Thanks in part to his hard body, soft eyes, and a formerly broken nose that gives him almost as distinctive a profile as Javier Bardem’s, Jon Bernthal has played a lot of cops and ethnic roles, many of them alpha males, though he’s been offered a bit more variety of parts since his breakout role as Rick Grimes’s best friend turned rival, Shane Walsh, on AMC’s The Walking Dead.
I met with Bernthal this week at a Tribeca hotel, where he was promoting two of his latest films, both of which are playing in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. In Jamie M. Dagg’s neo-noir Sweet Virginia, Bernthal plays Sam, a hotel manager in a sleepy town who’s forced into action when a killer comes to town. He plays another reluctant hero in Brendan Muldowney’s Pilgrimage, a grim tale of a group of 12th-century monks enlisted to bring the Pope a sacred relic they have been safeguarding, who embark on their perilous journey under the protection of Bernthal’s mute former soldier.
Polite, sincere, and prone to searching for just the right word, Bernthal seemed a bit younger and more diffident in person than he does on screen. We talked about studying theater in Moscow, the surrogate-father bond Sam forms with a young woman that was his favorite relationship in Sweet Virginia, and why Frank Darabont and I see him as a latter-day John Garfield.
You’ve worked pretty steadily since you started acting professionally. Does it feel that way to you or was it was a struggle for a while?
It feels like it was struggle for a while. I think maybe since The Walking Dead I’ve not had to [struggle]. And I enjoy that. I’m not trying to give, like, a cheese-dick answer, but I really think that the minute it stops feeling like something you’re striving for is the minute it loses purpose and goes wayward and in effect it kind of dies. I studied in Moscow, and the symbol of the Moscow Art Theatre is the seagull. [Chekhov’s] The Seagull is all about people in relationship with their dreams, and I think that the reason why Chekhov used the seagull is that a dream should be out in front of you. You should be chasing it; it should be alive. I think the only way to attain it, to touch it, is to shoot it out of the sky. There’s no such thing as a pet seagull.
How did you wind up studying acting in Russia? And what was it like?
It was great for me. I was an athlete growing up, football and baseball, and all kinds of sports, and I went to college to play baseball. I met this amazing theater teacher there, Alma Becker, who came out of the San Francisco theater scene in the ’60s—just a magical woman. She saw something in me, put me in my first play. She was fascinated with East European and Russian theater. This was back in the late ’90s. I was just kind of getting into trouble and things weren’t really working out for me. I went to her and asked her what I should do, and she said, “Go to Moscow. Try to get into this program.”
So what was going on in Eastern European and Russian theater at the time?
I think, for one, [Alma] wanted me to be in a place that held theater and held acting in such a reverent kind of place. For a kid who was getting in trouble a bunch, dealing with my masculinity, going to a place where it was unbelievably rigorous, unbelievably disciplined. To be an actor there is a very strong profession. It’s not like here, where you can just sort of be: “I’m an actor! I want to be famous!” There, you’ve got to be accepted into this school and then you’ve got to learn ballet, you’ve got to learn acrobatics, you’ve got to learn different languages, you’ve got to learn all kinds of things. And they’ll take 100 kids and cut the class in half every year. It really saved my life. For a kid who kind of lacked reverence, for lack of a better word, or who lacked any kind of spirituality at that point, who was just kind of very instinctual, it was a very special thing for me. I know I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Alma and if it wasn’t for that decision. And Moscow was an incredibly wild place for a kid who really hadn’t been out of the country.
Gangsters, right? And the economy was changing fast, getting more capitalistic?
It was the wild west. There were shootouts at the Duma. The Chechens had been blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow. There’s a brutality and a vitality to life there that was unlike anything I’d ever seen. For a guy who thought he was pretty tough coming out of Washington D.C., it was a really eye-opening experience to go live there, and live there on my own. I didn’t have an email account, I didn’t call, I had no contact with my family and my friends. Best thing that ever happened to me.
But with that brutality, on every street corner there’s a statue of a playwright or a poet or a painter. The arts are just revered there. Especially Russian arts. You get on the subway and people are reading Bulgakov and Tolstoy; they’re not reading Us Weekly. And if you’re going to talk to someone there, there’s no pretense. It’s not uncommon, in a first conversation with somebody, for that person to break down in tears or laugh hysterically.
Your character in Sweet Virginia has a lovely, fatherly relationship with a young woman he works with.
Yeah, [actress] Odessa [Young].
Does having a daughter of your own make it easier—or maybe harder—to play a father to a young woman?
I think just having kids in general—I have three young kids—has changed everything for me in like every way across the board. I hang out with a bunch of young actors, and they all share this concern, whether they voice it or not: “When I stop torturing myself, when I stop pushing the envelope, will I still be able to bring what we bring?” It’s something I’ve talked to so many of them about, and I worried about it too when I was young. I’m lucky that I am alive and I was never in prison, but I have lived a very, very full life. I’ve gone through many things. Things that are…
Yeah. The worry is, as an artist, that once you go in another direction, are you going to have access to the dangerous parts of yourself? But for me, the process of becoming a father and being a husband has made me more of a complete man. I’ve found so much peace in my life that I can focus the work much better. Well, whether I’m better or not, that’s up to other people, but I feel much stronger about the work. I feel more energized, more confident. I feel I have more to say, and my love goes so much past myself now. I don’t give a fuck about myself now. The only time I think about myself is in relation to [my family]. I put my name on something, that’s their name. And they’re going to look at that some day and say, “Daddy was here and he did that,” so it better goddamn be fucking worth it. You just love so much stronger.
And yeah, Odessa’s role isn’t giant in this script, but meeting her as an actor and working with her is one of the most exciting actor relationships that I’ve made in a very long time. I think she’s enormously special. What she did, she makes it look easy, but it’s not. At 19 years old, to be able to have that kind of banter. Also, she’s Australian, and to be able to improvise like that and to stay so true to character and not be self-indulgent at all—she’s so streamlined and so smart and so brave and so bold. I can’t wait to work with her on something else. That’s my favorite relationship in the film. In the script, it wasn’t necessarily clear that they were going to be as close as they were.