying to soothe her firstborn as he starts crying. “He’s an Aries. Full of fire.”
For someone who divulged so much on the page, Suvari in person is guarded. Although she has let many people into her physical private space today — this reporter, a publicist, a stylist, a makeup artist, a photographer and a nanny — she does not open up quickly. She chooses her words carefully and speaks in a measured tone, a calmness reflected in the earth tones decorating her home.
Her third husband, Mike Hope — a set decorator and prop master she met five years ago — is hanging around too. When he hears their son crying, he comes into the bedroom to retrieve the child and hand his wife a grain bowl.
It was in 2018, when she was redecorating her home with Hope, that Suvari made a discovery that would lead to “The Great Peace.” While sifting through an old storage unit, she stumbled across some artifacts from her adolescence, including a 50-page poetry binder, old photographs and a diary containing a suicide note she didn’t remember writing.
She knew she needed to do something with the material but wasn’t sure what. She felt as if every actress had a perfume and a book and thought she should do something “more creative.” But after Suvari toyed with various ideas — telling her story fictionally in the third person, publishing a poetry collection — she was persuaded by a friend to go the memoir route.