star tells us about growing up with big ears, getting a gun pulled on him in Russia, and why Shia LaBeouf has the most beautiful soul in the world.
When Jon Bernthal walks into a café, heads turn. It’s that face: the bashed-in boxer’s nose, the brown eyes full of pain. Before he orders his Americano, his purple-bruised knuckles catch your eye. Makeup? Nope. (Although he does have a few made-for-TV scars—he’s ﬁlming the Netﬂix series
with directors from Roman Polanski to Oliver Stone—Bernthal brings a sensitivity rarely seen in tough-guy characters. And in person, he brings a genuine I-just-wanna-level-with-you frankness that we suspect won’t be with him much longer. Superstardom has a way of making you shut up about your off-the-rails adolescence, your stints in jail, your embrace of your feminine side, and your love of Shia LaBeouf. We’ll let him tell you the story.
I was born with these ginormous fucking earlobes, and the doctor suggested to my parents that we get elective plastic surgery. Like, who does that to a baby? Obviously my parents were like, “Fuck off.” But they were definitely very worried that I was going to be plauged. So yes, my looks have always been a source of embarrassment. In India, I guess, big earlobes are a sign of wisdom—that’s what my mom used to tell me. But then I was getting shit grades and getting kicked out of every school I went to, so I was like, “Ma, I don’t think that’s what it means.”
I got in a lot of trouble as a kid, and it definitely defined who I was as a young man: I was
kid. One of my first memories is of a kid picking on my little brother. My brother was in diapers, and I remember punching this kid in the face and realizing, “Okay, this is what I’m supposed to do.” It was my job—not to be the protector, but the tough guy, the troublemaker.
I was really scared as a kid—D.C. was a tough city then. I was 11 years old, getting thrown into a telephone booth and beat up by a bunch of 18 year olds. Then, in eighth grade, me and my friends were getting mugged, and we fought back with baseball bats. And from there it just kind of grew and grew and grew and grew. There was a group of guys that I knew that, yes, got shot or ended up in prison. I definitely got locked up a few times. That’s a world that I inherently get.
When I was at Skidmore College, I never wrote a paper. I mean, Skidmore is a total rich kid fucking [place]. But what did I do? I found the kid who was tied into Irish gangs in Boston and the gangster kids whose dads were mob guys. That’s who I wanted to be like. I went right to them, and then to the townies that were supplying the place with drugs. Those were my guys.
You had to take an arts requirement at Skidmore, and I’d heard about this class called Intro to Theater, that basically was sitting in a big auditorium with 300 people, watching movies. I heard that people would drop acid or get high beforehand, and I was like, “Fuck, yeah. That is for me.” But me being the shitbag that I am, I mistakenly signed up for Intro to Acting rather than Intro to Theater, so I wound up with these ten wannabe theater majors in Alma Becker’s class. I’m like, “What the fuck? Where are the movies? There’s only ten of us? Where am I supposed to hide?”
The first assignment was you had to bring in something that meant a lot to you, and you had to share it with the group, like a game of show-and-tell on steroids. I remember one woman brought in a Blues Traveler CD that her boyfriend had given her. She’s telling the group about it, and I’m like, “Why are we listening to this shit?”
I had baseball practice right after class, so I grabbed my catcher’s glove and launched into this story about how my mom had given me this glove on her deathbed and how me and my brother would sometimes have a catch. Of course, my mom was alive and well in D.C. But I'm telling this story, and I look around the room, and everyone’s crying their eyes out, and I’m crying my eyes out.
I don’t know what it was about Alma, but when she said “That’s what you need to do,” I was like, “Okay, fine.” All of a sudden, I had a connection with something. I was like, “Wow, nobody can take this from me. This is mine. I could be happy being in this black-box theater doing this play for the rest of my life.” I was so beholden to Alma and so grateful that when she said, “Go to Moscow,” I was like, “Fuck, yeah.”
When I got to the Moscow Art Theatre, I remember feeling tough, that whatever there was to go through, I had been through it. I lived in Park Kultury, four people in a teeny room. You’d turn on the lights in the bathroom at night and see cockroaches everywhere. Two of my roommates were lovers, and then my other roommate was in the other bed, and I slept on the floor in between them. You know how some people have sex for a couple minutes? These guys were fucking all night.
It was my birthday and the first day of school. I had to turn around because I forgot my papers, and I get lost. By the time I get back, it’s getting dark. So I get back to Park Kultury and I’m walking home on this empty side street when this car pulls up in front of me, and two guys get out and open up the back, and there’s this woman in a red cocktail dress with red hair. They grab her by the hair and pull her out of the car. She’s not protesting. She’s not screaming. She’s looking right at me.
I remember thinking she looked just like Nicole Kidman.
They pull her out across the sidewalk, and they go up to the side of this building and they’re opening her head up on it. I run at the guys and grab one of them, and I’m shouting at him, “What the fuck are you doing?” The guy takes out a gun and puts it right on my forehead and says in English: “Go. Away.”
It just hit me that I was in a different world. “I know what I’m doing” doesn't do shit for you, man. Keeping your eyes and your heart open does.
In Russia, they say that acting is actually a feminine profession, which is funny, because they come at it in such an unbelievably masculine way. But they say a male actor has to get in touch with the woman that’s inside of him. I do think that there’s something to that.
When I moved to L.A., I got this pilot and went and got spray tanned. I was playing a baseball player, so I was sweating a lot, so during the shoot, the spray tan was coming off of me. I looked like a total fucking douchebag. I looked in the mirror afterwards and said to myself, “No matter what, never do this again.” My older brother always says if I had his looks, my career would [have taken off sooner]. But I have no interest in being pretty.
I was auditioning for WB rom coms and soap operas and bullshit. I would literally walk in rooms and feel the casting director cringe at my big, nasty, ugly features. I was facing all this fucking rejection, and I would cry to my girlfriend: “Baby, I don't know if I’m cut out for this.”
The actress Sarah Wayne Callies and I had just met, and basically our first scene together was having sex in the woods. I had this idea that when we met in the woods, I should turn Sarah over. We’re in a zombie apocalypse. It’s carnal. We just want to fuck, you know? And I hear calling from behind the monitors: “Stop thrusting!”
I don’t want to get into the state of the American actor, but when I started doing television and film, it was this time of monotonous, antiseptic acting, where it was all about kind of mumbling your shit and not doing much at all. To me it was just riskless. And I’m like, “Fuck that.” You know?
I’ve been so blessed, the directors I’ve gotten to work with. When I think about Polanski [on
] … These great directors, they’re so different from each other, but they all create this atmosphere on set where you know literally anything can happen at any time. They embolden you to take risks.
Like Shia LaBeouf. He’s my heart. I love and respect him so much, and working with him on
[the David Ayers World War II drama with Brad Pitt] was such a joy for me. But at first, when I saw the way he was on set, part of me was a little put off. Then he was like, “Man, I’m not here to make friends. I’m here for what’s between ‘action’ and ‘cut.’” The truth is, he’s got the most beautiful soul in the world, and he cares more than anybody about people. But it’s true—we’re not here to talk about politics or sports or whatever the fuck. Don’t do that shit around me.
now. You know, this whole superhero-comic-book thing is something I had zero interest in being a part of. The guys that I really, really respect as actors seem to have kind of purposely stayed away from that. I don’t mean that I’m above that or anything, just that it was not for me. But then when I got to know a little bit about this character… He ain’t got a fucking cape. He ain’t got any superpowers. He’s a fucking tortured, angry father and husband who’s living in this unbelievable world of darkness and loss and torment. Frank Castle resonates with me. And comic-book fans are
greatest fans on earth. It’s not like their insane fervor isn’t based on anything. This is a super-intelligent fan base, because reading a comic book requires you to do a lot of work. You’ve got to fill in all these fucking gaps. I’m respectful of that. These characters exist in their minds and hearts.
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