You’ve seen Jon Bernthal turn pretty savage — and ultimately become a zombie — as Shane on the first two seasons of The Walking Dead, but even going from psychopath to flesh-eating ghoul may not compare to his performance in Fury (read our review here). As loader Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis — whose job is to make sure there is a shell in the chamber every time gunner Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf) fires their Sherman tank’s 76mm gun — Bernthal portrays a man who came out of a small town and has seen the world in the most hideous way possible: through the devastating lens of World War 2. As the film opens in April 1945, Grady, Boyd, driver Trini Garcia (Michael Pena), and commander Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) are exhausted and numbed, reduced to near animals.
“The way I looked at Grady was he was a guy who had never really seen the outside of his little holler that he grew up in,” says Bernthal, who cleans up nicely in person, when we sit down in Los Angeles to discuss writer/director David Ayer’s film. “These guys are all products of the Depression. No mass communication and no real ability to travel. He was a guy who probably found himself get in trouble with the law a little bit. And I think that this decision to go and fight for his country had nothing to do with political ideals — I think it was just sort of what guys did. I don’t think it was a response to Pearl Harbor or anything like that.
“But once he gets over there and he travels across the world, all of a sudden he’s in Africa and France and Germany and he’s riding around in a tank driven by a Mexican guy from Chicago and these guys are all listening to different kinds of music and talking about books and — I don’t think Grady reads — and I think this thing has been an adventure for him. And then it gets darker and darker and darker and scarier and scarier and scarier.”
The movie never pinpoints where Grady comes from or explores his back story, but Bernthal says he figured out some details on his own. “It’s funny. In the script, one person says (Grady’s) from Alabama and one person says he’s from Arkansas. But David doesn’t make mistakes, so what I took that for is just guys from other parts of the country generalizing where people from the South are from. So I felt that I could take the liberty then to place him from anywhere I wanted, just as long as it was from the South. So I was really specific about the dialect. I actually pinpointed it to a certain town in north Georgia in Appalachia, in the north Georgia hills. I found a guy, got his accent and I just tried to copy the accent and periodize it with a great vocal coach, Jessica Drake.”
As Fury opens, the crew of Fury — who have outlasted all the other tank crews in their division — have just lost one of their own, the assistant driver and bow gunner Red. His replacement is Norman (Logan Lerman), an Army typist thrust into the frontlines with no combat experience. Bernthal says that the loss of their brother and the addition of the new kid rattles his character. “Grady’s definitely a man of superstition, definitely a man who doesn’t live by a sound spiritual code,” he explains. “I think he looks to Bible and Wardaddy to sort of define his spiritual code. And I think everything gets turned upside down when they actually lose one of theirs, and I think Red was the person Grady was closest with.”
Bernthal adds that Grady’s relationship with the deeply religious Boyd is an example of two men who are extreme opposites finding a bond through their shared experiences. “There was this clear sort of divide in the tank, where on his side there was all these Bible passages. I put up pictures of naked women and garter belts and panties. So there was this sort of natural thing that these guys would be at odds with each other. But it’s funny because the loader-gunner relationship is absolutely yin and yang. It’s absolutely symbiotic and they depend on each other for everything. We work enormously close and we love each other and are dependent on each other enormously. I looked at him as a mom. He looked at me as his baby boy. Grady doesn’t really make a move without looking at Boyd first and following him. Grady doesn’t need a relationship with God because he’s got a relationship with Boyd.”
Bernthal agrees that Grady is the most far gone of the men in terms of being stripped of the veneer of civilization, but argues that the loader’s behavior is a defense mechanism. “I think that he’s starting to get in touch with the fact that…with this war ending, going back into the real world, there’s no life for him. He’s just become a creature of this war, a creature of this world.” The starkest evidence of Grady’s inability to cope with the possibility of resuming a normal life comes across in a scene halfway through the film, when Grady, Trini and Boyd intrude on a dinner that Collier and Norman are having with two women in a captured German town — Collier’s attempt at a brief oasis of normalcy.
“To try to sit down at a table with linens and tablecloths and silverware and there’s women at the table, (Grady is thinking) ‘Why aren’t we raping them? You’re gonna let this kid go have sex with her in that backroom and I can’t?’” says Bernthal. “All of a sudden Wardaddy, a central figure in his life, is focusing all his attention on this kid…that hurts him. And yes, I think that he does not have the abilities or the vocabulary any more to sit down and have a dinner. He wants to say, ‘I need to tear this fucking room down.’ It was funny because that was my whole idea — I was gonna come in and break every fucking thing in that room. And David said, ‘Look, you’re not allowed to touch anything.’ I think what David really wanted to go after was the otherworldliness of sitting down and having a meal, juxtaposed in this world of hell that these guys call home now.”
Not surprisingly, Bernthal says that the Fury shoot was grueling both physically and psychologically. “I think I was sort of in a similar place in season two of The Walking Dead,” muses the actor. “This wasn’t the kind of movie that you get off set and you wrap and you breeze into London to go get some Chinese food. It’s not like, ‘Hey, let’s go down to the local pub and have a drink.’ We were actively trying to stay in it and not break it. Anything that served as a distraction was the enemy, so no fancy meals, no creature comforts. No breaks. No family. No Internet. No phones. That, to me, was the enemy on this.”
Bernthal, a boxer who trains six days a week, got in the ring whenever he could during the shoot — but not to relieve the stress from filming. “We talked about sparring in the beginning,” he says. “There was a sensei, Richard Mesquite, one of David’s best friends, who was teaching us karate and, you know, I come from a pretty extensive boxing background. Once pre-production started, the sparring stopped, but every single day when we wrapped Richard and I would go into this little room in a gym and we would do at least three rounds of full contact sparring every day through the entire shooting process because I wanted to kind of maintain that. The only thing I would do after work would be to go exercise no matter how tired I was, because I wanted to maintain the exhaustion. I didn’t want to be well rested.”
The level of dedication that Bernthal and the other actors brought to their roles extended into their familiarity with operating the tank that they spend most of the movie in. “Climbing up and down the tank all day, handling that hatch, handling the shells, loading day in and day out — it’s exhausting but it’s the deal, you know,” he explains. “On all those shots it’s us actually in the tank, operating the tank. Mike driving, Shia loading the turret and me loading anything that needed to be loaded. And even if we’re not loading anything, just going through tank drills and just staying in it.”
For Bernthal, whose upcoming projects include Sicario (from Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve) and Show Me a Hero (a new HBO miniseries from The Wire creator David Simon), pushing himself as far as possible and immersing himself completely in the role is the only way he knows how to practice his craft. “You either work that way or you don’t,” he proclaims. “There’s no real middle ground and I only want to work that way. So if I can work with a guy like David Ayer, he demands that you work that way and I think he only casts actors who not just willing to work that way, but just want to work that way.”
Fury is out in theaters now.