Jon Bernthal cannot be stopped and doesn’t intend to be. He piles on so many projects that he can barely keep them all gathered in his head and applies his workhorse attitude to each, refusing to be defined by any. The actor playing Marvel’s The Punisher and a myriad of film roles has two movies at the Tribeca Film Festival: Pilgrimage, a period quest about Irish monks, and Sweet Virginia, a slow-burn Appalachian crime drama. Paste got to sit down with the actor between screenings of his own movies. He leans back in his chair and kicks his feet up, hands always moving, contemplating. Sometimes he’ll get onto something in conversation that lights up a fire and he’ll hunch over, staring you down, making sure you get to the level he’s on. Maybe I should just let him tell you:
Paste Magazine: With Pilgrimage, you play a mute, so the entire role is about physicality. How was that?
Jon Bernthal: That’s why I wanted to do it, the challenge. The script blew me away and the thing I noticed right away is that there’s like seven different languages spoken in the movie. And then there’s this mute that has to develop his own language. So how do you take a character that’s central to the story and give him no dialogue? First I had to get to know the character from the inside, and then create a language for him. So I decided to take a vow of silence, and be silent on set and off.
At first it was like this exercise in method acting and I thought it was annoying everyone. We were living in the middle of nowhere, 30 miles from every town, sleeping under the same roof, eating the same meals with each other. So at the end of the day, I was the one sitting at the table, the silent guy. It was isolating, and weird and a little mysterious. But what I learned was that when you stop talking—one—you hear everything and see everything. You become invisible and learn people. It becomes as much a power as it can potentially appear meek. At the same time, you divorce yourself from your wants and needs.
On a film set, if you want things, you have to ask for them. “I need to go to the bathroom,” “Could I get a glass of water?” “Ugh, they have apples, and I would love and apple.” So how do I do that? And I don’t want to do this shit (gestures wildly). So you start asking yourself, “Do I really need that?” Everything this character’s been through—shame, regret—that’s made him commit to this vow, so I found myself asking about what I deserve, be it water or an apple. That was the kernel I found for the character.
Paste: Was this your first big method acting endeavor?
Bernthal:Everybody’s got a different definition of that style. I do like to dive in. You work so hard and all these people are collaborating. Every writer, director, producer, crew member, works so hard to create something that exists in the fifteen seconds between action and take. So when I hear “method acting,” for me it’s about making sure things are right in that fifteen seconds. That means for the rest of the day you can’t just be doing fuck-all. Well, I can’t. If I was better maybe I could. When you go home at night sometimes you need to disengage with it, but usually a lot of the work I do is way outside that fifteen seconds.
Paste: Can you describe the work you did getting into your character for Sweet Virginia?
Bernthal: That was very different because that character was written to be a 65-year-old man. Before me, the actor they had lined up was a guy in his mid-sixties. It was essential that he was broken down. So for me, this was right before I was going into The Punisher so I’m a… (chuckles) I’m a strong guy. I went to them and said, “I don’t know if I’m the guy for this.” So how do I get the same flavor and energy of age, but from someone in his late thirties? The idea of having early onset Parkinson’s, was something I added. Him smoking marijuana to deal with it, that was me. And in the script when a hotel patron is beating his lady, I’m supposed to go beat him up. So I suggested—what if he beats me up? What if I just don’t have it anymore? So much of what I do is that kind of foot-forward kind of energy and I wanted to show something a little more removed.
Paste: In all three projects we’ve talked about (The Punisher, Sweet Virginia, Pilgrimage) you’ve used your body in really different ways. How is the training process different with choreographers and stunt people?
Bernthal: With Pilgrimage, man, your back is against the wall in indie film. You practice and practice, but when you only have a day to shoot it and it gets dark, if you haven’t gotten it, it’s not going in the film. It makes things very tense and very visceral. At the end of the day you just have to go in there and fight. There’s no stunt doubles. You just go in there and do it. All the politeness, all the “Ok, next I think we should”—all that shit just goes away and it becomes, “Come on, fucking hit me.” And it becomes way more like a real fight.
My best friends are always the stunt team. We’re always training together, so when we get in there we can really ramp it up a notch. The Marvel shows are so ambitious—your back is against the wall there too. You’re doing big studio fight scenes on an episodic TV schedule. Frank Castle doesn’t wear a mask, so I have to do that stuff. You can do twenty takes to sell a hit, or you can say “Fuck, just do it.” It hurts once, and that’s the stunt guy attitude.