First-time director Sam Mendes and first-time screenwriter Alan Ball are welcome additions to the film world, but much of the praise American Beauty has earned stems from its superlative cast, from the established talents of Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey to relative newcomers Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and Mena Suvari. The Onion recently spoke with Birch, Bentley, Suvari, and Spacey about risky roles, American Beauty's intelligent view of adolescence, and the film's award-magnet buzz.
The Onion: For most of the film, your character behaves very childishly, while the younger characters are tackling adult dilemmas.
Kevin Spacey: I think he manages to tap into a part of his life that must have been alive and well in college. [Laughs.] Actually, Annette and I spent a good deal of time in rehearsal talking about what they must have been like when they first met, how great their life was, how much they loved each other, and what it was like when they had Jane [their daughter, played by Thora Birch]. Then we wanted to figure out where it started to fall apart, and when their priorities began to change, on both sides. So, hopefully, [the results] would really be that much more heartbreaking. When something happens to him, he's able to remember those feelings that have been long gone. I think that's a journey anyone could identify with. I mean, who wouldn't want to tell their boss off? Get the car they've always wanted.
O: As your profile rises, do you feel a temptation to just take the money and run?
KS: I think that no matter who you are, the temptation is there to do that, so I try very hard not to be influenced by the stuff that happens on the outside. I still read scripts the way I read them in school: I don't know which part they want me to play, generally. That's actually fun, because then you can discover the story. And if you love the story—if it makes you go, "Wow, this is beautiful," or funny, or, "I want to try this genre"—then the character is secondary to the story. If the story is great, the character probably will be. If the story's not good, then I don't care how much money they're talking about, or who's directing, or who's in it: You should probably not do it. [Laughs.] That's kind of been my philosophy, and I've had really good luck in picking things that have challenged me and challenged audiences, and in some cases movies that actually might stick around for a while. Rather than churning them out year after year.
O: There seems to be a concerted effort to market this movie young.
KS: I know there are different ads. There's an ad running on MTV that hasn't been running on general TV that highlights the three young actors, Mena, Wes, and Thora. But in actuality, the campaign hasn't started yet, which is why I'm so pleased that word-of-mouth has gotten out so much. The film is doing really well in the 16 theaters it's in so far. The funny thing is, I think they're finding that it's appealing to a lot of people, so they don't really have… Usually, they have a big marketing plan—you know, "This is the audience we're targeting"—and they seem to be recognizing that the film is going beyond that. They're doing what they can to help out. You might even see me on MTV! [Laughs.]
The Onion: Your official fan club [www.thora.org] seems to be concerned about American Beauty's adult themes, and the fact that the film is rated R.
Thora Birch: I know. I think they're more upset about it than the fans are! I think that's only because they deal with people who like a lot of my older films, and those are young kids.
O: Everybody's naked in this film, both emotionally and physically.
TB: I know. We're all going to go off and start a commune. We're all going to be naked.
O: Is that an issue when you look at a script? You're young, but that stuff is still going to be out there when you're old. You'll have to deal with people posting it up on your fan club, or some alternate fan club.
TB: [Laughs.] Right, right! No, actually, I was a lot less nervous about doing those scenes than I expected to be. I wasn't nervous doing it, and I had no inhibitions from before—no serious inhibitions—because I always felt it was such a necessary step for the character. But if you watch the film, and you watch the events in the context of the film, I would hope that a certain realization and understanding would come about, as it did for me. If someone wants to post it up on the Internet, go ahead. It's America.
O: There seems to be a new wave of films addressing troubled young people in the suburbs, films like American Beauty, Happiness, and Election. What do you think is inspiring the trend?
TB: I think it comes from a place in reality. I have friends who live in the suburbs, and they're some of the most unhappy people you'll ever come across in your life. And this notion that everything is totally copacetic and blissful in Middle America, while everyone else is fucked-up in the city, is just a joke. I also don't think the characters in this film are exclusively for the suburbs. I think they can be anywhere. It deals with issues that are much more universal than just Middle America.
The Onion: Did you film this movie right before American Pie?
Mena Suvari: No, after, and then they changed the name to American Pie. [Laughs.] Thanks.
O: They're very different movies. I assume that when you see the material for American Pie, you get very different thoughts from when you see the material for American Beauty.
MS: Yeah. I mean, there were emotions I could identify with in both of them, and they were both true-to-life. But American Beauty is unbelievably different from American Pie. I've had people try to compare them, but it's just… I just have to say, "I'm sorry, I don't agree with you."
O: American Beauty treats its younger characters intelligently. Do you think it's strange that that's almost considered a risk these days? American Beauty respects its characters: They're not just there to be slipped laxatives.
MS: [Laughs.] I really hope that this broadens people's views, and that they create more films around that kind of experience for teenagers. I've had a lot of people tell me, "You know, I didn't do any of that in American Pie." I think you've got a lot of movies that are just entertainment—sitting down and having a good laugh—but this film really makes you think. You can identify with it.
The Onion: You get to stare a lot in the movie. Was it difficult to maintain that concentration?
Wes Bentley: [Laughs.] That was the nature of the character. I was lucky to have a character like that. I did stare a lot. It's more like spacing out. It's not really acting, I guess. [Laughs.]
O: One of my co-workers, after seeing The Sixth Sense, said of the kid, "He whispers a lot."
WB: Well, I stare a lot. [Laughs.]
O: The movie's marketing line is, "Look closer." If you look closer, what do you see?
WB: Whatever you see. I don't think it's about looking at anything else; I think it's about what you walk out with. You know, a lot of times, people have asked me to describe the film, and I have no way to describe it as a storyline. The only thing I can say is that you'll go in and think you're watching the movie, but then you forget you're watching a movie because one little thing about yourself gets caught and then you get hooked on it. And instead of identifying with the character, you start battling between the movie and yourself, and then the movie is you, and when you walk out, you have looked closer. It's cheesy, but I think it's true. Looking closer is something that has to do with you, not with the movie at all. I think that's what people will see. A lot of times, they come out "looking for it." They're like, "I think I get it, but I…" [Laughs.] Well, if you think you do, you probably did.