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

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border