Friday, April 28, 2017
Interview: Jon Bernthal
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 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 Bernthal's 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. Read the rest in Slant Magazine