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Mena Suvari, American baddie

About the author

After careers as a classroom teacher, preschool director and fiction writing professor, Brett now writes about the two subjects on which people are least interested in receiving advice from a childless gay man: kids and cars. Visit him at brettberk.com or follow him on Twitter at @StickShift_VF.

(Jaguar Cars)

(Jaguar Cars)

Mena Suvari is best known for her roles in American Beauty and the American Pie films, but she just as easily could have found her way into the Fast and Furious franchise.

Her first car was an American ‘60s muscle sled. She craves ownership of a mean ‘70s personal luxury coupe. She often borrows her boyfriend’s “gangster” ‘80s cruiser. And she just finished training at the Jaguar Villain Academy, where she learned to pull a reverse J-turn in the scalding new F-type Coupe.

Suvari related all of this during a recent conversation, adding bits about her harrowing adventures on oil-slicked California roads and learning to shift a manual transmission. Read on for highlights, but only if you’re ready for Suvari to become your new fantasy track-day friend. 

Brett Berk: You were just at Jaguar’s Villain Academy at the Circuit of the Americas, down in Austin, Texas. What possessed you to try your hand at the wheel?

Mena Suvari: I’ve just always been really into cars. I’ve always loved driving, and appreciate the way cars are built, the way they look, the way they perform. So it’s always been a dream to do something like that. Thinking back to when I was in high school, my best friend had a Jaguar, and it was so sleek. So the opportunity to take a car like the F-type Coupe out on a professional track, I don’t think anybody would pass up that opportunity.

(Jaguar Cars)

Had you ever been on a racetrack before, or done any stunt driving?

No. I mean I’ve never done any technical driving. I’ve had to drive a car while shooting a movie, and I’ve always really enjoyed it – I’ve always been the kind of person who was up that. But I’d never been on a racetrack. Jaguar gave me the opportunity to test drive the F-type when they had an unveiling here in LA. But to drive it on a track is a whole different story.

What were some of the key things you learned at the Villain Academy? 

There were so many different exercises that we did. For the first one, we took the cars out and kind of drag-raced them, and then at a certain point we would brake. It was about experiencing the ceramic brakes.

Then they had us use the shift paddles. I didn’t really grow up with a lot of experience driving like that, or driving manually. So that was one of the things that I challenged myself to learn – how to feel the car, and when to shift. We would go with a professional driver, who would give us guidance and tell us when to shift and when to brake and we really had to go for it. I got up to like 130 or 140.

Another thing they taught us was called a J-turn. This, I actually was not really looking forward to doing. We started with the car facing in one direction, and we put it into reverse and tried to reverse as fast as possible in a straight line, and when the instructor told us to, we let off the accelerator and turned the wheel as fast as we could to the left, and that would cause the car to do a total 180. Which was terrifying. But I did OK with that one. So I guess that was the one “stunt” that I learned.

Have you ever lusted after a fantasy car? 

I really appreciate classic cars. My first car, in fact, was a 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 XL. It was canary yellow. And I would drive that thing to high school in LA. Everybody had a Mercedes or a BMW, and I was driving this massive car. It was a boat, but it definitely challenged me to become a better driver. And my boyfriend is in a car club, and I love that whole culture. They’re always building classic cars, and I hope one day to build my own. He has a 1988 Monte Carlo SS with t-tops. I usually steal it from him and take it out. I do love a Monte Carlo. I would love to own a 1979. It’s super gangster.

Suvari's boyfriend's Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS. T-tops included. (Courtesy Sal Sanchez Jr)

What happened to that Galaxie? 

It got in a really bad wreck. I was heading to an audition – I was like 16, and was heading down La Brea. The wheel all of a sudden started spinning and I lost control. I ended up hitting the front passenger side and the rear passenger side, and I did a complete 360. There were four other cars involved. I found out later that a truck had been driving down the street, and dropped a barrel of oil and slicked the whole road. I never made it to that audition.

1964 Ford Galaxie 500 XL. (Courtesy Barrett-Jackson)

What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you in a car?

I’m a really good driver. But I remember one thing. My oldest brother, when we lived in South Carolina – I must have been like 13 and he must have been 18 or 19 – and he took me to this little neighbourhood of quiet streets, and we had a white Honda Accord, and it was a stick shift, and he was going to “teach” me how to drive stick.

So I was sitting in the driver’s seat, and he broke it down for me. But as I was driving – and I wasn’t going very fast – I was like, “What is that smell?” It was so bad. You just knew something was wrong. And I was terrified immediately that I broke the car. This wasn’t paddle shifting, this was old-school clutch and brake and shifter. We were jolting along on the street, and finally he realised he had left the emergency brake on. I was mortified. I was so traumatised that I never drove stick again.

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