Jon Bernthal on Mob City, The Walking Dead & more...
We chat to The Walking Dead and Mob City's Jon Bernthal about Frank Darabont, bringing film noir to television, and playing Shane Walsh...
Spoiler alert: this article contains spoilers for seasons one and two of The Walking Dead.
Jon Bernthal is one busy man at the moment. With filming just wrapped on the forthcoming World War II action drama Fury, in which he’ll star alongside Brad Pitt under the helm of the rather fantastic David Ayer, he’s currently in multiplexes in not one, but two big movies – Grudge Match with Stallone and De Niro (due out in the UK on the 24th January) and the superb The Wolf of Wall Street, which most of us here at Den of Geek just can’t recommend enough.
Of course The Walking Dead fans will already be familiar with the calibre of his acting from his outstanding performance as Shane Walsh, arguably the character with the most powerful and poignant story arc in that show to date. As Shane, his physical and mental transformation held a stark counterpoint to the black and white perspective held by his on-screen best friend, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), which ended in a powerfully tragic outcome. Indeed, many fans sided with Shane throughout the difficulties the group encountered in season two, which was in no small part down to the raw charisma and physical presence that Bernthal brought to his troubled and conflicted character.
We caught up with him for a chat about his new show, Mob City, which like The Walking Dead is again the product of one Mr Frank Darabont, a man responsible for making some of the most heart-breaking drama I’ve ever witnessed – certainly The Shawshank Redemption ranks among many peoples greatest film lists, while I’m not ashamed to admit that both The Green Mile and The Mist have left me wracked with tears at various points over the years.
Mercifully Mob City is much more focused on double crosses, crime bosses, a damsel in distress and explosive violence, making for a thoroughly enjoyable step back into forties LA and some classic old school detective dramatics. Jon Bernthal takes the lead role as Joe Teague, a cop whose path and motivations through unfolding events seem unpredictable in the best way, but cleverly the show chooses to lay clues that viewers can piece together if they want to try and stay ahead of the game. As Teague’s character layers unpeel, Bernthal is able to add further dimensions to a character who at first glance might seem too widely drawn, but as the man himself says below, everything ties together in a rewarding conclusion.
The six episodes, which all cover one main story arc, were aired as doubles in the USA but will be shown in the UK one at a time over six weeks starting this Friday the 17th January at 10pm on Fox.
So without further ado, Mr Jon Bernthal on a show made of scotch, smoking, slaps, stockings and stoolies…
Firstly, congratulations on Mob City, it’s a great show.
But I also wanted to say the same for everything else you’ve got happening with The Wolf of Wall Street and Grudge Match – it must be a fantastic, if crazy, time to have everything hitting at once?
[Laughs] Yeah it’s great to be honest with you bro, I’ve been in England the last five/six months shooting a movie called Fury, so I’ve kind of missed the whole craziness of it all. I literally just got back in the States last night and I’m doing some promotion for Wolf of Wall Street, but I’m excited to talk about Mob City because I feel like I really missed the boat on the show (when it aired in the States) and it’s a series that I’m very, very proud to be a part of.
Am I right in saying that Frank Darabont approached you about Mob City back when you were working on The Walking Dead?
Yeah, you know after Frank was off the show and I was finishing up, he had talked to me before I had left and he just wanted to make sure the plan was still for me to leave! [laughs] He told me he had a project that he was working on and he wanted me to stay available and you know honestly, that was all I needed to hear and I just told my agent as far as TV was gonna go, I was going with Frank and there was no script, no contract, no anything! But that was all I needed – I’d follow Frank anywhere.
It must’ve been nice knowing as a consolation that, although your time was ending on The Walking Dead, Frank Darabont was already looking out for you on his next project?
It was unbelievably… I mean it meant the world to me. It was an unbelievably kind and beautiful gesture on his part, that meant that he believed in me and my work which really meant everything to me and I just didn’t want to let him down, that’s all I cared about. But look, I mean the best that we can hope for in my profession is to work with unbelievable writers and directors and other actors and I want to be a part of the best storytelling possible and with Frank I felt that was going to be the case. So I’m just really, really grateful to Frank and he completely changed my life with Walking Dead and I was so pleased to be a part of this show.
It’s always been a shame that the American period crime genre hasn’t been used as a source of inspiration that much, especially when there are films like Once Upon a Time in America and The Untouchables out there – was it exiting that Mob City was going to take classic noir and give it a unique edge?
Absolutely man, I think that’s what is great about it and also what’s challenging about it. You know it’s not a spoon fed television show like so much is, its classic film noir where the characters are quite ahead of the audience, so you don’t know why people are doing what they’re doing, there’s mystery all over the place and that’s what film noir is all about.
So what’s great about the series is that it gets better and better and better and it gets faster and faster and more and more dangerous and it just gets bigger as the show evolves and it becomes this explosion, this powder keg of a TV show by the end, but in the beginning it’s actually quite small and slow and shrouded in mystery. I think it’s about the investment and about an audience member saying “I don’t know about this guy, but I want to follow him anyway.”
It’s never really been done on TV before and so that is the challenge, but the thing I can guarantee is that if the audience sticks with this guy and with the show it just, like I said, it just explodes into this unbelievable world and the main conflict of the show takes over the city of Los Angeles and it’s really, really compelling stuff.
So I think what Frank set out to do here is exactly what he set out to do with Walking Dead – he’s a film loyalist, he’s an enthusiast, he’s an encyclopaedic knowledge about film - and I think exactly as he did with The Walking Dead, in bringing the zombie horror genre to long-form television and to bring you the genre in its classic form and do it through great storytelling and compelling characters, that’s exactly what he’s doing with the film noir genre. All of the elements of classic film noir will be apparent in this show and he’s a great storyteller and hopefully the characters [laughs] we make them compelling! but I think it’s a very similar path that he’s on and it’s something by the end of the series, he’s really successful at.
That direction is interesting and I think, especially as an audience member, I found particularly with your character that his motivations are really quite unclear to begin with and so Mob City plays with the viewers’ expectations. I certainly expected Joe to be this clearly defined hero, who immediately becomes part of the elite police squad, but that’s not the case at all…
Yeah and you’re not supposed to see that coming and you’re not supposed to understand why - it’s a good one! [laughs] And what’s great is that I can absolutely guarantee you by the end that everything will be one hundred percent clear and again it’s like any investment you make in a great book, or in a great series, it’s all the more worthwhile as they don’t serve it up in the beginning and tell you X,Y and Z is this and that’s why the guy is behaving this way, so we can’t then condone his actions.
I think the whole point of this is to not know and to be completely left for a blank and to think ‘What is this guy? Who is this guy?’ and we discover it as we go and it’s really what makes the series fun and it’s very successful in that way and by the end, as I say, everything will be completely clear and you’ll fully know who this guy is and why he does what he does.
I have to say as well the production design adds another element of character, as the look and costumes are fantastic. That must really help you as an actor to immerse yourself in that world…
It’s great, I mean look it’s one of the great things about working with Frank and Frank’s crew, his peers, are creative people and they’re very much family. Frank grew up in LA and went to Hollywood High School and Greg Melton, who does the sets, went to high school with Frank. Giovanna Melton, who did the costumes, went to high school with Frank. Nina Paskowitz, who did the hair, went to high school with Frank. Michael Sloane, the writer – it goes on and on and on.
So they’re people who have known each and been a part of each others lives, creatively, for forty years and they’re all from LA, they all understand what this thing is supposed to look and sound like and that’s a really cool thing to be a part of. It’s great to know that you’re walking in to a situation where you’re in really, really good hands and the look and the feel and the clothes are really, really well done.
And there must almost be a certain boyish glee putting on the hat and reliving that bygone era, through the TV series, as it’s so effortlessly cool to watch!
It’s great man! [laughs] You know that part of it is really cool and there’s so many classic heroes and classic people from film noir that you can draw upon - and people from modern cinema as well - and it’s a great character to play.
It must have been fun as well to have a couple of your Walking Dead alumni back with you, Jeffrey DeMunn and Andrew Rothenberg, to spar against, especially as you and Jeffrey had quite a spark between your confrontations on Walking Dead?
The people who make Walking Dead, the cast of that show, is family to me and Jeff’s very much a huge part of my life and will be always and I believe in him so much as an actor and so much as a man and just to go back to work with him was a true joy and we’ll work with each other again and I just think that… I explained to you how Frank is in that he very much brings people in and they become Part of his world and a part of his family and that’s the reason why you see people that he loves appearing over and over again in his projects and Jeff and Andy are very much a part of that and I love Andy the same way I love Jeff, it’s just a great connection that we all have and it’s great to go to work on something very, very different.
It’s probably too early to ask, but do you know yet if there are plans for a second season of Mob City?
As far as a second season for Mob City, I think it’s completely up in the air, we don’t know yet. You know I’m just getting back to the United States, so maybe when I get home we’ll figure out what’s up next.
And finally, I wondered if you could tell me what the character of Shane Walsh (from The Walking Dead) means to you on a personal level?
Shane’s a huge part of me, it’s a character I care very, very much about. I think his arc and his demise and his ultimate death was very much a turning point in the show I think, he was the character that first became a real product of that world, of the apocalypse and a true survivor of the apocalypse.
He was the guy who said you have to abandon human emotion and morality and put survival above all else and he was successful at it and he was good at it, but ultimately the wall that he built around his heart was the very thing that blocked him off from… it really made him a cancer to the rest of the group and I think he had to go, but I loved being a part of that show and I love the character and I loved getting on it and I loved being killed off of it!
Jon Bernthal, thank you very much!
Mob City starts at 10pm on Friday the 17th of January on Fox in the UK.
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