Mena Suvari on Her Queer Career and Dating a Gay Man in “American Woman”

“Can a guy not love a woman if he’s gay? Can a woman not love him because he loves men?”

Mena Suvari is making America great again.

Almost two decades after her career blossomed with American Beauty and American Pie, Suvari blooms anew in Paramount Network’s American Woman, a scripted dramedy inspired by the upbringing of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Kyle Richards.

Alongside Alicia Silverstone and Jennifer Bartels, the 39-year-old actress stars as Kathleen, a wealthy Texan finding herself while riding second-wave feminism in 1970s Los Angeles. But a thorn in Kathleen’s rosy life may be that her hunky boyfriend, played by Cheyenne Jackson, is more into American men.

Attracted to gray areas of sexuality, Suvari breaks down the beauty between the black and white.

American Woman/Paramount

Kyle Richards is an executive producer on American Woman. Are you a Housewives fan?

Um… I knew of Kyle and that the show exists. [Laughs] That’s about the extent of it.

Fair enough. It’s good to see you and Alicia Silverstone play best friends after all the shade you threw at each other in Beauty Shop.

I know, right? I was so mean in that movie—specifically to her! Working with Alicia again was so much fun, and it’s nice we get to be sweeter to one another.

What appealed to you about Kathleen?

Kathleen comes from a crazy lifestyle in Texas where anything you needed, daddy provided. Everything’s been easy for her, and money is no object. But she has an independent, adventurous streak, and she’s come out to Los Angeles wanting more. She’s going against the grain and is trying to start a business as a casting agent. She’s wild and feisty, and deep down she just wants happiness.

It’s a fortuitous time for this project in light of the #TimesUp movement.

Yeah, it’s amazing, but that wasn’t planned. We wrapped more than a year ago, so the conversation was just percolating again while we were in production. These conversations should always be happening, but we’re lucky our show is premiering in this environment. It’s fun and visually beautiful, but it has the opportunity to inspire even more discussions about sexism, racism, and homophobia, and I hope audiences appreciate that.

American Woman/Paramount

Although set in the ’70s, the show particularly highlights how much gender inequality is still an issue today.

It’s trippy. Doing this show has been so eye-opening, because it made me think about that time period, what it meant for my mother, and how much easier it was for me—how I’ve always been independent, always had a bank account. I thought of all the women who came before me and what I’ve been able to accomplish because of them, but also how we still have a long way to go.

Coming up in Hollywood as a beautiful young woman in the ’90s couldn’t have been a picnic, either.

Well, we all have our stories, as women and as human beings. We’ve all questioned people’s motives and behavior, because there’s a lack of respect out there that’s always going to be challenge.

Mid-’70s California fashion suits you. Are you as comfortable in those outfits as you look?

Oh, I had a ball. When a great character lines up with great fashion, it’s like the best job ever.

American Woman/Paramount

After American Beauty and American Pie established you as a sex symbol, you gravitated toward playing drug addicts or prostitutes in movies like Spun, Sonny, and Stuck. You seemed to be fighting against feminine physical ideals. Are you more comfortable now taking roles that embrace your—forgive me—American beauty?

That’s interesting, but I don’t necessarily look at it like that. I love a challenge, and under the surface there are a lot of similarities between Kathleen and those grittier characters I’ve played throughout my career. She’s very complex and has many issues that strike a nerve with me when I’m looking for material. She just happens to also look good on the exterior.

Kathleen is dating Greg, who viewers quickly learn is gay. Why is she so clueless?

She has a lot going for her, so she doesn’t understand why he’s not attracted to her. She doesn’t even consider it as a possibility that Greg might not be interested in women, so he becomes a challenge, because she thinks there must be something wrong with her.

What keeps them together?

Kathleen is heavily influenced by appearances. Her sisters are married, she has an idea of what her life should look like, so she’ll do whatever it takes to not lose him. That relationship is actually based on a loving couple that one of our showrunners knew. At the end of the day, it’s a relationship between two human beings—it’s not about the sex. You can be attracted to somebody based on other things. It’s cool to see these two people come into each other’s lives, especially at this time, and how they deal with that situation.

Becks/Blue Fox

Have you ever unwittingly dated a gay man?

Of course you’d ask me that question! But I’m not going there. [Laughs] I don’t even see Kathleen as being in a relationship with a gay man, really, because it’s not that simple. There’s so much more to that relationship, and that’s why it’s so beautiful. Can a guy not love a woman if he’s gay? Can a woman not love him because he loves men?

Either way, you still get to cozy up to Cheyenne Jackson.

Oh, I love Cheyenne. He’s the best. Look, Greg and Kathleen are gorgeous together no matter what they do.

Speaking of complicated relationships, you and Hedwig’s Lena Hall recently starred in the indie film Becks and shared a very memorable sex scene with a strap-on.

Yep. That big moment was actually our first day of shooting. Doing scenes like that are always awkward, but having other women in the room was refreshing and comforting. One of our directors was female, and we were also lucky to have a female DP.

Six Feet Under/HBO

As the Black Dahlia in American Horror Story, you had a same-sex makeout session that solely existed to seduce a male character. But is deflecting the male gaze typically a concern when shooting love scenes with another woman?

Yeah. For sure, going into Becks, we had many conversations about that. It’s important to have those conversations beforehand—what we’re trying to say, how it’s going to be perceived—because you’re making art, and that scene will live on to be dissected and analyzed.

Because your character in Becks, Elyse, is married to a man, some reviews described her as straight but curious. How did you see her sexuality?

I never tried to define it. Sexuality isn’t black and white, and that’s why Becks was so beautiful to me. Sometimes it’s just about being attracted to the soul of a person who comes into your life.

Your characters often live in those gray areas. Is that something you relate to?

Yeah, because it’s about the human experience. The sexuality of a character, playing gay or straight, has never meant anything to me. I see much deeper than that, and that’s also how I go through life.

Garden of Eden/Roadside Attractions

In 2004 you reunited with American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball on Six Feet Under to play Edie, a lesbian performance artist. Jill Soloway notably wrote your character’s arc. Were you not conscious of representing the lesbian community on a hit show?

I didn’t look at it like that. I was trying to wrap my head around playing a performance artist, which scared the shit out of me. I didn’t have any nerves about being with another woman or about the relationship between Edie and Claire, which I just saw as a beautiful connection.

I once read a gossip item that your mother worried you might be a lesbian after seeing Six Feet Under. True?

No. Although at this point, after some of the roles I’ve done, I’m sure people have all sorts of questions and concerns about me.

In the 2010 Hemingway adaptation Garden of Eden, set in 1927, you starred as Catherine, who’s in a sexual relationship with a man and a woman. She also cuts her hair short and prefers taking on a traditionally masculine role in bed. Revisiting the film in 2018, do you think Catherine may have been genderqueer?

I think that’s fair. If that movie were made now, sure, we might have had those conversations. Catherine was struggling in her very conservative time and trying to find the simple contentment of knowing who you really are. It was a beautiful story that blew my mind, and doing that movie really changed my life.

Nowhere/Fine Line

What was your introduction to the LGBTQ community?

The first film I did when I moved out to L.A. was Nowhere with Gregg Araki. I was 16 and had no clue what the hell was going on. It was the wildest ride of a story, especially in its depiction of sexual fluidity in the ’90s. I’d been going to an all-girls school in Charleston, so I’d never been exposed to anything like that.

After Nowhere, you must’ve been prepared for anything.

[Laughs] Yeah, I was really lucky to have that opportunity. I still have my VHS copy.

Even if sexual orientation isn’t part of the appeal, why do you think you’ve been repeatedly drawn to queer roles and projects?

I’m drawn to interesting relationships. It’s why I love seeing young people expressing themselves the way I wish I could have when I was younger. It’s exciting to see people just being their complete, beautiful, individual selves, and how that influences the world around them. For me, that’s what life is all about.

American Woman airs Thursdays on Paramount Network.

Celebrity interviewer. Foodie and Broadway buff in Manhattan. Hates writing bios.