Jon Bernthal interview: Sweet Virginia, The Punisher

We chat to Jon Bernthal about new movie Sweet Virginia, out now on DVD, and why there's a little bit of The Punisher in all of us...

In the last few years, credits on the The Walking Dead, Daredevil, The Punisher and Baby Driver have made Jon Bernthal a regular and welcome fixture on the screens of virtually all Den of Geek readers.

In Jamie M. Dagg’s Sweet Virginia, Bernthal’s latest role sees him playing a former rodeo champion who has decamped to Alaska, only to find a triple murder in the town awakening a darkness within him. We caught up to hear Bernthal’s thoughts on making the movie and the roles that made him famous.

So, how did you get involved with Sweet Virginia?

It came to me through XYZ Films, I really love that company. They have an unbelievable roster of filmmakers, and I made Pilgrimage with them – I really like the guys that run the company. When the script came I was really taken with it, it was like a throwback kind of Coen brothers script. Then I saw Dagg’s film, The River, I loved how cutting it was. It was almost clinically realistic, and I thought it’d be a really interesting marriage to see him doing this sort of heightened reality seen in the actual script.

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And hey, I’m really glad I went down that road because he’s become one of my favourite filmmakers to work for. I really hope we can continue making films together.

Is this the first time you’ve worked with him?

Yeah, it’s the first time. I’d seen The River before this came my way. It’s interesting, this script was originally written for a man in his 50s or 60s, and I was quite sure I wasn’t the right guy for it. But I thought Jamie was very bold in letting me explore it. There’s some stuff that’s not in the script, and originally my character was supposed to win the fight in the hotel, but we thought it’d be more interesting if he lost instead. Jamie was really open and willing to take ideas from anywhere, and that’s the path to becoming proper collaborators, which in my opinion is what the best directors are.

And the story and world are quite dark and interior – it strikes me as quite similar to The Punisher and The Walking Dead in many ways, at least tonally speaking. Is that the sort of role you deliberately go for?

I enjoy being a part of any good story! As long as it’s with good storytellers. I thought this had a strong thesis, and a strong theme, and that’s the perfect combination for me. I don’t flock towards any particular genre or role, I just go for stuff that moves me and lets me work with people I respect, and that definitely applies here.

So out of interest, what was your entry point to the character of Sam in this?

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More than anything, my entry point was the small town setting. He’s just trying to live as quietly as possible, not make a big splash – he’s really living a dormant existence. That made a lot of sense to me. The idea of a guy living this quiet life, but who still has a spark of life in him, this relationship he wants to keep quiet. I’m drawn to characters that fight hard to turn their heart off, especially because part of the human condition is that you can’t turn off your heart, not really.

This is released off the back of your appearances as Frank Castle in The Punisher, and I get the sense that those characters have that in common.

Yeah – although you know, the methodology and tactics that they employ are diametrically opposed…!

Quite. And since that role was a real breakout one for you, I’m interested to hear what you thought it was that resonated with people.

Ha, it’s because I think there’s a little bit of Punisher in all of us. It’s why the movies and comics have been so successful too, why he’s been around for so long. We all have people around us that we care about the most, and we’ve all wondered in our deepest, darkest thoughts what we’d do if they were taken from us. The first response – that spark of anger and rage – this is that taken to the absolute extreme. Frank Castle lives in that. I do believe that it’s uniform, that everyone has it a little bit.

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You also recently worked with Edgar Wright on Baby Driver, as part of a really A-list cast. Was it as much fun as it looked?

Baby Driver was great, Edgar’s a true genius director. I love getting chances to work with the best, it’s where you learn the most, and he’s up there with anybody. I’m so proud I got to work with him.

And finally, the time-honoured Den of Geek question: Do you have a favourite Jason Statham movie?

Ummmm. You know, Mark Neveldine is a dear friend of mine and I have to say I think Crank is really great.

A popular choice.

Yeah! Right on.

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Sweet Virginia is available on DVD from 15th January.