Actor Wes Bentley Rebuilds Career after Beating Addiction
Eleven years ago, Wes Bentley was a 21-year-old Julliard dropout living in Los Angeles with a Polaroid for a head shot and not enough money to eat at Taco Bell, writes Patrick Healy of the New York Times. But after his performance as Ricky Fitts in “American Beauty,” which won the Academy Award for best picture, he was riding in limos and drawing paparazzi. But after his initial success, Bentley turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the stress of stardom, and addiction took over his life for several years.
“I wanted fame, but I thought it would be incremental, and I became afraid of the overnight-sensation thing,” Bentley said, speaking to a reporter about his life since “American Beauty.” He continued, “I started walking into rooms, and everyone would look at me, and I would freeze up. People kept saying, ‘You have to find your next movie,’ and that didn’t make life any better.”
The son of two United Methodist ministers in Arkansas, Bentley said he abandoned the spirituality of his youth and turned to partying in a group house that he shared with the actors Brad Rowe and Chad Lindberg, among others. Soon his recreational use of marijuana and alcohol, which began as a teenager, branched out into cocaine, Ecstasy, and eventually heroin.
One of Bentley’s housemates at the time, Tony Zierra, a budding movie director, caught some of this chaos on tape for a film about his friends trying to make names for themselves.
“The house became completely swept up in the Hollywood machine, and for Wes it was very overwhelming,” said Zierra, whose first attempt at the film fell apart but is now trying to finish a new edit, with the title “My Big Break.” “It happened too fast, Wes was too young, and there was money and free time and this sense among Wes and others that once they got their break, the jobs and scripts would just keep coming.”
But when Bentley wasn’t working, his drug use escalated. He would spend nights doing cocaine at clubs and then sleep until 5 p.m. Eventually his friends, concerned about him, refused to join in, and he would drive around the city alone in search of heroin. He said he spent days in drug dens. At the same time, he said he had “stacks of scripts, great scripts with great offers attached” that he would never read because of his addiction.
From 2002 to 2009, Bentley said he stopped caring about acting, and only did the occasional film for money to pay bills or buy drugs. In 2001 he married Jennifer Quanz, an aspiring actress he met at the group house two years earlier, but their relationship frayed as he hid his drug use and disappeared for hours or days. He moved out of their home in 2006 and holed up in a new apartment, doing drugs pretty much full time. (He and Quanz are in the process of divorcing.)
In 2008 Bentley was arrested and pleaded guilty to heroin possession and to trying to pass a counterfeit $100 bill. He was mandated to community service and counseling and 12-step programs, but he relapsed. He continued using heroin until he was broke, he said, and began trying to get sober until finally, back in Los Angeles after a vacation, he hit his bottom last July.
“I had come back to L.A. for something, and I drank a whole bottle of Scotch, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to die in this hotel room with this bottle of Scotch,’” he said. “It was after that I told a friend for the first time: ‘I’m a drug addict, and an alcoholic, and I need help. I need help or I’m going to die.’”
Bentley briefly entered a rehabilitation program and began attending 12-step program meetings on his own, which he said he still does.
Bentley is now seven months sober and wants to share his story in the hope that he might help other young actors who are overwhelmed by success. He also readily acknowledged that there is a self-serving aspect to disclosing his story.
“I want to earn more work because I’m doing good work,” he said, “but people were questioning if I was even in shape to do auditions. Telling my story is a way to say, ‘I’m O.K., things are better.’”
Bentley is now starring in a new play called “Venus in Fur,” which opened last month to mostly positive reviews and was recently extended through March 7th.
Walter Bobbie, the director of “Venus in Fur,” said that he was pleased with Bentley’s performance. Bobbie said he had heard inklings about Bentley’s personal problems before his audition but was impressed with his enthusiasm for the play, which some other actors had been leery of because of the unflattering turns that the character takes.
“We needed a man of genuine effortless sexuality and confidence, and Wes delivered that,” Bobbie said. “As for Wes’s personal life, I’ve always believed that you never make a decision based on rumor. You meet a person and make your own history with them.”
Bentley said he wanted to be in “Venus in Fur” as soon as he read the script, but he was also just as eager to get any work, even if it paid pennies compared with film. As for sobriety, he emphasized that he was still at an early stage, and that he knew his own story might not be enough to sway a full-blown addict. Still, he said, he wished that when he was in his early 20s he had heard a story like his own.
“This would have helped me, at least, if someone would have made me realize that you don’t need to do drugs to be artistic and express yourself,” Bentley said. “If you want to be artistic, if you want to be creative, if you want to express yourself, you can’t let things get in your way, and drugs are included in that.”