Wes Bentley seems to be in a pretty good place right now. After shooting to fame in 1999 with the frankly amazing American Beauty, he all but disappeared for a while – due to a drug addiction, it later emerged – but has recently started a hell of a comeback. He played the doomed Seneca Crane in The Hunger Games, he’s appearing in Knight Of Cups alongside Christian Bale, and he’s also landed a role in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Interstellar.
He’s always been an actor to pick off-kilter roles, and the film he’s promoting right now is a totally unexpected one: Pioneer is a conspiracy thriller set in 1980s Norway, at the point where the Norwegians were building an undersea pipeline to access North Sea oil. Bentley plays a cocky American diver, a kind of foil to Aksel Hennie’s demented man-on-a-mission. It’s a fairly minor role, but an interesting one.
I should confess at this point that I’m a big fan of Bentley’s, and have seen pretty much everything he’s ever been in, even the most low budget of his DTV horror movies. So I jumped at the chance to have a chat to him about his new film, the highlights of his career to date, and the changing nature of fame…
Hi Wes! So, let’s talk about Pioneer. I think mostly what I learned from the film is that deep sea diving is really scary.
Right! [laughs] Yeah, I think back then, lots of men died. There wasn’t much security for those guys.
What appealed to you about this role? How did you get involved with the movie?
Well, there were two things that were similarly appealing. I didn’t know much about the history of how Norway gained their oil. I didn’t realise it was that recent, and how much of a change the country went through because of it, and politically that interested me. As an American, it’s something we know well; the effects of fortune and changes in a country due to fortune, so I was interested in exploring that and learning more about it, and I think Americans might be curious about it.
But also, I loved Insomnia, so I was intrigued to work with Erik Skjoldbjærg, the director. And I’m interested in working on foreign films. Scandinavian films in particular have a distinct style that I wanted to be a part of.
Was it very different, working with a Norwegian cast and crew, than working in Hollywood?
There were little things that were different from working on an independent film here. It’s definitely different from working on a Hollywood big budget movie, but everything’s different from that. There’s more of – I wouldn’t say camaraderie, there’s camaraderie here too, but there’s more of people sharing jobs, I guess. There’s more of a union line with some of the films made over here, even independent films, but over there the lines are blurred a little bit to help everyone collaborate, and in the end everyone feels a little bit more of the final product.
Your character in Pioneer – let’s be honest, he’s not the most likeable guy. How did you approach that character?
He’s sort of based on the experiences the advisors on set, the Norwegian guys, had with a few American divers. Their feeling about those divers was that they were arrogant and didn’t have much investment in the advancement of Norwegian diving. There was a cold disconnect between the two groups, and I felt that it was important, because it was a Norwegian film, to represent their feelings about it, so that’s why he comes across particularly unlikeable.
Did you have to do a lot of research into the training divers would have to do?
Yeah, I did a bit. I wasn’t able to do a simulation dive of considerable depth; I did more pool training, which is about five meters. They do that sort of training because apparently the most dangerous part is getting to 5-15 meters down and below that it’s all the same – or similar, I should say.
When I was five, I almost drowned, and I had a fear of water until I was 16. I wouldn’t dunk my head in a pool or I wouldn’t let shower water hit my face, and it took a while to get over. So this was a particular challenge for me. In training, we started with a full helmet, which was alright; I could sort of do that once I trusted the oxygen was there, but after that they fully stripped it down until you just had the tube in your mouth and you were going under with just a tube and that was a real challenge for me.
Yeah, that sounds scary.
That’s why I like doing films, you get new challenges.
Slightly more frivolously; your beard in Pioneer is great, but – this is gonna be the most amazing segue you’ve ever heard, just wait for it – your beard in The Hunger Games is obviously the most amazing beard ever. What was it like having that on your face? How did it feel the first time you looked into the mirror with that?
It was weird. It was strange because I shot nine days on that film but they were spread out over a month, and so I would have that beard until it grew into a normal shape, but I’d have that shape and that definition – they put tattoo ink in it, to give it definition – and I had to go out to Walmart or Target or out to eat with my wife and kids with that beard and I felt like kind of a tool because I’m not the type to manscape like that! [laughs]
It was weird for people at Target; it wasn’t weird for people at Walmart. They didn’t find it strange at all, I fit right in. So I hung out at Walmart all day.
It is pretty ostentatious; I can imagine you got a couple of double takes.
Yeah! Gas stations were my favourite, they were a bit nervous, I guess. It was North Carolina, so this wasn’t a normal thing for them to see.
I don’t know where in the world that would be normal. Okay, so, moving on from The Hunger Games a bit, what’s your favourite of your movies?
That’s a good question. My favourite as in the film that turned out the best, or my favourite experience on a film?
I think the film that turned out the best is American Beauty. The character was so unique, but everyone’s work was so strong and the experience was great. But I had the most fun on this little stoner comedy called Weirdsville.
Yay! I was hoping you’d say Weirdsville. I love that film.
Oh, you know it? Cool. Yeah, when I started out, what I liked about acting was improv comedy. I liked making people laugh, which is weird for people to hear about me, but I did this comedy with Allan Moyle and Scott Speedman and we had a blast.
It is brilliant, I think it needs more of a cult following.
I agree. I thought it would by now, I have to admit. It’s silly. It spins and spins and spins deeper out of control, and I like that kind of film.
Well, on the surface it’s out of control, but actually it’s very structured; it’s all set in one night with lots of characters all coming together at the end…
Yeah. And the connection between the two buddies – I like the moments with the real struggles with the drugs, there are a few real moments in there that kind of grounds it.
Can I clear something up quickly – are you really on Twitter?
Yeah, @realwesbentley is me. I can’t get it verified because I don’t play the game; you have to have celebrity friends and tweet with them… Oh, James Franco is following me now, apparently, that’s good. He’s a friend of mine. I don’t know, I haven’t followed all the rules to get verified, so people don’t believe it’s me. But I’m not the best tweeter in the world.
Okay, cool. I was just curious, because that account has a picture of you from Weirdsville, so I wondered if it was real.
Yeah, right! I put it there for people who were really gonna do some digging.
Speaking of social media and the internet, I feel like the nature of fandom, and the relationship between fans and celebrities has changed a lot since American Beauty in 1999. What’s your take on that?
Yeah, it’s crazier for sure. There wasn’t TMZ then, you’d have to end up on Robertson Boulevard or at Urth Caffé, which are obvious spots to be photographed, and now they find you. There’s tour buses for paparazzi groups or fans to come to town and take these buses and look for you…
Not me, though, I’ve been lucky enough to avoid this kind of attention, but I’ve seen it with friends who have more of this kind of trouble.
And then you have the social media, so you can see the level of crazy that’s out there. In a way, that’s kind of good: you can see what’s out there and see it coming. You can judge whether or not you should go to the Grove or wherever.
It must be a weird thing for a person’s ego, though, with thousands of people saying you’re amazing or terrible or whatever. I can’t imagine dealing with that.
Yeah. I just don’t believe them either way! Which is not to say I’m not grateful for a compliment or that it doesn’t faze me if I’m insulted, it’s just that I don’t believe them either way. It’s somewhere in the middle, it always will be, and that’s the only way to look at it. It’s all perspective, it’s all what you care about, and my number 1 care – as far as my career, aside from my family and that – is just to create good work, work with talented people, and vary the styles in which I work and challenge myself to try something new with each film.
You’ve got tons of movies coming out in the near future. Looking at IMDB there’s loads of things on the way – what are you most looking forward to coming out?
I was happy working on all of them, but I’m dying to see Interstellar. It’s going to be a very cool film and sort of a game-changer for filmmaking. It goes to a place that we don’t get to go to often. That’s all I can really say, but I’m looking forward to it like everyone else.
I’m also looking forward to the Terrence Malick film I did, called Knight of Cups, because I love Terry’s style and it’s a dream come true to work on that.
What’s next for you, then? Do you have any aspirations for your career, anything you want to do next? More comedy, maybe?
I’d love to do another comedy, but I’m sort of taking my time with that because the tricky thing with a comedy is that, if it’s a success you can lock yourself into that.
I did a HBO pilot with Ryan Murphy called Open, which is a satirical look at open relationships and it’s got a funny edge to it. I really enjoyed working on the pilot and I hope it gets picked up so my focus is on that right now.
So, finally, here’s the question we ask everyone on Den of Geek: what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?
I’m gonna give you one you probably don’t hear much: London. I read the script before they made it and it was called Occam’s Razor, but they changed the name to London. And he’s doing something he doesn’t normally do. I know a lot of people probably haven’t seen that one.
Yeah, most people pick Snatch, or Lock, Stock…
Well, Snatch is great, but I wanted to go with London because I know no-one else is going to say that.
Awesome. Wes Bentley, thank you very much!
Pioneer is out in the UK on 11 April.
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