By Oliver Jones
June 13, 2011 12:00 PM

Sitting at a picnic table in a serene L.A. park, Wes Bentley is just a few blocks from the apartment he shares with his wife and baby son, grateful to be a world away from the alcohol-and drug-fueled hell that was once his life. “There was a point where I had written off survival,” says the 32-year-old actor. “I was so numb, I was okay with it. I thought, this is what I am going to be-dead.”

After a breakout role as a camcorder-toting teen in 1999’s Best Picture Oscar winner American Beauty, Bentley was hyped as a rising star. Instead he plunged into an eight-year spiral of substance abuse. “I wasn’t able to handle fame,” says Bentley, who stars in the new drama There Be Dragons. “I blew it up bigger than it was, and it just transformed itself into fear; I let the fear take over.”

“I felt I had a license to party,” says Bentley, who started off with alcohol and marijuana, graduating to Ecstasy, cocaine and, eventually, heroin. “My behavior became not really like me. My morals had changed. I could feel [myself] being suffocated by this party monster.”

He turned his back on his career, blowing off meetings, ignoring scripts, dropping out of projects. “I was pissing people off and I knew it,” says Bentley, whose marriage to actress Jennifer Quanz crumbled. (They divorced in 2009 after three years of separation.) “After a while, I was doing films just to fund my partying and drugs.” At his worst, he says, he nodded off in front of people and chain-smoked cigarettes to cover up the smell of heroin he smoked in his trailer.

The low points piled up. “I have had so many rock bottoms,” he says. In April 2008 police came to his home after he tried to pass a counterfeit $100 bill to a cabbie and arrested him when they found drugs in his pocket. Earlier that year Heath Ledger, whom he considered “a brother,” died of a prescription-drug overdose in New York. “Him dying and leaving [his daughter] Matilda had a huge impact on me then, but more so now that I have a son,” he says, eyes welling. “It was a wake-up call that I didn’t answer.”

Meeting his now-wife, producer Jacqui, in 2008 led to a turning point. “I started to feel hope again,” he says. Then director Roland Joffe took a chance, casting Bentley as a Spanish Civil War veteran with a dark past in There Be Dragons. “There’s great pain to Wes that was perfect for the character,” says Joffe. “It’s obvious he’s lived a life.”

On the film’s Argentina set, Bentley white-knuckled it through withdrawal but fell off the wagon during an L.A. business trip. After that he admitted the truth to himself and to Jacqui, whom he wed last year. “I said to her, ‘I’m a drug addict, and I can’t do anything about it,'” recalls Bentley. “After that we both went silent. That pause was so scary, but it was also such a relief. She hugged me, then told me she wanted to help.”

That day, Bentley joined a 12-step program. To his surprise, he hasn’t had an urge to use since. “I know what it looks like, and I don’t want to go back,” he says. “The guy dedicated to sobriety, who has this family and this life-that’s more me than being an addict and an alcoholic.”

His hard work rebuilding his reputation has paid off: Bentley recently landed the role of Gamemaker Seneca Crane in the much-anticipated movie adaptation of The Hunger Games. Work is “falling into place,” he says. As he gears up for the part, he’s finding joy in the everyday pleasures of family life, like taking son Charles to the park. “This is where I see the sun,” he says, smiling. “I hadn’t seen sunlight in years.”