Wes Bentley had just turned 21 when his darkly seductive supporting role in American Beauty made him one of Hollywood's most promising actors overnight. At the time, he struggled with that spotlight, dropping out of projects like Monster's Ball and abusing heroin until 2009, when he finally entered recovery. Now clean and 33 years old, Bentley's quest to reestablish himself should get a big bump this weekend thanks to his role in The Hunger Games as Seneca Crane, the coldhearted games-maker with a swirly, spiky beard. We recently met up with Bentley to discuss The Hunger Games and that unique facial hair (which is already a meme), and he spoke candidly about his return to Hollywood.
So, are you ready to see this character be a massive Halloween costume this year?
Yeah! Ve Neill, the makeup designer, when we were doing this she was so happy with it, and I was, too. That’s what we always talked about: "Hopefully, we’re gonna see kids at Halloween wearing this."
I feel like if I go down to West Hollywood this year I’m gonna see guys dressed like Seneca, and maybe even some guys dressed like Effie.
Oh, definitely. [Laughs.] Yeah.
Was the beard real? Or an applied piece?
The beard was real. It’s all my hair.
So you’d go to the supermarket in North Carolina with that beard and people would be like, “Hi, crazy person!”
Yeah, I went to Target all the time — I had to buy baby formula with this beard! But no one ever reacted to it. Maybe they were being polite. Maybe it was that controlled Southern thing, and they just wouldn’t say anything.
How many iterations of the beard did you go through to come up with the look?
The first one was a bit more dramatic than that, and a bit more sinister. The hooks were just a little bigger and sharper. Gary loved it, but he wanted to tone it down a little bit because in the end, Seneca's not the devil. He’s not metaphysical — he’s a human being and he’s trying to do a job. He’s evil and he’s ignorant to the fact that he’s creating consequences, that people are actually paying for this, but he’s not the actual bad guy, I guess.
As an auditioning actor, can you relate to the concept of the Hunger Games, in that there are all of these people who are gunning for the same prize and it can be very cutthroat?
Yeah, it’s unfortunate, but it’s a competitive business. But there’s one big difference: I’m choosing to be here and I’m choosing to go through this, whereas those kids aren’t, in the movie or in the books. It is difficult as an actor to be an artist and be competitive. If you’re just competing to make more money or to be the biggest name out there, it can be kind of devastating. You have to be careful. What kind of "competitive" are you being? Are you trying to be a better actor? That’s fine. Or are you trying to be a bigger star? That’s not helping anybody but yourself.
Did you ever have that struggle with yourself? Where you had that temptation to be a bigger star?
I don’t battle so much with being the bigger star. I sometimes wish I had more money, like everybody does, you know? [Laughs.] When I'm like, “Oh, so-and-so is blowing up,” I have to check myself and see what I’m really concerned about. And luckily, in the end, I’m really concerned about being a good actor. I wanna learn from them. And maybe try to better them, so maybe they learn from me in some aspect or another.
There’s a reality-TV motif in this movie. Do you watch that at all?
I don’t really watch any reality shows myself. My wife watches shows like The Bachelor, and I’ve now watched them with her. I watched them specifically to also get into the role of Seneca because he’s a reality-TV-show producer, really — and I find them very sick. [Laughs.]
How has having a child rearranged your priorities as an actor?
I used to think a lot about myself, and now, I think about wanting to set a good example in my work ethic and the choices I make. I mean, from that point forward — his birth forward — I really wanted to make good choices. I know these aren't all movies he can watch when he’s a kid, but what I’d rather show is making good choices and being a committed artist are important things. If you’re going to be an artist, or whatever you’re gonna do, just be committed to quality.
Was that a difficult lesson for you to learn yourself?
When I got all the attention, I didn’t know what to do. I had such high standards for myself after that, and I felt like everyone else did, too. But in the end it was really was my outlook that brought me down. I was like, “You know what, I can’t get it done, I can’t do this movie,” so I would talk too long off and I wouldn’t make the right choices. And I didn’t really care about what I was choosing as much as I should have — I just cared about partying, because that’s the only thing that I thought made me feel good. So at that point I was just trying to feel better about myself for not making the good choices.
Do you ever see any of the people from American Beauty anymore?
I saw Kevin [Spacey] a little while back. We caught up — I hadn’t seen him in a while. I saw Thora [Birch] a couple years ago. But for the most part, no, I haven’t seen everybody too much. I want to see more of them. I think about them a lot.
Jennifer Lawrence is about the same age now as you were when you made American Beauty. Can you relate to that moment at all?
It’s interesting because I watched her and I realized that — I knew she was my age. I talked to her a lot. I love Jen. I like her, I really admire her. She’s got something rare and special that I love watching, and just getting to know her as a person, she’s ready for it. It sounds really curious, like, “Are you ready for this? Are you gonna fully embrace it? What are you gonna do?” She’s built for it. I really wasn’t built for it. I turned down all the things that were like Hunger Games at that time for me. I wasn’t ready for it then — I wasn’t ready for a lot in life. But she’s really built for it. She carried a film on subtlety. She carried a big, highly anticipated film with subtle acting. I just ... I think that’s fantastic.
Also, she knew this was going to be a big blockbuster franchise and could prepare for it. Whereas with American Beauty, who knew, necessarily, that it would be a Best Picture winner and such a large success?
Definitely I didn’t. [Laughs.] I didn’t know. I thought it would be a good movie, because I knew we were making a good movie. You’re right — she knows what’s gonna happen here — but she had a similar thing happen to her, too. I mean, Winter’s Bone was a small movie, and she went from zero to a Best Actress nomination. I wasn’t nominated, so I don’t know what that’s like, but she’s built for it. She’s built for it. I’m really excited about her.