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Wes Bentley: Back in the Driver's Seat

Ten years after filming American Beauty, the actor makes his Off-Broadway debut in Classic Stage Company's Venus in Fur.

Nina Arianda and Wes Bentley
(© Joan Marcus)
Wes Bentley first came to most people's attention as troubled teenager Ricky Fitts in the Oscar-winning film American Beauty, and has continued to make his mark on screen for the past decade. This month, more eyes are on him as he makes his Off-Broadway debut in Classic Stage Company's production of David Ives' two-hander Venus in Fur. TheaterMania recently spoke with Bentley about this exciting project and his film career.

THEATERMANIA: The book Venus in Furs is very famous. Were you intimidated about playing an iconic character from literature?
WES BENTLEY: I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't want people to come who know the book and who want to see what we've done with it. What David has done is to set it so that my character has adapted the book into a play and can't find the right girl to play Wanda. As the play begins, this woman comes in to audition and they start in on the scenes. It takes off from there like a firecracker.

TM: You have to use aspects of yourself to be an actor, especially with material as intimate and sexual as Venus In Fur. Does that bother you?
WB: You can't avoid that. A professor at Julliard said one of the most genius things: It's not you, and it's not the character, it's you playing the character.

TM: Did Venus in Fur come looking for you or did you go looking for a play to do?
WB: I went looking for a play. I've done film for 10 years now and got lucky with that. But I've been interested in theater for a long time -- I came close to doing the 1997 production of A View from the Bridge -- and some of the people around me didn't let me know that the theater world was interested in me. When I came back to New York about a year ago, I met with a bunch of casting directors and said I'm sorry there was miscommunication and you didn't know I was interested.

TM: What was your audition for Venus in Fur like?
WB: I came in to read in early November after Nina Arianda was already cast. It was kind of intimidating, because she was so great in the room! We were at [director] Walter Bobbie's unbelievable pad on the Upper West Side, and I had a feeling it was going well because he was laughing in the places where you're supposed to be laughing. David seemed to enjoy it too. From what I understand, they had decided on me by the time I got off the subway.

TM: How would you characterize Walter Bobbie as a director?
WB: He blows me away. Every moment, every day there's a progression of leading and coaxing me. Nothing is ever superficial with Walter; everything he says has to do with the meat of it. With this character, the first thing that struck me when I read the play was his frustration. Since then we've gone every which way with it, but we have come back to that, but with more depth.

TM: Did you purposely not make a lot of films right after American Beauty?
WB: I was 21 when American Beauty came out, and it was unbelievable what happened in a day. I felt first the attention of people and then the attention of the industry, which was intense. They were flying in to offer me parts that weren't in my age range. It didn't make sense to me why they were so intensely interested. I hadn't shown them enough yet. I didn't understand that they were trying to cash in on something. I'm not trying to be self-deprecating about where I was then -- I think I could have done a lot of those roles well enough, but I didn't want to do them just well enough and I didn't want to be a marketing tool. It was between me and Tobey Maguire for Spider-Man and it just didn't feel right for me. The Four Feathers, which I did, felt more right.

TM: What film work are you most proud of?
WB: I did a stoner comedy called Weirdsville that's just fun for people to watch. The one that rivals American Beauty in character is a film I just did called There Be Dragons that Roland Joffe directed. It's an epic drama where I play the childhood friend of Jose Maria Escriva [who was the founder of Opus Dei]. During the Spanish Civil War, he goes one way and my character goes the other.