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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Q&A with Jon Bernthal, aka Shane Walsh on The Walking Dead

Posted by Mary Traverse on Thu, Mar 29, 2012 at 3:14 PM

courtesy AMC via ECCC
  • courtesy AMC via ECCC
Jon Bernthal is a super-nice guy, which you might not guess given that Shane, the character he plays on The Walking Dead, rubs a lot of people the wrong way (to make a massive understatement). But Jon is gracious and funny, and he was kind enough to chat with me in anticipation of his appearance at Emerald City ComiCon this weekend. Warning: We talk about major Walking Dead spoilers, so if you're not caught up and you're the sort of person who hates spoilers, don't click the jump. Consider yourself warned!!

Jon will be appearing at ECCC with Laurie Holden (Andrea) on the "Talkin' Dead" panel on Saturday from 1—2 p.m. You can meet them Saturday and Sunday all day on the show floor.

SPOILERS AFTER THIS JUMP!

I have to admit, I did not see Shane's death coming, especially so quickly on the heels of Dale's untimely demise! How long have you known this was coming?

That was always the plan. I got the luxury (which is rare in episodic TV) to know what my arc was, to know there was a beginning, middle, and end. I always knew when it was coming, and I'm really grateful for that. It made it possible for me to do my best to make a three-dimensional character and show as many colors as I could. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to still be around, but it was great.

Did you read any of the comics?

No, I didn't. I mean, they sent me the stuff when I got the job, and I was so excited and I opened up the source material and then my character was dead before I finished the first book and I realized, "There's really no reason to read this."

I thought it was interesting that they brought that arc back, that Carl was still the one who killed Shane.

I thought that was really cool, too. I think that's really good. I always said it's not about whether Shane dies, it's about that death resonating with Rick and Carl and Lori. And that's what's important. And I think it's great they had a way that both Carl and Rick took part in that.

It was so cool to watch the other night's finale because it was the first episode of the Walking Dead I could watch as a viewer and NOT know what was going to happen. I didn't read the script, I had no idea what was gonna happen. And that was really cool, I got to see the great work that everybody does... I was blown away by Andy (Rick) and Sarah (Lori), I thought their scene regarding Shane was really just beautifully done. They're such awesome actors.

What do you think of Shane?

I actually read for both Rick and Shane, but really loved the character of Shane. I think Shane was happy to be Rick's pit bull. He never looked at Lori the wrong way before the apocalypse, he was part of the Grimes family… the kind of guy who'd breeze on in during dinner and make himself a plate. He had a social life and never envied what Rick had. And then when the apocalypse happened, he had this woman and child who were looking to him, and out of loyalty and love for his best friend he took care of them. But then it's really hard for someone like Shane, once you've had power and realize there's no consequence to your actions, when you think you're making the right calls and someone's trying to stop you, it changes a person like him. I don't know that I would have made the same calls that Shane did, but I understand why he did what he did.

And how was it to play the other side, to be a zombie?

Yeah, it was weird. I mean, look, I'm a preparation freak, so any time I'm on camera I really try to figure out what's going on in the scene, and when they were like, "Okay, time to put on your zombie make-up, put in the contacts, it's time to play a zombie." And I'm like, "I don't know how to play a zombie! I haven't practiced my walk, I mean, I have no idea how to do that." I mean, it was— I always knew it was going to happen, we had always talked about it, but it was very surreal. I didn't love being a zombie, I'll be honest with you. [Chuckle] People are always like, "How do I get to be a zombie? How do I get to be a zombie?" And I'm like, "You really want to wear 40 lbs. of makeup and sit in the sun all day?" That's what those guys go through.

The make-up on the show IS amazing; it just blows my mind every time I see it.

That's the thing, I mean, Greg Nicotero, we're just so lucky to have him, he's the best in the business. I think it was such an awesome decision of Frank [Darabont]'s to do everything real and not do CGI.

Yeah, I think it makes a huge difference in the feeling of the show, the way it feels gritty and real.

Yeah, we shoot it on film, we don't shoot it on hi-def. I mean, there's all these decisions that I think people don't recognize... This show could be such an unbelievably epic piece of shit, you know, if done the wrong way. I mean, think about it: a zombie show, and a bunch of actors talking in a Southern accent running away from people in make-up. It could be freaking horrible. I think it's funny that for really, really good stuff, you gotta take that risk. You gotta go all the way and realize, "Okay, if we fuck this up, we're gonna fall so flat on our face, but if this works, it's gonna be gangbusters," you know? I think that's the kinda group that Frank assembled for this show. I mean, I've never met a group of more game actors and crew. It's such a badass group of people, and that's the thrill, and everyone realizes how lucky they were to be there, and everyone there goes full out. And it really is a family... and I know actors say shit like that all the time [mocking], "Oh, we're a family!" I've been on a lot of jobs—they weren't a family. THIS is family, you know? It's really special, and I'll miss that with all my heart.

Are you worried about the character of Shane haunting you, given the popularity of the show?

Not really… Actually, I hadn't really thought of that [laughs], but no, I try to make each character distinctive, and I'm proud of my work so I don't mind if I'm known for Shane.

So now that you've left The Walking Dead, you're going to be in Frank Darabont's new project, L.A. Noir?

Yeah, I'll be playing a cop, Joe Teague, who goes up against the gangster Mickey Cohen. I'm really pleased to be working with Frank again, I mean, he's one of the greatest directors of our time. And it'll be interesting to flesh out this new character who's so completely different from Shane.

You've done a bunch of stage acting as well…

I love stage acting. I was able to do a really cool play out here in LA last year. We did it for no money, a teeny little theater, just word of mouth, and the play totally exploded and had this awesome life out here; we won all kinds of awards and got all this really cool awesome recognition, and we're actually moving it to do it off Broadway in New York when I get done with the new series. And I'm just really excited 'cause being onstage, that's it for me.

Your bio on IMdB says you studied theater in Moscow… What took you all the way to Russia?

I went to college in America to play sports and that's really what I was into, that and getting in all kinds of trouble. Then I found acting in college, but I was all sorts of messed up. Then I met this wonderful teacher named Alma Becker. She said that I had something, and made me believe in myself. I had to leave school, I didn't finish, but I said, "Alma, I know this is what I want to do, I know I want to be an actor and become the best actor I can possibly be," and she said, "Move to Moscow. Go study at the Moscow Art Theater, it's the best theater school in the world. It'll make you grow the hell up, it'll teach you a respect for the craft, it will give you a much broader understanding of human nature. Go somewhere where to be an actor is not just something you can decide you are one day, but you have to earn it." I said, "Alright, that makes sense."

And I did it, and sure enough it really did change my life and prepared me for a career for the rest of my life. You know, this is what I'm going to do forever, and I love it and I realize how big of an honor it is. I studied acting literally every day of my life for five years before I ever went on a single audition. And I'm so grateful for that. I feel like so many actors out here focus so much on trying to get in the right rooms, or trying to meet the right people, or trying to get an agent. And then when they get in the rooms, they don't have the first idea of what to do. I feel really blessed that I spent time figuring out what I was going to do once I got in a room. So I owe Alma all my talent, and she actually was the woman who married my wife and me last summer. So, an extremely important person to me my whole life, and will always be.

I also read that you're a boxer… is there overlap with acting? Are there things you take to the stage that you also take into the ring?

I think it's all related... I mean, I love boxing, and when you get in the ring and you're fighting somebody, you're all by yourself. And I dig that. There's a repetition and a focus on the craft of it, the training, the every day. I'm in a boxing gym six days a week no matter where I am. When I was in Georgia doing The Walking Dead I didn't miss a day. It's something I kind of have to do at this point. I think the downside is my face is completely smashed in, I broke my nose a few times, I look like a complete mongrel... But the good thing is since it's already bashed in, my agents can't really get mad. [Chuckles]

It sounds like you're a super-focused person; whatever it is you're doing you're just taking it by the horns.

Sometimes, but I'm also super laid-back, I love Willie Nelson, I love the Grateful Dead, I love chilling out and eating a pizza and lighting up a spliff and hanging out. [Chuckles] It's just the things I really dig... I really dig 'em, and I figure if you're gonna do it you better go all the way. But yeah, I've got a little boy now, and if I could have it my way I'd just sort of be hanging out with him all the time. He's 8.5 months. He grew up on the set of The Walking Dead, and he's gonna be something else. He ain't scared at all, he's not scared of anything [laughs].

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