Jon Bernthal was in a fight for his life recently. Or rather, his character on AMC’s post-apocalyptic series “The Walking Dead” was. He lost that battle – twice.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the series is played straight – no comedy, no camp. These zombies (called walkers in the show) have only one thing on their rotting brains: feeding on the living.
It’s part buddy story, part pioneer story, part flesh-eating ghoul story. Ultimately, it’s a tale about the strength of the human spirit when faced with overwhelming odds. The show’s compelling storyline and cinematic quality has won critical praise and racked up awards.
Bernthal played Shane Walsh. Shane and his buddy Rick (Andrew Lincoln) were both cops before the zombie apocalypse. The series has them leading a ragtag group of survivors.
Season two of “The Walking Dead” finds the group living on a farm outside Atlanta where an affair Shane had with Rick’s wife comes to a heated boil. In the season’s penultimate episode, Rick kills Shane. The season closer on March 18 broke records when 9 million viewers tuned in.
Bernthal is next up as the lead in a new period cop-gangster series for the TNT network, “L.A. Noir,” by “Walking Dead” creator Frank Darabont. Bernthal will appear at 1 p.m. Saturday at Emerald City Comicon in Seattle. The News Tribune caught up with him from his Venice Beach, Calif., home.
I’m sorry about your job loss.
It has been pretty crazy with all the publicity around me losing my job. But I have to say (Shane’s demise) was always the plan. It made developing Shane into what he was a lot easier.
Shane died. Then he was briefly undead and now’s he’s dead for sure. How did you make peace with that on the set?
It was a bittersweet moment. Leaving was tough. That last scene that Andy Lincoln and I shot – that was out in the field at night. It was about 30 degrees. The entire cast spent the night there (watching). We’re a tight-knit family. I love this job, and I realized how lucky I was to have it. But I’m so excited to move on.
Did you fathom the show would be this successful?
This show started with a pilot written by Frank Darabont. I had never read anything like it – so rich in atmosphere. That script alone blew my mind. I booked parts on major TV shows and I turned them down to audition for “Walking Dead.” I knew there was something special about it. That said, there was no way to predict that it was going to be the enormous hit that it was.
Did you audition for Shane specifically?
No, Frank had the actors he wanted audition for both parts – Rick and Shane. Network screen tests are about as inhuman and artificial as possible. You have to sit down in front of a bunch of suits and try and act. But Frank rented a soundstage. He said no network execs were allowed to be there. He had the 10 guys spend the day together, trading off parts and reading together. I knew in my heart that Shane was the part I wanted to play. There was something really human about him. Out of that audition he only cast me as Shane. He couldn’t find a Rick that day. Then one day Andrew Lincoln came in and he blew the doors down.
I think you got the better part.
Who knows? I appreciate what you are saying, but I don’t look at it as better or worse. I agree with you – it was a phenomenal role. But I think what Andy Lincoln is doing with Rick is phenomenal. He has the patience and skill to make Rick a slow burn. I think Rick is going to be every bit as nuanced and dangerous (as Shane).
You seem to be a complex man, like Shane – except for all the zombie killing. You studied at The Moscow Art Theatre School in Russia and you played professional baseball in the Confederation of European Baseball.
(At Skidmore College) I majored in playing sports and getting in trouble. I was all kinds of messed up. I found acting through a teacher named Alma Becker. I had to leave school. She told me, “Go to the Moscow school. It will open up your mind and teach you discipline.” She was absolutely right. Going to Moscow totally opened up my world. It made me go from this knuckle-headed boy into a man. I loved studying there, and it saved my life.
You’ve spent a lot of time on the boards. Do you miss the theater?
I was doing theater in New York. I had a theater company there.
The only reason I came out to L.A. … I was seeing that all the people getting the roles that I wanted were TV stars. And then I fell in love with acting for the camera. I had no interest in it whatsoever (prior). My dream was to travel the country acting in the best regional theaters in the country. I will continue to think of myself as a stage actor.
Did your stage experience come in to play on “The Walking Dead”?
Yes. The cast are all stage actors. We had to work as an ensemble. The fear and the tension needed to create that world – if one person isn’t taking it absolutely serious, then the rest of us all look pretty stupid. We’re running around being chased by a bunch of extras in makeup.
Speaking of that, did you ever get creeped out on set, say when you and a zombie both reach for the same soda at the craft services table?
It got really normal really fast. We’re all a big family. A lot of the zombies are repeat offenders. I don’t want to be a weirdo method actor, but I don’t like zombies. When I go to press events and they hire people to be zombies for the night and they follow me around, my instinct is to bash their brains out. But we’re so used to blood and gore on this show that sharing a soda with a zombie is not a weird thing at all.
From the first George Romero picture, zombie movies have been assigned metaphors – everything from class warfare to religion. Is there a metaphor with “The Walking Dead”? Or is it just a bunch of unemployed cops and rednecks shooting the undead in their noggins?
I don’t think there’s an assigned metaphor, but you are very right. I think that’s why at the end of the day it’s such a sensation. What’s creepy and works well with a zombie picture (is the implied metaphor) – whether it’s a nuclear holocaust, terrorism or racial injustice. That’s the world we’re living in. There are all these everyday unseen threats. If they do come for you, there’s no way out. In real life, we have all these things that keep us comfortable and lazy and unfocused on the danger at hand. That’s what the show is about. Once you strip the comfortable veneer off your everyday life and have to face the fear, that’s when what you’re made of comes to the surface. As an actor, it’s just great because the stakes are high all the time.
The show is interesting in that it poses the question: When society collapses, can we still operate under the rule of law? Have you pondered whether you would become like your character if faced with something like this?
I don’t know. Everybody asks me, “Are you more prepared for the zombie apocalypse?” I don’t know. In a world where there’s no rule of law, is doing the right thing, being a good person, of paramount importance anymore? Is spending your time looking for a little girl that’s most likely dead worth it? Or do you concentrate on the little boy that still is alive? I don’t know how I’d do it. But I’ve asked the questions. Anytime a television show can force you to ask those questions, then it’s doing its job. I think that’s what the first two seasons of “The Walking Dead” has done.
Besides “L.A. Noir,” do you have any other projects coming up?
I just finished a movie called “Snitch” with Dwayne Johnson, Susan Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt, Barry Pepper. A very cool movie about the drug trade. I’m just starting on a movie called “42” which is the Jackie Robinson story.
When does “L.A. Noir” start filming?
May 1. I feel an enormous amount of pressure for “L.A. Noir.” I really don’t want to let Frank down. I think he’s one of the best filmmakers this country has. The fact he’s trusting me with this lead role is an honor. It scares the hell out of me. I haven’t wrapped my head around the character yet.
Michigan State is offering a course called “Surviving the coming zombie apocalypse.” Zombie conventions have panels on the science of zombies. For the record, zombies: Fact or fiction?
I don’t know. I live down here on Venice Beach. If you take a stroll on the boardwalk on a Sunday night, you’ll see plenty.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 email@example.com