IGN – If there’s any actor that might be considered an “actor’s actor” who has gone to great lengths for his craft, then Jon Bernthal has worked his butt off to get where he is now.
It’s been five years since Bernthal was a regular on AMC’s The Walking Dead, but he then got an even more high-profile gig as The Punisher in the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil. Bernthal’s version of Marvel’s Frank Castle proved popular enough to get him his own series, which he shot earlier this year and is expected to debut later in 2017.
Between doing those shows, Bernthal still found plenty of time to make movies, and he even found time to chat with IGN about a variety of topics.
Brendan Muldowney’s Pilgrimage couldn’t be any more different from Bernthal’s normal role, if there is such a thing, because it takes place during 13th century Ireland as it follows a group of monks on a dangerous journey through the rugged Irish landscape to bring a sacred relic back to Rome. The diverse group of monks is played by Stanley Weber, John Lynch, Hugh O’Conor and none other than Tom Holland, and Bernthal is playing a character simply known as The Mute, a man unable to speak who comes from a violent past.
Other than Pilgrimage, Bernthal still has a busy month ahead of him, appearing in Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut Wind River (now in theaters), as well as Ric Roman Waugh’s upcoming Shot Caller, playing gritty criminal characters in both. (Jamie Dagg’s Sweet Virginia, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring as did Pilgrimage, hasn’t figured out its distribution yet.)
IGN: When you read the Pilgrimage script, how were you able to envision what the character would be without having any dialogue?
Jon Bernthal: But that’s the fun and challenge of it. There are seven languages spoken in this film, and there’s also the language of the mute, and that’s something you gotta come up with, and you have to do extensive work on the guy’s backstory. You have to come up with a reason why he’s come up with this vow of silence. One of the things I really wanted to dive into in order to do this was to see what that was like. And to go to Ireland and be silent, and not speak on set and not speak at home. That makes things difficult. We were all living under the same roof and had every meal together. We were together the whole time. To do that in silence, at first, was very isolating and frustrating, but I learned a ton about who this character is. I think on a film set [it’s important] to divorce yourself from your wants and your needs. We use our voice to ask for things, to say, “Hey, I gotta go to the bathroom” and “Hey, can I get a glass of water,” and if they’re passing out apples, “Hey, can I have an apple?” The mindset of someone who has taken a vow of silence [is,] “Oh, I want that apple, how do I get someone’s attention? Okay, I’m just going to let that go. Do I deserve that apple?” I think somebody who has done that, it comes from the shame of, “Do I deserve that? I’m going to divorce myself from these wants and only take what I need.” I think that’s the kernel of the character.
It was an interesting process to go through, being silent on set and off, and then it was interesting to get out of that process and realizing that the film would benefit a lot more. I need to start communicating, because we need to develop this language of the mute. You cover the guys that are talking, and I need to say, “Hey, at this moment here, I’m giving this look – that’s my line.” Brendan and I, we worked well on how to communicate. On a certain days I had to be silent. On certain days I didn’t.
IGN: You had mentioned earlier doing a lot of activities with the other guys in the cast. Were you remaining silent that whole time?
JB: So, yeah, for the first few weeks, silent 24/7, and then I started talking. All the guys decided as a group that they like me better where I’m silent, because once I started talking, I wouldn’t shut the hell up. But yeah, in the beginning, I think the day I really found it was the day when we got out to Western Ireland — me and Tom Holland and Stanley Webber, we went to climb a mountain together, and we had met in Dublin, and we were talking and we were out before the process started, and then on the train out there, I just wrote them a note that said basically I’m done talking. We climbed this mountain together, and we really started to learn a lot.
IGN: Is that a very common thing you do on movies, trying to stay in character, especially when you’re playing someone very different from yourself?
JB: You know, yes and no. What I was saying before is … staying in character. I feel like you have all these artists working together in all these different departments on a film, both in pre-production, camerawork and post-production. All we’re trying to do is work on the 15 seconds you have between “action” and “cut.” I think that if the work you do when the camera is not rolling is what makes the work work between “action” and “cut”… To just sort of turn on, I think some actors are better than others. I don’t think I’m good enough to do that. I think I have to, with some degree, sort of stay with characters, have it be alive inside of me, and sometimes, fully. When you go home at night, often times, it’s not best to just turn off. You gotta come up with techniques and ways to stay on. As far as “staying in character,” I’m not sure what that means. I think everybody has a different idea about it. For me and this, it was an exercise to do that. I learned a lot, I got what I needed out of it, and then I stopped.
IGN: How was it being silent on set but also being able to communicate with Brendan or the crew about what you need? As an actor, I’m sure you need things from make-up and hair.
JB: In the beginning, I was talking. I only did it for the first couple weeks, but through that, from the actors to the hair and make-up team to the crew, Brendan, everyone was extraordinarily understanding. Look, at the end of the day that was something I did for me and my process and made their jobs harder. That being said, I’m a firm believer that when you do a film, your hair belongs to the hair department, your face belongs to make-up. Your body belongs to wardrobe when they’re dressing you, and you’ve got to be cool with that.
IGN: Do you consider yourself religious? And was that something you were able to tap into for a movie like this?
JB: I think with him, I definitely consider myself spiritual. I think with this character, he’s a man who has done so much in the name of religion. There’s so much violence and so much dedication to religion by the characters in this film, and he’s a man who’s seen probably the worst violence that has ever been caused by religion by being in the Crusades. I think part of his penance and his vow of silence is to never commit violence again in the name of the church. I think he’s seeing just how ugly that can be. What’s so powerful for me about the story is the bond he forms with this young man in this group of monks causes him to engage in this violence that he swore he would never [do again]. It’s not because of a love or commitment to a higher power, it’s a lot for his fellow man on his earth right next to him. It’s a beautiful statement.
IGN: How do you decide to parcel your time off from your TV commitments, so you can commit to something like this?
JB: Look, it’s just when something comes up, you read it, you look into the filmmaker and sometimes it’s a filmmaker you’re dying to work with, sometimes it’s a discovery, and you just try to choose the best material possible. But you’re right. There’s a real opportunity cost, and I got three young kids and any job means I’m not with them, and I’m gone a lot for the TV show. You gotta really weigh a bunch of things. At the end of the day, I have a very curious heart, and I love the journey of this job. I’m in no way trying to arrive anywhere. I just want to keep growing and struggling, and I look for jobs that scare me. I look for jobs that are not easy. I look for jobs where my first instinct is that I’m probably not the right guy for this, and then see if I can make myself fit, and what’s my version of this? And is that something that resonates in my heart?
IGN: What was interesting about doing Shot Caller after working with Ric Roman Waugh on Snitch? He’s told me it’s a companion piece to his movie Felon.
JB: I love Ric, Ric’s my brother, and I’ll work with Ric on anything. That really was what that was. I was in Ireland finishing up Pilgrimage, and I talked to Ric via satellite phone in the States and I hadn’t done much talking on the phone, and he was like, “Hey, man, I need you brother,” and I was like, “I’ll be there.” He’s my guy that I’ll always work with.
IGN: I want to ask about going into the Punisher, because it’s different times now where it used to be where you’re either a movie actor or a TV actor, and now TV shows are so good, you can do both. But what’s the commitment like to take on a character where you have your own show and possibly will do more in the future?
JB: It’s long and it’s arduous, and it’s hard, and you’ve gotta put everything into it. Look, I think the one thing to keep in mind is the way Netflix delivers content. So many of these places are delivering content, so you’re not making episodic TV. You’re making 13-hour movies that you don’t have to spend 10 minutes at the top and back of every episode telling people what you told them last week and bringing the audience back in. People are watching this in a much different way, and they’ve proven this model of 13-hour binge-watching is totally possible. Some people can, some people can’t, but at the end of the day, most people when they watch it do not say, “Okay, there’s 13 episodes. I’m going to watch one per week.”
IGN: That’s interesting, because I like spacing things out when I watch shows.
JB: And that’s great. You can watch it that way. I just know that the way that the filmmakers attack it, they don’t need to remind you what you saw last week or put a cliffhanger at the end of each episode. I think the delivery system is different, but the challenges from TV, you’ve got to fit a lot into an eight-day episodic TV schedule, and it’s very challenging, especially with the ambition of the fights and the scope of those shows.
IGN: I’m not sure when you shot Pilgrimage but had you already booked appearing on Daredevil at that time?
JB: I sent my audition tape for Punisher while I was in Belgium.
IGN: And that was before Tom Holland signed on to play Spider-Man, too?
JB: So we were making audition tapes for Spider-Man and he helped me. He’s in my Punisher tape, so I saw him through that whole process, and again, it was watching him go through it and the way he attacked it and went after it. It was completely inspiring. I think Tom Holland is just an absolute beast and a wonderful person.
IGN: I’m sure a lot of people would someday like to see your Punisher with his Spider-Man, because as you probably know, Punisher’s first appearance was in The Amazing Spider-Man…
JB: Oh, s#!t. I’ll probably be the last to find out.
IGN: Do you even know if you’ll be back for the next season of Daredevil?
Bernthal: They haven’t mentioned it. I know nothing.
IGN: Your other Tribeca movie, Sweet Virginia, is interesting because you play a former rodeo cowboy managing a motel, and it’s always following two different characters, not just yours. What appealed to you about doing something like that?
JB: Again, the challenge of it. I loved the script. I loved Jamie Dagg’s movie River … and I thought the theatricality and the style of the script would just be so interesting to be attacked by a guy like Jamie who made such a cutting and antiseptic, raw, real, gritty movie like River. So I thought that was great, but for me, that role was originally written in the script as a guy who was 65 years old. For me, I went into it like, “Why would you ever want me in this part? I’m not the right guy.” What Jamie and I really worked on was how do we achieve what you gain from having the character be 65 years old by having him played by someone in their late 30s? That’s why we added the tremors and the early onset Parkinson’s. In the fight with the loud neighbor, I was originally supposed to beat him up, but I said, “Well, what if he beats me up?” To try to gain the things you get from a guy who is a little worn in and older, but you play that in a younger man who’s got so much potential life ahead of him, but he’s there kind of giving up until this violent act comes and shakes things up in that town. It was really the challenge of it, and I thought it was a beautiful script, and then Chris [Abbott]. I saw James White, and I really wanted to work with him and I was really blown away by his performance.