Heading the cast of American Beauty in the roles of Lester and Carolyn Burnham are
Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey, who was also honored (in 1999) with a Tony Award
nomination for his work on Broadway in The Iceman Cometh; and Oscar nominee Annette
Bening, who recently earned rave reviews for her work in the title role of Hedda Gabler at
Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse.
"He begins to realise how precious life is" Kevin
Describing the part of Lester Burnham, Spacey says, "I think Lester is very much
like a lot of men in American life, who start out having certain ideas about the kind of
life they will have, but somewhere along the line, they get squashed down. Something
happens to Lester that promotes change, that makes him remember the things he wanted. He
suddenly realizes the lack of honesty in his life, the lack of communication - not being
able to say what he actually feels and do what he actually wants. He's grappling with
feelings that have long been dormant, but have been reawakened in him. It's not so much a
mid-life crisis, but rather a sort of rebirth. He begins to realise how precious life
is... a realisation that's in some ways too late."
Annette Bening was everyone's first choice for the role of Carolyn. Mendes remarks,
"If you'd asked me who Carolyn Burnham was before we began filming, I'd have given a
totally different answer. Annette brought so much to the character that she surprised me,
and I think, at times, surprised even herself."
Spacey goes further: "Annette was quite miraculous. In fact, I was a little
worried about her; she definitely became possessed by Carolyn," Spacey quips.
Reflecting on her role, Bening comments, "Carolyn really doesn't have any insight
into what Lester's problem is, or, for that matter, what her own problem is. She doesn't
even know at first that there is a problem, but Lester begins to change, so consequently
Carolyn is forced to change. Carolyn is like many people who feel an emptiness in their
lives and try to fill it up with having the right things. She believes if you have the
right car and the right house and even the right garden, then somehow your life will turn
out all right."
The catalyst for Lester's transformation comes in the form of a stunning teenager named
Angela, who is the high school friend of the Burnham's daughter, Jane. Thora Birch, whose
previous film work includes playing Harrison Ford's daughter in Patriot Games and Clear
and Present Danger, plays Jane, and Mena Suvari, (last seen in American Pie, as it
happens), plays Angela. Together with newcomer Wes Bentley in the role of Ricky Fitts, the
teenage son of the Burnhams' new neighbors, they represent the younger generation of
"a desperate man she can play with" Mena
Mena Suvari was thrilled at the opportunity to play the outwardly self-assured teenage
beauty, realising that the character is something of a paradox. "Angela presents
herself as very flamboyant and dramatic, but inside she is kind of a lost soul and is
using her friendship with Jane to make herself feel more special. Angela seems obsessed
with sex, and immediately notices the effect she has on Jane's father. She sees him as a
sort of target, an object ... a desperate man she can play with, using the power she
thinks she has over him."
Spacey adds, "It's not about their relationship; it's about what Angela prompts
and promotes in Lester. He sees in her something that has gone missing in his life."
As for Thora Birch, she delivers a searing portrait of a seething teenager. "At
the start, Jane appears to be quite normal; she comes off as just your average angry
teen," as Birch puts it. "She is bitter about certain aspects of her life and is
especially disappointed in her parents. She's also really insecure; she doesn't believe
she has any special qualities or talents. But she has qualities that gradually come out
during the course of the story, things that make her, in the end, quite special and
The actress suggests that Jane's insecurities are only compounded by her friendship
with Angela. "They're friends, but they're not really friends. Jane sees something in
Angela that she feels she doesn't have and never could have. I think she wants to be
closer to Angela in the hope that some of Angela's special sparkle will rub off on
After solid rehearsals (a la theatre) much of the shoot turned out to be more fun than
perhaps the subject matter might suggest. This was often due to Spacey's sense of humour.
"We were having so much fun, it was probably
illegal." Kevin Spacey
"We were laughing about 17 hours a day," Spacey admits. "We were having
so much fun, it was probably illegal."
Fun might not have been how Spacey would describe the preparation needed for the more
tangible requirements of his role. Over the course of the story, Lester Burnham transforms
his middle-aged paunch into a lean and fit shadow of his former self. To depict this
metamorphosis, Spacey embarked on a regimen of diet and exercise, working out with a
trainer twice a day in a special gym housed in a large truck near the set.
"The physical transformation was the biggest challenge for me in the film,"
Spacey admits. "I start the film as sort of a schlub - bad posture, overweight - and
through the course of the story completely change my appearance. It was very time
consuming and demanded a great deal of commitment, but on the other hand, I saw results
pretty quickly, which was inspiring. It dramatically changed not only my eating habits but
my energy level; they had to hit me over the head with a hammer to make me fall asleep at