Interview: 'Pete's Dragon' Star Wes Bentley On Working With David Lowery And Terrence Malick

Wes Bentley's first big breakout role was in the 1999 Best Picture Winner, American Beauty. Over the past few years, we've seen Bentley in all sorts of films, including InterstellarThe Hunger GamesKnight of Cups, and two comedies more people should've seen, Welcome to Me and Weirdsville. The actor's latest role is in director David Lowery's Pete's Dragon, a remake of Disney's 1977 musical.

In this adventurous, sparse and often somber reimagining, Bentley plays Jack. His brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), is the antagonist, while his girlfriend, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), is one of the film's heroes. Similarly to Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, backstory and past conflicts are often left unspoken and suggested. At a recent press day, we discussed the often complicated relationships within Pete's Dragon with Wes Bentley, who also told us about working with young actors, his time at Julliard, and his experience on Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups.

Below, read our Wes Bentley interview.

When you read the script, what was your initial reaction? 

Well, I knew already with David doing the film that it was going to have the beautiful tone it does have and immediately reacted to the magic of it. You know, the dragon, the boy, and the family element, and because I have kids of my own now, I was drawn to that. I wanted to do a movie that my kid could see while he's still under 10. So, that's there. I liked the complexities, too, brought to the adult characters that you don't always find in a family film. That there's conflict within Jack about how to run a company, a lumber company, but still be environmentally aware and not try to do so much damage while keeping this business in this town afloat. So, those are the main elements I was drawn to.

There's a lot that's unspoken about the adults' relationships. In the case of Jack and Gavin, how much did you all talk about their backstory? 

There are elements there that we talked about, about the family history, because Gavin's the older brother and why did he not get the keys to the mill, and what tension has that created? It's because he had struggles in the past and maybe made mistakes, and maybe didn't show the signs of someone who could be a good leader. All those are there, and we were able to play them, although they're not focused upon. It's a great bit of filmmaking and focusing on the children. A lot of that dialogue's happening, but it's happening in the distance, as you would hear it as a kid. Kids tune that stuff out, and I think that's very, very smart with the filmmaking.

So we worked hard on those elements, and also the conflict with Grace and how does that affect their relationship? Then with Oona [Laurence], another part that we never talk about in the film is where is Oona's mom? We know all those things, and we work on all those things, so they're there. David's very good about that, so they're there, but we don't have to press them too hard.

When you were on set, would you often think about what happened to Oona's character's mom? Does that help you in a scene? 

Absolutely. I don't know how we couldn't, even if it was something where they did not get along and there was a problem between them, even if that happens, it's your daughter's mom and you know how important that is to her. So, that affects everything you do. It affects your mood during the day. It affects your life, and so those things have to be with the character in every moment and action.

pete's dragonHow much did you and Bryce Dallas Howard discuss Jack and Grace's relationship? 

Oh, we had a lot of conversations. Bryce is a thorough actor, and we both come from the stage, so we were very interested in creating the history and where were we at relationship-wise. It was a bit tricky in a film like this to state it in the filmmaking because your focus is elsewhere. You don't want to then stray off for a second just for expository dialogue. We were avoiding that, but we still wanted to touch on, okay where are they at? You know, I don't think they knew where they were at, fully at this moment in time. I think that's great because it's complicated like life. So, we decided then that they're still testing the waters. Does Grace ever stay over yet? Or how does that work in their relationship? We got that detailed, but that doesn't necessarily play in the film, but it creates an environment for the characters to live in.

Working with Oona Laurence, some actors say if you're working with a kid actor you should just treat them like any other actor.

Yeah, it's true.

Is that your approach too?

It depends on the kid. You know, what's great about Oakes [Fegley] and Oona is that they have all those elements you want from a kid. They have the creativity, the imagination, the spontaneity, the intuitiveness, but sometimes kids get in front of a camera or even new actors, adult actors, get in front of cameras and all that goes. With these kids, they can bring it, still continue to bring it and do all the things you have to do to make a film, like hit your mark, don't stand in another actor's light, these kinds of rules that happen on film. When you can also have that, kids are the best, and these kids are the best because they have all those elements. If they're doing all that, then yeah, you treat them like any other actor, because they're there like any other actor. That doesn't always work out. Same with adult actors, though. You get a lot, you get adults on the set, and they may not be built for this.

You mentioned theater earlier. Since a lot of your scenes are walk and talk scenes, even though this is a big Disney movie, was your role and your job not too different from your experience in theater? 

In a way, it is a lot like theater where my character is dialogue-driven and I had to convey a lot, like you said, through the dialogue, but then all of a sudden I'm on the back of a dragon, a green screen dragon. I'm looking at the dragon head. When I come over the hill, they had the dragon head at least made, and so I have that moment as well, which is not very theater. So, it's cool to be in a movie like this, like you said, a 100 million dollar drama, where we're talking about real emotions and dealing with real character moments like you would in a stage play, but then there's Elliot.

You went to Juilliard, correct?

Yeah, that's right.

To this day, do you still think about what you learned at Julliard? 

I always think about stuff I learned, in any scene. Juilliard taught me a lot. The first year at Juilliard is, I think, the best. And partly why left, I only went one year. Partly why I felt okay leaving is that the most important elements, I believe, happen in the first year. What they do is they tear down all your conceptions of acting, and they take away all your tricks that you've learned. They really take away your ego, to start to want to learn about what it really is to be an actor, and then they start to add elements back in there for you. Then you learn a lot about yourself in moments and how to be a blank canvas. So, you need all that when you're in all the elements that are filmmaking. Sometimes when you're doing fantasy, that's the most important thing, is to be a blank space, because the last thing you want to do ever as an actor is judge yourself or the character or the movie that you're in. You want to just play the moment as best you can. Juilliard helped me do that.

Before I go, I want to ask about Knight of Cups. Thomas Lennon said when he was on set, Terrence Malick would hand him pieces of paper with just a phrase on it. Did you have that experience? 

No, Terry would yell stuff at me. So, he would first try it in the earwig, because Christian [Bale] sometimes had the earwig and Terry would talk to him in that, but I felt that that messed me up. So, Terry would end up yelling stuff from behind camera. He never gave me anything written or anything like that. I had some script pages. It's funny, you see that film and his ethereal films and you're lost in the music and the sound, but what's going on without all that is hilarious. There's [Academy Award-winning cinematographer] Chivo tripping over shit. They're all yelling at each other. They're making jokes while you're doing a serious scene. It's kind of funny what's actually happening on a Terrence Malick film behind the camera. Once you see the movie, you're lost in the poetry of it, but sometimes watching it, it's like, "Oh yeah, someone farted on that [day]. The Steadicam guy farted while I was doing that."


Pete's Dragon is now in theaters.