Actor Wes Bentley burst onto the film scene in a big way in 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY, in which he played the mysterious, brooding neighbor kid Ricky Fitts, and that was followed up quickly by prestige pictures, such as Michael Winterbottom’s THE CLAIM and Shekhar Kapur’s THE FOUR FEATURES. After about 10 years of hit and miss roles (including comic book movies GHOST RIDER and JONAH HEX), Bentley landed a prime supporting role in the first HUNGER GAMES movie as Seneca Crane.
In recent years, Bentley has been on something of a streak with roles in Terrence Malick’s KNIGHT OF CUPS (finally out wide this week) and THE BETTER ANGELS, a beautiful film about young Abraham Lincoln, written and directed by Malick’s editor A.J. Edwards. He’s also done great work in such movies as LOVELACE, CESAR CHAVEZ, WELCOME TO ME, and Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, as well as the last couple seasons of “American Horror Story.” After KNIGHT OF CUPS release, Bentley will next be seen in director David Lowery’s remake of PETE’S DRAGON, due in mid-August.
I got the chance to speak to Bentley recently about KNIGTH OF CUPS, in which he plays Christian Bale’s destructive and hot-tempered mess of a brother Barry; Brian Dennehy portrays their equally volatile father, and the three have some emotionally explosive moments on screen together. Please enjoy my chat with Wes Bentley…
Wes Bentley: Hello?
Capone: Hello, sir. How are you?
WB: I’m good. How are you doing?
Capone: Good, man. First of all, congratulations on a hell of an “American Horror Story” season. You were particularly good in it.
WB: Thank you. You liked it, that’s great.
Capone: Yeah, and your character was unique, because that show can go off the rail sometimes, and your character made it very human and very grounded in a type of reality, for most of the season.
WB: [laughs] Perfect. That’s good to hear. I’m glad it worked then.
Capone: With this film, how long ago did you actually shoot your parts in this movie?
WB: It was 2012. It was three-and-a-half, four years ago now.
Capone: Wow. So have you spent a lot of the time since then fretting over whether you were going to make it into the final cut or not? Because I know sometimes some people don’t always fare so well.
WB: [laughs] You know, I didn’t really fret over it, because I went in knowing. I just accepted that it wasn’t about whether something was actually going to make it up on the screen or not. I was going to go in for the experience of working with Terry and his special process. And it was, it was a really special experience, even just filmmaking. It was some of the most challenging and rewarding stuff I’ve ever done. I didn’t think about it at all. I know a few people on it, so they would text me saying, “Hey, I’m looking at your face. You’re still in it.” So it’d be like, “Okay, that’s cool, I guess.” But I’m always prepared for that to not happen. But I’m relieved to see that I was it.
Capone: In the last three or four years, I’ve interviewed quite a few actors that are in this film, and I’m always asking the same questions like, “Are you sure you’re in it?” The final product is always so impressionistic, and I’m wondering when you’re actually shooting does it feel a little bit more coherent and straight forward, but when you see it cut together, it just flows with rhythm. It’s like poetry. But when you’re actually shooting it, does it make a little more sense in the moment?
WB: No, it’s still a little bit of that same etherial feeling when you shoot it. I mean, there’s more directive because I had a lot of words that I said, a lot of emotions I was spewing, a lot of directive anger and specific things I was feeling, and those things aren’t in the film. Those aren’t a part of the final experience. But still, because of the way the film is made, it’s set up so that we would all discover these moments together. They’d be happy accidents. They’d be moments when the camera and the acting and the lighting all met. The whole day was spent finding those. So that creates an etherial, other-worldly feeling to it, or at least different, and in a way a more creative way of feeling.
Capone: You say some of those things aren’t in the final film, but the impression of anger is there almost every minute you’re on the screen. We see him yelling, even if we don’t hear the words or know what he’s yelling about. We even understand to a degree that he feels less than in his fathers eyes, and that makes him resent his brother. None of that is said, but it’s all there. But you are saying things when you’re actually shooting it. Are you making up your dialogue? Is it written down for you?
WB: No, no. There’s no script, but I’d get pages the night before. I’d come in the next day, and those pages would have some… one day I got 40 pages or something crazy. The next day, I was fighting with Brian Dennehy. None of them had to be in order or anything like that, but it directed the feeling, like you said. You could just throw out things when you saw fit. I thought it was cool that a lot of that was taken out. It was emotional. It was very moving to me to see the way Rick [Christian Bale’s character] was tuning out that part of his brother. The only things that would come in was when his brother was trying to connect in other ways for the most part. To me, that’s what I was taking from that anyway.
Capone: Somewhere in the midst of you making this you also made THE BETTER ANGELS, which is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in ages.
WB: It was beautiful.
Capone: How did that work exactly? Because I know the gentlemen that directed that also works with Malick. But how did that work in terms of a timeline?
WB: He edits for Terry and he edited KNIGHT OF CUPS, or was one of the editors. I was actually in the middle of shooting. We were on the street downtown, and while we were waiting to go—I think we were walking to our next spot—Terry just stopped and said, “Are you interested in doing something for this kid who I know is really great? He’s doing a film about Lincoln and he’d love to have you. Would you do it?” I said, “Yeah. Great, I’d love to do that.” So that directly connected me to A.J. [Edwards]. Working with A.J. is like working with Terry 2.0. I got down there and knew exactly what to do, because it was the same experience.
Capone: It’s such a great little movie, and the black-and-white photography is stunning.
WB: I agree, I think it’s a beautiful film.
Capone: It goes hand-in-hand when you work with Malick these days that you also get to work with [cinematographer] Emmanuel Lubezki,who just won his third Oscar the other day. Tell me about watching the two of them communicate and work together. They almost seem like they share a brain in a lot of ways. What did you learn about their communication?
WB: Well, even beyond them with the producers, the costumers, and production designers, they all speak a different language. They all take cues off each other. It’s really this subtle stuff. But sometimes not so much. Even when we were shooting these scenes, and they’re beautiful and they’re intense, behind the camera, there’s a lot of talking and direction going on to adjust the shot or pointing out something else. Not always. I don’t mean to say they’re always talking, but sometimes they full on switch gears mid-moment. But other times, they don’t say a word.
Chivo [Lubezki’s nickname] is like another character, another actor in the piece. A lot of times, he’s so close to you when he’s hand held and on the wide lens, he’s literally in your face. But you feel him. You can feel in his body and in his movement that he’s feeling what you’re feeling and he’s with you. Sometimes he’ll guide you with his feelings, and it’s like dancing with another dancer out there. A lot of times, conventionally, you’re trying to ignore the camera or forget it’s there, or it’s so far away you don’t even know where it is. In this experience with Chivo, it’s a different thing because he’s literally right next to you.
Capone: I wrote in my notes, and you just said it, “I hope they have a secret language that only the two of them speak.” That’s how it feels.
WB: Yeah, they do. And they’ve all worked together so long that even when they’re talking to each other, and I know all the film lingo, I don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ve come up with their own axises and things that they’ve worked hard on finding, and it’s a different way of making a film, and only they can understand it, and it creates what’s there. It’s stunning.
Capone: Your scenes are primarily with Christian Bale and Brian Dennehy. As an actor, what did you learn from working with those two? Dennehy especially- who is just an old school character actor, who is such a presence. What did you learn from them that you didn’t know before?
WB: Oh, my gosh. He’s what I always imagined. He’s a presence in life as well. He and I did, I think, most of the yelling in the film [laughs], and Christian too. We had a big blow. It’s the most emotion Christian shows in the film as well, and he held so strong, because it was physically grueling. It was physically tough. They were shooting, some of it was digital, some was film, but the digital just kept going and going. And we wouldn’t stop, and there’s no takes. It’s just life happening. And this fight went on for a whole day. It was amazing how we were all able to feed off of each other. One had to stop, the other would pick up. But with Brian and Christian both in that scene, what I learned is when you’re going to yell, have a man fight, make sure you drop your register. Make sure you yell in your lowest voice possible. [laughs]
Capone: Because you lose your voice otherwise?
WB: That and it just sounds better too. If you’re going to try to fight with Brian Dennehy, you better drop your range or you’re going to sound like a boy [laughs].
Capone: A day like that has to be so damn exhausting.
WB: Yeah, I was, but because it was such a challenge and it was a special experience, I just wanted to come back the next day and try it again. I couldn’t get enough, but I was always terrified while I was doing it because there were no rules. I really couldn’t go wrong. There was nothing I could do wrong, but that made me feel like everything I was doing was wrong.
Capone: After working with Malick and A.J. Edwards, was it—not that “American Horror Story” is in any way conventional—difficult to go back to more conventional film shooting and television?
WB: Yeah, yeah. It was right away. Well funny enough though, I did get to go right away and shoot with A.J., so that was like doing the same thing. And then I shot a Norwegian film right after that, and there’s a similar feeling about the filmmaking there, where finding the truth and real elements was a search. But there’s sometimes I’m doing a film and I’m standing on a mark, and it’s fine, but it’s not as exciting as trying to do the dance with Terry. I get a real thrill out of that with Terry and that style.
Capone: Speaking of etherial directors, you just worked with David Lowry too on PETE’S DRAGON. He’s not exactly a conventional filmmaker either. I love the stuff that he does both as a filmmaker and as an editor. That must have been kind of fun.
WB: Oh yeah, that was another one I was so thrilled to get a call from, and I admire David. Exactly what you said, he’s in that realm of etherial creativity, but he’s also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and he created such an amazing set; it felt like one big family. He’s a great guy, but also a great artist. I’m just getting lucky, man. Getting lucky.
Capone: You’re on a roll. Wes, thanks for talking, and best of luck with everything.
WB: Thank you very much. It was great talking to you. Take care.