Wes Bentley interview: My mission of recovery after nearly a decade lost to drugs

‘American Beauty’ made Wes Bentley’s career and drugs destroyed it. Now he’s back on top

From Mickey Rourke to Robert Downey Jr, Hollywood loves a comeback almost as much as it loves anointing a hot new talent. But there’s something decidedly poignant about the return of Wes Bentley. Fifteen years ago, he was that hot new talent who played the misfit neighbour Ricky Fitts in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. Two years later, he made the period drama The Four Feathers with Heath Ledger, by which point he was in the grip of a damaging heroin and cocaine habit – formed to “escape expectations”, he says.

Bentley’s tale is hardly original. He was born in Arkansas, the son of a minister; an innocent Midwesterner seduced by Tinseltown. “I came to Hollywood and I got caught up in all the glitz and glamour of the nightlife,” he explains. “All the stuff I had no idea about in Arkansas. In a way, it made me a little more prone to it. It was like looking behind the curtain. And I went behind the curtain and hung out.” But if his arc is a familiar one, it was the ferocity of his downturn that was shocking.

After The Four Feathers, he made just two films in five years – The Game of Their Lives and Ghost Rider – and turned down the chance to work with Ang Lee, Tony Scott and Tim Burton. Then his marriage to the actress Jennifer Quanz collapsed in 2006, with his addictions out of control and court papers revealing that he was in serious debt due to unpaid credit cards. But he carried on using. “I need help or I’m going to die,” he told a friend in 2009, a year after he’d flopped out of rehab, pled guilty to heroin possession, and seen his friend Ledger die from a prescription overdose.

Thankfully, Bentley got clean and sober at the second attempt, after a colleague on Roland Joffé’s There Be Dragons inspired him to detox. Since then, he’s pieced his life back together. In 2010, he got remarried, to producer Jacqui Swedberg, who gave birth to their son Charles later that year and is now expecting a second child. Moreover, Bentley’s career is back on track, with no less than 10 films, including Christopher Nolan’s hugely anticipated Interstellar, and an HBO pilot, Open, for the Glee creator Ryan Murphy, in the bag. “I couldn’t be happier,” he beams.

As painful as it was to be apart from his young son, he spent most of 2012 making back-to-back movies. He got the Terrence Malick experience on the upcoming Knight of Cups, opposite Christian Bale (“I hope I’m in it,” he jokes, knowing of the director’s propensity for leaving actors on the cutting room floor), then worked with his protégé A J Edwards (or “Terry Malick 2.0” as Bentley dubs him) on The Better Angels. There’s also his lead role in Things People Do, with Jason Isaacs, and supporting roles in Diego Luna’s union tale Cesar Chavez and the Kristen Wiig comedy-drama Welcome to Me. “I went for a whole year without stopping,” he says.

The first of his projects to surface is Pioneer, an intriguing Norwegian thriller based on real events, set in the oil industry in the early Eighties, when the US and Norway were co-operating on a deep sea diving expedition to lay the first pipe in the North Sea. He plays Mike, an aggressive US diver with little concern for the success of the Norwegian mission. “It’s an opportunity to talk about something Americans know a lot about: the effects of oil and the effects of money on a country,” he says, “but to see it from a different perspective.”

Parachuting into a Scandinavian film, with much of the dialogue in Norwegian (“all I picked up was ‘Thank you’,” he laughs), is typical of Bentley’s revitalised curiosity for work. He took on dive training, in spite of an early trauma: “I almost drowned when I was five and I had a really bad fear of water for a long time,” he explains.

These days, Bentley’s fears extend further than water – despite being almost five years clean. “I don’t think I could ever feel like [my addiction] is behind me, because it would be dangerous to think that way,” he says. “Sometimes that makes me more aware of it. And I have to remind myself every day how lucky I am. And of how, just around the corner, there could be trouble again. I guess everyone could do that with whatever issues they face. And I’m happy to do it with addiction, because it’s the most dangerous thing I face every day.”

Now 35, Bentley knows he’s one of the lucky ones. Inevitably, talk turns to Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose fatal overdose from heroin in February shocked the world. “It broke my heart. I’ve rarely felt so incredibly sad,” he says. Curiously, they met in Germany while Bentley was shooting Pioneer, at a football match between Bayern Munich and Hamburg. “We were in the same box, and we got talking, and from there I thought we’d continue a friendship. But unfortunately we lost him.”

Hoffman was also in Catching Fire, the sequel to the hit teen sci-fi The Hunger Games, which featured Bentley in one of his first comeback roles. “That was a true lifeline, thrown out of nowhere. I didn’t expect it. That was when I was recovering, and trying to recover my career, and I was trying to get around town just to meet with people again. I felt like I had maybe sunk the ship, and then out of nowhere I got a call. And even before it came out, just saying that I was a part of that film got me back into some meetings with people and let me show my face, show them I’m clean.”

Bentley admits to being terrified that doors would remain firmly shut, that Hollywood producers and studios wouldn’t trust a recovering addict. “I know how this town works. It moves fast and things change quickly.” Indeed, when he first arrived, after a year at Julliard drama school, Hollywood embraced him rapidly. Jonathan Demme cast him in his Toni Morrison adaptation Beloved. Then came American Beauty, for which Bentley got a BAFTA nomination. With a screen intensity embodied in those fiercely blue eyes of his, he looked set for stardom.

Being in Mendes’ lauded Oscar-winner made him invincible, he felt. “I thought, with one great movie, that I’d be here forever; I thought that the door would always be open, no matter how old I got or how long I went without making a movie.”

Now it’s different, as Bentley makes amends for all those missed chances. None more so than with Nolan, whom Bentley turned down during his drug-addled days. They’ve just finished shooting Interstellar, a trippy sounding sci-fi that might well be the director’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I think it’s going to be an excellent film,” says Bentley. “It’s so different. It takes your mind to a different place.”

It sounds like the right kind of escape this time.

‘Pioneer’ (15) is on general release

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