Since playing Shane Walsh on The Walking Dead, Jon Bernthal has done some great work in films like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Wolf of Wall Street, We Are Your Friends, Fury and now the Denis Villeneuve-directed Sicario. With the film now in theaters, I recently got on the phone with Bernthal for an exclusive interview. During our wide-ranging conversation he talked about bouncing between all these cool projects, getting to work with Roger Deakins and Denis Villeneuve, what it was like to work with David Ayer on Fury, the secrecy around playing the Punisher on Netflix’s Daredevil season 2, future projects like The Accountant, Pilgrimage, Viena and the Fantomes, and a lot more.
If you still haven’t watched Sicario (which is one of my favorite films of 2015), the film stars Emily Blunt as an FBI agent who’s assigned to assist in the war on drugs on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. She sets out on a top-secret mission under the leadership of a questionable consultant (Benicio Del Toro) whose actions make her rethink what she’s committed herself to. Josh Brolin, who plays an elite government task force official, also stars alongside Jon Bernthal, Victor Garber, and Jeffrey Donovan. For more on Sicario, read Adam’s review and why he thinks it’s a serious awards contender in a number of Oscar categories.
Here’s what Bernthal had to say. And if you missed my Roger Deakins Sicario interview, click here.
Collider: It seems like you’ve been taking some smaller roles in films like Sicario, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, We Are Your Friends, has it been cool to be able to bounce between all these different projects?
JON BERNTHAL: Yeah, sure. I mean, I really feel like that’s all I’ve been doing the last year so I think that’s half of last year for me. I got back from doing Fury and that was just a huge, long deal so I think what I really wanted to do was work with as many great directors as I could but not really be kind of concerned with how big or small the part was. That’s how I always tends to be to kind of go in a work with the best people I possibly can and do my thing and move on to the next, and it was a really cool year. But definitely Sicario, as far as screen goes, is one of the smallest roles I’ve done in a long time but it was an unbelievably rewarding experience. When Prisoners came out, I thought it was the best film of the year that year, a highly under-rated film, and then I saw his movie Incendies and Denis [Villenueve] quickly became one of my favorite directors working today and I was desperate to work with him. I didn’t even listen to the movie I just told him I wanted to be a part of it no matter what it was, I would do anything to sort of get a shot at that. I got the script and was really into [Taylor] Sheridan and he’s one of the most exciting writers out there right now, I think because of the fact that he’s an actor he delivers really rich dialogue and I had the pleasure of reading some of his other scripts for movies that are coming out soon and he’s just something else, and then, look, Roger Deakins is the best of all time. And then the cast, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, who are two of my favorite actors; and after working we Emily Blunt I think she might be my favorite actress. So this is a real honor to be a part of and I’m extremely grateful for it.
You touched on the name that I want to talk about which is Roger Deakins, obviously he’s a God among men in terms of what he can do. You definitely have to share stories about getting to work with him.
BERNTHAL: Look, I think it’s across the board with this group, these guys are all masters at what they do and I think some of the commonality I find among the real greats is that they’re real collaborators. There’s a real even flow, it’s all about conversation, it’s all about the sharing of ideas and an openness to sort of roll and see where it takes us, it’s not going in with a set idea. That’s what I find in all of the real greats I’ve gotten to work with is that they’re never pressured, they’ve done enough work and are confident enough to be absolutely open in the moment and creates this sort of environment on set that you really think anything can happen and when I’ve been lucky enough to work with the real greats that’s how it was, and it was definitely the case with Sicario.
In the last few years, you’ve been able to work on some really cool projects, and you’ve been in the business for a while. How has your process of getting ready for a role maybe changed based on your experience in all these different genres?Have you refined it at all or do you have a very similar approach?
BERNTHAL: Yeah. That’s the thing, that’s one of the great things about this job for me, it’s – for lack of a better word– a journey, it’s a constant sort of mission trying to get better and better and to learn more. And the way you do that is by surrounding yourself with the best possible people and to work on material that allows you to play. When you get a chance to work around some of the people that I mentioned in Sicario, you dive in because you’re gonna learn, you’re gonna get better, and each role, each process, each director comes with its own way of going about its operation. Some call for months and months of training, some call for the opposite, so you have to be open a really adaptable and malleable, and what’s really great is when you get to work with someone who’s really leading and you can sort of follow the leader a little bit and admire them. And working with people where you’re not quite as sure you have to worry about a lot of things that you shouldn’t have to worry about, like where’s the camera set up, how is this being shot, who else is on the camera with me, what’s the lighting, how do I use the light; stuff that I feel like it’s a real incentive, it’s such a gift when you don’t have to think about those things, you can just dive into the thing and concentrate on what he wants.
When you’re working with Roger Deakins, did you get to geek out with him at all? Because I know you must be a fan of his work.
BERNTHAL: Look, I’m a huge fan, huge fan, but that’s just really not my style. I got nothing against people who do that but it’s just when I go into a job I think it annoys seriously. I really kind of have to go in thinking we put on our pants one leg at a time and I can’t just shoot the shit here and just be in awe of everybody, I gotta go and be this guy and bring him to life and I gotta do my best to try and bring a three-dimensional character to life and elevate it. I think it’s you spend too long in this, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m in a room with so and so” I think you start skipping away and you have to sort of scratch that and you gotta just go and do the best work as you possibly can. And, again, I think the real great artists, part of their greatness is that they make everybody around them feel like they were at ease and they not only demand but they push great work out of people and they’re completely down, they’re completely committed to making the best product possible. I think the ideal collaboration puts people at ease, so it comes from that. I think Emily did an amazing job at doing that, [Leonardo] DiCaprio did that. But I think it’s the job of a director to create an environment and an atmosphere where creativity can flourish, where companion is and everybody feels at ease and everybody feels confident to voice opinions and to take risks and to be bold and I don’t know if I’ve been in as a creatively stimulating and creatively exciting an environment as the one that Denis created and I think he’s truly one of the greats, again, I’m just so grateful that we were able to cross paths.
I’m sure you know that Denis is gonna do the Blade Runner sequel, I spoke to Denis at TIFF and I said to him, “If it wasn’t you and it wasn’t Roger Deakins, I’d be like, ‘Get the fuck outta here with that sequel’ But because it’s you guys, I’m willing to give it a chance.” Do you feel similarly?
BERNTHAL: I do, 100%. I feel the same way that you do and I think with this guy it’s the real fucking deal, there’s just no two ways about it. I mean, go watch Incendies, go watch his shorts. Everything he’s done is so different and so bold, he’s a true genius story maker, that’s what I think. And then you’re talking about Deakins, this will have its own flavor, this will have its own spin, it will be exciting and I would flock to the theater to see anything that these guys do, and I think the fact that they’re committed to each other is exciting.
I agree and think their work together on Prisoners, just like you said, is magnificent.
BERNTHAL: Yeah, yeah. Me too, me too.
I’m a big fan of David Ayer, and I’ve only seen the theatrical cut of Fury. I never saw the extended cut, it’s my fault. I saw Shia [LaBeouf] and he said, “Steve, you really have done yourself a disservice not seeing the extended cut, it’s tremendous.” So I have to ask you, have you seen the extended cut, and what are your thoughts?
BERNTHAL: Yeah. I mean, look, David Ayer is family, the people who made that movie, they’re family, Shia’s family. That movie is gonna be burned into my soul and into my heart forever. The pure process of making that movie, what we all kind of went through and did together and being in David Ayer’s world. I think my experience with Ayer was so much more intense and just longer, I think that these guys who are sort of going to be the next batch of genius directors, the next Polanskis, the next Oliver Stones; I’m so grateful to work with these guys, with Villenueve, with David, you talk about guys that are still so hungry, with so much to prove and to me it’s the same way. I talked a little before being on set and you need to feel that anything is possible and when you talk about Ayer literally anything and everything happens take to take, anything can happen, real violence can happen, real anger can happen; You never knew what was gonna happen on his set and I think that we lost so much sort of on the field with that movie that to go and watch deleted scenes, to go and watch extended versions, yeah would only add. And that’s the real art to filmmaking and the tragedy of filmmaking, just how much –You shoot the film through your eyes and you’re there every day, you see a different film than the one that eventually comes out and there’s so much that gets left on the floor. So I think if there’s an opportunity to see a little bit more you should take it, especially with a guy like Ayer. Again, I got so much respect for him and I love him so much and I believe in him so much, Ayer’s just genius.
I have to ask you, have you walked into a comic book store and been like, “Yo, what’s up?” and watched the reaction?
BERNTHAL: [Laughs] I definitely go to comic book stores a lot, definitely not to see reactions, usually I’m not looking for reactions. Obviously with what I’m doing now I can’t talk about it, Marvel is very strict, but one of the great things is the preparation is just reading comic after comic after comic and view different iterations and it’s rich history. I go through these things so fast, every time a find a new comic book I try to remain as current as possible but I’m constantly looking for new material.
Believe me, I cover a lot of Marvel stuff and know the secrecy that goes on, I will not ask you to talk about the show in terms of anything with story.
BERNTHAL: Thanks, man.
But I am curious though, are you still filming, are you allowed to say that?
BERNTHAL: [Laughs] No, I’m not even allowed to say even that. I can say that it’s a character that’s important to so many people and people really care about this guy, people I know and people I care about, people from law enforcement, people from military. It’s a huge honor and I’m gonna continue to work my ass off trying to get this right, to do as well as I can. It’s just a big honor.
I was very happy when you booked the gig. I’m gonna ask you about a tweet though. I’m gonna ask you about the tweet that you sent out in of you in front of a lot of guns. When you tweet like that, is that something that you do on your own or do you run it by the publicist and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this. What do you think”?
BERRNTHAL: I gotta be honest with you, I don’t know really what I can say about that, but I will say is that the tweet that I put out there has absolutely nothing to do with the show.
Oh, ok. There you go.
BERNTHAL: Yeah, that’s really all I can say, that they have nothing to do with it.
Sure, so let’s switch gears so I don’t get you in any trouble.
BERNTHAL: Thank you, man.
You’ve gotten to do a few other things recently like The Accountant, Pilgrimage, Viena and the Fantomes, what can you tease people about some of these roles and how different are they from the things that you’ve done in the past?
BERNTHAL: Quite different, man. I’m really excited about a lot of this stuff. The Accountant is a great script, a great director, Gavin O’Connor, he did Warrior, he did Miracle, he did Pride and Glory; it’s Ben Affleck, it’s J.K. Simmons, it’s Anna Kendrick. Really great story, it’s kind of like a Bourne sort of thing but very character-based, it was a really exciting movie to be a part of, a different kind of part for me and I’m excited, I’m excited to see that one. Pilgrimage is just an absolute flavor of love, it’s a movie set in 12th century Ireland, it’s an international cast, it’s kind of like a Braveheart sort of movie but you got two different languages spoken in the film. I play I mute, so I was over in Ireland for three months but I was not taking at all, and that eventually turned into another language, the language of not being able to speak. I was the only American in the film but I’m really excited to see that one. And then Viena and the Fantomes, I did that a while back with a really exciting director Gerardo Naranjo, he did a movie called Miss Bala which is sort of incredible. That was the first job that I did after Fury, another one of those smaller part but working with a director I really believed in and wanted to work with. I’m really excited about all of those movies and I can’t wait to see them, they’re all great experiences.
You’ve done TV, you’ve done movies, obviously you’re doing Daredevil, is going back to a TV character — where you could be locked down for many seasons — something that excited you, or are you just enjoying movies, or is it whatever the best part is?
BERNTHAL: It’s wherever the best part is. I think whether it’s TV or film what I’m into is I want to work with the best people on the best possible material. I know that that’s not the best possible answer but it’s true. I think there’s real positives and negatives in all genres and you gotta whey all of that when making your decisions. As an actor, I don’t care who you are, you spend some chunk of your career in the beginning, some more than others, where you’re just trying to just work, be a part of anything, and if you get lucky enough you start being able to make some choices. For me, I try to not discriminate against the genres and the sort of ups and downs of that. You have to take them into account but I think if you sort of stay true to wanting to work on the things that you really wanna watch and with the people that you’re huge fans of I think you should stick to that. That’s at least my plan, that’s what make me happy and I’ve been really blessed, I’m really grateful for that and that’s really the world that I’m of.
I wanna say congratulations on everything, and as a huge fan of the first season of Daredevil I am really looking forward to seeing you take on the character.
BERNTHAL: Thanks, man. I really appreciate you saying that and I really hope that you dig it, I hope that people dig this.
I know that people will and I’m looking forward to those fights.