BWW EXCLUSIVE: Jon Bernthal Talks WALKING DEAD Season Premiere, Theatre Background & More!

By: Oct. 16, 2011
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On Saturday afternoon, prior to his appearance at Comic Con, I had the pleasure of speaking to THE WALKING DEAD lead actor Jon Bernthal all about his theatre background and his Ovation Award-nominated performance in SMALL ENGINE REPAIR, and, also, his critically praised work on the monster AMC hit series THE WALKING DEAD, which makes its grand return tonight for the launch of its hotly-anticipated second season. I am also happy to share that I was lucky enough to view the first two episodes myself and I can tell you that it has certainly been worth the wait since THE WALKING DEAD was last seen on TV last year - although the pay-off certainly won't pay off completely until next week given the grisly occurrences in the premiere (and the mind-blowing cliffhanger)! And, believe it or not, Episode Two is even better! Discussing all aspects of his WALKING DEAD character and what we can expect from tomorrow night's zombie apocalypse shocker - as well as the rest of Season Two - Bernthal and I shed some light on the production of the second season of the hit show so far and how the series will now fare without former show-runner Frank Darabont at the helm. Most importantly, Bernthal shares his deep understanding and passion for theatre and his devotion to his craft - musing on Brecht, Shakespeare, Lanford Wilson, Neil LaBute and more - as we trace his career trajectory onstage and onscreen from Moscow to Harvard to New York - including the founding of the Fovea Floods theatre company - and, onscreen, from the film version of the hit Off-Broadway interactive play TONY N' TINA'S WEDDING in the early 1990s all the way up to HBO'S THE PACIFIC and Roman Polanski's THE GHOST WRITER in 2010. Bernthal is also kind enough to share with us what we can look forward to coming up in the near future: RAMPARTS, co-starring fellow InDepth InterView participant Steve Buscemi! Plus, his thoughts on previous castmates and collaborators Chris Pine, Jason Ritter, Andrea Anders and more!

THE WALKING DEAD airs Sunday nights at 9 PM on AMC.

Making Art Alive

PC: How did you get involved with the film version of TONY N' TINA'S WEDDING? I didn't even know there was a film of it!

JB: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think you are not alone in that, man! I don't think too many people have seen the film version. I think only, probably, the people who were involved in the making of it have seen it.

PC: Were you involved with the stage play at some point and that's how you got involved?

JB: You know, I wasn't. Right when I got out of theatre school, I came to New York and it was just sort of the first movie gig that I got.

PC: Your big break.

JB: Yeah, I mean, at the time, I was thrilled to be a part of it - you know, it was Mila Kunis and Joey McIntire from the New Kids On The Block, Adrien Grenier, a bunch of people from THE SOPRANOS - and, Mary Testa, a great theatre actress.

PC: Oh, wow - Mary Testa!

JB: Yeah, she's great. For a lot of us, we really loved it. I mean, I had nothing to compare it to when it came to film, so they would just sort of turn on the cameras and we would just sort of act the whole thing out in front of the cameras. And, a lot of the more experienced film actors were kind of complaining and miserable the whole time, but I thought it was a blast because it was just like doing a big play in front of cameras.

PC: Right.

JB: I learned that it's usually much different very soon, though! [Laughs.]

PC: You had already been doing a lot of theatre at that point, of course.

JB: Yeah, I went to school to play sports, but I got involved in theatre in college kind of by mistake. I ended up taking an acting class almost just to get rid of an arts requirement, but I wound up in this wonderful acting class with this teacher named Alma Becker who really saved my life.

PC: How so?

JB: Well, I was just kind of this knucklehead kid from DC and I was in and out of trouble all of the time. I took a theatre class and she really discovered something in me and I absolutely fell in love with it. She put me in my first play. And, then, I got in some more trouble and I had to leave school and Alma was the woman who pushed me to move to Moscow and enroll in the Moscow Art Theatre.

PC: How interesting.

JB: So, I moved to Moscow and studied there for a couple of years and, then, Harvard has a graduate school for acting where they bring their students to, and, they saw me in a show there and they asked me if I wanted to get an MFA from the ART at Harvard. And, again, I was such an idiot, troublemaker kid, I said, "Sure, I'll go to Harvard!"

PC: That's hilarious.

JB: So, I was acting at the ART when it was a real exciting time up there and I got out about six or seven years ago. And, then, I had a theatre company here in New York and we were doing a lot of experimental stuff and ontological theater. That was totally my background and that's all I ever wanted to do - I wanted to be onstage here in New York and I wanted to do regional theater. I was getting to do some in my first year, but, then, I understudied a play at the Signature with Jo Bonney directing - a Lanford Wilson play; THE FIFTH OF JULY.

PC: A great play.

JB: Yeah, obviously you know it! So, Parker Posey was in it - and, Robert Sean Leonard.

PC: Great casting.

JB: I got to understudy all the males - I had just gotten out of school. It was a wonderful learning experience for me, but it really dawned on me that, on the New York stage, I was seeing these people who had made names for themselves in television and film and people were coming to see them in roles onstage in New York. I never knew that those two worlds were connected. I really had no interest in going into TV or film, but when I saw that and I saw how much it can help your theatre career - I went to LA immediately!

PC: Exposure is all.

JB: Yeah, I mean, I went out there for a weekend and got my first TV show.

PC: Wow.

JB: Unfortunately - and fortunately - it has made me really busy with that over the last five years. Since moving out to LA, I've only done two plays: I did one at the Geffen with Jo Bonney directing and I also did a play last year. I have just been so busy with TV and film that I haven't done nearly enough theatre.

PC: What was the play at the Geffen?

JB: It was called FAT PIG. Neil LaBute.

PC: It is supposedly still coming to Broadway soon with Dane Cook.

JB: I know it. I know.

PC: It's quite an intriguing play.

JB: Yeah, it's a great play. And, it was great to work with Jo Bonney again - you know, when I was still in school, I was an understudy for FIFTH OF JULY, so it was so cool to actually get a chance to be directed by her again.

PC: Speaking of Neil LaBute, your co-star from THE CLASS, Jason Ritter, recently did the lead in a LaBute debut and he just did this column this week, as well. Did you enjoy working with him on THE CLASS - wasn't that actually your first big TV gig?

JB: Sure. Yeah, that was. That was my first show in LA and it was such a wonderful experience. I mean, there you had a bunch of people in their mid-to-early twenties and we were all - virtually - from a theatre background. To be able to do that kind of a show in front a live studio audience was just… [Pause.]

PC: Fantastic.

JB: I mean, those guys were just so talented! It just became this awesome family of theatre actors where we got to sort of sit and watch each other's work, day in and day out, and just try to make each other laugh and try to make it as honest as we could and still keep it funny, you know?

PC: A difficult balance to strike.

JB: To work with Jimmy Burrows was so cool, too. But, back to your question: I love Jason, man. Jason is one of those actors - and, it's so rare - he's wonderfully talented and, also, a sweet, awesome human being. He just brings such light and energy to everyone around him. It's great, because, you know, we did that show in 2006, 2007 and we still get together for dinners whenever we're all in town. And, we still see each other and love each other and support each other.

PC: How wonderful that is to hear.

JB: Yeah, it was a really, really wonderful group of people. I love them dearly and I always will.

PC: I actually recently interviewed another of your CLASS co-stars, Andrea Anders, down in Georgia - where she films NECESSARY ROUGHNESS and you film THE WALKING DEAD.

JB: She's amazing! Oh, she's great. I mean, what's so cool about that, also, is that the reason why I did FAT PIG - to keep this all about THE CLASS - was that she was in it. She was in FAT PIG at the Geffen and I went to see her in it.

PC: Oh, really?

JB: Yeah. Chris Pine was in the play at that point, but he was leaving to do STAR TREK, I guess. So, Andrea suggested that I come in and read for it. So, if Andrea hadn't been in that play - and, she was so dynamite in it - then I never would have done it.

PC: It's a small world!

JB: [Laughs.] Yeah, I guess it all comes back to THE CLASS!

PC: And Chris Pine played the lead in THE IDES OF MARCH onstage - back when it was called FARRAGUT NORTH - at the Geffen - and the film adaptation just opened this weekend.

JB: Yeah, IDES OF MARCH - Gosling is doing it now [in the film]. Chris is a wonderful stage actor and it was really great to kind of take over that part from him because I got to go see him every night beforehand and I really dug his take on the character. He is a really great guy as well.

PC: It seems as though you are establishing the type of career that two of the finest actors who have done this column have done - Philip Seymour Hoffman and Liev Schreiber - by balancing film and theatre.

JB: Oh, are you kidding me? Those guys are legends! [Laughs.] I can't even mention my name in with theirs, but those are exactly right - that's really the dream for me.

PC: Neil Patrick Harris is another great actor who I have interviewed here and I know you two worked together on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER. What was that experience like for you?

JB: It was great! I think I was in, like, the first episode for that. And, the year before, they had actually asked me to screen test for the part that he plays.

PC: Barney. Really?

JB: Yeah, but I didn't do it. I took another pilot, but it never got shot.

PC: Fascinating. What can you tell me about your theatre company, Fovea Floods?

JB: Oh, it was a special group of people that sort of started up in Saratoga Springs. We had a sort of very experimental theatre company up there. Our home base was this really cool theatre called Café Lina - which is actually the first coffee shop that Bob Dylan ever played in.

PC: How awesome is that!

JB: I know! We got this really cool, awesome following up there. This group of people all moved to this loft in Bushwick, in Brooklyn. That was before it was cool to live in Bushwick - cabs wouldn't even drive out there. [Laughs.]

PC: That's so funny.

JB: We all lived out there, though, and just made our own pieces with this great, wonderful friend, director and writer named Josh Chambers. We would just sort of construct our own pieces. It was fun. It was a really great time. I was involved with them sort of all the time until I went to Moscow and I am very grateful to the education that that theatre company gave me because I think, like, as far as directors like Richard Foreman go - knowing the world of Arturo and Brecht…

PC: I can just see you positively killing it with Brecht - perfect casting.

JB: [Laughs.] Thanks, man. You see, that's the thing - I did ARTURO UI with them; and, we did BAAL.

PC: I bet those were astonishing with you in the leads.

JB: This guy, Josh - who is a dear friend - is such a smart, wonderful director. He really attacks stuff with such a really unique vision. I loved that education.

PC: I can tell you have an affection for your time spent there.

JB: Actually, you know, when I went and did THE GHOST WRITER in Berlin with Polanski, the first thing I did was go to the Berliner Ensemble and saw MOTHER COURAGE.

PC: Of course! How could you not as a real brother of Brecht?

JB: [Laughs.] It was just so, so cool to be there and see that. That's really the kind of theatre education that I got before I went to Moscow - then it was all Chekov, all the time. [Laughs.]

PC: I could totally see you as The Cook in MOTHER COURAGE, as well.

JB: Wow. What a great part, man!

PC: What about THREEPENNY OPERA - do you sing at all?

JB: I do, but I don't think I sing well! [Laughs.] I mean, I've done a few - I did a musical in Moscow when I was there.

PC: What roles do you want to do the most onstage sometime soon?

JB: As far as parts I want to do, I really want to go after Ui again.

PC: I bet.

JB: I mean, I loved our production, but I feel like it's one of those parts that I feel like I would love another chance at it.

PC: What about Shakespeare?

JB: I'd love to do Hotspur. I'd really love to play Edmund - I think that's a great part.

PC: It's so funny that you say that because Jason and I were just talking about LEAR and how difficult a role Edgar is versus Edmund - especially because of all the Poor Tom material

JB: Jason was saying that? Oh, I would love to be an Edmund to Jason's Edgar! I think he would be so great at that. It would be a challenge but he could do it and it would be so great.

PC: Roman Polanski's new film is based on a great recent play, GOD OF CARNAGE by Yasmina Reza. Have you seen it yet?

JB: Nice. I haven't seen it yet, but I talked to him just the other day and he said it is fabulous. But, I never got to see the play - either here or in LA - and I just heard the best things about it. I think the movie's just going to be great.

PC: He's done some truly amazing stage-to-screen adaptations - especially DEATH AND THE MAIDEN and MACBETH. Did you find working with him was somewhat similar to a theatre director?

JB: In a sense, yes. I mean, I think the familiarity for me was that he was very Eastern European in his approach. I loved being on that set because, you know, he and the script supervisor are speaking French to each other, the camera department all speaks Polish and the crew all spoke German - because we shot in Germany - and, the actors were all speaking English. So, it was this wonderful international conglomeration of artists, you know?

PC: Multicultural in a major way, it seems. How great.

JB: The familiarity with me, though, was that there was something - I mean, every second of every shot of his films is so unbelievably precious to him and well thought-out. Even if it is just a shot of a guy's hand moving a glass from one side of the table to the other - the amount of time and preciousness and how much he cares about every little shot; it has to be lit perfectly; and, he knows every line in the script. He will give you a line reading for every line - no matter whether you are Pierce Brosnan or Jon Bernthal; it doesn't make any difference.

PC: That's fascinating.

JB: You know, I think that for a lot of actors - especially American actors - to get line readings and to be told and have your director literally act out the part for you is sort of discouraging in a way. It's a very Eastern European thing to do - a lot of directors that I worked with in Russia did that as well. And, I never took that as an insult, as many actors tend to do. To me, I think it's just offering a certain energy - offering their flavor - and, instead of trying to sort of decode and communicate it to you, they just show you their flavor of what it should be.

PC: The essence.

JB: Yeah, I mean, obviously, you are not supposed to imitate Roman Polanski saying your lines - because he definitely doesn't want it in that weird-ass accent that he's got, he wants it the way the character speaks. [Laughs.]

PC: Exactly!

JB: I actually dug that, though. I thought that watching him direct was sort of like watching Michael Jordan play basketball. He was unbelievably happy and he seems like he is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing on this earth while he is working. I just feel so lucky and blessed that I had the opportunity to see it.

PC: The last shot is incredible and one of his finest moments - and it will probably go down as one of the great endings in film.

JB: Yeah, it's a really, really cool ending.

PC: Congratulations on your Ovation Award nomination.

JB: Thank you, thank you, man. I really appreciate that.

PC: What is the play you are nominated for about - SMALL ENGINE REPAIR?

JB: SMALL ENGINE REPAIR is about three friends. It takes place in New Hampshire and it's about three lifelong friends who have sort of fallen out with each other a little bit and they get together for a night of drinking and kind of catching up. It's a new play written by this guy named John Pollono, who actually played the lead role. It's this teeny little play that we did for no money. So, the play starts out as what I just described and it becomes something completely different very, very fast. It's extremely dark, extremely dangerous and extremely funny.

PC: It sounds remotely Tracy Letts-like.

JB: I think John Pollono is one of our best playwrights and I think everyone is going to know who he is very, very soon. I just so believe in this guy. We did this play and it came to me at sort of such the perfect time - I was in LA, I couldn't really go away to work because we were starting my show [WALKING DEAD], and, so, I did a reading. My friend from THE PACIFIC was supposed to do a reading and he dropped out and just asked me if I would go fill in - and, I did.

PC: What did you immediately think of it?

JB: I read this play and I said, "This is amazing!" I just asked if I could be a part of it. Then, you know, it ended up doing an eight month run in LA after I left - my understudy even took over. You know, it was just this play we did for nothing in this tiny underground theater in LA, but, after a while, the word of mouth was so awesome - The LA Times came and Variety came and so many filmmakers and producers; it really took off and exploded. It's such an honor that we got all of these nominations out of all the producing houses in LA. I think that what it really said to me is that there is really this unbelievable, vibrant theatre community in LA that I really didn't know about. I think I ignorantly turned my nose up at LA theatre, like I think that a lot of New York theatre actors do.

PC: You can say that again.

JB: There is so much there. I think that, just like the art scene and the music scene is exploding in LA - I mean, let's face it: if you want to be an artist you cannot live in New York anymore because it is too expensive…

PC: This is true.

JB: I think so many great artists are flocking to LA because the downtown art scene is so vibrant, there is cheap living and you can really flourish as an artist there. There is an unbelievably supportive and really smart, talented theatre audience in LA full of young, hungry, vibrant people. It's something that sort of makes me think of what New York must have been like in its downtown theater scene in the 1980s - before my time. I am so excited that I have found this community and, now, that I am a part of it. I feel wonderful about how well this play did and this theatre company is really a great company and they are doing theatre for all the right reasons. You know, it's not a pretty lobby, it's not a pretty theater and it's in a kind of rough section of town, but the work that they do is so fabulous, and, again, I was thrilled to be a part of it.

PC: How did you get your first audition with Frank Darabont? Were you familiar with the comic before you auditioned for THE WALKING DEAD?

JB: Oh, no - I had never read it before. You know, man, for an actor at the beginning of his career out there, pilot season is kind of the real busy, important time - at least according to agents and managers. [Laughs.]

PC: That's the time when the work gets done.

JB: When my agents sent me all the scripts last year, I would say that when I got the script for THE WALKING DEAD, I wrote back an e-mail and said, you know, "I would do anything to be an extra in this thing." [Laughs.] It blew me away!

PC: The pilot is truly awesome.

JB: Obviously, I knew who Frank Darabont was, but, before I put two and two together, I just read the words. I never had read a pilot script that paid that kind of attention to detail, character and atmosphere. It just read like a beautiful novella - like it was a film script. It was truly awesome.

PC: So, you were instantly hooked.

JB: And, it was the first year in my career that I actually got other offers to do shows, but I hadn't actually auditioned for WALKING DEAD yet, so I turned down those jobs. As you know, it's tough for actors to turn down work! [Laughs.]

PC: To say the least!

JB: And, I'm so glad that I did! It's one of those dream jobs that come along once in a lifetime. It's one of those jobs where, the more people you meet and the more artists that you come in contact with that are part of the job, the job just gets greater and greater and greater. Once I met Frank and once I met the cast and I realized the level of artists that are a part of this thing and how pure-minded I think everyone is - that they are just about the story and doing the best work possible and sweating their asses off and working their asses off to make it work. It's just - I am so thrilled to be a part of it and I love it so much. And, that's so cool because a lot of times, you know, you are on a TV show that sucks and you know it sucks and you have to go talk about it all the time and you have to lie! [Laughs.]

PC: Not to name any names, of course!

JB: Yeah, but, with this one, I don't have to do that. I care about it with all my heart and I care about the people who make it with all my heart.

PC: The new Blu-ray is exquisite and the black and white treatment of the pilot is a genius bonus feature.

JB: Oh, man! I haven't even seen that yet! I bet that's so cool.

PC: Your character, Shane, is quite complex. The show establishes you as one thing and we learn much more as it goes on and there is shading…

JB: [Laughs.] Well, you know, man: those are the parts you want to play! I think that when Frank and I started trying to attack the role, that was kind of the whole deal - we said, "Look, in the graphic novel, he is a one-dimensional villain who dies before the thing starts." We both kind of thought that by keeping him around and making him multi-dimensional and making him come from a place of always wanting to do the right thing and coming from a place of trying to be a good, loyal friend who gets into a situation that he cannot get out of - that it's so much more interesting that way.

PC: Indeed.

JB: We really wanted to change the audience's opinion of the show, week in and week out - sometimes even within one show. I think in trying to make it real - and, what I think I love about the show is that it is a zombie show and it is a genre show, but, we're not winking at the audience. We are not trying to be cute or campy about it at all. We are trying to make this thing as unique and authentic and real as we can.

PC: And you have all succeeded in that, for sure - to say the very least.

JB: It's a dream role. I mean, it's just a dream role - as you said, he is such a complicated, complex guy, but, I think that as long as you always root him in trying to do what he genuinely believes is the right thing to do and that he is not acting out of being the villain, I think he is just a wonderful guy to play. It's just fascinating.

PC: In the pilot, do you think Shane thought Rick was as good as dead while in the coma with the zombie outbreak, or do you think Shane just wanted to get out of the hospital?

JB: I think that what he thought was that Rick was near-dead and I think that he thought that there was… no way… [Pause.]

PC: No hope?

JB: A lot of that gets revealed this year, actually.

PC: Really?

JB: I really feel like he felt like there was no way they would be able to get out together. I think that what he saw was that it was a hopeless situation and what he really needed to do was protect Lori and Carl - to go protect Rick's family.

PC: The Season Two premiere ends on a huge cliffhanger…

JB: [Laughs.]

PC: And I'm assuming you can't say anything without spoiling it here.

JB: [Laughs.]

PC: Since I assume his loss is immeasurable to the show, I have to ask: Is Frank Darabont going to come back at any point, even to direct an episode?

JB: No. He's gone, man. He's definitely gone. It was a huge blow to us - it was. We love him and we believe in him. He's one of the best filmmakers our country has, and, besides that, he is a friend - so, you know, it was a huge blow. [Pause.] But, besides that, it makes me proud of this cast and crew because I think everybody really bonded together and stayed the course and really, you know, tried to do the best work possible during that whole crazy time.

PC: I was actually down there right when the news broke and no one seemed to know anything.

JB: Yeah, I mean, we're down there and we're not reading the magazines and we're not involved in all that crap - we're just trying to tell the story. But, no, Frank will not be coming back. But, really, the thing to remember is that Frank hired every writer in the writers' room and I think that, despite everything that may or may not have happened this year, I think that everything that we have done between action and cut has been really, really solid, beautiful work. We pick up right where we left off from last year and I am really, really proud of the work we have done so far this year.

PC: Even if it ended after Season 1 it would still be one of the great television shows. Ever. It's unprecedented.

JB: Aww, that's so sweet of you to say that.

PC: And, coming up: Steve Buscemi, a fellow participant in this column, co-stars with you in a new film, RAMPART?

JB: Oh, Steve Buscemi did this, too? Yeah, that's gonna be a really cool movie.

PC: I can't wait to see what you do next! One last thing: CRY-BABY composer Adam Schlesinger is your cousin, correct?

JB: Yeah, man! He's my cousin. Talk about a talented guy - he's won an Academy Award, an Emmy…

PC: His opening number that he wrote for Neil at the Tony Awards this year was fantastic.

JB: Yeah, I heard it was so good!

PC: Jane Lynch's Emmy opening that he just did was amazing, too.

JB: Yeah, he's an amazing guy, so I'll definitely let him know!

PC: For curiosity's sake: did you get to work with Betty Buckley at all while working on THE PACIFIC?

JB: No, I didn't. No women, man. Just men. [Laughs.]

PC: Thank you so much for this today. THE WALKING DEAD is really the most fiercely original show on TV right now.

JB: Thank you, brother. We really care about the work and that really means a lot. I am definitely going to share that with our cast.

PC: This was terrific and so is THE WALKING DEAD. You're the man, Jon.

JB: Aww, thanks, Pat, I really appreciate you saying so and I'm so glad you dig it. Take care.