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As American Beauty approaches its 20th anniversary later this year, star Thora Birch is hoping that audiences are able to separate allegations of sexual misconduct made against co-star Kevin Spacey from the film, and continue to appreciate it on its own terms.
“You can’t help but feel, ‘great, now we have this stain on the film,'” Birch said of the #MeToo allegations leveled at Spacey on The Hollywood Reporter‘s It Happened in Hollywood podcast. “But no — it shouldn’t be on the film. Who’s to blame? It’s Kevin. It doesn’t have anything to do with American Beauty.”
When Beauty premiered in September 1999, the angsty millennial satire captivated audiences with its portrayal of a dysfunctional nuclear family.
Directed by theater wunderkind Sam Mendes, the film won five Oscars at the 72nd Academy Awards, including prizes for best picture, best director, best original screenplay and best actor for Spacey for his portrayal of Lester Burnham, a hapless, middle-aged ad executive. Annette Bening, who played his controlling wife, Carolyn, was nominated for best actress but did not win.
“There was a lot of therapy involved in the rehearsals,” recalls Birch, who played the Burnhams’ teen daughter, Jane. “A lot of opening up and sharing things from our own lives about why we related to these characters. Everybody brought a lot of themselves to it. I know Annette did a lot of research about women becoming obsessed with the self-help realm. Kevin was working out obsessively and already in the headspace of Lester, even in rehearsals.”
She added, “And then there was Wes [Bentley], Mena [Suvari] and I, who were these kids just incredibly excited to be there and watching these already masters at their craft — just trying to absorb as much as we could from them.”
Birch says Spacey was always a consummate professional on set, investing all of himself in every take regardless of who the camera was pointing to. “He was one of the best actors to work with,” she says. “Apart from that, I don’t know too much about him.”
She remembers being taken aback at just how candid and personal Spacey became during the cast therapy sessions, where the star shared childhood traumas with the group.
“I think that was freeing for me,” Birch recalls. “Like, ‘Well, if Kevin Spacey, who’s Keyser Soze [from The Usual Suspects], can do that, I guess I can, too.’ But there was a limit: [He] would go so far and a wall would go up.” Adds Birch: “It’s funny to see actors slip in and out of their natural state and a more image-concerned persona that people can slip on when they feel like they have a lot to protect.”
Regarding the allegations against Spacey, which began in October 2017 after actor Anthony Rapp accused him of making sexual advances when Rapp was 14, Birch says she did “not see that coming…. It was not that long after the Harvey [Weinstein] thing…. It’s traumatic. It hurts like hell.”
“Mainly, I was shocked to find out the age of certain individuals,” she says. “That’s the most judgmental one can become about any of this.”
Birch says there have been no discussions of panels or cast reunions to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary — most likely due to the Spacey headlines. Still, she remains hopeful that time will help the public separate the art from the artist.
“I think it’s up to someone like me who was a part of American Beauty to try to remind everyone that it was an entire community who made this film. We all love this film. And it doesn’t have anything to do with Kevin at the end of the day,” she says.