Bonded dress with sport stitch bodice, Cynthia Rowley ($410). 164 Newbury St., 617-587-5240; Vendome square cuff, Isharya ($250); Ring, Tiffany & Co. (price on request). Copley Place, 617-353-0222; Grecian goddess ring, Melinda Maria ($115). Bloomingdale’s, The Mall at Chestnut Hill, 617-630-6000; Platform pumps, Giuseppe Zanotti Design (price on request). Neiman Marcus, Copley Place, 617-536-3660

As a child growing up in Newport, Rhode Island, Mena Suvari loved to play archaeologist, creating a dig on the four acres that surrounded her family’s 1870s stone house. When she wasn’t picking berries with her three older brothers, she would till through the soil for hours looking for remnants of old civilizations.

“I found a gun, bullets, lots of broken china, crazy stuff!” the actress excitedly recalls. “I’d find all these pieces and spend hours studying them, trying to glue them back together.”

At 33, Suvari is still playing the archeologist. Though her breakthrough came as Heather, the choir girl in American Pie, and Angela Hayes, the next-door Lolita in American Beauty, she has predominantly excelled since then at excavating the souls of broken women in a number of independent films. Roles such as the self-absorbed Brandi in Stuck, in which she, high on ecstasy, impales a homeless man on the windshield of her car; desperate Sandy in Sex & Lies in Sin City, a stripper who is accused of aiding and abetting the murder of a casino owner; neurotic Catherine in The Garden of Eden (based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel), who rebels against the expectations of her male and female lovers; and Elizabeth “Black Dahlia” Short, the doomed fame-hungry actress she played on a recent episode of American Horror Story.

“I am my father’s daughter—I’ve always loved examining the human condition,” says Suvari, referring to her father, Ando, a psychiatrist whose Estonian-American background accounts for her exotic last name. (Candice, her Greek-American mother, was a nurse.) “I’m definitely attracted to things that are deep, dark, and heavy. Taking on these challenges, I’ve learned and discovered so much about myself in the process.”

How Suvari’s eclectic and daring choices have spurred her personal growth is the gist of a recent conversation with the actress on the eve of the release of the film American Reunion. Reprising her role as the demure Heather in the latest American Pie franchise installment stands in startling contrast to the complex, morally ambiguous characters on her résumé. But it’s a reversal she embraces: “I’m so grateful because I love comedy,” says Suvari. “I grew up on Tracey Ullman and singing in a choir.” She adds that she’d much rather do the “crazy stupid stuff” that is the province of her costars. But she promises, without saying exactly how, that Heather will be seen in a different light. “She definitely sticks up for herself.”

Sticking up for herself has also been Suvari’s life lesson. It has not been an easy one, given that she began modeling when she was a preteen and gained national exposure during her teen years, culminating when, at 20, she was catapulted to stardom with American Beauty. In its wake, she has tried to maintain a spiritual balance, coping with the ups and downs of a Hollywood career, the hot glare of celebrity, and the disappointment of two failed marriages.

“I have a wonderful family and a lot of beautiful people in my life, and I’m thankful,” she says. “But I didn’t have time to really grow up with the rest of them. In many ways, I kind of raised myself and had to go through a lot of struggle and growth on my own.”

When the actress was eight, the Suvari family moved from Newport, first to St. John’s in the Virgin Islands, and then to Charleston, South Carolina, finally ending up in Los Angeles when Mena’s modeling career took off. While two of her brothers remained behind at The Citadel, Charleston’s military academy, Suvari, only 14 at the time, felt pressure to be the breadwinner, her parents having retired by then. “We’d taken a chance moving to LA for my career, and I went to auditions thinking, I really have to get this job!”

Success brought with it a whole new raft of difficulties, not the least of them the distorting lens of fame—something she is still dealing with. “I just got into an argument with a paparazzo last week,” she says, laughing at the memory. The photographer had trespassed by following her as she was trying to take a solitary hike. “I said to him, “Dude, you can get me anywhere else!” It’s so violating. I go hiking to relax. That’s my therapy, that’s my time.”

Even more problematic, says Suvari, is the disconnect between the expectations generated by her looks and the person she feels she is. “People look at me and think I should act a certain way and then are shocked that I don’t,” she says. She recounts that she was once in a meeting with a film director who suddenly blurted out, “You’re actually really smart!” Laughing, she says, “My jaw dropped. I thought, Is this an insult? Is this a compliment?” Then, she adds, some years later she was going through immigration just after having shaved her head for a role. The officer looked at her passport picture, looked at her shorn head, and tsk-tsked, “And you’re such a pretty girl.” Suvari says that she has always resisted the limitations that such a label would place on her. “Is that what defines me? The length of my hair?”

The actress is likewise astounded when people are surprised that she likes reggae music—she has a tattoo on her back that reads WORD SOUND POWER, which is taken from a reggae album—and that she would prefer playing oddballs in independent films to making the more “political” career moves like “running around in a bikini” in the next Hollywood blockbuster.

“I’ve always followed my heart and my passion, I’ve always followed the creative aspects of what I do,” says Suvari. “I’m hypersensitive, so I’m aware of what other people think I should do, and I’ve been influenced. I’ve struggled many times, trying that hat on and trying that hat on. You finally have to surrender to who you really are.”

Filling out the pieces of the puzzle for Suvari are her involvement in charity work—she is an ambassador for Amref (African Medical and Research Foundation) and is active in feminist issues—and in the world of fashion. The latter stems from her “thirst for art” in all its manifestations. “I appreciate the workmanship, the extremely creative and unique expressions,” says the actress, who also models for Lancôme. “When I see people who make choices that aren’t influenced by other people, I see the person that I’ve always wanted to be, somebody who really owns who they are.”

The actress feels that she has made significant headway in that direction, despite—or because of—her recent split from Italian concert producer Simone Sestito after only 18 months of marriage. She does not talk directly about the breakup, except to say that it was not because of celebrity pressures. “Definitely not,” she says. “I don’t let that affect my personal relationships. I’m very Aquarius that way.”

For Suvari the recent turmoil is simply another one of the “dark passages” in her life that she has come through, emerging as a much stronger person for it. “It’s taken years to get to know myself. I had never really taken time to cultivate who I was,” she says. “I’ve felt drained by it. But I feel like I’m really, finally, content at this point in my life. I’m accepting of who I am and how diverse I am and honoring that. All of it.”

Like what you're reading? Get it delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up now for our newsletters >>