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

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club that later became synonymous with Hillsborough has dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor