Tribeca Film Festival

Interview: Jon Bernthal Talks Sweet Virginia, Pilgrimage, & More

Was she in that last scene?

No, she wasn’t. But [director] Jamie Dagg and all of us, we loved what was going on with us. There was a whole other character who was supposed to inhabit that, an older woman who worked at the hotel. But James shot the scenes with Odessa. We had an idea about what if we did this, just to add to the tension at the end. There’s a lot of liberties like that with the script that made it in, that I’m super-grateful to Jamie for.

In all honesty, we could have even explored that relationship a little further, to deal with why he deals with this guy the way he does. Because there’s this whole thing of [the killer saying] “Just let me go, Sam. Just let me go and I’ll get out of your life.” But there’s another element. I have this girl, this kind of daughter, that I’ve got to protect.

You’ve made a lot of references to having a rough life when you were young, but your dad is a lawyer and one of your brothers is a doctor—

Great surgeon. Yeah.

So are you the black sheep of your family?

I was. There’s no question. I definitely would not classify my upbringing as rough. I wasn’t thrust into anything. D.C. was D.C. in the late ’80s and ’90s—it was a rough city—but I always had a nose for [trouble]. I searched it out.

You went to Sidwell Friends, right?

Yeah. One of the great things about that school was that Sidwell, back in the pre-Clinton years—I think they would say that it’s still this way, and maybe they’ll never talk to me again for saying this—but diversity was really at the core of that school. Not just racial diversity or socioeconomic diversity but behavioral diversity. There were kids who’d been kicked out of other schools who were allowed to come there for a second chance, kids who’d been in huge problems with the D.C. public school system. And they were taught—and I witnessed it—that through love and acceptance and a family-like atmosphere, you can find God in everyone, which is the Quaker philosophy. I grew up with kids who got shot and killed. I grew up with kids who shot and killed people. But within the halls of that school, they were part of a community that really, really worked. It was a really beautiful, special thing. And that’s the kind of home I was raised in too. My parents are foster parents. We had all kinds of kids coming through our house. I’m so grateful for that. I always had a nose for trouble, and that was where my sense of adventure led me. It was self-inflicted. It was not through lack of love, or lack of…

Opportunity?

Not lack of opportunity. Absolutely not.

Your career kind of reminds me of John Garfield’s. Are you familiar with him?

Look, obviously, I know who he is, I’ve seen some of his films, but…

There’s a kind of sexy but vulnerable tough-guy thing going on with you both. He didn’t play as many cops as you, but he also played lots of hard guys whose toughness was clearly a shield to protect them from being hurt, or good guys who were capable of being tough.

Frank Darabont, when he left Walking Dead, I went and did Mob City with him, that’s what he talked to me about all the time. He was like, “You’re John Garfield.” And I tend to trust anything he said.

No kidding? I never knew he saw that similarity too.

Well, he would just say it privately, to me.

Do you think those qualities are things other people read into you, so those are the kinds of roles you get offered, or is there something in there that you gravitate toward, for whatever reason?

I think a little bit of each. I try to both go after and build characters that are completely unique and different, like I did in David Simon’s series Show Me a Hero, where I got to play a lawyer. His sort of bravery comes with a totally different set of tactics, and it’s a different color. But Hollywood can be an unbelievably uncreative place. People say, “I’ve seen him do that. I know he can do that.” But to then convince them that you can do something else.

To be honest, that’s one of the reasons why I really wanted to do Sweet Virginia. This role was written for a guy in his 60s. When they came to me, I said, “Guys, I really love this, and I love the character, but the whole thing is that he is kind of giving up a little bit and breaking down a little bit. That’s vital and integral to the character. I’m not sure that’s me. It’s very interesting to go into a movie saying, “I love this, but I’m really not the right guy.” [Laughs]

But Jamie gave me the opportunity to try how you could incorporate that into a man in his late 30s. That’s where the hint of [Sam’s] Parkinson’s came in, with the shakes. In the script, there’s a scene with the loud neighbor [a resident of the hotel Sam manages], I was supposed to go beat the shit out of him. And I suggested, “How about if he beats the shit out of me?” Sam isn’t a foot-forward guy. A lot of the guys that I play, they’re not necessarily all hotheaded guys who just charge [into a situation], but they’re all forward-leaning guys. I really loved the fact that this guy wasn’t that. He was very much searching for quiet, searching to not engage.

It seems like maybe he’s more like you than most of the characters you play, in that he’s kind of self-effacing and has a sense of humor, and he’s essentially a family man, a guy who can fight if he’s pushed to the wall but who would rather not.

Yeah. I think there’s bits of me in all of them. But I think, yeah.

What attracted you to the Shane character in The Walking Dead?

The script just blew me away. It was the best pilot script I’d ever read. I’d just tested for a role where I would have been a regular on one of those big franchise network shows that would have had me forever—I would have still been doing it right now. Tons of money. But I couldn’t accept the job until I got a chance to audition for Walking Dead, because I just loved the script so much.

So it wasn’t the character per se but just the show as a whole that drew you in?

It was that character. We all had to audition for Rick first, and then Frank mixed and matched everyone for Rick and Shane. I just knew 100% that that Shane role [was for me], [from] that initial monologue that he opens with, about women and why they can’t turn off the lights, and how he’s using humor to sort of reach his friend and get his friend to talk, which is the very core issue that he has with his wife, that he doesn’t talk. It was such a caring, loving thing. And to know that the arc of that character is that he would then sleep with that man’s wife. He clearly loves this man, but he’s clearly going to fall in love with her, and to have to deal with that, and then to have to eventually try to kill his best friend. I just thought, wow, you can really push it to the envelope of torment and fury, but at the end of the day he’s got a good heart. If you can do that, and have a beginning, middle and end, and have, like, buoys along the way to reach—he’s gotta do this by this, this by this—it’s just a great, great opportunity. And then Walking Dead became as successful as it did. Nobody thought it was going to do that! But it was just one of those jobs where, the more people you met, the more you read of Frank’s writing, the more you got to down there, you just knew: This is so special. And there was so much love. Andy Lincoln is, I think, the best lead on television.

You’re a method actor, so you like to get into character ahead of time and on the set. How did you prepare to play a mute in Pilgrimage?

I went for the first few weeks there not speaking. We were in a small town in western Ireland. It wasn’t even a town. We all lived at an outpost in the middle of nowhere. It was 30 miles from any town, no electronics, no anything. So we were just basically on set every day, which is like the 12th century.

At first, you realize that the first thing you give up when you stop talking is your wants and needs. Because if you want someone to pass you a glass of water or you want a coat, the first thing that happens is [you think], “Okay, maybe I don’t need it so bad.” And then the next thing is, “Maybe I don’t deserve it.” But it ended up not being great for the film, because you have to create a dialogue with the director and I lost all communication with the director. [Laughs] So eventually we turned it off and I started talking again.

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