Since leaving The Walking Dead and his role as hot-blooded antihero Shane Walsh several years ago, Jon Bernthal has — in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and David Ayer’s Fury — become Hollywood’s go-to guy for playing uncompromising, aggressors who find themselves the victims of real-world violence as often as its perpetrators. But whether he’s portraying hero or villain, the affable actor is keen on finding the humanity in all his characters. I caught up with Bernthal recently to chat about his role in Fury (now out on Blu-ray and DVD) as the hardened G.I. Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis and whether or not he’d return to the undead world of AMC’s The Walking Dead (returning tonight for the second half of its fifth season) via flashbacks…
NERDIST: Your character in Fury is smart enough to fix a tank but still a creature of instinct…
JON BERNTHAL: That’s a kind way of saying it, man. [Laughs.]
N: Was the duality of the role part of what made it attractive?
JB: Yeah. I mean, look, after talking to David… I’m sure you’ve already seen that David doesn’t really make mistakes. Everything very streamlined. Everything’s for a reason in his scripts. That being said, when I read the script for the first time, at one point in the script he’s referred to as somebody from Alabama, and then other soldier references him as being from Arkansas. I thought, “Wow, is this a typo? Is this a spellcheck error that David made?” Then after getting to know David I realized he doesn’t make mistakes. What that was was this thing about Northern soldiers, or soldiers from the midwest, having a stereotypical idea of the South, and saying, “Alabama, Arkansas — it’s all the same.” That gave me the liberty to make this guy be wherever the heck I wanted this guy to be from.
I started first with the voice, vocally, and set him from the north Georgia hills, in Appalachia — I found this guy’s voice I really dug — and did a lot of work to make it period. I worked with with a great vocal coach named Jessica Drake. But to me all these guys are products of the Depression. They grew up with nothing. He’s a guy who probably never went outside the little hollow he grew up in. He could work on tractors, work on small engines. He’s probably worked at a plant. the decision to go to war was not a philosophical one, or a nationalistic one. It just offered an opportunity out. I think he got in a little bit of trouble in the town he was in. But this started out at the adventure of a lifetime — you cross an ocean, you’re in North Africa, France, Germany. You’re seeing people, hearing languages you didn’t even know existed. You’re riding around, you’re going to war in a metal box driven by a Mexican tier from Chicago who listens to jazz music. I think [Michael Pena’s character] Gordo was the coolest guy in the world to Grady — these guys who’ve read books and seen movies he didn’t even know existed.
He finds this group of guys and he bonds with them They become extremely important to him. Then as the brutality of the war evolves for him, he’s a real war-torn guy, and he’s seen a lot of people go. He’s incredibly superstitious. There was something in the script that said all of the other tanks in this platoon have lost their crew four or five times over. But these guys remain the same until that morning. This movie opens with one of their brothers, Red, dying. This movie is already a pretty fucked-up tragic, hard day for him.
A lot of soldiers talk about something called “the release of the kill,” in that when you go through war and you see your brothers die left and right and you’ve seen so much tragedy and so much hardship that there’s something about putting rounds down range and seeing your enemy and taking them out that is a release that you need to do. It’s like punching your enemy — you need to do that. Grady doesn’t have that. He doesn’t shoot guns. He does’t fire weapons. What he does is a manual labor — he loads shells into the cannon as fast and as rapidly as he can, listening to the instruction from his tank commander. He doesn’t see outside the tank. He doesn’t hear outside the tank. He has no idea where his enemy is, doesn’t know who’s getting hit and who’s not. All he has is this responsibility to get them in there as fast as he can.
N: Historians have pointed out that part of the reason the Allies triumphed in World War II was because of the versatile skill sets its troops, of guys like Grady who could fix a tractor or a tank.
JB: A Tiger tank was obviously a vastly superior tank to the Shermans, but we could repair our Shermans and get them going, and we produce five times as many. That’s how we won the armored battle. Grady is very much a product of that — an unbelievably handy guy. He’s not just a loader, he’ll fix anything on that tank and understand it. It’s an interesting thing about a tank unit — all the tank units, even in the modern military both in England and America, the guys that we talked to — they said that as far as a tank unit is concerned, the hierarchy of the military goes out the window. You evolve and create your own thing. It’s an unbelievably intimate group of guys who want nothing to do with anybody outside their tank. It’s their world, and there’s no “I’m more important than you.” Everybody has a job, everybody knows exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are and their survival absolutely depends on each other. So yeah, a guy like Grady, who can fix anything, he’s a great guy to have on your team.
N: Like your characters in The Walking Dead and The Wolf of Wall Street, Grady a character who’s immediately sympathetic. Do you relish the challenge of finding the humanity in such characters?
JB: There’s nobody in this world who grows through their life saying, “I’m the scary guy” or “I’m the good guy.” You figure out what’s important to that character and you go for it. In every second. You figure out what your relationship is to everybody and you do what you can to see those things out. But a big thing with Grady is… He comes across in this movie as a very forward-moving, hard, aggressive, man. But I hope what comes across that is that underneath that is absolute terror. It’s the only way he knows how to behave in this world. He’s the most far gone, he’s the product of this world now. That is something I really dig. As an actor, when I’m around a group of actors as good as this and a director as good as this, and you have art direction and you have these vehicles and you create this world — I love being a product of the world. That is very much the same in those other examples, whether it’s Walking Dead or Wolf of Wall Street. I like buying into the world. What we do is play pretend, and I love just pretending it’s real.
N: Shane is still a favorite of many Walking Dead fans. Is there a chance you would ever return to that world in flashback scenes? Or do you think that everything that needed to be said about him has been said?
JB: It’s a good question… I love the people, I love the actors on that show. I love the people who make that show. They’re all very near and dear to my heart, and I’m just extraordinarily grateful to have been a part of that. I’m also extraordinarily grateful to be where I am now. I love that I get the opportunity and I love that I got killed off. Had you asked me that a few years ago, I don’t know that I’d say that. But now I’m just so grateful that I get to work with all these great artists and great filmmakers. So I think it’s two answers. I think it’s yes, everything has been said about Shane — and I love everything that’s been said about Shane, but yeah, if they find something more to say about him that would add to the resonance that he has for Rick and the group, I would be down. I wouldn’t want to do it just because. I wouldn’t want to do it unless it served the overall story. And I wouldn’t want to do it just because people want to see a little more Shane.
N: It would need to be more than a wink to the audience?
JB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But that being said, I think the writers and producers of The Walking Dead… Scott Gimple is an incredibly talented guy, and I think that’s the only way he would do it. If they wanted to do it and it worked out I think it would be cool. But I am by no means waiting by the phone for that one. [Laughs.] I’m really happy doing what I’m doing.