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This story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In 2009, 10 years after breaking out in American Beauty, Wes Bentley was holed up in a dingy apartment in Los Angeles’ Little Armenia, withdrawing from copious amounts of drugs, including cocaine and heroin.
His best friend, Heath Ledger, had died a year earlier from a prescription drug overdose, the same year Bentley was arrested and pled guilty to heroin possession. There were no auditions on the horizon. In serious debt with the IRS, he had hit rock bottom.
Shortly before, Bentley had been shooting Roland Joffe‘s There Be Dragons in Argentina, his only film work, when a colleague opened up about his own recovery. Something about the man’s enthusiasm for life touched Bentley. He wanted to feel that way again. After detoxing in L.A., he hopped a plane back to Buenos Aires the next day and began attending daily meetings with his sober friend.
Now, four years sober, Bentley is in great demand again. He recently landed the lead role in Ryan Murphy‘s HBO pilot Open. And the 34-year-old actor just booked a meaty supporting role in Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar — an ironic career twist given that Nolan was one of the directors Bentley passed on when he was in the throes of drug abuse.
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“I put up such a wall that I didn’t even go and meet with these great directors whom I respected and admired so much,” says Bentley, who also turned down opportunities to work with Tim Burton, Ang Lee and Tony Scott.
His addiction caused him to take lengthy breaks from working. After shooting The Four Feathers with Ledger in 2000, he didn’t shoot a film again until The Game of Their Lives in 2003, then nothing until Ghost Rider in 2005.
“I wasn’t bringing my A game to any of them,” he recalls. “I don’t know if I was bringing my B game. I just kind of didn’t care and [was] coasting.”
In retrospect, says Bentley, success came too easy. After a year at Juilliard, the Arkansas native was auditioning for a road production for the musical Rent when casting director Meredith Jacobson noticed him. She asked Bentley to come read for the low-budget indie Three Below Zero. He read with Kate Walsh, and both landed lead roles.
After work in Jonathan Demme‘s Beloved and Arne Glimcher‘s The White River Kid, Bentley was offered American Beauty, the success of which both launched his career and contributed to his near demise. In the surreal aftermath of the film’s release, Bentley, then 21, found himself presenting at the Oscars. Casting agents liked his intensity, good looks and talent that suggested a young Christian Bale.
He says he began using drugs to escape expectations, taking trips to Arizona and Northern California to disappear. His heroin addiction, he says, “happened in a matter of days.” Drugs ended his first marriage, to actress Jennifer Quanz. They divorced in 2009. He never entered rehab (“due to a lack of money”) but still attends meetings a few times a week, wherever he is. His 2010 marriage to producer Jacqui Swedberg and their 2½-year-old son are powerful incentives to stay straight.
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Quietly, Bentley has become one of the rare instances of success over substance abuse in Hollywood. Producer Nina Jacobson was eager to work with Bentley in The Hunger Games.
“We knew Wes could hold his own against Donald Sutherland and felt he had the sophistication to capture the arrogance and intelligence of Seneca without becoming a mustache-twirling cliche,” she says.
Producer Sarah Green, who worked with Bentley this year on the small indie Things People Do, called him a genius as an actor.
“Wes brought both skill and soul to his work every day, all day; not easy in the nonstop intensity of low-budget filmmaking,” she says. “Out of necessity, the shooting order was all over the place in relation to the script, and Wes managed to build his character’s substantial arc with the steady hand of a master.”
He also recently worked with Terrence Malick — and Bale — in Knights of Cups, a film that Green produced.
“I’ve been given this second chance, and I’m going to do everything I can with it,” he says. “And with Chris Nolan giving me an opportunity, I’m working with people that I can really learn from.”
Still, there’s one side of Bentley that hasn’t emerged professionally — his sense of humor, hidden for years behind the brooding and drug use.
“I would definitely love to do a straight-up comedy, like a Judd Apatow movie [or] the whole Seth Rogen group,” he says. “I love the Coen brothers’ sense of humor. … For so many years, I took everything so seriously. Life could have been a lot more fun.”
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