Most people know Jon Bernthal from the hit AMC series “The Walking Dead,” where he played Shane Walsh, a man who takes up with his best friend’s wife following the zombie apocalypse. (Spoiler alert: his character was killed off in 2012.) In this week’s vicious war movie “Fury” (read our review), Bernthal basically plays a member of the walking dead. He’s Grady “Coon Ass” Travis, a member of a tank unit in the waning days of the European theater, under the command of Brad Pitt. Bernthal is wild, animalistic, and covered in mud throughout virtually the entire movie, so the similarities between himself and the TV show’s titular zombie menace isn’t just superficial. Throughout most of “Fury” he both looks and acts like he just crawled out of his own grave. And to hear him talk about making the movie, it sounds like Bernthal literally went through hell.
We sat down and spoke to Bernthal about what it was like both training for and filming “Fury,” and it sounds like a completely different experience than your normal Hollywood gig. Director David Ayer (read our interview here) put the actors through boot camp and tested their limitations, on both body and soul. Bernthal spoke mostly about what making “Fury” entailed – from a screen test that involved at least two of the actors pulling their, um, members out, to a rehearsal period that broke the actors down, to the boot camp nightmare and the equally difficult filming that followed. The conversation was a frank and honest discussion, and a fascinating look at how much an actor can pour his blood, sweat, and tears into a role. No matter what you ultimately think about “Fury,” this interview is something of a must-read (if we do say so ourselves).
So tell me about this bootcamp that you went through. What was that experience like?
The military advisor was a guy named Kevin Vance, a Navy Seal, a great guy. He brought two Navy SEAL team members, and the whole thing was set up like a Navy SEAL course. Obviously it’s the light version of it because we’re actors and shit. The physical shit doesn’t really bother me. I played sports in high school and college and have been boxing my whole life but the whole purpose of he thing was to break us down physically, mentally and emotionally. Part of the way that they fuck with you is that you never know what’s going to come next. All of a sudden they took Logan [Lerman] in the middle of the night and we had to go find Logan. It’s like you never know what’s coming, so just like in the Navy SEALs courses, there would be a task put in front of us, something we could never ever finish and we didn’t know that. The goal was to get us to start fighting with each other and get us angry at each other, get us very frustrated, because when we couldn’t complete these tasks, we wouldn’t be able to eat, we wouldn’t be able to sleep.
So they really got each one of us to genuinely break down, in our own way. Whether it was mental, physical, emotional. Genuinely everybody broke down. Then the idea is about midway through to start going the other way, to start realizing once we started depending on each other, and once we started working with each other, once we became actually a team and a unit, we started completing our goals. They started building us up. We started to get success in our goals and we started to get rewarded and it worked because by the end we were definitely a bonded solid unit and we had found this together.
It was sort of a great thing to have right before filming stuff started, because one thing that was uniform amongst all the troops that we talked to is that there’s nothing closer than a tank crew. A tank crew is like a family — you don’t pick your family, you don’t pick your tank crew. Nobody loves each other like a tank crew or a family and nobody fights like a tank crew or a family because you’re so intimate with each other, you’re condensed in such a small space, and you know each other — you know each other’s strengths and weakness so unbelievably well. So any successful tank unit is one that knows each other so well that the natural hierarchy of rank in the military kind of goes out the window. It doesn’t matter who’s a sergeant, who’s a private, like none of that shit matters. And so that was just a great thing to have that experience right before we started shooting. So we were definitely a unit by the time we started.
Was that part of the appeal of the role?
Look, I think you know doing a David Ayer movie, doing a movie like this, it’s not because you want to go to a bunch of bars and eat like fucking Indian food. You don’t sign on to a movie like this because it’s going to get your name in the lights. The way I look at it you’re either the kind of actor that loves to sort of dive in fully, loves to immerse themselves, loves to be around other people who are completely committed and who will push each other to commit even more. Or you’re the kind of person who likes to go to a bar and fuck a lot of girls and all that bullshit. David Ayer hires people who are like the first one. It was not about leaving set and going to restaurants and bars. We sparred every day for the first few months. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about that.
David does it in all his movies so in pre-production for the first three months we were there, we sparred every day. There was a guy who was a karate sensei, he would teach a karate course in the morning for like an hour and then the next two hours we’d just fight each other. And David’s whole theory — and I agree, from somebody who’s been boxing a long time — you get to know everything about a guy by the way they fight. And it’s not about who’s the toughest or who beats who, it’s just about how they handle themselves and that kind of adversity, and how you handle yourself depending on who your opponent is. There’s no line in fighting. There’s no way to get to know somebody by punching them in the face.
What was cool was that I think everybody really grew a lot. There’s nothing like bringing people together than setting them against each other right from the beginning. There’s an intimacy with that, there’s a familiarity with that, and there’s like sort of a natural pecking order that becomes ingrained. that’s true with any group of men. All of a sudden it doesn’t matter who’s a movie star, who’s not a movie star, who’s making this amount of money, who’s not making the money, who’s this age, who’s that age. It’s like we figure out everything we need to figure out in that room and it made the rehearsals. I think what it did was fast forwarded our getting to know each other process because two weeks in, we just had all kind of really been through it. I think at the end of the day what this movie was really supposed to be and what we tried to do with it was, this is a family drama about a family going through hell in a moving metal living room.
There were stories that you guys sort of squabbled and things like that, and that Ayer would really push you hard.
There would be times after shooting where we would sheepishly walk up to each other and say, “Hey man, I’m really sorry about what I said.” [David Ayer would] always be like, “Look dude, that’s what we’re doing here.” There was something definitely — I don’t want to say cult-like — but when you have a group of actors who are like committing fully and being like, “Whatever you say, we’ll do,” and then you’ve got a guy at the helm who’s basically like, “Look, I want you to go in as dark a place as possible,” you can get there pretty quick. Everybody’s all working towards the same thing. At the end of the day we’re actors and we don’t have to do any of this shit. It’s like Brad Pitt surely doesn’t need to be put through the paces but when he’s openly, willingly and eagerly being like, “I want it harder, I want I tougher, I want it wetter” — at the end of the day we’re fucking monkeys who wear makeup and say lines for a living. We’re portraying real soldiers. So if we can get a sliver of danger, of pretend danger, we’re doing our job in honoring these guys.
What was the craziest or most dangerous situation you found yourself in?
Every day was different. Every day there was real danger. We were operating every day a real ’75 Sherman Tank. Every tanker says the way tanks work is they’re built to kill everything around them, but they’re also built to kill everything inside them. That turret, it’s moving at all times. If your hand or your foot or your leg is ever in the wrong place, you stand to lose it like that. The hatch weighs 75 lbs. If you don’t shut it in the right way, you will lose your hand. The sharp edges, the thing bucks, the thing kicks, the thing is constantly kicking up exhaust and smoke in your face. If Shia [LaBeouf] were to hit the firing pedal while I wasn’t clear, I would get slammed and potentially impaled on the back of the tank. So to put a bunch of actors in that situation where we’re operating the tank ourselves, firing the tank ourselves, putting the tank together, taking it apart ourselves, working on it, driving the tank ourselves, that was sort of a baseline danger. Then you start incorporating the weapons, then you start incorporating the psychological danger of us going after each other all of the time and the mind state that we reside in. And then there’s this familiarity with physicality so at any point another actor could punch you in the face, start strangling you.
The way it worked in pre-production, we had three months. Every morning we would spar for three hours and we’d do six hours of tank training and the evenings would be the rehearsal. The most violent part of the day, by far, was rehearsal. I don’t think there was a single day where furniture wasn’t broken, walls weren’t punched in. People were choked, things were poured on each other. I mean all kinds of shit kind of happens.
I’ve definitely been through my fair share of shit and I’ll say this was definitely pretty…you know, we went for it. I think mostly for me it was the psychological danger. When you reveal parts of yourself that you don’t share with anyone else…you’re demanded to tell everything about yourself and your worst fears and everything you care about. Then people are told to unleash on that. At times when you’re not prepared for that, you don’t’ know when it’s going to come…it’s a tough sort of mindset to be in day in and day out with no break. Everything from real war videos, beheadings, all kinds of stuff. Inundated with it constantly for five, six, seven months straight you get in a mindset that is fucking dark. Especially when you’re like, “I just want to get darker, I want to get darker, I want to get darker.” Anything that takes you the other way — family friends, communication, social life — you actively are axing those things out of your life and gobbling up as much dark shit as you possibly can. It becomes a dangerous situation and you create the danger. That’s pretty crazy.
Was it hard to come out of that?
Definitely, it was. It definitely took me a while. I just remember right after that my agents called and said they’re real interested in you for “American Sniper.” I was like, dude, no. That said, I don’t know what translates onto film. You do all that, you make all of those sacrifices and this is a film that definitely came with a cost, there’s a real cost, an emotional cost, a physical cost. There’s a cost of being away from your family and freezing them out of your life. I’ve got two little kids. It was that kind of experience but if even a sliver of it makes its way onto the screen, then it’s worth it.
Shia went the extra mile, cutting his face and taking the tooth out. Was that something you admired or do you feel he’d gone too far?
I feel like Shia is a brilliant actor and he’s brilliant in this role. His commitment was beautiful, but at no point did I sort of look at him and say, “Oh wow, he’s crossing the boundaries.” He helped to make it dangerous on set. I helped to make it dangerous on set. Brad helped to make it dangerous on set, that’s what we were doing. I don’t think his commitment was any different than anyone else’s, it’s just what we were doing. Yeah, he pulled his fucking tooth out. I’ve got to say, when I look at Logan and his commitment, there’s no question this process, both who they were before this started, what their upbringing was, who they were and what they experienced, nobody went through nearly as much as Logan. Nobody. He got the shit beaten out of him every day, he bore the brunt of all of our shit and ridicule because that was the character. He’s younger than all of us, he’s less experienced at fighting than all of us, and never once did he complain, never once did he break down. And I thought that Logan’s commitment blew me away and I thought that his toughness was unparalleled.
We’ve heard of the Scott Eastwood incident with Shia. What was your take on that? Was it another casualty of this kind of environment?
Look man, we were there inundated with this idea that we were a tank crew and one thing about a tank crew is they don’t like outsiders and they don’t like other people coming in. The thing with Scott and the spitting, that was sort of a funny little anecdote. It really wasn’t that big of a deal at the time. But I do think there was a mentality that we were encouraged to uphold. We had a screen test, most screen tests are not taken seriously, [but] the screen test for this movie, after we’d been through pre-production, when we met the crew, I would say people were definitely scared. In the screen test we ran a scene on camera for the crew. I think there were two people that pulled their dicks out. One of us just took a piss in the middle of the scene, one person got choked on the ground — it was definitely pretty full. We kind of wanted to set a standard. There’s no question that the making of this movie was pretty full on, and we had hopes of making this a dark movie.
“Fury” is now playing nationwide.