Jon Bernthal has had a busy pandemic. From starring as tennis coach Rick Macci in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Oscar contender “King Richard” to David Simon’s upcoming HBO Baltimore miniseries “We Own This City,” he also starred in Netflix’s “The Unforgivable” opposite Sanda Bullock, and stepped into the world of “The Sopranos” as Johnny Soprano in “The Many Saints of Newark.” Next, he’ll be seen at this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival in Lena Dunham’s feature film “Sharp Stick.”
The acting, writing, and producing multi-hyphenate may consider that just a “normal level of output,” but that may be because the actor has maintained a certain tenacity, telling IndieWire that he “fought like hell” to star in projects like “King Richard” and “We Own This City.”
In a phone interview from his home in Ojai, California, Bernthal told IndieWire how neither he nor “King Richard” writer-director Green “knew anything about tennis, but we definitely knew that if we were going to do a tennis movie, we needed to get the tennis right. So [Reinaldo] said you’ve got to lose 30 pounds, you’ve got to train like hell in tennis. That stuff is just music to my ears,” he said.
Indeed, in the lead-up to production on the drama about Richard Williams (Will Smith), father of Venus and Serena, Bernthal trained for three hours a day at the Weil Tennis Academy in Ojai to play Macci. “There’s a philosophy to coaching, there’s a vocabulary to coaching, how to run drills, how to talk the player through those drills,” Bernthal said, who leaned into his experience with boxing and baseball to nail the role’s athleticism. (He also sports quite the prodigious mustache.)
He even, at times, trained in character. “The dialogue was so specific, and it really made me nervous, because it’s this very specific Kentucky, Ohio, accent, and he talks unlike anyone I’ve ever heard before. And I really just wanted to get that right,” Bernthal said. “It’s one thing to be able to do the tennis right. It’s one thing to be able to get the dialect right. I thought if you can combine them, then you’re really ready to be on set.”
Bernthal said it was less about “putting on a show” or his “process” and instead was about building a rapport as a trainer that he could then take in front of the camera “Every day my training was my own tennis training, and then at the end, for an hour, I trained this junior national player who’s amazing, Kamea Medora. I got to run drills with her. I want to keep her laughing.”
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
As for the real Rick Macci, who is now retired but was a longtime player and coach who took Serena and Venus under his wing, Bernthal said they did get a chance to meet. “His dialect is unbelievably specific. In the tennis community, they call it Macci-isms, he constantly speaks in rhymes and he has these little short sayings,” Bernthal said. “He wants to keep things fun. He wants to inspire. He wants to keep his players smiling because when they’re smiling, they’ll try harder.”
Bernthal added, “Clearly, Rick Macci is not in the zeitgeist in the way that Richard Williams is, or certainly not how Serena and Venus are. I just loved that the script and the project concentrated on authenticity to such a high degree, when truth is your north star. If what you’re trying to do is try to tell the truth, then try to tell the truth. I probably could’ve played Rick any way I wanted. I don’t think it was important to everybody at first that Rick sounded like Rick. But it was enormously important to me.”
While Bernthal heads into Sundance to support “Sharp Stick,” production is still underway on George Pelecanos and David Simon’s “We Own This City,” a six-part miniseries chronicling the rise and fall of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. In a sense, starring on the show is a dream fulfilled for Bernthal, who was brought up creatively on David Simon’s beloved HBO epic “The Wire” — as well as David Chase’s “The Sopranos,” which brought him to “The Many Saints of Newark.”
“Both ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Sopranos’ were fundamental to me. They were the mountaintop in terms of television when I was first coming up as an actor,” Bernthal said. “Everything I try to produce myself… centers on police and race and the futility of the war on drugs, and telling those stories in a very nuanced, detailed way with the cities that those stories are about smack dab in the middle of the story, and are central to the character. I don’t think there’s anybody like David Simon or George Pelecanos who know how to tell those stories in that way.”
“King Richard” is streaming on HBO Max.