Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Jon Bernthal is getting a lot of notice these days for being the latest Marvel hero (antihero, really) taking to Netflix in the debut season of The Punisher, but the stage-trained actor has been onscreen in both film and television since the early 2000s. From managing to land a starring role in his very first film, to his recent years working with everyone from Martin Scorsese to Frank Darabont, the actor has managed the kind of resume in a decade that most actors would kill for experiencing over a lifetime. When we spoke to Bernthal ahead of his upcoming indie thriller Sweet Virginia—opening November 17—he was open and gregarious, happy to chat about screen testing with Leonardo DiCaprio, choking Norman Reedus, and which role he gets recognized for the most—his Walking Dead character or the Punisher.
Sweet Virginia (2017)—“Sam”
Jon Bernthal: That’s a movie I’m just so grateful for. It was one of those perfect situations, the cast and the crew. You hear people talking about it, but this one was it for me. It was an absolute labor of love. It was this unbelievably humble film that we all believed in, a filmmaker that I think is so enormously exciting. I’ve been so lucky to work with the filmmakers that I’ve gotten to work with, and I put Jamie [Dagg, Sweet Virginia director] up there with any of them. I think the role that I play, the script, it was written to be a 50 or 60-year-old broken down man, and I remember reading it and thinking, this is just so not for me and calling them and saying “I love this, but I’m the wrong guy.” I think Forest Whitaker is who they were talking to for playing the part.
I think, oftentimes with art, when you pinpoint the thing that doesn’t work, if you really focus on that and figure that puzzle piece out, the rest kind of falls into place, and Jamie and I really worked together. And it’s really a comment on his artistry and how collaborative he is. We decided to give the character early onset Alzheimer’s. There was a fight in the movie and I was supposed to beat this guy up. We said, “What would happen if he gets real beat up instead?” There’s just a courageous amount of exploration on that film.
But I think more than anything, Sweet Virginia is just Chris Abbott. Just blown away by his performance and seeing him bring something that was so frightening, so palpably violent, but doing it with no bravado or bluster and doing it quietly and doing it tragically. I think that’s what people are going to remember from the film. And I was really excited and honored to be a part of that.
The A.V. Club: You’re so often cast in tough-guy roles, but here you’re kind of this sensitive, teddy bear of a guy.
JB: Yeah, man, I loved it. It [Chris Abbott’s part] was so the role that I normally get to play, and I was so excited to not be playing it, to let someone else do it. I didn’t know what he was going to come with, and the way we made the film, is we sort of did everything except for Chris’ parts, and then Chris came there and that was the second half of the movie, and so it was this like this stranger coming to town and nobody knew what he was going to be like. So when he came, it was just such a unique performance. It was hilarious and it was horrifying, and like I said, just frightening. It’s my favorite kind of acting, when you really, really trust the person you’re working with. You can show up and you can bounce stuff off each other, and he’s one of the most exciting actors I’ve ever worked with. I really loved making that film. And I would work again with Jamie at the drop of a hat.
AVC: According to IMDb, this was your first onscreen role—and it was a lead in an indie film.
JB: It was. I was living in D.C. Joe Biancaniello made that film. He was a graduate film student from American University. And we all became unbelievably close. One of my best friends in the world is this guy named Sean Carrigan. He was a pro fighter. A boxer. And we became friends on that movie and we continue to be close to this day. He’s done American Vandal and now he’s a comic in L.A. That was right when I met my wife; she was my girlfriend. It was an unbelievable time in my life. I had just gotten home from studying in Moscow, making this movie in D.C. I was bouncing at a bar while we were making the movie. And the first time I had ever been on screen—I really fell in love with it, and I’ll always be grateful for Joe. He’s a dear friend of mine still to this day.
AVC: Since it was your first onscreen role, were you having anxiety at the time, or were you pretty comfortable with it?
JB: I was pretty comfortable. Joe is a great director. He was this young kid and he wrote, directed, and edited it, and he knew exactly what he wanted. And I had only acted on screen, I had just gotten back from studying at the Moscow Art Theater, and I really didn’t know what to expect. At that time, I was still so naïve. I was a theater actor, so I turned my nose up at anybody who acted on screen. So I was very loose and I didn’t really feel the stakes were enormously high. I just knew what I was doing. I felt like I understood the character.
And he was a great director. Joe’s a real artist. The sort-of head of my theater company at the time, Josh Chambers—he’s this unbelievable playwright and musician—I brought him on and he did all the music for the movie, but it was a really special experience. I think more than anything else, it’s the relationships that were formed. Sean’s one of my best friends in the world and we met on that movie.
Tony ’N’ Tina’s Wedding (2004)—“Dominic”
AVC: That must have been an odd one.
JB: [Laughs.] Yeah. It was. At the time, it was such a huge deal for me. I was so excited to get that. That was my first sort of professional movie and I was living in New York. Sebastian Stan was in that film. He had no place to live, so he was sleeping on my couch at the time. And Mila Kunis was in that movie. I remember going to visit her on the first day, and we went to some huge apartment on the penthouse and I’d never seen an apartment that big. The elevator door opened and we were in this apartment. I couldn’t believe this young person lived there. Someone my age had an apartment like that. And it ended up being Macauley Culkin’s apartment. I met him and he was just so cool and so sweet. Adrian Grenier was on that movie. It was a lot of the supporting cast from The Sopranos.
We had a lot of fun. It was a lot like theater, lot of improv. I think the film ended up being a complete frickin’ train wreck, but we were very serious and there was a lot of great performers in it, and it was a really fun experience, and I was unbelievably proud that I had gotten that job. It was my first real big gig in New York, and I was really grateful for it.
Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian (2009)—“Al Capone”
JB: I had done World Trade Center with Oliver Stone, so I had been on a big set before, but that was my first big Hollywood movie. Night At The Museum, I was there for a long time. I was up in Vancouver and I drove up with my dog, Boss. Boss has been on every set of every film or television set I’ve been at since then, and that was his first movie. What that movie means to me more than anything else was Alain Chabat, the great French actor. I was just in Paris doing press and I saw him every night I was there. He’s one of my closest friends in the world, and we met on that movie.
I’ve got to tell you, in all these—and forgive me if it’s a common theme—but I’ve always said I’m so grateful to be doing this kind of work and I can’t believe that I’m getting to do what I love and getting paid for it. But the number one thing about this job, the best thing, is the human beings. The people you get to meet along the way, the relationships you form. And for me, these projects end up being about the people more than anything else. And Alain Chabat is a guy I love with every ounce of my being, and we met there. Besides that, the only thing I remember from that movie is Christopher Guest. He was great. And doing scenes with him and trying not to laugh. I remember my dog pissing on the side of Stiller’s trailer every morning. I always would try to get him not to do it, but he did it anyway. And Ben was very kind. We played basketball together.
The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)—“Brad”
JB: Everything about that experience was just at the top of the mountain, as far as I’m concerned. He’s my favorite filmmaker. Everything from the audition process on, that movie was just absolutely sublime. I remember showing up for the screen tests for that movie before the first day of shooting. I walked onto that set, and it was absolutely silent. I had never seen anything like it. There was literally silence, and that’s when you realized you’re in a Martin Scorsese film. Everybody was literally the best of the best in the world at what they do, and it was palpable, and I remember going into this little tent in the corner of the sound stage, and Marty was there, and we chatted a little bit and he told me we were going to do a screen test.
And all of a sudden, I heard this voice from behind me and in the corner I saw this electric cigarette glowing, and it was Leo, and he had been sitting there the whole time. And he said, “Hey, man, I dug your audition. You mind if I do my screen test first?” And I said, “No, man. Do whatever you want.” And DiCaprio, he got up, he did his screen test, and normally screen test means you stand in front of the camera, you show profiles, you turn around a couple times, you go home. And it’s just to get the look right. But Leo got up there and he started performing. He said, “Okay, this is me on crack.” “This is me on coke.” And he started exploring different ways and slurring and performing, and I was just blown away. He was transforming right in front of my eyes. And he’s always been one of my favorite actors, but when I saw him do what he did in that screen test right in front of me, I just said, “Okay man, this is it. This is what I’ve been waiting for.” And I remember when it got to be my turn, I started crying, I came in and made it a performance.
And I’ve got to tell you, there have been people along the way, people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Emily Blunt, they’re movie stars. But you go and you do a movie with them, and all arrogance—any sense of, “I’m me and you are you”—all that shit goes out the window. They’re unbelievable human beings, and part of their power is that they empower you and they make you feel comfortable, and they bring you into their world and they make you feel 100 feet tall. Between Leo and Marty, that’s exactly what they did on that film. Every single day of showing up, you never knew what was going to happen. It was magic every day.
I often tell a story about Wolf Of Wall Street. There’s this scene in the diner where it’s the first time you meet my character, and Leo has sort of gotten all these guys in the diner that day, and he’s trying to convert them. They’re all low-level drug dealers and he’s trying to get them to be stockbrokers, and the way the scene was supposed to be is, I was just supposed to be staring at these guys because I was a more high-level drug dealer, and I didn’t have time for these guys, and then it was going to cut to the backyard of my house. And on that day, Leo—on his way from his trailer—was talking to his security guard, who was a New York City detective, who said that back in the ’90s, he had a job interview with Jordan Belfort, the real “Wolf Of Wall Street.” And he said that in that interview, the guy [Belfort] took out a pen, and he said, “Sell me this pen.” And that was the whole interview. Leo told us that story right before we shot the scene.
So we start doing the scene, and I decided that, to make my character more frustrated, I asked the woman who was playing the waitress serving us to serve me my cheeseburger last. And you’ve got to understand, as an extra in a Martin Scorsese movie, she’s leaving the set in a few hours to go do a Broadway play. Everyone is the best of the best. So not only am I annoyed that I’m there, I’m annoyed that everybody’s got a cheeseburger but me. And then I said, “Hey, can I just get an empty ketchup bottle?” So now everybody’s got their cheeseburger but me. I finally get my cheeseburger, but there’s no ketchup. So I start asking for ketchup in the middle of the scene while all these guys are having this crazy banter back and forth. Then in the middle of the scene, because Leo brought it up beforehand, he says, “Sell me this pen.” And we don’t talk about it. He just does it. And that whole thing is improv, with the supply and the demand.
We do it and I keep asking, and the frustration’s building up and building up because I keep asking for ketchup and nobody comes because that extra who is playing the waitress that day knew to let this be. And we didn’t have to talk about it or plan it. It just happened. All of a sudden, I take the bottle of ketchup, I throw it up against the wall, and then this extra grabs a new bottle of ketchup and runs on screen right at the right time, and everybody stays in character, and then I start using the ketchup. And Kenny Choi, who is acting across from me, says, “Hey, man, you done with that ketchup?” And that was any day on that film. Everyone was so good and so in the moment, and so ready to explore and improvise and try new things, and we didn’t have to clear anything. Normally in a movie, if you have an idea, you have to run it by a whole bunch of people and everyone’s got an opinion. Not with Marty. He makes you feel 100 feet tall and anything can happen. I think more than any other film, that movie changed my approach to acting on film, and I think it’s affected every role I’ve played since then.
The Walking Dead (2010-2012)— “Shane Walsh”
AVC: Is this still the role that people approach you about the most?
JB: I think now it’s neck and neck. I think the Punisher, and I think Fury, I get. It sort of depends where I am, but there’s no question. You never underestimate the power of The Walking Dead. It’s unbelievable what that show has become. It was a very humble beginning. When I was on it, I desperately wanted to be a part of that show, and it was one of those jobs, you read the script, you fall in love with it, and sometimes, the further down the road you go, once the job becomes a reality and you start to meet the people you’re going to be working for and working with, the job becomes a little bit more real and becomes a little bit less magical. That job was different. The longer we were in it, the more people I got to meet, the more cast and crew I got associated with, the more I got to know Frank Darabont, it just got more and more special and it’s the group of people I’ve become closest with by far of any group of people I’ve ever worked with. Those people are family to me. They always have been. They always will be.
I can’t say enough about that show. It was a total group effort. Nobody knew what it was going to be. I think Andy Lincoln, he’s the best leading actor I’ve ever worked under. He’s got unbelievable work ethic and drive and kindness and graciousness. I learned a ton from him. And for me that was right at a time when I was getting married, about to have my first kid, and I was enormously lucky to have these unbelievable models of actor families, with Sarah Wayne Callies and Andrew Lincoln. They’re a little bit further down the road with kids and wives and husbands, and I really got to model my life after them.
And I just think back to those days: If you’ve got to make a zombie show, you’re going to put a bunch of people out in the woods where you’re saying there are zombies there. If one person doesn’t take it absolutely fucking seriously, if one person lets down for one second, you ruin the whole thing for everybody. You’re creating this world together, and most of what that was for the first two seasons was just us walking into the woods. And you’ve got to all play 100 percent at all times or else it doesn’t work.
AVC: What was the difference in the day-to-day with you guys when you were working between filming that first season, when it was just this total unknown quantity, and then the second, when it had already become this massive hit?
JB: I’m sure it’s very different now, but for us, everybody who wanted to be on that show desperately wanted to be on that show. Everybody recognized how great it was and then I think when we all met each other, everybody just really took to each other very quickly and realized everyone was there for the right reasons and were super gung-ho about the work. I remember meeting Norman Reedus in episode three, season one, and he walks out of the woods and he’s got squirrels around his neck. I’m like, “Who the hell is this guy?”
I remember in the next scene we’re about to do, I had just met Norm. He’s like, “What’s up, hey, I’m Norm.” I said, “So look, man, in this next scene, we’ve got to get into it. I’m going to have to choke you out. How do you want to do that?” He’s like, “I don’t know man, just fucking choke me.” And I was like, “This is my kind of dude.” And stunts, we didn’t do stunts. We just fought each other. And I love that. And that’s how everyone was. Sarah Wayne Callies, if anybody put on makeup, she’d be like, “Do they have makeup in the zombie apocalypse?” It was like nobody would ever dare not coming 100 percent ready to roll and 100 percent committed, and there were no trailers, there was no craft service. There was none of that stuff in the beginning, and that really carried on to season 2, and all of a sudden the show was successful. Everybody pushed each other to really maintain the integrity of the show, and then I think with Frank getting fired, it only revitalized and reignited everybody and reminded us the perils of success. That was the first time ever in my career that I saw the real dangers in success. The dangers of the economy of this business, and it had a profound effect on me.
Daredevil (2016) and The Punisher (2017)—“Frank Castle/The Punisher”
JB: With Daredevil, it was something else. I’ve never done that before. I’ve never come on a show that was already successful. I’ve always started from the beginning. I saw what Charlie Cox did with Daredevil season one, and I saw his opening monologue and the elegance in which that was shot and the patience, the time they allowed that scene to develop and the honesty in which he played. And it wasn’t hurried. You really got to live and breathe in it. I saw what Vincent D’Onofrio was doing. He played this terrifying fucking madman, but you felt bad for him, and they give him a back story and he was able to create somebody that you could have empathy toward and be terrified of, and what an amazing performance. And I’m like, yeah, this is something I would love to be a part of.
They set the bar so high and I’ve never been in that situation where it’s like they definitely know what they’re doing, so you better bring your game. I dug it and I really loved it. I loved the Frank Castle that they created. It was really an origin story. It was really a guy healing and unhinged from this personal trauma. I had never looked at him as the punisher. I looked at him as this man: He’s a father and husband who had [his family] stripped from him. As a guy who’s a young father and a husband, before I’m anything else in this world, that’s number one for me. I love my family with everything I have, and just to imagine what that would be like for them to be taken from me, that starts a spiral of fear and insanity and rage in me that takes me to some really scary places. And it’s always been my theory in my career that if something scares you, you run right toward it. And that’s what Frank Castle has been for me.
I think since then, getting more familiar with the part, I have immense respect for the people that Frank means a lot to, a character that’s resonated in the law enforcement community and the military community. That’s something I take really seriously and I really want to get him right, and I’m very protective of him and I’m protective of the character, and I’m protective of the show. I’ve never been in this kind of experience before, where we made a character with a certain group of writers and creators on one show, Daredevil. Now they’re taking a whole new group of writers and directors and they’re making a new show based on that character. And it’s sort of the same character, but it’s sort of not the same character. So I’ve had to be very wary and I’ve had to be very protective, and I don’t know that it’s the funnest. It’s not a job I like to have a ton of fun on. I don’t think it’s an extremely fun character. I’m protective of him, and I just really hope I think the direction that Steve Lightfoot has taken the character is a bold one and an interesting one, and I just really hope people like it.
AVC: Were there moments, from when you were on Daredevil versus The Punisher, that stand out as being representative of the character as a whole?
JB: I always look to the anchors. I always look for the buoys along the water. The big set piece scenes that really determine, okay, I need to get here, and then I need to get there and I can make this work because I know I have this. And the fact that you’re doing it on Netflix, and you’re delivering the content in 13 hours, really makes that come into play in a stronger way. In The Walking Dead, I got to open this barn and I’ve got to kill everyone, but then four episodes later, I have this apology to Laurie, where I show my humanity. But that’s four weeks later. People have to wait for that. That presents its own sort of challenges.
In Netflix, you don’t have those challenges, so for me, with Daredevil, the things that I was most grateful for as far as that season were two scenes. There was the scene by the graveyard that was written by a guy name John Kelley, who served as a U.S. Marine. And you can talk to the people about The Punisher or Daredevil—that is literally the only speech that I acted on that show that I left alone. I didn’t change a syllable. I didn’t change punctuation. It was the best written speech I’ve ever had the honor to deliver. It was all about him coming home. It was about a character who doesn’t talk much and doesn’t open up much talking about the last night on earth he spent with his daughter and how he was too tired to read to her that night and how he held her dead body the next day.
And I read that monologue and I said with this piece of gold, with this gift that this guy has just given me, now I can take this character as far as I possibly want in the other direction because I get to reveal his heart. I get to reveal his soul with this speech. And when you get a gift like that as an actor, you better make the most of it. So that speech at the graveyard was the anchor for me of the season.
And then later on in the season, I got to have this fight in the prison that i think really got to show how you put a guy like this in a situation. The thing that I love about Frank Castle from the comics is he’s constantly getting himself into these situations where he’s staring death right in the face and he says, bring it on. There’s no way he’s supposed to get out of it, but by his ability to welcome death and because he’s more angry than anyone else in there, and because there’s zero effs given, he will fight, kill, bite, maim his way out of any situation or he’s going to die trying. He will never give up. And that’s what that prison scene was for me in Daredevil season two. He was placed in that situation. There’s no guns. He just had the weapons that the guys were coming at him with, and he methodically and brutally killed every single one of them.
It was an unbelievably violent fight, and it really pushed the envelope of what a character, who you’re asking the audience to empathize with, it’s about as far as I think you can take it and I was grateful for it. I was grateful that it was choreographed that way, and that I got to do it myself. I was grateful that you got to see my face while it was happening. And I think those two scenes playing off each other are of major fricking importance to playing that role and I was really grateful that I got them.
The Class (2006-2007)— “Duncan Carmello”
AVC: A lot of people probably don’t remember that you co-starred on a sitcom for a year—one that won a People’s Choice Award, no less.
JB: Yeah, that was crazy. That was the role to get. That was my first series regular role. It was a real coup that I got it. The guys David Crane, Jeffrey Klarik, one of the directors of Friends—Jimmy Burrows. Studio audience. Three-camera sitcom. It was so much fun. I think deep down in my heart, I knew it wasn’t the right genre for me. Back then, I felt like, as fun as this is, it wasn’t really what I wanted.
At the time, I remember we took a private jet to Las Vegas and Jimmy Burrows sat us down and said, “Look, I’m going to tell you guys the same thing that I told the cast of Friends. This is the last time you will ever go to a casino where you won’t get mobbed by fans.” And he was right about Friends, but he was simply not right about us. [Laughs.] The show did not work out, but that being said, it was a group of actors in their 20s. I think almost everybody had serious stage experience. They were all pretty much New York theater actors, but we were just there all the time. We all watched each other work, and it was all just about cracking each other up, and everybody took the work really seriously, and I think what was so exciting about it for me is we became enormously close, but everybody kind of went on from there to do exactly what they were meant to do. I think when you look at Lizzy Caplan and Jesse Ferguson and Heather Goldenhersh, Jason Ritter, Lucy Punch, Sean Maguire, Andrea Anders… I feel like everybody went on to do work that they were supposed to do from there. But those were some really special wild times, and it was like camp.
Snitch (20113)—“Daniel James”
AVC: We can’t let you go without talking about the time you co-starred with The Rock.
JB: Yeah, Dwayne’s the best. He’s the best there is. I love him. There’s actually a longer answer than we probably have time for because I have to tell you, we shot that movie in Shreveport, and while I was there, I stumbled upon a story that’s really changed the course of my life, and since then, I’ve been back to Shreveport probably 25 or 30 times. I’ve shot a documentary about the story. I wrote a script about it. It’s something that I’m really excited to be bringing out in the next couple years. I’m producing it with Russell Simmons, and it’s an unbelievable story that I think is really what I care about, as far as work, more than anything else right now. It’s the story that’s in my heart, and I feel like we finally figured out a way to tell it the exact right way. And I think it’s going to be life changing. At least, I know it has been for me. I know the people that the story’s about, and what the story’s about, these folks. I’ve been in the prisons, I’ve been on the streets, I’ve been with the cops that the story’s about, and these people are now some of the closest people in my life. I consider them in my family, and I’m definitely part of theirs, and I will always be grateful to [director] Ric Waugh and Snitch. One because Ric and I became so close and we ended up doing Shot Caller together. And he’s one of my brothers, but I think more than anything else, I got to learn that story, and that story is number one for me.
AVC: That’s very mysterious, and we’re definitely going to have to talk about that when you’re able.
JB: I’d love to. We will. I promise you we will.