In 1999, that miraculous year that’s now touted as one of the best in American film history, a 21-year-old unknown actor named Wes Bentley recorded a plastic bag dancing in the wind and became an overnight sensation. He played Ricky in Sam Mendes’ Oscar-winning drama “American Beauty,” a film that extrapolates the malaise of suburban stagnation. Bentley’s character, an awkward loner who seeks solace from his homophobic, abusive, militant father by watching the world through a camcorder screen, is the focal point of a scene that’s as widely heralded for its profundity as it is retrospectively berated for its portentousness; the film, and in particular the bag scene, has become embedded in pop-culture consciousness, and has been parodied in every conceivable way (which is how you know you’ve made it). Bentley’s stoic, emotionally-detached turn acts as a foil to Kevin Spacey’s histrionic, Best Actor-nabbing performance, and seemed to offer a new world of possibilities for the young actor.
But Bentley’s career quickly veered off course when he found himself emotionally unable to deal with the abrupt fame. He subsequently became addicted to drugs and alcohol and, a role “Ghost Rider” notwithstanding, didn’t do much in the way of acting for a decade.
In 2010, he took a role in the off-Broadway production of “Venus in Fur,” which garnered him renewed interest. He then appeared as Seneca Crane, the Gamemaster, in 2012’s massive hit “The Hunger Games.” Bentley now appears to be in the thralls of a certified comeback, with roles in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” Ryan Murphy’s depraved TV hit “American Horror Story,” Erik Skjoldbjærg’s “Pioneer,” and Terrence Malick’s upcoming “Knight of Cups.”
Indiewire spoke to Bentley about his resurgence, Christopher Nolan’s modern classic, and the enigma that is Terrence Malick.
After “American Beauty,” you obviously had a period where you weren’t doing much. And you engendered this comeback in 2010 with a role in the stage version of “Venus in Fur.” Why did you choose that role after declining roles for years?
Well, first of all I was lucky enough that they asked me to do it after I came in for a reading. But I wanted to really challenge myself—it’s a huge challenge trying to get sober and tackle David Ives’ language, which is challenging because it’s so excellent, the dialogue is truly complex. I wanted to go for it. But I’ve always been that way. I’ve always wanted to challenge myself, even if at times it’s a bit… out of reach for me, at the moment. But you never know until you try, and I just wanted the most responsibility I could take on right after cleaning up so I could just get the ball rolling, get some confidence.
Have you seen Polanski’s film?
I haven’t, no I have not. I want to, though.
Your current film, “Pioneer,” is Norwegian, and it hasn’t even come out in America yet, but it’s already getting an American remake courtesy of George Clooney.
You know, Clooney is great. He produces some great movies. I think he’ll do a good job with it. I think it’s becoming very common in our American film culture to do that, to remake excellent foreign films and I’m not always sure why. I love foreign films, I love the way they’re made, I guess they’re trying to reach a broader audience. It’s a great story, a great Norwegian story that the majority of Americans don’t know, and don’t know why it’s one of the richest countries in the world or how that came about. Maybe they’re trying to tap into that? I don’t know, but I think it’s fine. Art is out there to be made and remade, so who’s to judge?
You’re playing a character in “American Horror Story: Freakshow,” which is the second time you’ve worked with Ryan Murphy. You briefly worked with him for HBO’s “Open,” which didn’t get picked up. What happened there?
You know, I don’t know. We had a great time shooting the pilot. It was going to be a challenging piece about sexual exploration, and I don’t know if that had anything to do with it. If it was too challenging, I don’t know. I never heard what exactly was their reasoning. These things happen with HBO. They make a lot of pilots, and they’re becoming increasingly selective. I think it was just a matter of it’s not working out for them, or the timing wasn’t right.
That’s disappointing. I was looking forward to it.
Yeah, I heard the pilot was good from people at HBO and Ryan [Murphy]. Just luck and timing.
Okay, I have to be honest. I’m a little mad at you for killing off Twisty, the best character in this season’s “American Horror Story.” And I know the internet was mad about that, though they’re always mad about something.
I’ve had a few people say they’re happy about it, a few people say they’re sad about it. It’s a fun conversation, “American Horror Story.” It always catches you off guard, and it always creates an interesting conversation about the characters. That’s what so great about it, the characters, and Twisty was great. I was sad to see him go myself.
Was it fun working on the show?
Absolutely. It’s such a creative atmosphere. I can’t imagine a more creative atmosphere on a television show right now. I mean, there are other great shows that I love, but “American Horror Story” really pushes their own boundaries. Ryan challenges his actors. They’re like a theater troupe, and he comes up with something new each season and presses them to go even further. I loved being around that. The crew is the same way. He really presses them to become more and more creative. You know, it was inspiring to be around all of them.
You’ve been in a few ensemble pieces lately. You’re in “Interstellar,” which has been getting a really mixed response from critics, ranging from “classic” to “crap.” Do you have any idea why it’s so polarizing?
I couldn’t exactly name them, but I know a lot of classic movies have created this kind of response. Maybe the initial response wasn’t strong critically, but they went down as a classic. I think getting a strong reaction, about when it’s a balanced strong reaction, is a good sign. It shows the movie really challenges and presses buttons. A lot of times when you’re pressing the boundaries, it rubs people the wrong way. But I think a visceral response is a great response when you’re being creative. I think Chris [Nolan] has the excellent ability to make big, epic movies and still challenge you emotionally while at the same time challenging your head.
Do you think it’ll be held up as a classic one day?
I think so. To me, I saw it early on before any of this, and my response was overwhelming. I was blown away. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be. It’s the closest to real science we have, pushing these…I guess quantum boundaries? Theoretical science? It’s something to behold. They really took a lot of concerns making sure we could get as close to the real science as possible. They always talked about it on set.
Speaking of pushing boundaries, you’re ostensibly in the new Terrence Malick project, though of course you’re never sure if you’ll end up in the finished product or not. Can you shed any light on the elusive Mr. Malick?
I absolutely love Terrence Malick. Yeah, it’s like working with… the smartest kid. No, it’s like playing with the smartest kid on the block. The process is so childlike in a sense. The movements of the camera and your movements with the camera and the other characters are trying to find these real moments. It’s sort of improvisational, but not just you as an actor. The whole crew is improvising, and at the same time Terry is an incredibly well-read, incredibly smart guy, layering in all these different aspects. I just knew when I went to set I just wanted to work with him. It was terrifying and so challenging. As soon as I went home I wanted to do it again. I don’t really care if I end up in the film or not, I just want to experience his process.
I have to ask about “American Beauty.” It was a long time ago, but it’s still so ingrained in your image. It made you famous, made a ton of money, landed a lot of awards. But in recent years some critics have turned against it, decried it for being really pretentious and phony. Especially your bag scene. Do you have a response to those people?
There were responses at the time like that; they were just overshadowed by everyone’s praise. I get it, I always get it. Nothing’s ever as good as it seems, including responses and reactions, or never as bad as it seems, including responses and reactions. I’ll say this, though: people had such strong emotional reactions, it’s hard to sit here 16 years later and try to recapture that moment in time. It was pre-9/11 America, it was a different period and it captured that moment. I got plenty of great emotional response to that. I know it’s a moving moment, but at the same time every film is meant to be looked back on and criticized and that’s fair. And if people want to do that, they have the right to do that. I don’t agree with them, and I know a lot of people who don’t agree with them, but it’s fine. It’s part of art, part of what we do.
Is there anyone in particular who’s really been instrumental in your quote-unquote comeback?
Oh, God, so many people. First of all, thanks to anyone who’s hired me. I wouldn’t say one person in particular. I’ve had a few people jump in my corner. I don’t want to name someone and then leave out anyone else’s name.
You can’t think that way! Come on.
I know, I know. Right? Just gimme a sec. Well, Debbie Zane helped get me on “The Hunger Games.” She also helped cast me in “American Beauty,” and she’s been a big cheerleader for me. She’s always been on my side, and she’s always been in my career. That’s the first name that comes off the top of my head.