"I wasn’t prepared for the, not sure how to put it, the sort of instant fame that I was a part of," Wes Bentley speaks frankly about the explosion of attention he garnered in 1999 with award-winning performance in Sam Mendes's iconic American Beauty. Not many Hollywood stories have included being part of a film with that kind of cultural significance, but it's now, nearly a decade and a half later, that he’s having arguably the biggest year of his career. And he's prepared. It's culminating in a whirlwind set of releases of The Better Angels, After the Fall, and Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, all within a month, as well as a featured role in the FX hit American Horror Story.
Now, with the career seemingly on track with his expectations, there's a new challenge that lies before the Arkansas-born thespian: raising two kids in L.A. during the social media age while trying to avoid the rampant trend of over-parenting. There are a million childrearing books on shelves, countless blogs and plenty of DVDs available, but Bentley found himself getting some inspiration from a pretty unusual source: his role of Abraham Lincoln’s teacher Mr. Crawford, which he plays in The Better Angels about the younger days our 16th president.
We talked to Wes about the lessons he learned, working with Matthew McConaughey on Interstellar, and his old days as a DJ.
How did you get attached to The Better Angels?
I was working on Knight Of Cups with Terrence Malick and he was also working on producing Angels. They came to me and said they wanted me to work with this filmmaker that they really believe in. They gave me the idea quickly, I was excited about it immediately and from there I spoke to A.J. Edwards. It happened that easily.
What was it about the role of Mr. Crawford that enticed you?
There were a couple things that attracted me to it. First of all, I’m a father and was interested in the paternal nature of teachers back then, and that kind of more complex relationship they had with the students. I was also interested in the time period in which this took place. It was a second awakening and an important time of political ideology. There were important changes in the country, eventually abolishment, and that influenced Lincoln. It had to do with education and the expansion of the country, into the frontier. They were reaching out to these children and helping them see a different way of living.
What are the differences between raising kids then and now?
I think the biggest difference, and it's very prevalent in the film, is being a father in that time period and for much of history was about teaching your children how to survive. Teaching them how to physically survive and how to navigate their surroundings. That's where the emphasis was put, not nurturing their spirit or telling them everyday that you love them. Taking them to the park and making sure they get their exercise in. They were getting that by learning how to live off the land, which they had to learn in case you disappeared for a bit, or passed away. There were a lot more things that could kill you at the time.
Yes, the role of the father was absolutely different back then.
It was a time when I believe the male was looked upon to have a large influence on raising the children. Sometimes nowadays it can be frowned upon, or looked on as being caveman-like the way that men want to parent. Or how they want to instinctually parent their children.
Do you think where we are now is better? Or are we coddling them too much?
I personally don't prefer the 2.0 over-parenting that's going on in the modern day, especially in California it's really prevalent. I think there are absolutely aspects of it that are important, I think nurturing the soul and the mental stability of a child is something that was not paid attention to as much in history and should be acknowledged and cared for now. But I think you do need to teach your child a strong sense of physical survival and how to physically be in this world and how to be with others and how to depend on oneself to survive if needed.
Are there any outdoor fieldtrips in the works? Finding your own meals?
[Laughs.] Or something like that, at least.
Your part in American Horror Story was really something else. What’s it like working with Ryan Murphy?
Ryan is great at throwing challenges at you. He didn't even ask if I could do an English accent until a week before I flew there! It's all cool though, it's one of the most creative shows in TV history. It’s special to be apart of it.
Are you coming back for more episodes?
You know… you never know.
What was it like working with Matthew McConaughey on Interstellar? He’s another guy who’s having a very busy year.
Matthew is a very inspiring guy, I wouldn't call what’s going on in his career right now a resurgence, he's always been there, but the quality of the movies he’s doing right now, along with the quality of the work. You always had the sense that it was there, but it's just cool to see him doing it. He's such a unique individual. He's uniquely spiritual and we had some really cool conversations on set. He's a good guy to be around.
He's a fairly spiritual gentleman and your father was a minister. Did he share any of his insights with you at all?
I'm fairly spiritual myself, so it was nice to talk to someone who had a similar flow of the mind and see what came of that. As far as his acting, his attention to detail is truly inspiring; he really focuses on the subtle details. It's nice to see.
Has that spirituality been helpful to you throughout your career?
Absolutely. I wasn't prepared for the, not sure how to put it, the sort of instant fame that I was a part of [in the beginning]. I had always pictured myself being successful in the business, but I thought it was going to be a gradual climb. I wanted to be able to establish trust in people and also prove to myself that I was a good actor so I wasn’t really prepared for the instant attention that came early in my career. Now it’s nice to have what I originally envisioned playing out, where I can take these steps in the proper way, I'm enjoying every minute of it and I'm very lucky to work with these filmmakers.
Your next film is We Are Your Friends, with Zac Efron, were you all play DJs. Did you have to take classes or anything like that to get prepared?
I've been a fan of electric music for a long time. I was drawn to it at a young age, as much as you could be growing up in rural Arkansas, but any time that I could get my hands on anything like it I was drawn to it. I was spinning for a couple years, I played a couple levels of electronic, house and dance music.
I heard that the movie really pushes the boundaries, what can people expect?
I think Zac made some really great choices on the film and I think people will really be happy with it. What's interesting about Max’s story is he wanted to tell where the music came from and where it is now and how much more accessible it is to be creative in the genre now because the tools are available and don’t cost what they used to.
Seeing that you used to DJ, there's quite a market for them right now, would you ever think about doing a show?
I think about it. It's a blast to do but it's much different now. I like my old school stuff, though, so I’m going to think it through. I’d love to go somewhere and play synth pop bands like Alt-J and Phantograms.