EXCLUSIVE: Why ‘Punisher’ Star Jon Bernthal Is Having the Best Summer Ever

by Stacy Lambe 11:55 AM PDT, August 09, 2017
Photo: Getty Images

It’s only late April, but it’s already been a big year for Jon Bernthal, who just wrapped production on Netflix’s upcoming Punisher spinoff and is now at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival, where two new films are making debuts. One is Sweet Virginia, a new thriller with Girls’ Christopher Abbott that was later picked up by IFC Films; the other is the medieval epic Pilgrimage, with Richard Armitage and Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Tom Holland, which hits theaters and On Demand Friday, Aug. 11.

In the latter, the former Walking Dead star plays a mute warrior who seeks peace and redemption as he helps a group of monks make a reluctant pilgrimage through Ireland, an island torn apart by tribal warfare and power-hungry invaders, in order to get a holy relic to Rome.

Perhaps taking Method preparation to an extreme, Bernthal decided he wasn’t going to speak during production of the movie, which was shot in remote parts of Ireland, far away from towns or any real amenities. Silent during rehearsals and filming, the actor also stayed quiet during cast meals and at the lodging he shared with his co-stars. “It was isolating, and I felt awkward about it in the beginning,” he tells ET at the Smyth, a downtown boutique hotel where stars often huddle for interviews during the festival.

“The one thing I realized immediately, when you take a vow of silence and stop speaking, you have to divorce yourself from your wants and your needs,” Bernthal continues, explaining that he would question the need for something as simple as a glass of water. Instead, he found himself diving deeper into his character.

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The only issue was creating a way to communicate with the director -- and making sure he was hitting his marks on camera. “I realized a couple of weeks into [filming] that this was probably hurting more than it was helping and I started talking a lot,” Bernthal says, joking, “Most of the cast as a whole decided they liked me a lot better when I was silent.”

Ultimately, Bernthal found the film an interesting exercise in coming up with a language for his character largely seen through his reactions, and a challenge to figure out a way of communicating to the audience in a way that they would understand his character. “That presents a real challenge, which I love,” he says. “I’m always looking to challenge myself with something that scares me or seems hard.” 

Jon Bernthal as the mute warrior in the XYZ Productions film Pilgrimage. Photo:

Having worked steadily over the past decade, Bernthal’s big moment came when he portrayed Shane Walsh on AMC’s adaptation of The Walking Dead. Initially only six episodes of the zombie series was ordered, and the actor says it was “incredibly humble in the beginning” before becoming a TV phenomenon. “It was just one of those perfect things,” he says of playing Shane, who was killed off in the second season.

It can also be seen as a turning point for the actor, whose ambition -- and belief that there are no small roles -- led to more notable projects, including HBO’s Show Me a Hero and The Accountant with Ben Affleck, and embodying the Punisher in the second season of Netflix’s adaptation of Daredevil.

In addition to Pilgrimage and Sweet Virginia, Bernthal also appears in this summer’s Baby Driver, filmmaker Edgar Wright’s critically acclaimed indie starring Ansel Elgort as a getaway driver; Wind River with Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen; and the upcoming crime thriller Shot Caller, opposite Lake Bell and Game of Thrones breakout Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

“I’ve just tried to work on projects that have the best filmmakers attached to them,” the actor says of his recent success. “What’s exciting to me is to continue to do lead roles and roles that are literally just in one scene.”

On Aug. 18, Bernthal will reprise his role as Punisher in The Defenders, Netflix’s continuation of its Marvel TV universe, before starring in a full season dedicated to Frank Castle, a veteran-turned-vigilante who terrorizes New York City. “Playing that part is definitely one of the real honors of my lifetime,” he says of the character, who will bring a clap of thunder to Marvel’s fictional universe.

Not initially part of Marvel’s plan for its Netflix series, which include Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, all leading up to The Defenders, fans clamored for a series focused on Frank and the streaming network is now delivering a standalone series. “It’s a character that resonates deeply in the law enforcement community and the military and with comic book fans,” he later told ET of the show, which has previously struggled to get off the ground with a failed pilot at Fox.

While most of Marvel’s Netflix series have been met with critical praise, Iron Fist landed with a thud with fans and critics alike earlier this year. But the success of the series starring Finn Jones does not factor into what Bernthal hopes fans will get out of Punisher. “For me, with all due respect, it’s not about reviewers,” Bernthal says, explaining it’s for the fans. “I promised them I’d do my best to try to get this right -- and I hope we did. One thing I can say is we fought hard.”