Published on Esquire (January 03)
Interview by Stephen Rodrick
Jon Bernthal wants to clear some things up.
Yes, he stars as Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, an armed-to-the-elbows ex- soldier who goes vigilante after his family is murdered by government black ops, on a Netflix series that premiered in November. Playing a rare Marvel superhero who does not have a superpower, Bernthal uses machine guns, sledgehammers, and the occasional vat of cement to send his enemies into oblivion. And yes, before he took on his leading role on The Punisher, Bernthal often portrayed bad guys on screen—really, really bad guys, the sort whose scarred faces and thousand-yard stares told you that trouble was something closer to an inevitability than a mere possibility. Maybe you know him as the lethal sheriff’s deputy in the first two seasons of The Walking Dead, or as the simmering scene-stealer in blockbusters like The Wolf of Wall Street (in which he played a quaalude kingpin), Fury (a sociopathic crewman on a World War II tank), and Sicario (a corrupt local cop with murder on his mind). And yes, in real life Bernthal has gotten into more than his fair share of trouble, finding himself detained for questioning in both California and the District of Columbia. But he insists that’s not what he’s all about.
“Sometimes when people write about me, it sounds like I’m glorifying the violence,” Bernthal said as we drove in his pickup truck through Ojai, California, where he’s lived with his wife and three children for the past three years. He has two boys and a little girl, all under seven. His MMA body was hidden beneath a blue hoodie and jeans, but there was no disguising his Picasso nose, which has been broken fourteen times, often under unsavory circumstances.
It was an overcast day in late October, and as we passed through Ojai’s quaint downtown district, filled with art galleries and places where you can scarf down platters of calamari tacos, Bernthal was frank about the tribulations of his past: the fistfights, the arrests, the drinking, even the night in 2009 when he thought he might do serious jail time for nearly killing a man. But he was also clear that all that was behind him. “I know now life is more about working things out and heading off that violence,” he said. He mentioned his sons and said that “extremism and lack of compromise is the enemy of what I want to teach them.”
In the truck with us were Boss and Bam Bam, two of Bernthal’s three rescue pit bulls. Bam Bam was named after a drug lord from Shreveport, Louisiana. The third dog, Venice, was at home. He doesn’t play well with others.
Bernthal loves his dogs—his father is chairman of the board of the Humane Society of the U. S.—but he knows that rescue pits often have to unlearn the mayhem previous dipshit owners may have taught them. As we pulled into a deserted dog run, Bernthal let his dogs loose and gave me an example of his newfound peacemaking skills.
The previous week, he was with Bam Bam at a dog park in the Playa Vista neighborhood in L. A. when he saw another pit bull attacking a pug. The hipster dog owners in attendance recoiled and did nothing. Bernthal started shouting.
“Put your hand up its ass! Put your hand up its ass!”
This frightened the hipsters, perhaps because this particular pacification method has been discredited by enlightened dog experts. Bernthal sighed and strode across the park. In another time in his life, he would have gone straight for the pit’s fangs, attempting to uncouple the dog’s jaws by force, a move that might have cost him a digit.
But that was then. Now, instead, he approached the pit bull from the rear and put his thumb up its ass. The pit bull whimpered and wandered away.
“It always works,” Bernthal told me, before adding with a crooked smile, “Well, one time it didn’t work.” But that story—which involved going fist-deep into a hundred-pound pit named Coltrane—would have to wait.
Can a man really change? Can he—in the middle of life—transform himself into the man he really wanted to be all along? The self-help industrial complex says absolutely, just read this book and follow these twelve steps. Count to ten before reacting and don’t forget to attend my seminar. The cynics say nah: You are who you are. Maybe you can adjust the tint around the edges, but major change is impossible. Best to accept who you are and thumb those rosary beads; it’s going to be a crash landing with few survivors.
Bernthal is an interesting test of the proposition. In 2009, he was living in Venice Beach, California, with Erin Angle, the woman who is now his wife. He was stuck on a network television show doing the exact opposite of the kind of acting he wanted to do. The day before the Fourth of July, he took Boss for a walk near the beach. A drunk man called Boss over and grabbed the dog when he got close. Bernthal rescued Boss, which led the man and a few of his buddies to start following Bernthal home. The man didn’t listen when Bernthal warned him to back off. So Bernthal wheeled and punched him in the face. The man was out before his head hit the pavement. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Bernthal had been brawling since his teens. An hour after the punch, Bernthal was cuffed to a bench in a police station. In a life of last chances, this was it. The cops taunted him: “If that guy doesn’t wake up, you’re going away for life.”
That was nearly nine years ago. Since then, Bernthal has gone from someone you cross the street to avoid to a family man living a quiet life in a quiet town. Now forty-one, he’s not the first bad man to settle down as he slides into middle age. But Bernthal hasn’t become a tantric-yoga instructor or a Peace Corps volunteer. His chosen profession requires him to say hello to Mr. Violence every day. He’s the Punisher, for God’s sake. His job—his life—depends on channeling the worst parts of his past without returning to the old ways.
Across two coasts and three days, Bernthal told me tales of his boyhood that included more than a few moments of dysfunction and rage. He blithely confessed to things other people would keep hidden, and he seemed to do it not out of a sense of machismo but with a sense of wonder that the world had given him such a long leash. Listening to his stories about hanging around the upper-class outcasts of D. C., I kept thinking of Glen, the sage and possibly disturbed friend of Sally Draper on Mad Men.
As a boy, Bernthal drew pictures of a guinea pig and a dog shooting teens with a crossbow. He got sent home early from a camping trip at age eight for trafficking copies of Playboy. And he had a violent side. At school, he watched his brother Tom meekly roll the ball back to an adversary during dodgeball. When the boy mocked Tom, Bernthal picked up another ball and whipped it into a stack of chairs near his brother’s tormentor. The force of the throw knocked the chairs on top of the kid. But Bernthal also wants you to know that he came from a prosperous, caring family. His father was a powerful corporate lawyer in D. C., and his mother watched over a handful of foster kids in addition to her three boys. The family lived in a tony suburban neighborhood, and Bernthal attended Sidwell Friends, where Chelsea Clinton was a few grades below him.
Bernthal was the middle brother, and he quickly established himself as the family enforcer. By unspoken agreement, he was the one to take revenge whenever his father or brothers got cheap-shotted in the regular basketball game they played when he was a kid. “They knew I would protect them,” Bernthal told me.
At Sidwell, he says, “we were suburban kids, but we all wanted to find the most dangerous things in a dangerous city.” The fact that they went to a posh school gave them a larger chip on their blazers. They fought kids from other schools with nunchakus and fists, and spent a lot of afternoons running from the cops.
When he was seventeen, Bernthal got caught by a D. C. policeman with some dime bags. He was taken to jail and put in a cell. “One thing that I’ve always been afraid of, my whole life, was crickets,” Bernthal told me at an Ojai biker bar. “I get into this jail cell and I’m sitting there and I see there’s two crickets in there.” An older man was put in the cell with Bernthal, which scared him until the man crushed the crickets. “I told him I was worried about how my dad was going to react to me getting arrested. He said he’d been in and out for twenty years and never heard someone mention their dad.”
Tom Bernthal is Jon’s older and, dare I say, better-looking brother. In November, I met him in New York’s Greenwich Village at a screening of Sweet Virginia, an indie thriller featuring Jon as a former rodeo star with Parkinson’s who is running an Alaska motel. Of course, this being Bernthal, Sweet Virginia’s climactic scene involves the pop pop pop of a German rifle.
Amid the well drinks and pigs in a blanket at the lo-fi afterparty, Tom, a former journalist and a successful businessman, marveled at his little brother’s success. “It’s amazing,” he said. “Jon was always the family fuckup. There’s, like, one legal thing in the world Jon could do—he’d make a great drug dealer—and that’s acting. He was lucky. We came from the one family in a million who didn’t throw him out of the house. The thing I remember is he could take over a room even when he was three. He’s always had that presence.” Bernthal had his first formal acting experience in high school, when his mother persuaded him to audition for a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Where the Cross Is Made. He got the role, and the whole family reveled in the achievement—a nice change from all his fights and broken faces. But then Bernthal heard secondhand that his theater teacher had told another class that his performance was terrible. He was crushed. The next day, his dad went to Sidwell and confronted the teacher, telling him never to speak about his son like that again.
After high school, Bernthal went to Skidmore College to play baseball. There were more run-ins with cops. At loose ends, he signed up for what he thought was an appreciation-of-acting seminar, the type of thing where he could drop acid and watch movies. Turns out it was an actual acting class.
A few weeks later, he found himself in a circle as his fellow students talked about their most prized possessions. Bernthal, unprepared as usual, grabbed his catcher’s mitt and told a story about how his mother gave him the glove on her deathbed.
He cried. The class cried. The only problem was that the story wasn’t true. When Bernthal admitted this, his instructor was furious that he’d violated the sanctity of the studio. But she also saw something in him. As punishment, she made him try out for a play. He got the part and did well in the play, and eventually the teacher, a fan of Russian theater, told him to apply to the Moscow Art Theatre. Bernthal, who’d lost interest in his other classes, took her advice.
This was in the nineties, in the decade after the fall of communism. Russia was even more of a gangsterland than it is today. “There were dead bodies on the street all the time,” Bernthal recalled. On his third day in the country, he forgot his identity papers—a big no-no—and took the subway back to Gorky Park to pick them up. He got lost, and the next thing he knew, he was watching two Russian men slam a beautiful woman against the side of a building. Bernthal ran to the men, grabbed one, and told him to stop.
The Russian man pulled out a pistol and held it to Bernthal’s forehead. “You go now.”
Bernthal says he is still haunted by not knowing what happened to the woman. But he also liked the grit of post-communist Russia. His teachers had performed anti-state plays under bridges during the Soviet years and had faced the real possibility that they could be imprisoned for their acting. For the first time, Bernthal buckled down. He learned ballet and acrobatics, and read Chekhov. Before he returned to the States, he was accepted into a master’s program in drama at Harvard. His mom heard the news while at a Sidwell ballgame. Bernthal’s old theater teacher was there. She walked up to him, told him about Harvard, wagged a finger, and walked away. Her prodigal son had proved the teacher wrong.
The day after the Sweet Virginia screening, Bernthal and I went for a walk around the East Village. For now, he can still move through the streets of New York with only the occasional glance of recognition, but his starring role on The Punisher suggests that will not last long.I’d asked Bernthal to show me some places in New York where the show was filmed, but he wanted to take me to St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, where one of his first theater companies used to rent space. It was there, he said, that he performed in experimental plays with forty-five-minute monologues that tested the stamina of actor and audience alike. “This is where I learned things,” Bernthal said as we sat on a bench outside the church drinking coffee from Starbucks.
He told me that he couldn’t afford primo coffee when he lived in New York back in the 2000s. To get by, he couch-surfed and sometimes delivered pot. He drove a roofless Jeep, even in the rain. Every morning, he woke up at five and made his way to open auditions at Actors’ Equity in midtown. “I just wanted to be seen,” he said. I asked him if he felt any pride about how far he had come.
“No, man. If I do that, I fear I’ll stop pushing and it will be all over.”
In 2006, Bernthal’s brother Tom sent him a ticket to L. A. so that he could start over in Hollywood. Poverty followed him west. The agent he thought he had found blew him off as soon as he arrived. There was no money for anything except food and booze. When the White Stripes played the Greek Theatre, Bernthal didn’t have enough money for a ticket, so he sat outside the open-air theater with a 40. Seth Green and Macaulay Culkin walked by. Bernthal recalled reading that Culkin’s friends called him Mac.
“Hey, Mac, how you doing?” he shouted.
Culkin and Green stopped to talk to him, and as it happened, they had an extra backstage pass for the show. They gave it to Bernthal. He remembers it as one of the best nights of his life. Years later, Bernthal came in to do a voice on Robot Chicken, Green’s animated series. He mentioned the night at the Greek.
“That was you?” Green said. “We thought we were helping out a homeless dude.”
The story has a quality Bernthalian ending. Bernthal and the crew smoked a joint after taping Robot Chicken, and he headed back home. “It was Friday,” he said with a bashful laugh. “I was feeling good about myself. My career had come full circle. I was a homeless guy, and now I’m hanging with Seth. I was blaring Waylon Jennings, and I just cut my wheel too hard and I literally drove over the hood of my neighbor’s car.”
You might expect that a man afraid of crickets who also possesses a hair-trigger right hook would not have an easy time with the Hollywood star-making machinery. You would be right. Bernthal’s emotions have been both a motivating and a devastating force in his life, and his early career plunged him down a highway of frustration, misunderstanding, and road rage.
He got a significant part in Oliver Stone’s 2006 film World Trade Center, as a Port Authority cop. Stone rode Bernthal hard, and one day during filming he screamed that the actor’s takes were either too over-the-top or too tepid. Eventually, Stone walked over from the video village and shouted at Bernthal and a few other actors. “You are all so fucking vain,” Stone said. He turned to Bernthal and jabbed a finger in his face. “And you are the worst.”
Bernthal slapped the director’s hand away.
“Let me tell you something, dude. You might be Oliver Stone, but I will beat your fucking ass right here on this set. In front of everybody here, I will beat your ass. You got that?”
Stone retreated. Nicolas Cage, one of the stars of the film, wandered over and said, “Wow, man, there was adversity and you threw more adversity at it.”
Bernthal told me that he felt like a jackass when he learned that he’d fallen for an old Stone trick. “He was just trying to get me out of my comfort zone,” he says now. “I was young and stupid.” (The two men later became good friends.)
As we sat for lunch in a Moroccan place in the East Village, Bernthal talked about another trial. About a decade ago, he auditioned for Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s film about the gangster John Dillinger. Mann liked his audition tape and brought him back for a second look.
According to Bernthal, the director was unimpressed. “He said, ‘Look, man, you’ve got amazing presence. You’ve got a great look, but if Robert De Niro were here, he’d hit you with an acting bat because you’re just a terrible actor.’ ”
Bernthal stared into his coffee, not making eye contact for the first time all week. “I still don’t understand why he did that,” he said. “It just crushed me.”
In 2008, Bernthal thought he’d finally made a breakthrough. He showed up at his audition for the bro comedy I Love You, Man clad in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and played, against type, a charming doofus, which got him the role of Paul Rudd’s wise gay brother. But on the first day of rehearsal, Bernthal felt frozen out. “Everyone started talking about how much they loved baseball. I’m like, ‘Well, shit, I played college baseball. I played baseball my whole life,’ ” he sighed. “They literally treated me like I was not there. I didn’t exist to them.”
He told his agent he was about to be fired. His agent told him he was nuts. The next day, Bernthal was replaced by Andy Samberg. “My wife is a trauma nurse. She really earned her pay during that time,” he said, before adding a relevant detail. “She comes from a family of champion wrestlers. She understands me.”
Bernthal’s career had just started to pick up when, at thirty-two, he met his day of reckoning in that near-lethal encounter on Venice Beach. As he sat chained to a chair in the police station and the third of July became the Fourth, he finally had an epiphany.
“I knew if he didn’t wake up, I was going to jail and my worst side would take over,” Bernthal said of the man whose head he’d split open. “I prayed to whatever is above that if he woke up, I’d change things, get married, have kids, and stop with the anger.” The injured man did wake up, and witnesses came forward to say that he had menaced Bernthal before the actor punched him. After his network show was mercifully canceled, Bernthal turned down a lucrative role on NCIS: Los Angeles, one that would have set him up for life financially. Instead, he read for The Walking Dead, and got the role of good-man-turned-bad-zombie Shane Walsh.
Still, Bernthal’s punch on the beach earned him three years’ probation and a $2 million civil lawsuit. The suit, which was eventually settled out of court, forced him to stay in California during the Walking Dead off- season, when he usually shot movies. Bernthal used that time for anger-management classes and therapy. He also performed in a small play, Small Engine Repair, which he calls one of his greatest artistic accomplishments. He married Erin and they started a family. Bernthal learned to walk away whenever he lost his temper, and to write down whatever had triggered him.
“I PRAYED TO WHATEVER IS ABOVE THAT IF HE WOKE UP, I’D CHANGE THINGS, GET MARRIED, HAVE KIDS, AND STOP WITH THE ANGER.”
“Chekhov talked about it,” he said. “It’s the slave, man. You’re a slave to something that’s taking you down roads you don’t want to fucking go on. You’ve got to squeeze it out of you.”
Since then, Bernthal has made the most of his appearances on screen, no matter how minor the role. In 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and the rest of the boys are eating at a diner and talking about their swindles. Imperceptibly, Bernthal keeps asking for ketchup. After the fourth request, he looks at the empty bottle, his face becoming a mask of rage. He hurls it, and the festivities come to an immediate end. Bernthal planned it all without telling the director, Martin Scorsese. He is more than a little proud of his ballsiness.
“Marty runs out and he goes, ‘Okay, let’s do it again. Two cameras on the ketchup.’ ”
For all his recent tranquility, Bernthal still has a hard time keeping his feelings entirely under wraps. He talks about the absurdity of Hollywood with the naïveté of a young recruit who can’t believe people don’t naturally do the right thing.
In Fury, from 2014, Bernthal played a tank loader named Coon alongside Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, and Michael Peña. To hear Bernthal tell it, the cast spent months rehearsing in a Sherman tank, preparing to make a dark film. The screenplay centered on Pitt’s character, who’d developed a death wish after killing his wife and daughter in a drunk-driving accident before the war. Bernthal says the film was originally supposed to end with the tank crew deciding to make a last stand because they were too fucked up to go back to civilian life after the war. Instead, the scene was rewritten as straight-up Hollywood heroism. He told me he still doesn’t understand why the film made only the safest of choices. “All those kinds of decisions are made in rooms I’m not in.”
Bernthal’s passion project is a limited series he wants to produce about the drug wars of Shreveport. He’s made twenty-five trips down south to interview cops and gangbangers and is comfortable in a world where everyone has a .45 in their belt. But the superhero world now consumes most of his time. He first played Frank Castle in the second season of Daredevil, in which he appeared as a semi-ally of the eponymous blind superhero. Netflix was impressed enough with his kill ratio that it gave the Punisher thirteen episodes of his own.
The Punisher is so brutal that its debut was pushed back a month because of the massacre in Las Vegas in October. Not surprisingly, Bernthal is conflicted about the role that will likely define his career. He confessed that he spent days before we first talked thinking about how to address his character’s obsession with guns. The more he thought about it, and the more people he talked to, the more uncertain he became.
“I’m a gun owner,” Bernthal told me one afternoon in Ojai. “I have a gun in my house to keep my family safe. I’m trained in that gun’s use. I know how to keep it away from my kids, and I know how to use it if I need to.”
With Boss at his feet, he went back and forth talking about the cowardice of those who hold absolute positions on either side of the issue. “Should there be a way that a guy with mental issues like the asshole in Texas can’t get guns? Absolutely. We have to have a dialogue, and that’s not happening.” I noted that the Punisher’s symbol, a skull with long fangs, has been spotted on military helmets in Iraq and biker jackets, and was seen on the shoulders of alt-right protesters at the white-supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“I feel honored to play a guy who people putting their life on the line identify with,” Bernthal said.
And the alt-righters?
Bernthal says he’s done his research for The Punisher: visiting comic-book stores; buying vintage issues of the series; being loudly told “Don’t fuck this up” by Punisher completists. He prepared for the series by wearing headphones and carrying a loaded backpack through desolate stretches of New York to get into Castle’s headspace. He didn’t see his friends in the city during the shoot. “Ask people on set and they’ll say I’m difficult,” Bernthal told me. “But it’s not about my trailer or the food; it’s always about making the role make sense.”
Bernthal’s personal history—a deep acquaintance with violence that gave way to a midlife calm—made him perfect for the role. Steve Lightfoot, The Punisher’s showrunner, says that he told Bernthal, “All you talk about is your wife and your kids. That’s what this guy is. His superpower is the rage that he has toward the people that took them from him.” Lightfoot went on to say, “I find actors are best when they are playing characters that are not far from who they are.” Bernthal told me that he hadn’t been happy with the Punisher pilot. When he let people know about it, he magically stopped getting to see rough cuts of the show. Nevertheless, Lightfoot says he mostly appreciated Bernthal’s hyperinvolvement: “Sometimes we’d scream at each other for fifteen minutes, but it was never personal. It was never about his vanity. It was always about making the character better. And sometimes he’d suggest something and I’d go, ‘Shit, that’s good.’ ”
Bernthal’s epic feats of preparation have inspired both admiration and eye rolls among his employers. In Wind River, another recent bull’s-eye, he had a small role as a murdered girl’s boyfriend. Taylor Sheridan, the film’s director and screenwriter, told me that he had more conversations with Bernthal than he did with Jeremy Renner, the movie’s star. “He’s on camera for five minutes,” Sheridan said. “I talked for hours with Jon about how he was going to play that.” He laughed for a second at the memory of working with Bernthal on the character’s backstory. “And Jon was only there for one day. He just was so fucking prepared.”
Bernthal has shown a certain comfort being the guy who appears on set, rips off a killer take, and heads back to the airport. But he still hasn’t settled into being a superhero. He mentioned that some people feel awe walking into the Marvel Universe, much as he did walking onto a Scorsese set. “I got respect for those people,” he said. “But I don’t feel that way. I just don’t. It’s nothing against what they’re doing. That’s not what I watch.” He also noted that his idols have avoided comic-book movies completely. “You talk about Leo, you talk about Brad, the guys I really, really respect—and they have all kind of stayed clear of the superhero stuff.”
In Ojai, I told Bernthal that I thought his performance in Sweet Virginia, in which he plays a masculine man who is a husk of his former self, was his best yet. “Yeah. I’m really at a crossroads with my career,” he said. “There’s one way and there’s another way.”
On Halloween night in Ojai, the dark streets were filled with skeletons, ninjas, and fairy princesses. Bernthal told me he was looking forward to the holiday because work had caused him to miss the last three Halloweens with his kids. “There’s no pain like missing them,” he said. “It’s this sadness mixed with guilt and with shame; you’re not right there holding their hand, guiding them through things.”
Sensing that I was longing for my own kid, he invited me along for trick-or-treating. His two boys dressed up as Darth Vader and a magician. His wife dressed up as a farmer and clutched their two-year-old in her arms. Bernthal had wanted to be a pirate, but he ran out of time. Instead, he played the part of a suburban dad talking about parenthood with another dad. The next day, he’d be leaving for a trip that would keep him away until Thanksgiving. His boys appeared to have picked up on his sadness, and all three of them seemed determined to make the most of the night. They approached a two-story house manned by a family of zombies, including a zombie baby. None of them broke character. The kids grabbed candy and sprinted away. “Man, I know a bit about zombies, and that was fucking brilliant,” Bernthal said with amazement.
We walked in the dark, and Bernthal told me what he hoped for his kids, particularly his sons. “I want them to see kindness as masculine, not a sign of weakness.”
A little later, the Bernthal clan hit an elaborate haunted house set up by a Hollywood special- effects guy who lived in town. The boys were less than afraid. When a chain-saw-wielding ghoul jumped out at Bernthal’s middle child, the kid punched his assailant in the testicles.
Bernthal apologized to the ghoul and tried to explain to his son that the man was just pretending to be a bad guy. Bernthal watched as his boy took off howling and laughing through the house.
Sometime later, when he remembered that moment, Bernthal said, “That kid isn’t afraid of anything. He’s going to have to learn things on his own.”