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American Beauty - the title resonates with promise but it's the irony that hits you after you've seen the film and the ambiguities that it unleashes. The combination of Alan Ball's exceptional screenplay and the opportunity to work with Sam Mendez, one of the world's premiere theatre directors, proved a powerful lure to the likes of Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening; here, the lead cast talk about their roles.

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 Spacey

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 American Beauty.

"a desperate man she can play with" Mena Suvari

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 unique."

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 her."

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 night."

January, 2000

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Magazine writer Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and his real estate agent wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) lead a materially comfortable but emotionally barren life in the suburbs, with their disillusioned teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch). The appearance of Jane's school friend Angela (Mena Suvari) sends Lester into paroxysms of lust and inspires him to quit his job and lead a carefree life. Meanwhile Carolyn falls for the charms of rival realtor Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) and Jane becomes involved with the mysterious, video camera-wielding Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) who has just moved next door to the Burnham's with his father (Chris Cooper), an ex-Marine corps Colonel, and his emotionally withdrawn mother Barbara (Allison Janney). These suburban lives are all emotional timebombs.


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