Wes Bentley was addicted to drugs like cocaine and heroin for the better part of 10 years. Now sober, he talks about his struggle with substance abuse.
Bradley Cooper isn’t the only recovering addict in the news this week. Wes Bentley also opened up about his life and career-altering addiction to heroin. His story is another example of how much time a person can lose to an addiction.
The Interstellar star’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.
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.
“There is a stigma that it’s the one you can’t beat, and it is an awful one. It is the devil. It’s a beast, and it creates a beast out of you. But that’s partly why I wanted to talk about it, because there’s people out there who are still addicted, and they might not think you can get past it either. But I want to show them that you can. I mean, I have to work on it every day still, as you know, but I just want people out there to know … that it is beatable and you can live an amazing, happy life.”