BEAUTY AND THE BRIT

Byline: Louise Farr

LOS ANGELES — Don’t accuse theater director Sam Mendes of going Hollywood to cash in.
“I can actually reveal to you that after taxes, agents’ commissions and lawyers’ commissions, I have earned a grand total on this film of $34,000,” says Mendes, who directed Dreamworks’ “American Beauty,” which goes into wide release Oct. 1.
“Luckily, I’m able to afford it because of money I earned in the theater,” adds Mendes, the 34-year-old artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse. “But I would have done it for nothing. I would have paid.”
Initially, though, Mendes admits, he hesitated making the dark comedy, which was shot for about $15 million and stars Kevin Spacey as a suburban husband trapped in a marriage to icy real estate agent Annette Bening. Steven Spielberg, impressed by Mendes’ direction of the multi-Tony-Award-winning “Cabaret,” pitched Alan Ball’s “American Beauty” script to him during a Hollywood meeting.
No fool, Mendes realized that any script Spielberg recommended should go to the top of the pile. He read it, was dazzled and began working to get Spacey, Bening and veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall to join the project.
Bening says Mendes’s inexperience making movies actually worked to his benefit.
“He’s got the brains and guts of a first-time director,” she explains. “The thing I like about the movie is, you never feel the director making his presence known. It seems very instinctive, but when you talked to him, he was completely organized.”
Mendes, a Cambridge literature major, moved from regional theater to London and the Donmar, where he became theater’s wonder boy and won a clutch of Olivier Awards. With Nicole Kidman’s decision to appear in “The Blue Room” under his direction — not to mention take her clothes off on stage — he and the theater began drawing gasps of international attention.
“We’d ring each other up and say, ‘Is she actually doing it?”‘ he says about himself and playwright David Hare. “Laying herself on the line by playing five parts in the theater capital of the world? It upped the ante.”
It also upped the personal ante for Mendes, who on the strength of having dated actresses Cameron Diaz, Calista Flockhart, Rachel Weisz and Jane Horrocks, ranked high on a recent Sunday Telegraph list of England’s most eligible bachelors.
“A lot of people had a bloody good laugh about that,” says Mendes.
Like Kidman before them, Spacey and Bening pushed themselves for Mendes. Sitting in front of a bank of editing monitors, he runs 10 takes of a scene in which Bening gushes over a real estate tycoon played by Peter Gallagher.
“Filming is like building a garden shed, brick by brick by brick,” Mendes says. “It’s very unromantic. The artistic part comes in the cutting room.”
Unromantic, maybe. But Mendes is clearly infatuated with movie-making. Still, he isn’t even considering a second film yet. In the fall, he’ll direct the new Stephen Sondheim musical “Wise Guys,” starring Nathan Lane and Victor Garber, at the New York Theater Workshop. It’s slated to go to Broadway in the spring.
But beyond getting back to England’s comforting gray drizzle, he has no other plans. He even seems to wonder why he’s expected to have any.
“That’s what you pay agents for,” he says, looking surprised.