''But dad, it's Oprah Winfrey. I have to rape Oprah Winfrey.''
It was summer 1997, and a freaked-out Wes Bentley was on the phone from Pennsylvania to his Methodist-minister parents back in Little Rock, Ark. The good news? At 19, Bentley had won a small role in Beloved a big step up to a top studio (Disney) and an Oscar-winning director (Jonathan Demme) after appearing in a barely released 1998 European indie flick called Three Below Zero. The bad news? He'd said yes without a script. Now he found he'd be playing a plantation bully who forcibly suckles milk from a slave. (One small mercy Bentley didn't yet realize: It turned out the scene would be a flashback, so instead of star Winfrey, it would be ''younger Sethe,'' Lisa Gay Hamilton, whose prosthetic stunt breasts he'd have to manhandle.)
''I told my dad, this kid treats people like animals,'' Bentley recalls with a wince. ''Do I want to do this? He said, 'Stop worrying, you're not going to get typecast this early. Besides, isn't this what you love to do? To delve into extreme things?''' Bentley cracks a sidelong grin. ''It made me smile. I was like, damn, my dad just got me. I just got spanked without the hand.''
The slap got him through the brutality required (which few moviegoers saw, since Beloved was bedeviled at the box office, though Bentley cringes when recounting how friends ''left messages like, 'Saw you with the boob. Um, call me, you raping son of a bitch'''). Two years later, you won't find a more self-disciplined young actor than Wes Bentley. He's the picture of confidence as the preternaturally calm, videocam-wielding, dope-dealing teen aesthete Ricky Fitts in American Beauty and producing studio DreamWorks has shrewdly turned the 21-year-old into one of the picture's main selling points. In good part, they've done so by promoting Beauty in twin guises. Nighttime-TV dramas got promos touting top-billed stars Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. Meanwhile, youth-oriented shows ran ads spotlighting Bentley, along with his young costars Thora Birch and Mena Suvari.
''This movie is clicking with young people because the teen roles are portrayed with such maturity and honesty,'' says Spacey. ''It's not about trying to get laid. It's a serious expression of the rootlessness a lot of kids feel. And that hinges a lot on how deep Wes' performance goes.''
Bentley had the role sewn up the moment he appeared on the last day of director Sam Mendes' auditions. ''Wes didn't even have a professional photo,'' recalls Mendes, who'd already met with about 30 actors ages 16 to 25 (he's mum on who). ''He just had a Polaroid. But I was struck by his intensity and his delicacy. And his eyes.'' Mendes immediately rang Spacey, who was likewise impressed and intrigued to discover Bentley was a fellow Juilliard School dropout (Spacey lasted three years, Bentley one). ''Smart boy,'' says Spacey. ''Nothing against training or Juilliard, but clearly he was ready to start his journey.''
That journey will likely accelerate after American Beauty. He's already played a lead role as a serial killer in The White River Kid opposite Antonio Banderas and Bob Hoskins, but apparent discord over the picture has delayed its release (Bentley made the flick just before Beauty). Next up is Soul Survivors, a Sixth Sense-ian drama about a college student traumatized by a fatal car accident. Beyond that, Bentley's not yet committed to any projects. He does know he doesn't want to make, say, Son of Godzilla. "I want to be in stuff with characters," he says. "You can spend a ton on visual style, and it doesn't do a thing for people. I live to play these extreme feelings." Dad, get ready for another phone call.