Jon Bernthal’s used to playing dark, intensely driven, morally ambiguous characters. The men he’s brought to life on screen usually say more with their fists than anything else, which is why the actor’s new film Sweet Virginia stands out. Sure, Bernthal winds up bloodied, beaten, and holding a shotgun at some point in the flick, but he also gets a chance to play a washed-up rodeo rider content to let his dreams die in a sleepy Alaskan town. It’s a far cry from Frank Castle, a man who’s about to get a full season to exact his brutal, in-your-face style of revenge on Netflix’s The Punisher.
We chatted with Bernthal about the two very different characters, how Russian theater helped prepare him play a vigilante, and how things would be different if he was still on The Walking Dead.
You’ve got Sweet Virginia and The Punisher coming out on the same day this month. Some fans are petitioning for Nov. 17th just to be declared Jon Bernthal day. How do you feel about that?
Oh, cool. I’m super humbled and it’s a crazy time. I’m really excited for Punisher. I’m really grateful that they’re giving me this opportunity to keep playing this part. It’s a part that I really care about, it’s really in my blood and my bones, and Sweet Virginia I couldn’t be more excited about. I feel like it’s a real celebration of filmmaking. I think [director] Jamie Dagg is absolutely a force to be reckoned with. I think that movies these days… It’s rare to get to go to a film really just to see great performances and great filmmaking. I think when you see what Christopher Abbott does with this movie, I think it’s gonna blow people away. It’s like Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.
You’re playing a different kind of guy here. The original role for your character was actually supposed to be this 65-year-old man, which you are not obviously.
Recently I think they were talking about maybe Forest Whitaker playing the part, and me and Forest don’t normally go up for the same part. [Laughs.] Honestly, it was a script for a guy in his 50s or 60s, and he needed to be broken down. When they first talked to me about it, I said, “Look guys, I’m just not the right guy for this part.” I was training for Punisher, I was pretty big and strong when we were making the movie. How do you portray this guy as broken down. How do you introduce that energy? We were inventive, and Jaime really took real freedoms with the script. There was a fist fight in the movie. In the script, [my character] wins. We thought, “Well, what would it be like if he gets beaten up?” I was really grateful. I think it says a lot about Jamie and the kind of artist that he is, that he was that willing to change on the fly and be open to new ideas.
The Punisher is landing soon on Netflix. Be honest, has the pressure eased off any this time around?
The pressure definitely hasn’t eased off. I’m humble and grateful that the response to Daredevil season two was what it was. When we went into making Daredevil, I’d never done that before. I’ve never been part of show that was already successful. I was blown away with the elegance of the way that they told that story, the patience that they had. When I saw what Vincent D’Onofrio did I said, “This is something that I really want to be a part of.” He created this character that was terrifying, and yet you felt for him.
I’m never the kind of guy [to say], “Well I got this, I figured this guy out.” I feel a ton of pressure. I want to get this right. This character means a lot to a lot of people, the comic book fans, members in the military, and members of law enforcement. I don’t think you ever really get there. I think that if I wasn’t terrified, something would be monumentally wrong.
One thing I’m so excited about is that Marvel keeps giving Deborah Ann Woll more to do in these shows, because she’s incredible. How does she fit into this season with Frank Castle’s story?
It’s one of my favorite relationships, and I can’t say enough good about Deb. She blows me away. She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. She’s kind, she’s so unbelievably talented and intelligent. That is the anchor for Frank. I feel like what I love most about that relationship is it’s completely unlabeled, there’s no way to define it, it’s between the two of us. That’s one of the most honest things I think you can achieve on a film, when there’s no labels on a relationship, you don’t really know what it is, and you just know these people are drawn to each other, they’re connected to each other, they frustrate each other, and they make each other insane. And I think that’s really what this thing is, and no matter what they put down there, me and Deb refuse to label that relationship, and anything is possible.
I’ve always thought Frank sees in Karen what he would hope and think that his daughter would have grown up to be like. Intelligent and brave and courageous and bold. But then, it could be anything, and I think it’s just these people that are drawn to each other.
So the Kastle shippers will be happy then?
I hope they’re gonna be happy. There’s a bit at the end of the series where the two of them are just alone in an elevator together and they’re looking at each other and we didn’t know what it was gonna be, we didn’t know what was gonna happen, we didn’t know what it was gonna mean, but it definitely means something. I never want to spoon to the audience what they should think or they should feel. We have a really intelligent audience, and I dig that. I dig not filling in all the blanks.
I think if people liked the relationship last year, it’s only gonna intensify this year. When you take a character like Frank Castle, who has built a wall around his heart, and almost tactically does not want to let anybody in, it’s always interesting when you see him start to care about someone.
You studied acting in Russia. What skills do you take from Russian theater?
I think that what I learned over there is what made me an artist, I think that’s what made me a man, and I’ll always be grateful and indebted to the people in the Moscow Arts Theater. They take things very seriously over there. During communist times, and that’s the time my teachers were growing up, the artists were making art that was deemed not state-sanctioned, or was interpreted as having anti-state meaning. Actors were assassinated, they were killed, they were sent to prison for their entire lives. My teachers did illegal plays, they did plays in secret where they performed in tunnels and under bridges. The audience would sneak to watch these plays. If any of them had been caught, the audience or on stage, they would have been sent to prison. But that’s how important it was to them.
For me, this thing’s always been vital, it’s always been better give it your all, and I think that comes from Russia. With Frank Castle, honestly, I could go on and on about that answer. [It’s] such a physical role. In Russia, part of the training is acrobatics, it’s ballet, it’s rhythm, it’s incorporating your entire body, the movement courses. I’ve played college sports, I’ve played football, I’ve played baseball, I boxed; nothing was as rigorous as my theater training in Russia, and I’ll always be grateful to them.
So ballet prepared The Punisher a little bit then?
I’m fine with that statement.
If Shane Walsh were still on The Walking Dead, would we have the Negan problem we have now?
The people who make Walking Dead are some of the people I care about most in this world. I love those guys, but I think Shane would have no time for any of that nonsense. I don’t think the Governor or Negan or any of these people that oppose and threaten his family, to his little girl, I don’t think that they would last long. I really don’t.