Like most parents, artists often have to make sacrifices in their careers for the sake of their children. That means sometimes taking a job you wouldn’t otherwise do simply because it pays the bills.
That is the premise of “The Time Being,” a little independent film written and directed by first time filmmaker Nenad Cicin-Sain, a Canadian transplant. It’s also what attracted actor Wes Bentley to the lead role of Daniel, a struggling California artist with mouths to feed who takes on an unusual assignment from a mysterious wealthy benefactor to make ends meet. As a husband and father himself, Bentley could relate in some ways to the predicament facing the drama’s protagonist.
Calling from his home in the San Fernando Valley, the 34-year-old is upbeat and refreshingly candid about his life and career. He admits he’s taken acting gigs for the money but with no regrets.
“They weren’t what I saw myself doing but I’m also equally grateful that those films were there because I learned a lot and I often worked with some great people,” he says.
Bentley, of course, became a rising star with 1999’s drama “American Beauty,” which won the Best Picture Academy Award.
After his early success, Bentley ran off to Arizona by himself, then moved into a group house with a handful of other aspiring actors and indulged in drugs. (Housemate Tony Zierra documented the shenanigans of Bentley and the others in “My Big Break,” released in 2009.)
The Jonesboro, Ark. native took the occasional role in iffy projects just to get high and pay the rent. His first marriage ended in divorce.
Fearing he was heading toward an early and bad end, Bentley entered a 12-step program in 2009 and subsequently found a supportive helpmate in producer Jacqui Swedberg (now his wife). He is the proud father of an adorable two-and-a-half year old son named Charlie (who joins the conversation briefly to ask dad where his toy cars are). Now, Bentley says he is ready to fulfill his potential, both on a personal and career level.
He had a significant featured role in last year’s hit “The Hunger Games,” and he appears in the upcoming biopic “Lovelace,” starring Amanda Seyfried as the famed porn star. He plays a photographer friend of hers.
The handsome actor, notable for his electric blue eyes and square jaw, recently was cast in a Ryan Murphy pilot for HBO called “Open.” He also has completed production on a new Terrence Malick film tentatively titled “Knight of Cups,” and another film made by Malick protégé A.J. Edwards called “The Green Blade Rises.”
Q: How did “The Time Being” come to you and what about it appealed to you?
Bentley: A couple of things. I could identify with the struggling artist part of the story—wanting to do everything perfect as an artist and keeping what you think is your integrity but also providing for your family and knowing there are certain things you have to do. I went through that struggle for a brief moment. Actually, it wasn’t a struggle for me—I knew I wanted to be a provider. Daniel goes through much more of a struggle about it than I did. I knew I wanted to be a dad and that I’d have to make sacrifices. But I thought it would be interesting to play someone who had to do that. I thought it was another side of the artist story that we don’t see much. In films, you often see artists who become successful and famous. But I thought it was interesting to play someone who was successful enough but not enough to really make a lot of money or be known. I also was interested in Nenad’s idea to make each frame as close to a painting as possible and to take a very visual approach to the film. Of course, there was the opportunity to work with Frank Langella, who I’ve been a very huge fan of for a long time. So there were a lot of appealing aspects to this film.
Q: You worked with artist Eric Zener on the painting toward the end of the film, which you shot it in real time, switching places back and forth?
Bentley: There were two paintings. There was one he already made. So we had the idea completed on one side, and then we had the blank canvas, and we were going to try and match it. So they stuck a camera behind us and turned on Radiohead, and I just took a brush to (the canvas) and did the background. I’m not a painter, not even close. But I learned enough to know how to build the background and he was right there showing me how to do it. We mixed the colors the right way and he gave me direction off-camera. So when the camera stopped rolling he’d switch places with me and clean it up and we’d turn the camera back on. And then I’d do a little bit more. And then he’d clean it up.
Q: You started out making movies when you were very young. And your life was the subject of a documentary. Do you feel that you can relate to the fact that Daniel has to do some commissioned work to make ends meet? Maybe there were films you did to get a paycheck?
Bentley: Oh yeah. I definitely have. I’ve taken films because I need to provide for myself and my family. Especially, in building back up my career, there have been times when I’ve had to prove myself. It’s a different world now and they don’t pay you as much as they used to. Even when I’d book a film and it would pay scale for an independent film, I’d have to look at the next one and get that one. Basically, we were getting by week to week. Some of them weren’t the films I’d choose to do otherwise. They weren’t choices I saw as part of the plan, but I had to do it because we need food and have to pay rent, just like everyone else. Sometimes as actors we can hold things as way too precious. I learned that it’s no different from anybody else trying to live their life and get by because you never know when the next job is coming.
Q: You had “The Hunger Games” last year and you’ve got “Lovelace” coming up. Do you like going from big budget films to shoestring budget films like this where you’re driving the director’s sister-in-law’s car in some scenes?
Bentley: Yeah. I love the variety. Part of why I wanted to be an actor was because I couldn’t decide what to do with my life. As an actor, you can do a little bit of everything, if you’re lucky. I love independent films and those with very little budget because you feel like you’re a part of the crew and the filmmaking team because you’re right there all the time. With a big budget film, you can disappear for a while and just hang around and not be close to the center of it. At the same time, you get your time to focus as well. I enjoy variety in life so I enjoy popping around enjoying new experiences.
Q: You star in Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups?” Is that still the title?
Bentley: I don’t know. I’ll probably find out on opening night. (He laughs.) Working with Terry is amazing. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do and also the most exciting thing I’ve ever done as an actor. It’s a challenge because you have to throw away everything you learned about filmmaking, everything you’ve ever gotten comfortable with you have to toss out the window. What he wants you to do is be more natural to yourself but it’s hard to do that. It’s a challenge all day every day. I drove away each day thinking I can’t wait come back tomorrow to do that again. But while you’re doing it, it’s terrifying. It should be terrifying because there are no real rules but that’s kind of why it’s terrifying. Normally, you have a mark and you know where you’re going to shoot. You don’t get that luxury with Terry. That’s terrifying as an actor but also, for me, thrilling too, because that’s kind of what you hoped it to be when you were a kid.