Interview: Mena Suvari and Caterina Murino of Hemingway's Garden of Eden

Filed under: Interviews

On November 19, 2010, along with five other reporters, I met with Mena Suvari and Caterina Murino at the Playwright's Celtic Pub in New York City to discuss the release of Hemingway's Garden of Eden. The following is a transcript of that meeting. Please note that Caterina Murino has a heavy Italian accent and sometimes her English was a little off, but she is very endearing. They were both lovely and gracious.

Caterina, why did you take the role?

Caterina Murino: I read the book before I met John (Irvin, the director) and the producer and I arrived in London and decide I don't want to accept the role because there was too much sex, too much nudity and I'm not very comfortable with my body. I said no. When I arrived there they convinced me that when we are going to shoot the movie it was not going to be too much sex and we can adjust the scenes...

Mena Suvari enters. Assistant announces: Mena Suvari everybody!

I asked why (Caterina) took the role, because it's a very unusual role, even for woman who breaks up a marriage.

Mena Suvari: Because that's the best roll to take. It's exciting, right?

CM: (continuing)... Because I tried to construct a role that was not one line, not one color. I tried to give different color and everybody can see me as a snake. I get in this couple's relationship to destroy the couple and at the beginning I'm very innocent. She doesn't know why she's there and on the other hand, she's somebody that saves him as a writer because she's (Mena's character) completely nuts and she's trying to destroy him as a writer, as an artist, then everybody can see different things. What I tried to get, it's a woman, and the period 1926 is called in French as "années folles," the crazy years, during the two wars and in that period women are trying to build their status. They cut their hair, no corsets anymore; Chanel starts to bring all these various smooth dresses and freedom of body, freedom of mind. Marita is somebody, a very rich woman, an heiress; she doesn't have a place where she stays. She spends life from Cannes to Nice to Cote d'azur, she's there for enjoying life. She breaks up with her girlfriend, like it's nothing and just jumps right into a new adventure. And at the beginning, I believe she's just there for fun. She never thought behind this new summer adventure would be a tragedy inside. You know, she is just there and she's just involved in their craziness and at the beginning Mena's character is the director of this ménage a trois. And after a little while she finds a place, which as a snake, destroys the couple but as an angel, saves him as an artist.

I didn't see her as a snake. In fact, I thought you (Mena) were rather nasty to him. Mena has such an angelic face but you were jealous of his art.

MS: It's a concern of mine, I don't want people to see her as nasty or cold or mean because I feel people should see beyond that as to why she's acting that way. I feel that for Catherine a lot stems from her insecurity, her sense of loss really, she's trying to find her own identity and make sense of all of this.

Well, both of these woman are wealthy and self-indulgent, they don't have to work.

MS: But that doesn't mean anything you know. You can have everything in the world and hot have any confidence.

You can be bored even if you have everything.

MS: I think Catherine is well-off and I think there is a sense of, back then; go to Paris and live this bohemian lifestyle and when you meet her she's done that independently. She's there, by herself, this young woman and the way she looks, and really just to do that, is a bit new. You find out her parents have passed away, this tragic event that happened in her life and I think there's always this seed inside of her that she's been unhappy. She doesn't necessarily know who she is. She struggled with that and a lot of her behavior is this over-compensation. They're travelling around, they go to the south of France, let's go to Madrid or let's go here and all of the cities are too big. I think she feels uncomfortable and insecure, she feels she's being looked at, gawked at or she perceives it that way. So she feels the most comfortable when they find this kind of shut down hotel and where she can isolate her husband and that, to her, is the most control that she can have. I think she's not even fully aware of it.

She is sorry at the end. In the letter she writes to him.

MS: She has no regrets. She's laying with him before she leaves and she says, "I know that I've done something wrong to you." But I don't think she fully understands how she's affected him. I think it's really important too, some people might think that her husband, David, is somewhat weak and I don't see it at all, I see it as a really beautiful relationship in the sense where someone just absolutely, unconditionally loves another person. He allows her to express herself but he doesn't see how far it's going to go and then it's too late, she's just gone off.

How close was the final movie to the image you had when you first read the script?

MS: When I first read it there weren't any of the scenes in Africa.

CM: They decided in the middle to put in those scenes.

MS: It helped to show more of David's motivation.

Were you true to the script or was there a lot of improv on set?

MS: No, that's part of the book, it's an amazing book.

CM: The book is very close to the movie.

MS: It was important that we were able to carry the book forward into the movie.

CM: Everything was true to the script, the period, the costumes.

Do you realize those fashions and those exquisite Bobs are back in style? It's 2010 and that's what we've revolved to.

MS: Everything recycles.

Emma Watson just cut off her hair and cut it into a short Bob.

MS: It's liberating, for me, it was like a psychological experiment.

I find it liberating to have long hair because at one time I had none.

MS: Now I'm at that point. It was really interesting. I remember going through customs and this one immigration officer was looking through my passport and it was this picture from when I was 17, my hair was down to here, and of course my hair is now not even an inch and he looked at it and he said, "Oh, but you're such a pretty girl." I had no idea, I've always been passionate about these roles, committed to them, I've always wanted to put myself 110% into it and always keep it real, so I was game for cutting my hair off, it wasn't a question for me.

I think you looked wonderful with it cut off, but men traditionally like longer hair.

MS: Even women! It was very shocking, I would get a lot of reactions, and they could not believe how you could just cut your hair off. They couldn't understand being able to do that, I didn't realize the expectations that are put on women, especially nowadays, to look a certain way. You would think it's just hair, but it was really so liberating, now that I've experienced that. I feel like almost everyone should.

When you talk about cutting off your hair, in a way hair is a source of power for women a lot of times, it's very sexual, very flirty, gives them a sense of power. Do you think that helped you find different sides, different layers, versus the ones that you are God-given and used to?

MS: I think so, for me, the hair, makeup, costumes, putting all of that on and being in the location, all of that really influences me.

And the locations were beautiful! Who wouldn't want to be on the French Riviera making a film?

CM: It was not in France but it looked like it.

It must have been nice as opposed to freezing somewhere.

CM: Those three months were very intense.

Did you develop a real friendship on the film or did you click beforehand? You seemed very realistic.

MS: That's good to hear. I know Jack (Huston); I worked with him on Factory Girl.

CM: We were there like a week or 10 days in this big hotel, just us, in order to prepare for the roles, spend time together.

Did you have a lot of rehearsal time?

CM: Yes, there was a lot of preparation for the hair, the costumes; there was a huge preparation for that.

MS: My hair couldn't get white enough.

But when you see it, it looks so stunning on film.

CM: John Irvin (the director) studied the period a lot, he was very particular about the details, like the absinthe which she drank every day and now it's completely forbidden. They discovered that it can harm some part of the brain, it was very dangerous and of course she was already nuts. Everything was full of details in the movie, it helped to understand the period and why she became like that, the change.

MS: Our props department had set everything up and Jack and I would go through and pick out the glasses we wanted to wear, he picked out his pocket watch. They had everything there. There was a table where there was the real absinthe and the fake and he learned how to pour it for the one scene. We picked out a lot of the objects, the typewriter, everything.

CM: The Bugatti is a real one.

MS: It was a replica of a real one.

Did you have trouble learning to drive it?

MS: I didn't grow up driving stick, manual is a bit difficult for me! There were a few scenes where I drive down the hill and there were sandbags at the bottom to stop the car. It would stall a lot. But I'm a perfectionist, so I got it down.

Can we ask about your careers? How good you were in American Beauty, The Dog Problem -- the Scott Caan movie -- and Stuck. They're good films and they didn't get a chance.

MS: They're small films. The business has changed so much in the last couple of years. There's just not that many independent films getting made, and when they are, things lose financing so they never get made. To distribute a movie now, it costs a lot of money. That's the thing that upsets me about the business aspect of what I do.

Can you both tell us what your next projects will be?

MS: I've been working on some amazing projects for television, NBC, and I just worked on a show coming out in January called The Cave. It's like Batman, I play a character named Dice, a superhero villain.

CM: I'm doing a series with Stuart Townsend for American television, and for the BBC I've just done The Mysteries of Auerlio Zen with Rufus Sewell and it will be released here in April or May to CBS.

MS: We put our hearts and soul into these movies and four years later, hopefully, you're sitting here. You want to be acknowledged for what you do. It's a reward. You know that you're going to the set, that you're working, and you know that people are going to be affected by that.

Caterina said that she didn't accept the part initially because there was too much sex and nudity. When you read the script, were you inclined to accept the part?

MS: I loved it. I didn't single out the sexual aspect of the film. I really took Catherine's story as a whole. I was so affected by her personal struggle. Then when I read the book, it's one of my favorite books, it so beautifully written and so poetic. Again, I didn't look at it like it was too gratuitous and then meeting with John Irvin, who I'm madly in love with; we formed this amazing relationship and I felt so supported by him.

CM: In the story, the sex comes after. It's not the first thing you come away with.

The women in this film are strong, smart, and beautiful. In life, if you are that way, there are hard sides to that. Can we speak about both of you being strong, beautiful, and powerful women in the industry?

MS: It means a great deal to me and it's important to me. I think part of why I identify with Catherine is that I've always felt this struggle in myself to feel a different way than people perceive me and I have three brothers and I grew up in this environment and I'm extremely independent, but yet I happen to be 5' 4" and look a certain way. I came to understand, because after American Beauty, this whirlwind, I had to learn about the business very, very fast. I came to understand the dynamic between men and women in the business and it's a bit unfortunate to me but it's a reality that it's very male driven. That can be difficult. There are times we meet on a project and they'll be interested in me but they have to cast the guy first. They have to cast the women around the guy. That's why it was so exciting, it wasn't so much a question for me, for having a script like this come my way when it was a strong female character because you don't find that many. That's why I was interested in stock, you don't have that many opportunities, at least from what I've seen, of women carrying a film. I sit down with my manager and he says there are less than 5 women in the states, who can carry a film, who can get financing. It's really upsetting. I don't understand why that is. The thing that's always driven me, taken me down this winding path, not just doing studio films, is that I followed my interests and challenge myself. A lot of that material lies in other areas, I didn't necessarily want to be the girlfriend on the side, one dimension.

CM: I just did a film in Europe that revolved around my character. I think in Europe it's more about the female role. I came from an island where women, mother, was more important than a man. For me, it's my culture and that's the reason I am lucky as an actress. I have a lot of roles where I am very powerful. The industry in Europe is a little different.

Can you tell us about John Irvin, the director?

MS: I love John, he has supported me 110% throughout this film and just being able to connect with him that meant a lot to me, because I really needed it. My character was very intense, he carried me throughout that. He's wonderful, I think he's wonderful with actors. We called him Poppa on set.

CM: He looks like Hemingway.

Did you feel like you had to adjust your performances as you were going along because you weren't shooting in sequence?

CM: I am somebody, I never take the script on set with me. I prepare my role before and I rarely need it, but for this movie yes, my script was with me. It was very important to understand where their relationship was. It was very, very important because it's like a piece of theater, we're always in the same place and just us and the relationship between the three is changing just a little bit every day. This was very complicated, it was not easy at all.

Thank you both for your time.

Tags: Hemingway's Garden of Eden, The Garden of Eden, Mena Suvari, Caterina Murino, Jack Huston, John Irvin, Hemingway

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