Interview with Mob City’s Jon Bernthal

Having already successfully worked with Frank Darabont once on The Walking Dead, Bernthal is collaborating with the visionary filmmaker once more for another cable drama--this time a new, stylish noir on TNT.

Jon Bernthal has had a terrific run in the last few years following his breakout role of Shane on The Walking Dead. A previous character actor who had studied everywhere from The School of Moscow Art Theatre to the American Repertory Theatre, Bernthal was a well reversed actor (and for a short-time, a professional European baseball player) before he became one of the most entertaining and interesting characters on the AMC zombie juggernaut’s first two seasons…at least until he was killed off. Truly, by the point that Shane made his first and last zombie shuffle, there was little room left for the character to go. But for Bernthal, it was just the beginning. He immediately got tantalizing roles like a part in the Stallone/De Niro boxing movie Grudge Match and, even a part in Martin Scorsese’s newest film, The Wolf of Wall Street. Yet, when Frank Darabont, director of such films as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile (as well as creator and original showrunner of The Walking Dead), called with a new series over at TNT, Bernthal was more than ready to commit once more to the filmmaker who gave him his break. And once you see the two-night event premiere you’ll understand why. In Mob City, which debuts at 9pm ET on TNT, Bernthal gets to join Darabont in an even more alluring cinematic genre coming to the small screen: the noir. Based on the non-fiction book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City by John Buntin, Mob City casts Bernthal as a disillusioned cop on the mean streets of LA post-World War II, just in time to butt heads with the likes of Bugsy Siegel (Ed Burns) and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke). But most of all, it returns Bernthal and Darabont into people’s living rooms. Thus, I was more than happy to participate in a conference call-styled interview with Bernthal last week. Below is our conversation. Talk to me about your character a little bit, and the line between good and evil, or I guess good and bad because it definitely seems like it fuzzies the line there for the guys on the show. Jon Bernthal: I think [this is for] Frank Darabont a kind of introduction to the noir genre in the long form television format. Same thing you do with Walking Dead in the horror genre, he wants to do it with noir – he is very much a loyalist and enthusiast. So I think when Frank [talks] about the classic film noir characters, it is really steeped in mystery, and the characters are way ahead of the audience. We are kind of asking the audience to bear with us and to not necessarily get the answers right away. And I think this line between good and evil is, as the season sort of unfolds, this minor sort of issue that the season opens up with and will sort of grow, and grow, and grow, and grow and get bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and this problem will spiral out of control. …I think once you sort of find out more about Joe and what he has been through, and why he is actually doing what he is doing, things will be a lot clearer. But I do think he is the man who has seen a lot of terror in his life; he has seen a lot; he’s been through a lot. I think this will be sort of explained, and I think he is a guy who has a hard time with relationships. And he has a hard time with sort of being in the present – he is much more comfortable lingering in the shadows and protecting from a distance and I think that he has – I think like anybody who is sort of lived beyond sort of the veneer of – and comfort of everyday life – I think that he has seen a lot and he therefore adopts a “by all means necessary” attitude when it comes to protecting people. I think as the series goes on this will become more clear.
 How much does just the clothing and the style help your character? Because the suits are so slick and the hats and everything – talk about that a little bit, and just how that helps get in this role.

 

Yes I think it helps a lot. You got [great Costume Designer] Gigi Melton…and there is such care and attention put into it. It is a time and life when people really put a lot of care and concern, and attention into how they dressed. These people came out of the depression and didn’t have much, so you took real care of the things that you had.

 

I think especially for a lot of the gangster characters, you will get some really colorful characters and some really colorful costumes. I think what was interesting for me with Joe was he is really a guy who I think as an ex you know, an ex-marine and a vet coming back to LA. I think he sort of thinks that the flamboyance and the glamor of this city is pretty ridiculous, and I think he thinks Hollywood is pretty ridiculous. And so he is really sort of a blue collar guy, and I love what Gigi has done with his – with what he wears because there is something, you know, it is extremely practical and something extremely simple to the clothes that Joe wears yet it is still every day. You got to have a tie and a suit, and I think there is something very interesting about that. It is a different time. About your preparation for the role Joe, [what were your inspirations for the role?] Like did you read various pulp comics, watch various movies or any real life inspiration? Yes absolutely. Look, I will be honest with you, I didn’t know much about noir before this started. Frank gave me a pretty big, pretty rigorous crash course in it, but the characters that I drew from – I read a lot of [Raymond] Chandler, and obviously Philip Marlowe is an inspiration – I think that really came from Frank. But, you know, I will be honest with you, it is a little bit later on, but there is a book called White Jazz by [James Ellroy] that really had a big influence on me. The David Klein character…this is about 10 or 15 years later, but I really thought that this David Klein character really was the Joe Teague character 15 years down the road, just a little bit saltier. And I felt like another inspiration, strangely enough, is I loved Nick Nolte and 48 hours. It is a totally different genre, but it’s this sort of hardboiled detective. I have always been a huge Nolte fan, and that one really rang sort of honest with me. …I think what is interesting here with what Frank is trying to do is he’s not trying to do a kind of modern take on noir. He is trying to sort of do the classic take and put it on TV. Hopefully, the American TV audience will be down with it. I hope people dig it.
 This is such a rich period in Los Angeles’ history. I am curious how much study did you put into what was going on at the time and have you had any opportunity to talk to police officers or people who were around during all that time? Yes. The series was based off the book LA Noir, which is really a history of LA. It is a fascinating book and what excites me so much about this series is it takes of this fictional character of Joe Teague, and this little situation that he finds himself in with Hecky Nash, but what Frank has done is he is taken this fictional situation, these fictional characters, and he puts it in the middle of these non fictional events. And what the series will do as it unfolds, and as the problems spiral out of control…is these fictional characters and these fictional events will actually be affecting non-fictional mysteries in the history of Los Angeles. And that is one of the most exciting things about the series to me. I think just like in Forrest Gump, how Forrest Gump was a fictional character in the middle of all these historical situations. What Frank has done is he’s taken this fictional character, and he has actually said this is the guy, this is the situation that actually caused this nonfiction historical situation. So, as the series unfolds you will see many, many real characters from the history of Los Angeles pop up; real mysteries from the history of Los Angeles pop up and furthermore, I think you’re going to see fictional answers for these mysteries, which is really cool. You mentioned earlier that this is a classical noir and you are hoping audiences respond to it. So, first zombies, and now noir and gangsters. Why do you think television has become the haven for more ambitious genre fare as of late? That’s a really good question. I think it is – I mean it kind of all centers around the state of Hollywood moviemaking. You know, it is so rare now that movies are being made just because they are great stories, and great storytelling is taking a back seat in movies I think [for] franchises and [these] 50, 60, 70 million dollar dramas are just not being made anymore.

 

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And I think because of that reason, a lot of the best people in film are flocking to TV. There clearly is a real renaissance going on. I think so many great storytellers are attracted to television because of the long form format. It is just so attractive. It offers an unbelievable relationship between the actor and writer. [On television] we are constantly working off each other, and as shows open up and develop over time, it is a real fluid active all-live relationship, and the writer can see things that the actor is doing and explore on them and vice versa. I think when it shows where it’s really working, there is always a really good dialogue between actors and writers. It’s just a very interesting, wonderful way to work, and I think a lot of the best people are moving towards it.
 Is there a story behind your getting this role or is it simply that Frank likes you?  Frank and I were very much in communication after he left the Walking Dead, and I was still doing the show [with] the plan to obviously die – the character Shane was supposed to die at the end of Season 2 – and before that had happened, Frank had talked to me, and told me that he had something for me and he was writing something for me. That was just such an honor. I was unbelievably flattered by that, and I went right on to do a movie. By the time I was sort of halfway through filming in Shreveport, I got a script for Mob City, which was then called LA Noir. So it’s not much of a story. To be honest with you, when Frank calls and says he’s got something for you, as far as I’m concerned, you just kind of say yes. You just keep yourself available after that. His a friend. I would walk through fire for him. I believe in him, and I believe in him as an artist and as a person. What is it about Frank Darabont that makes you say yes and walk through fire without much question at this point? I mean I think that I could go on forever about that. I think with Frank—first and foremost, he gave me my first real big opportunity, and that means the world to me. He’s done so much for me, and my family, and I will be forever indebted to him for that just simply plainly, there is that. That said, I think he is also one of the great storytellers that this country has. I think he has created some of the best movies in the canon of American film. Walking Dead is one of the best shows. He is just an unbelievable storyteller. So, there is that level where you just want to be working with somebody like that. It is a joy to say his words. It is a joy to crack open his scripts. It is an honor to crack open his scripts. Thirdly, and in a way most importantly, he is a good man. He is a good loyal man who really cares about what we do and really cares about storytelling, and he really cares about the people that tell his stories. You step on a Frank Darabont set and you have Greg and Gigi Melton on that set — Gigi does costumes Greg does the sets. They both went to Hollywood High with him. Nina Paskowitz does hair – went to Hollywood High with him. Michael Sloan, another one of the writers, went to Hollywood High with him. It just kind of goes on and on and on. You will see people come up to do day player work, and they went to Hollywood High with Frank. …He brings the same people back over and over again, and it really is this sort of familial – I mean it is a family, and there is not much of that going around anymore in Hollywood. So, I am so honored to be a part of that family and I will stay as long as they will have me. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!