Hello, everyone! Jon is featured in next month’s issue of Men’s Health. with a brand new photoshoot. Check out the cover and some outtakes in our gallery!
The sun has almost set on a warm October evening, and I can’t find Jon Bernthal anywhere. I’m walking along a racetrack against an exploding lilac-and-orange sky in the middle of the desert two hours outside Los Angeles. The sound of revving engines is so loud that yelling his name is futile. A few hundred people buzz about, carrying cartons of cigarettes and department-store dinner jackets and porkpie hats and scripts and lights and everything else a summer-tentpole budget can buy to transform our present-day digital hellscape into sweet, simple 1966.
I’ve spent the past week holed up in an underground lair with Bernthal, sort of, watching and rewatching his devastating turn as Frank Castle, aka the Punisher—a combat-veteran action hero whose superpower is his quest for justice fueled by the anguish and rage he feels after his wife and children are slaughtered in front of him—so I like my chances of being able to spot him in this traveling circus. I’m confident I’ve memorized each tiny jut of wayward bone in his nose, which has been broken 14 times. When I don’t find Bernthal in his trailer, I walk toward the starting line and look for the biggest, most tatted-up loner. So I’m shocked when a reasonably sized dude with a side part and an A-list smile waves me down; sticks his hand out; says, “Hi, I’m Jon! So happy you made it!”; and begins introducing me to half the crew. Castle is a man of few words and even fewer friends who communicates with his eyes and his fists. The guy who plays him responds to every one of my questions with thoughtful, multiple-paragraph soliloquies and is bros with everyone on the set.
Bernthal is a day from wrapping the three-month shoot of his latest movie, an epic drama about Ford’s push to build a race car that could finally beat the mythic Italian automaker Ferrari at the Le Mans world championship in France. The odds are good that the film—directed by James Mangold (Logan) and also starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale—will boost Bernthal’s profile when it premieres this summer.
In the film, Bernthal plays Lee Iacocca, the American auto executive who brought sexy, fast cars like the Ford Mustang to baby boomers as they came of age. It’s a huge departure from the brass-knuckled characters the actor has typically portrayed, such as a veteran who gets beaten to death trying to prevent his girlfriend from being raped (Wind River) and a rodeo cowboy grappling with early-onset Parkinson’s disease (Sweet Virginia). As I shake his hand, I notice stage makeup caked on his right wrist to cover up a tattoo, which bears the name of his acting teacher Alma Becker. I ask him if this is the only adjustment he’s had to make to fill Iacocca’s shoes. He laughs. Then he says he wanted the part badly, but he jumped into filming just two days after wrapping season 2 of The Punisher (which will be released on Netflix in mid-January) and felt like, well, a superhero out of water.
“At the center of this movie is this man’s dream,” says Bernthal. “When [Iacocca] comes into an idea, it’s just like, How can we make this work? It’s so different from Frank Castle, who literally lives in darkness and is not interested in even getting through the day. He’s interested in the momentary quieting of the noise.” Bernthal says he felt intimidated and scared those first several days on the set. “One of my best friends, Sean Carrigan, came to set after my first week, and he saw how I was and he said, ‘Hey, man, don’t forget who the fuck you are. You’re Henry Bernthal’s father, you’re Billy Bernthal’s father, you’re Adeline Bernthal’s father. You are who you are, and you’re what you’ve been through. Do not let this fuck you up.’ ” He shakes his head at the memory. “I came back the next Monday a different man.”
“A different man” is a trope of most Bernthal profiles, and though he describes himself that way to me more than once, he insists he’s sick of his own personal street-fighting-kid-turned-leading-man narrative. Yes, he got into a lot of scraps as a teen in Washington, D. C., in the ’90s, and later, after he moved to L. A. “But I’m so bored with that story of my life,” Bernthal says. “I put that guy to bed a long time ago. I’m a father and I’m a husband and I’m an artist, and I take my work seriously.”
So, back to the work. The scenes Bernthal is filming today are mostly reaction shots in which he says nothing. Cars whiz by on the track, he stands against a fence watching them, and the cameras watch him. After the crew finishes with close-ups of his face, we head 100 or so yards to his trailer. His personal effects are his boxing gloves and a water bowl for his pit bull Bam Bam, and that’s it. His mini-fridge is stocked with LaCroix and nothing else. He’s hoping shooting will wrap in the next hour so that he can jam out of here and drive back to his home in the sleepy hippie town of Ojai to make it to his kid’s soccer game.
Bernthal’s crazy work schedule—The Punisher’s second season shot for six months in New York—means that he misses more games than he would like. (His wife, Erin, brings the kids to New York each summer when they’re on break.) The distance gnaws at him. He tells me he draws on the pain of being separated from his own family to play the grieving Frank Castle. “I know there’s a ticking clock on this career, and one day the phone is gonna stop ringing,” he says. “Above all, I have a responsibility to take care of my family, but it’s hard because it takes me away from the people I love. . . . If I’m going to be away from my kids, I want one day for them to look at it and say, ‘Well, Dad was gone, but he was giving everything he had.’ ”
He makes a fist with his right hand to emphasize that last point, and I notice a jagged scar just below his thumb. “That’s where I broke my hand on the first day of filming the first fight scene of the year for The Punisher 2,” he says. “I kept on fighting, and on day two I tore ligaments, then on day three I dislocated it and had to get emergency surgery.” He tells me he was knocked unconscious during filming, and rolls up his shirtsleeves to reveal several more scars up and down his arms. “Was it the smartest thing to keep fighting with a broken hand? Maybe not. Maybe I could have been out for a shorter time. But I look at filming a scene like that the same way I look at a boxing match. I’m not gonna be the one to say I’m gonna walk away.”
The journey toward becoming Henry’s and Billy’s and Adeline’s father and remembering who the fuck he is almost didn’t happen. After leaving Skidmore College in 1999, Bernthal took Becker’s advice and joined the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia. While there, he boxed, took ballet, and played catcher on a pro baseball team. He lived in squalor and listened to a lot of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. On the night he returned to D. C., the following year, his friends threw him a welcome-home party at a local bar. He noticed one of his buddies talking to two women, so he went over to josh him. “I came over and was just rudely messing around, and I know this is the corniest thing in the world, but when I actually saw Erin, it was literally like angels were singing,” he says. “I had never seen anyone so beautiful.”
He wound up talking to the young Georgetown University Hospital trauma nurse for 45 minutes. They started dating, but he was only in his early 20s and had no idea where it would go. When Bernthal moved to Boston to study acting at Harvard, Erin followed him, taking a job as a nurse at Mass General. After they moved to L. A., there was a brief break in their relationship when Bernthal “did a bunch of dumb stuff” and Erin dumped him and moved to San Francisco.
Whenever he didn’t have auditions, the devastated actor would drive up to the Bay Area and put flowers and poems on her car. Then one day when he thought she might be softening, he was able to rustle up two tickets to see Willie Nelson at the Fillmore. “I snuck backstage. I found this beautiful postcard and wrote Willie this long letter and rolled him a beautiful joint and told him the situation with me and my woman,” says Bernthal. “I told him she’s a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin’ man, and I asked him to play this one song ‘Always on My Mind’ for us, and he did.” That night they got back together for good.
A superhero in the Marvel universe is the role of a lifetime for any actor, especially for a man like Bernthal, who in a different life might have been a professional boxer. But the thing I like best about The Punisher is that it’s a searing meditation on loss; each episode goes deeper than the one before it in exploring the trouble that humans, particularly men, have in accessing their emotions and cauterizing their wounds. It would be a mistake to dismiss Bernthal as a one-note tough-guy performer. He’s best when he’s at his most vulnerable: nervous about being around a woman he might like, scared he’s going to screw up as a surrogate dad to a boy mourning the loss of his father, flashing back to the horrifying carnage he’s witnessed.
Bernthal says he has a collection of music related to his wife and kids, and listening to it gets him into that dark Frank Castle headspace. He uses it selectively and says even talking about it makes him want to throw up—like this second. To burrow into Castle’s psyche, Bernthal has also become close with a number of tip-of-the-spear Special Forces veterans who have shared what it’s like to live with PTSD and what it really means to come home. “I know how much this character means to people,” he says. “The fact that people in the military have worn that skull into battle and fought and died for this country really means a lot to me.”
The Punisher, of course, operates under a strict moral code. But Bernthal understands how imperative it is in American society right now to separate fact from fiction, and it’s part of why he’s reluctant to glorify the street fights he got into when he was younger. “Our country is being inundated by this false machismo and people who talk tough and have never actually fought for anything in their life,” he says. “I’m afraid patriotism and masculinity are being confused and bastardized in a way where it’s just become bravado and bluster. I’ve boxed in gyms all over this country and the world. And through that journey, I learned the loudest guy in the gym is always the one you don’t have to worry about.”
When I ask him how he and his wife are raising their seven- and five-year-old sons in a culture currently reckoning with masculinity, he says the role of father is the most important job he’ll ever have. Henry and Billy, he says, walk three-year-old Adeline to school every day and carry her bag. They’ve also been doing jujitsu since they were two, because Bernthal wants his boys to be able to handle themselves, to protect their own families and anyone else who might need to be defended from bad guys.
“By the way, I want them to learn how to play piano and do their schoolwork with the exact same level of fierceness,” he adds. “Whatever they do in this world, I’m okay with it, as long as they go full bore. That’s the real challenge of fatherhood, to try to divorce yourself from your own bullshit and to realize I want these kids to be better than me. I don’t want them to make the same mistakes I did.” During the weekend he took to sort himself out after that rough first week of filming the Ford-versus-Ferrari movie, he realized Iacocca wasn’t alien to him. “I see a lot of my old man in him,” says Bernthal. “He’s just as strong and tough as any soldier or cop that I would have played, but his strength comes from his integrity and his honesty and the fact that he can be counted on and his unwillingness to give up.”
Most famous people are reluctant to talk about their families to reporters, but Bernthal tells me he’s grateful I’m interested, because a lot has happened in the past year and he’s only now ready to discuss it. In November 2017, the day after the first season of The Punisher debuted, Bernthal was supposed to begin filming his role as astronaut Dave Scott alongside Ryan Gosling in First Man. But out of nowhere, his daughter, then two, had a seizure and fell into a coma.
He dropped out of the film and raced to be by her side. Diagnosed with encephalitis—a potentially fatal viral infection that causes swelling of the brain—Adeline remained in a coma for three days, and when she awoke she did not recognize her family. While Bernthal was, understandably, a panicky mess, he says his trauma-nurse wife helped Adeline by staying calm and “pouring love into our daughter every step of the way.” She has since made a full recovery. “People talk about bravery like fake macho bravery, but my wife didn’t flinch,” he says. “What I saw in my wife was courage and beauty unlike I’d ever seen.”
After we’ve talked for an hour, Bernthal’s friend (he hates the word assistant) Lauren tells him he’s done filming for the day. The sun has long set, so making it back to Ojai for soccer is not possible. He excuses himself to change out of his dress pants and shoes and into sweats and combat boots he might have borrowed from Frank Castle. Walking in Castle’s boots has taught Bernthal how precious time is, he says, and nearly losing Adeline cemented his ethos of not wasting too many moments. He’s been thinking a lot about how to best squeeze the marrow out of 2019. In January, he’ll go to Romania to film the dark cowboy shoot-’em-up comedy Snow Ponies. He’ll likely do another movie and then start season 3 of The Punisher. He’s also spent six years researching and writing a true-crime story about cops and gangs in Shreveport, Louisiana. But he says he has only two goals for the new year: to make it to as many of his kids’ games and spend as many nights in his own bed next to his wife as possible.
On the night before the photo shoot for this story, Bernthal was at a Willie Nelson concert at the Hollywood Bowl with his family and friends when his children started running amok. “I turned to them and said, ‘Hey, guys, this is Willie Nelson, and he’s real important to your mama.’ ” The trio of tykes settled down, and the music washed over them all. In the past, he’s been frustrated with profiles written about him that ask the question “Will the Punisher ever find peace?” “I’m sitting there at the show with my kids and thinking, This is the best moment of my life. This is peace.”