He became an overnight sensation thanks to his era-defining role in 1999's American Beauty; then, a drug-addled cautionary tale. But the 33-year-old actor is sober now and back in the saddle with the thriller Gone and the hotly anticipated sci-fi film The Hunger Games. Here, he dishes on chilling with Lenny Kravitz, what he said to make Heath Ledger throw a laptop out a window, and how he finally got clean once and for all.
DETAILS: The Hunger Games has an incredible cast. Did you wind up getting close with any of your costars?
Wes Bentley: Lenny Kravitz and I really clicked. We'd talk about acting and music, about his life in the Bahamas, hurricanes. Also how much we love—and really miss—eating burgers. He was getting ready for a tour, so he couldn't, and I've been cutting back ever since I got sober.
DETAILS: The documentary My Big Break, which follows you and your then-housemates as you struggle to make it as actors in Hollywood, finally came out last year after more than a decade in the making. Have you seen it yet?
Wes Bentley: No, but I've been interested in seeing it lately. There are lots of reasons to be nervous about that—I was young and stupid, I didn't really know how to deal with success, and it's all caught on camera. But that was a great time in my life. I'm nostalgic for it.
DETAILS: You were a 19-year-old Juilliard dropout just beginning your career. Then you won the part of Ricky Fitts in American Beauty. How did that role change your life?
Wes Bentley: I was young, and I wanted every role to have that kind of impact. After [the movie] came out, a woman came up to me at a bar in Chicago and talked about the correlation between Ricky's relationship with his father and her having grown up in a Communist country. She saw Ricky's father as, I guess, the Soviet Empire, and herself as Ricky, having to find ways to placate and appease it, while still feeling very rebellious inside. That just blew my mind. Or a story about how [a fan] was dying of cancer and seeing Ricky take joy and satisfaction in a plastic bag made them feel okay about possibly dying. I'd also have girls coming up to me saying, "I saw your movie, and I'm now gonna go home and—" [Laughs] Actually, I don't want to say . . .
DETAILS: What—touch themselves?
Wes Bentley: Right. While thinking of Ricky. I'd be like, "Wow, okay." It weirded me out. I wasn't interested in that at all. I never wanted to be a rock star.
DETAILS: Later, you became friends with Heath Ledger while filming The Four Feathers. What kind of impact did he have on you?
Wes Bentley: He was as close as a person could be to me without being my actual brother. We both had that thing in us—a bit of reckless fearlessness. Whenever we got together, especially early on, we were all about pushing ourselves to be better. Not just as actors, but with our lives, too—the way we approached relationships, reading and writing poetry . . .
DETAILS: Did you read your poems to each other?
Wes Bentley: No, but we did show each other our work. He wrote his poetry on the computer, I wrote mine by hand. One time—this was in London, early in the morning, and we'd been up all night—I was reading from his computer, and I turned to him and said, 'This is beautiful, man, but I hate reading on computers.' He walked right up, grabbed the laptop, snapped it over his knee, and threw it off the balcony. Then he looked down and went, "Oh fuck. Shouldn't have done that."
DETAILS: Do you still keep in touch with anyone in his family?
Wes Bentley: No, not really. I knew them well, but when he and Michelle were having their baby, we started to drift apart because I was falling more into my addiction and I felt like I shouldn't be bringing that around him. I respect her so much, and I just didn't want to . . . it was like that with my family. I shut off from everyone because I didn't want them to see or be around [me]. When Heath died, you'd think I'd react by saying, "Oh God, this stuff . . . I don't want to die too." But it actually made me fall in it deeper.