From director David Lowery, the fantastical and magical story of Pete’s Dragon tells the tale of an adventure of an orphaned boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his best friend Elliott, who happens to be a dragon. When a forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) comes across a mysterious 10-year-old with no family and no home, who claims to live in the woods with a giant, green dragon, she turns to her father (Robert Redford) for help in determining where Pete came from and the truth about this dragon.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Wes Bentley (who plays Jack, the owner of the local lumber mill) talked about why he was attracted to this project, the complexities of the story and characters, Jack’s relationship with Grace, cherishing every moment he had with co-star Robert Redford, the most fun and most challenging days on set, the incredible experience of shooting in New Zealand, and how amazing it was to see Elliot for the first time. He also talked about being a part of the Ryan Murphy acting family and his time on American Horror Story.
Collider: Bryce Dallas Howard said that she pursued this project because she was such a fan of the original film. Had you seen the original, as well, or was there another reason that you wanted to get involved?
WES BENTLEY: Yeah, I saw the original and it was huge for me and my brothers, as a kid. We watched it multiple times. But there were other elements, too. David Lowery was someone I wanted to work with. I met with him and we clicked, and I love his work. I was also hoping to do a film that my young children could see while they were still young. And I was looking for a character like this, that was a little lighter, more genuine and honest person than the ones I normally have gotten to play, up until this point.
And I’m sure sharing some screen time with Robert Redford had to be pretty appealing.
BENTLEY: It was brief, what I had with him, but I cherished every moment. He’s someone I’ve always emulated.
What’s it like to have someone as legendary as Robert Redford, around on set? Do you want to absorb any filmmaking tips you can get from him?
BENTLEY: Yeah, but at the same time, you don’t want to ask him, so I ended up not hearing anything. The conversations had more to do with life, his house, where he lives, how beautiful New Zealand was, and things like that. I would just watch him act, to get anything I could from him that way.
This version of Pete’s Dragon is very different form the original, in almost every way, except for the fact that there is the existence of Pete and his dragon, Elliot. When you read this script, what did you identify with, in regard to this character? Did you like the fact that there were a lot of complexities in the story and with the characters?
BENTLEY: They didn’t make anything shallow with the characters, which was a relief, and that’s part of the genius of bringing David onto this. With the way that they wrote it, they were able to have those elements there without having to focus on it too much. It gave the film some depth that you’re not always going to get with a family film, and it brought the reality of it home, so that the stakes were a bit higher. Emotionally, you’re more invested in the relationships that way.
The relationship between Grace and Jack is an interesting one because it’s the forest ranger with someone who’s destroying the woods. How do you think those two ended up in what is seemingly a very loving relationship?
BENTLEY: We worked through that a lot. There are some elements of that, that are really great filmmaking. David would focus on the kids and you could hear dialogue in the background between the adults. I think Jack walked a fine line. It’s a family business and he needs to make money, but he’s trying to find a way to do it where there’s a balance. There’s something to that. He doesn’t want to destroy the woods, but he needs it for his business, so how does he do both? That’s what they’re trying to work through. That’s what Gavin would not be so good at, and that’s why Gavin does not run the business. That’s why that conflict exists, as well.
What was it like to build that history with Bryce Dallas Howard and explore that dynamic between your characters?
BENTLEY: It was easy. Bryce is a great actor and she brought a lot to the role. We had a lot of those talks you have, as actors, in building the relationship. She just brings the right amount of all the elements the character needs. She’s loving and she’s also very determined in her belief about protecting the woods and not crossing those lines.
There’s something inherently warm and motherly in her, and it makes it easy to see why Pete would want to trust Grace, but how does Jack feel when there’s suddenly this other kid in his home?
BENTLEY: I think he loves being a dad, so I think he was happy to have the boy there. But he also had a more follow-the-line way of thinking about what to do with him. When they found him, he thought that Pete should go to child services and be put in a good home. I don’t think he was thinking beyond that. He wanted to trust the government agencies. But, I think he definitely wanted the best thing for Pete.
One of the things that makes this movie work as well as it does is how believable Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence are. What energy did they bring to the set, and how were they to work with?
BENTLEY: It was great. They were a lot of fun. It was Oona, and then she would have doubles, so they could extend the day. All the kids got along. They were really good friends, and they brought a real fun energy to the set. They would put together dances to “Uptown Funk,” and things like that, and show us at lunch. As far as the acting goes, they were always there and ready and present. They did all the things you’re supposed to do, as an actor, and then brought more than that. That’s all you can ask for. You don’t always get that with adult actors, much less child actors.
What was your most fun day on this set, and what was your most challenging day?
BENTLEY: Riding the dragon was fun. They had constructed this green section of the dragon and would blow wind at us. It was just me and Bryce, awkwardly placed on this thing. A lot of actors will complain about the green screen work, but what you do get to do is what you probably should have learned, from the beginning, on stage. You have to create it in your mind and really go there to bring it. Part of the fun of acting is those challenges. You feel goofy, but sometimes that’s a good feeling. We had a blast that day. Challenging wise, we were lucky on this movie. Even the challenges were a pleasure to do. There were a lot of bees and flies and stuff, and they were very annoying. They weren’t dangerous or anything, but they were relentless in their desire to crawl into your mouth and eyes. But if that’s the biggest challenge, than we had a good experience.
It must have been pretty incredible to be in New Zealand. When you’re in a place like that, do you put in extra effort to explore the area that you’re in?
BENTLEY: Yeah, I was lucky, I had my family there and I had a lot of breaks in my shooting schedule, so I got to travel around. I’m convinced it’s the perfect place on earth, and they know that, too. It was a truly special experience. Every corner you turn, they’ve got some great activity to do and something amazing to see, and good, solid, beautiful people.
What was your reaction, when you finally got to see what Elliot would look like?
BENTLEY: I thought it was amazing! He’s such a personality. That first scene where he meets Pete, you can sense the warmth and the love. That must be so hard to do. I don’t know how those guys do it, but they do it great.
You’re certainly no stranger to the business, at this point. What do you look for in a project now? Is it all about the story and the character, or is the experience you might have with the people you’d be working with matter to you, just as much now?
BENTLEY: It is probably more important than most actors would admit. You really want the experience to be great. You don’t really have any control over whether the film is going to be great or not, so if you just focus on that all the time, you might be unhappy, even if the film turns out great. You want to have the experience. As far as the creative side, the more I do this, the more I know that it’s all about the writing. We don’t always celebrate that enough, but without the writing, you can’t do much. You got on a film sometimes and it’s sort of half-written, and they expect and think that the actor’s job is to bring the extra part and the good part. It’s not. We’re really good at saying what other people have written, but for the majority of it, that’s about it, comedians aside. It’s all in the writing. The writing has got to be there. Whether that’s dialogue or character, or whatever, it doesn’t matter. As long as they’ve done something special, than you can do something special.
You’ve done really remarkable work on American Horror Story, especially with Hotel. What have you enjoyed most about being part of the Ryan Murphy acting family and exploring characters that are really unlike anything you’ve gotten to do before?
BENTLEY: You really have to embrace the unexpected. It’s great. I think Ryan is such a great person, and an incredibly creative person. You always feel solid in his hands. He’s always looking to make something better and do something different. He’s not comfortable just resting on what’s worked before. He hires people that he expects to be there and bring the best that they can to what they’re doing. He has a lot of devotion to you, so you have a lot of devotion to him. It’s a blast. That show is a blast. There are so many elements about it that are fun. It can be incredibly exciting to read that next script, whatever it’s going to be.
Ryan Murphy has a real knack for seeing things in his actors that they don’t seem to see in themselves, which really makes his shows exciting to watch.
BENTLEY: It’s surprising, he doesn’t ever think in that way that so many other people think, that you only can do one thing, especially if you’ve been successful at it. He thinks of you as an actor, so he’s going to give you a role and not think twice about whether or not it can work ‘cause you’re supposed to make it work. You can do it.
Would you like to continue to stay on board for future seasons?
BENTLEY: I love Ryan. I’ve loved working on the show, so it’s always a possibility. I’ll always be there for Ryan.
Pete’s Dragon opens in theaters on August 12th.