Jon Bernthal on “Pilgrimage” and “The Punisher”

Damaged Roles

Aug 11, 2017 Issue #61 - Grizzly Bear Bookmark and Share


"I'm not a stranger to shame and redemption," states actor Jon Bernthal. "This notion of paying for your sins, and the fact of life that you've got to move forward. You're only going one way. Sometimes there are characters that are so scarred and so deeply remorseful or horrified of their pasts that it colors every breath that they take moving forward. I think there's a level of devotion to that, whether it's to your family, to God, or whether it's to your own shame and sense of regret."

Bernthal is speaking of his role in the medieval action film Pilgrimage. Set in the 13th Century, he plays a strong, silent warrior referred to only as The Mute, who has dedicated himself fully to protecting a group of monks so that he can atone for the horrors he sawand likely enactedat war. It's a role in which he doesn't speak, a challenge which he says drew him to the script.  

"This is a character who, by choice, took his vow of silence," Bernthal explains. "It wasn't a physical impairment. He's a guy that because of whatever his actions were, whatever happened to him in the Crusades, he's decided that he's undeserving of his wants and needs."  

To understand the role, Bernthal felt it was necessary to maintain his own vow of silence both on set and off. After informing his fellow cast members in a written letter, the actor arrived to the shoot and did not speak. He learned quickly to divorce himself from his own wants and needs, as a person who can't talk must make greater effort to ask for things. When he did need to communicate with his colleagues, it was through looks and gestures.

"There's a power that you gain by staying silent; there's power in not revealing what you want," he says. "I learned so much more about the other people who populate the film by watching them. You learn how much time is taken up mindlessly and needlessly with words."

He abandoned the exercise about midway through the shoot when he felt it was getting in the way of his communication with director Brendan Muldowney. The crew lived and filmed in remote, untouched wooded areas of Western Ireland ("One of the most beautiful places in the world," says Bernthal) and had to haul themselves in and out of hard-to-get-to locations. An independent film in spite of big name stars such as Bernthal, The Hobbit's Richard Armitage, and current Spider-Man, Tom Holland, they were forced to shoot on an incredibly tight schedule. This constant race against the clock, Bernthal says, is what brought such a "visceral vitality" to the film's sudden bursts of violence.

"In every fight scene in this movie, our backs were absolutely up against the wall," says Bernthal. "I've been in studio films where you shoot a fight scene or a battle scene and you have a week, two weeks, sometimes even a month just to shoot that scene. As effective as that can be at times, there's something about knowing 'Hey, we've got these next six hours to shoot that fight.' The adrenaline starts pumping and you go into it as if it's a real fight."

This led to a few moments where the danger felt as real to the actors as it does to the audience watching the film.

"Look, we do what we do under the umbrella of safety in films, and we try to be as safe as possible, but the fact of the matter is there should be a sense of danger when you're filming a fight. I enjoy that," he says. "It requires absolute tension, absolute focus, and no fucking around. When a mistake happens, you just go through it. You just fight."

Fifteen years into his film and television career, Bernthal considers himself "unbelievably blessed" by the filmmakers who've chosen to work with him. That list includes Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street), Roman Polanski (The Ghost Writer), Steven Spielberg (The Pacific), Edgar Wright (Baby Driver), Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), David Simon (Show Me a Hero), and of course Frank Darabont, who made Bernthal a household name when he cast him as the conflicted Shane Walsh on The Walking Dead. His next big role is also for the small screen, playing Marvel Comics vigilante Frank Castle, another man damaged by his past-and a character he first appeared as in Daredevilin his own Netflix series, The Punisher.

"They're both men who are wracked with grief and shame, [but] I think Frank is a bit different. His wounds are more raw," he says, comparing The Punisher to his Pilgrimage character. "I think that there's a deep sadness to Frank Castle, and an absolute, unrelenting anger, rage and disgust in him. The Mute is different.... I think he's found quiet, and peace, and a life for himself. I think he believes there's beauty in this world, while I don't think that's really within Frank's realm."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Summer 2017 Issue (July/August/September 2017). This is its debut online.]

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