Wes Bentley discusses Knight of Cups and the Terrence Malick experience
'It is a bit like an art installation or listening to a long piece of music'
Knight of Cups, the seventh movie by legendary filmmaker Terrence Malick, has a plot that doesn’t come close to resembling a straightforward narrative. In fact, the film belongs with The Thin Red Line and Tree of Life as one of the director’s most dreamy, experimental, and oblique.
Set in modern-day Los Angeles, Knight of Cups follows a melancholy, unemployed screenwriter, played by Christian Bale. He comes into contact with people from his past and present, including his father (Brian Dennehy), his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), his new girlfriend (Natalie Portman), a fashion model (Frieda Pinto), an advice-offering actor (Antonio Banderas), and his troubled brother (Wes Bentley). As is common in Malick’s work, voiceover is more prominent than dialogue and the camera (operated by three-peat Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki) is ever circling, bobbing alongside, or chasing the actors.
In the exclusive five-minute video above, titled “The Malick Process,” the cast reflects on collaborating with the enigmatic director. “He makes the movie he wants to make and he makes it his own way,” Dennehy says. “And that’s the way it should be.”
Bentley looks remarkably as if he shares genetics with Bale — the two are difficult to tell apart when they appear in a scenes together. He also chatted with EW about his experience on the film. The 37-year-old actor, a fixture in movies since his breakthrough as a sensitive teenager in 1999’s Best Picture winner American Beauty, talks about the personal relationship he developed with Malick and the 40 pages of typewritten dialogue, which he memorized in one night, only to see it get cut from the movie.
Entertainment Weekly: This is your first appearance in a Terrence Malick film. But had you ever auditioned for one of his films before?
Wes Bentley: As far as I know, and I’ve talked to Terry about it, we were going to meet about [2005’s] The New World. And I missed that chance. I think I was out of town or something happened. I don’t know how close I would have been to getting it. My friend Colin [Farrell] did great in the film. Christian Bale did great in it also. It’s always been one of my big regrets, especially because of that incredible story that the film told. And because no one ever knows when Terry will work again.
So few people will ever have the experience of meeting or talking to Terrence Malick. Journalists, definitely not. What was it like just being with this guy, the most reclusive director in the industry?
It was one of the most exciting lead-ups to a first meeting I’ve ever had. I had no idea what to expect. But when I sat down with him, I found him to be very warm and a lot of our conversation was about personal stuff. I was raised in a home with two preachers in Arkansas and he found that really interesting. And then he described to me what my character would be like and what the dynamic with Christian Bale’s character would be.
You’ve been admirably candid about overcoming your struggle with drugs, including heroin. Did you talk to to him about that?
Yes. As we had conversations about my past and his past and relationships that we both have had, we talked about how those things could be brought to the film as well. My own struggles have been well documented and that was something he was interested in using for the character. And I had no trouble exploring that with him.
Did he know that about you already? I mean, I can’t imagine him reading it in—
How did that stuff tie in with the character? At one point your he tells his brother about living on the streets.
The weight that my character, Barry, puts on his brother is the same weight I was putting on my own family. When you’re going through this, it’s not just you. It’s everyone around you. And they often don’t know what to do. They’re not professionally equipped. So that really played into the dynamic between me and Christian Bale onscreen.
Was there ever a script?
Hmm, no. But in my opinion, he had one. We would all be given pages, but the pages wouldn’t have any real context. So you show up in the morning and you wouldn’t really know what the plan was for that day.
But were you ever given actual dialogue?
One night I was given about 40 pages of dialogue for the next day. Terry had typed them up on his typewriter and handed them to me.
Were the other actors given 40 pages too?
Well, I think we all had our own folder, which he kept. He would hand us all pages at the end of the day. And he would say, “You don’t need to know them all in order. There’ll be times when we throw it all out, and you’ll know that time or I’ll know that time. We’ll find it together.” It’s all a discovery process. He just wants to find these moments.
Malick sounds very low-tech, but his films are very visually sophisticated. What’s it like working with his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, who just won his third Oscar in a row? The camera is always moving around the actors.
Yeah, that’s hard. It’s always in the back of my mind that I should be pushing forward the narrative with my character. But with Terry, none of that applies. And it’s the same with his filmmaking. The camera appears, then it goes away. Sometimes I felt like I found the moment I was searching for, but where would the camera be? It’s way down on the beach.
Is that disappointing? Sort of like, if a tree falls in the woods but there’s no Steadicam to film it?
No, it’s a thrill. I loved every day. I drove away every day feeling very happy. It put me in this state as an actor, ready to do anything at any moment, while at the same time fighting my learned instincts as an actor to play the narrative. It was an absolute thrill.
When did you see Knight of Cups for the first time? And can you describe your reaction to it?
I didn’t see it until recently. It premiered a year ago in Berlin and I think it’s gone through a few versions since then. When I know I’m going to watch Terry’s work, I go in with a different headspace. It is a bit like an art installation or listening to a long piece of music or reading a poem. I realize that I’m not going to be told what do think, so I sit down and clear my mind and just take in what’s given to me by this artist. And so I let the film just wash over me. I mean, it’s closer to going to the symphony than, say, Transformers.
Right, it’s the kind of movie that I could imagine being projected onto the walls of an art gallery.
Yes. It actually reminded me of how I thought films were made when I was a kid. I just thought there was a camera that swung around and caught all these natural moments. I didn’t understand the concept of editing or lighting or acting. I just saw a movie as this magical thing that caught all these great moments of people together.
Very interesting. So this movie kind of allowed you to manifest that childhood memory. I’m sure Malick would love that.
Yeah [laughs]. It also reminded me of the discovery projects we used to do when I was at Juilliard. It was all about finding moments. And, that said, I was also interested in letting go of all the film training I’d had for 15 years. It was hard because of all the on-the-job training I’ve had. But, man, I can’t tell you how exciting it was. To go down a strange road and not think that you’re leading the story astray — that’s exciting.
A few years ago, Christopher Plummer talked about his disappointment when he saw The New World, which he was in. He praises Malick’s eye but complains that a very emotional speech he’d given in the film had basically become background noise, miles in the distance. And he wrote Malick a letter, in which he said, “You’re so boring. You’ve got to get yourself a writer, baby.”
But do you feel that way at all? I mean, Cherry Jones is in Knight of Cups as your mom. She’s onscreen for maybe 30 seconds. I’m sure much more than 30 seconds was shot.
Oh, yeah, much more was. But, I have to say, I knew about that when I was shooting. I knew when I walked in to meet Terry what the situation was. He gave me those 40 pages of dialogue and I learned them all in one night — and you don’t hear any of it in the film. That was the biggest logistical challenge of my career, bigger than learning any fight scene. But I didn’t care if all my dialogue made it in the film or not. I wanted the experience of shooting it.
Well, at least you’re in the finished movie. A lot of actors, especially in The Thin Red Line, weren’t so lucky.
Exactly. I didn’t even know if I’d be in the movie. And that’s fine. I’m didn’t go into this experience to have my ego fed.
Does it worry you that there’s not a huge audience for this kind of film?
No. It doesn’t bother me. If I thought that the box office grosses meant a lot to Terry, then it might bother me. But knowing that that’s not the aim, it doesn’t. Not at all. We all did it for the artistic experience.
Knight of Cups opens in theaters on March 4.
Knight of Cups