Arts

Wes Bentley Was at Rock Bottom. Now He Is on ‘Yellowstone.’

It’s not easy being Jamie Dutton.

The adopted son of the ruthless rancher John Dutton on Paramount Network’s wildly popular neo-western series “Yellowstone,” Jamie just wanted to be a cowboy. Instead the man who raised him sent him off to law school. He wanted to be governor of Montana, but John stepped over him in humiliating fashion. His sister, Beth, eviscerates him on a regular basis. He has spent four-and-a-half seasons desperate for the paterfamilias’ attention while also hating his guts.

Nor is it easy playing Jamie Dutton. Wes Bentley can tell you all about that. Jamie has taken him to some dark places, the kinds of places he knows all too well.

“He’s incredibly sad,” the actor said over brunch recently at an outdoor cafe in Los Angeles. “I’ve always dealt with my sadness with things like comedy, or humor, or drugs at one point, or trying to just ignore it and finding another way out of it. But you can’t do that when you’re trying to portray someone’s sadness. You have to let it be there. That’s been the hardest part of it all, and it’s weighed on my life a little bit.”

Bentley, 44, makes it clear that he’s not complaining. He’s grateful to be a key part of the most popular drama on television, which had its midseason finale on Sunday amid a fresh batch of potential familial murder plots. More than that, he’s grateful to be alive.

And yet, “The regrets are always going to be there,” he added.

Most people are likely to have first encountered Bentley as Ricky Fitts, Kevin Spacey’s pot-dealing neighbor in the 1999 film “American Beauty.” He was 21 when the movie debuted, and he seemed like a handsome, soulful young man with a future. But he grew disillusioned with the roles that came his way next — “It was all vampires and underdeveloped young people,” he said — and found himself drifting into addiction. Heroin. Cocaine. Lots of booze. In 2008, he was arrested and pleaded guilty to heroin possession and trying to pass a counterfeit $100 bill. He was falling toward his bottom fast.

Bentley (with Thora Birch) found his breakout role early, as the sensitive pot dealer Ricky in the Oscar-winning 1999 film “American Beauty.” Credit…Lorey Sebastian/Dreamworks

He remembers taking a job on a cheapie Stephen King adaptation, “Dolan’s Cadillac” (2009), and mapping out his next steps: “This is probably my last acting job,” he told himself. “I’m going to be a drug dealer and a D.J.”

Around this time he fell in love with the woman who later became his wife, the associate producer and assistant director Jacqui Swedberg. This didn’t get him sober; it rarely works that way. But it made him want to be better and made him realize that he had no control over his life, and that he might just have something to live for.

“Before I was like, I’m partying, fine, but I can stop this,” he said. “Now it was like, ‘Man, I can’t stop this, and I really want to.’” A friend in the industry started taking Bentley to 12-step meetings. He liked what he heard. And he saw that a different kind of life was possible.

Bentley has been sober since July 5, 2009. Today, with a beard and eyeglasses that accentuate his sharp features, he seems present, forthright and easygoing. He blows off steam playing soccer in a league and hiking. “I have a constant stream of energy,” he said. “That’s what led to my addiction. I needed something to react to that energy.”

But Jamie is never far away. It’s the role that really put him on the map, after supporting parts in post-crisis movies like “The Hunger Games” and “Interstellar.” It’s the gig of his life.

And sometimes, it hurts like hell.

Jamie’s most frequent “Yellowstone” combatant is his sister, Beth, played by the English actress Kelly Reilly. There’s a brute force to their scenes together, emotionally and, in the midseason finale, physically. (Beth knows how to handle herself.) When they were teens, Jamie took Beth to get an abortion, without telling her she was also getting a hysterectomy. She never forgave him. Jamie blames Beth for their mother’s death (as does Beth). She takes every opportunity to emasculate Jamie.

Much of the pain Jamie Dutton (Wes Bentley), left, feels as a member of the Dutton clan on “Yellowstone” is inflicted by his sister, Beth (Kelly Reilly).Credit…Paramount Network

As Reilly said in a recent phone interview, “There’s something about his weakness that appalls her.”

It can be exhausting to watch, and to play.

“Wes and I have been doing this now together for five years,” Reilly said. “We know each other quite well, and we take care of one another tremendously. We both have to be quite fearless in those scenes. They’re quite ugly sometimes.” When there’s a chance to laugh together between takes, they jump on it.

“Then you try to go home without carrying it all into the rest of your day,” she said.

But that’s not always easy, especially after living with a character for so long.

“I’ve prided myself for most of my career on leaving it at the door, or like an athlete would say, leaving it on the field,” Bentley said. “But Jamie’s sadness permeates my life, even though I’m not sad. I’m very lucky to have a great family and be where I’m at in life, but he’s always there behind me, clawing at that, especially when I’m shooting.”

He said his wife sometimes has to point out Jamie’s unwanted presence: “‘You’re letting him come home now,” she tells him. “‘Jamie’s coming home and we don’t want him here.’”

This season, however, Jamie’s step has been a bit more lively. The Dutton family’s corporate foes unleashed a barracuda, Sarah Atwood (Dawn Olivieri), to turn Jamie against his family’s interests. It wasn’t hard; Jamie’s resentment had become a volcano waiting to erupt. But ever since Sarah seduced Jamie, and whispered, Lady Macbeth-like, in his ear, Olivieri has noticed a change in the actor as well as the character. Bentley had become more assertive, she said, less likely to apologize for things that aren’t his fault.

“I have watched Wes change as a man, even in the short period of time that we’ve worked together,” she said in a recent video call. “It’s really hard as an actor to not absorb the character that you’re playing. You just become that person. When you’re a really good actor, it’s like you almost can’t even help it. And Wes is a really good actor.”

Jamie’s sadness has always lived side by side with his capacity for evil. Under duress from Beth, he killed his biological father and, before that, a reporter who got too close to the family’s criminal ways. In the most recent episode, he began to consider the logistics of eliminating John and Beth. Through these developments Bentley has conjured a tricky mix of despair and cold, Machiavellian calculation.

“Is Jamie evil?” the “Yellowstone” co-creator Taylor Sheridan wrote in an email. “In a lesser actor’s hands the answer would be easy, but Wes has crafted a vulnerable, honest and emotional character who allows the audience to understand the motivation behind his actions — even if there is no questioning the act itself.”

Bentley went through a difficult period of alcohol abuse and drugs in the years after “American Beauty.” He has been sober since 2009.Credit…Peter Fisher for The New York Times

The “Yellowstone” directors rave about Bentley’s commitment, sensitivity and ability to think on his feet. “It’s remarkable, his ability to make you mad at Jamie, make you hate him and have him break your heart at the same time,” Stephen Kay said in a phone interview. “He’s one of one, if you ask me.”

Kay made the comparison to another famous fictional son and brother, this one from a different crime family.

“That role is so hard, so deceptively tricky,” Kay said. “We’ve been comparing it since Season 1 to Fredo in ‘The Godfather.’ John Cazale is arguably one of the best actors of all time, so if you’re building a show with a Fredo, you better hand the part to somebody who can play.”

Christina Alexandra Voros, who directed the midseason finale, marveled at Bentley’s “courage to unravel himself.”

“Everyone’s tortured on the show, but Jamie is in particular one of the more tortured characters,” she continued by phone. “He’s also interesting because you never really know if he’s a villain or a hero.”

Bentley is more than happy to save his unraveling for the screen. He tried the other way, and he knows he was fortunate to survive.

He lived to tell. Now he can take Jamie along for the ride.

“I believe in fate, and I believe I went through all that, caused all that, and experienced all that, because I was going to get here,” he said. “There are many things that I regret, but I’m just so happy with my life.”

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