Talking The Walking Dead With Jon Bernthal

By Heather Hughes

Apr 08, 2011

As an actor in The Walking Dead you never know when your character is going to get bitten, and you’re subsequently written out of the show. For Jon Bernthal, this is particularly true as his character doesn't live past the first comic on which the show is based. Is he worried then, that the second season will be his last? And how was the first season for him? Ahead of the zombie series’ terrestrial debut (Channel 5, Sunday 10 at 10pm) we gave Bernthal a call to find out...

TV.com: Given that The Walking Dead is very genre-specific were you surprised with how popular it's been?
Jon Bernthal: The genre is pretty specific and there are loyalists and fans of not only the genre but also the comic books, but what I think is really cool about this show are the characters. Being on AMC in America puts us in the company of these really well-loved and critically acclaimed character studies of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It's such unbelievable company to keep. One thing about our show is that we really try to go after that audience as well. I don’t think this is just a genre piece.

One of the most compelling things about this show, especially in the writing, is the unbelievable attention it pays to character and to atmosphere and texture. I don’t mean sound like a used-car salesman, but I think there’s really something in this show for everybody. People who hate horror can end up loving this show; they just watch a lot of parts of it through their hands, which I think is really fun.

Were there any parts that you found particularly jumpy to film?
The first time I saw zombies was at lunch. It scared the living hell out of me. I bring my two pit bulls, Boss and Venice, with me to Atlanta and when they saw the zombies, they completely freaked out as well. That was really weird, seeing them in real life. When you see Greg Nicotero's work--he’s the man who makes all the zombies and does all the make-up effects and stuff--they’re really like works of art.

Mostly I wouldn't say things make me jumpy. I remember specifically in one scene, looking over to Andrew Lincoln and just saying: “there is no way this is going to make it on to TV.” And he said the exact same thing. And sure enough, it did, you know.

How’s filming for the second season coming along?
We start in a couple of months. They’ve got to wait to make sure that Atlanta is so hot that we’ll have sweat literally pouring off of us every single take. We’re not starting until it gets to absolute hottest part of the year.

Sounds lovely! Have you seen the scripts yet?
No, I haven't, I think they’re in the process of being written right now. Each of the actors was invited into the writers' room though. It really speaks to the collaborative nature of this show that actors are being invited into a writers’ room. It’s an open, special environment that these guys have created.

So I do have an idea of some of the things that are going to go down in season two. But no scripts have been written yet.

There's been a big overhaul in the writing team since season one. Has that had much of an effect on the shows production and the atmosphere between you all?
No, not really. I think everybody who works on this show is incredibly talented and incredibly driven. The writers were really kept separate from us last year; we were in Atlanta and they were here [in LA].

This is really Frank’s project, I think there are a lot of unbelievable collaborators that work on this but at the end of the day Frank oversaw and continues to oversee every single word that is uttered on screen. And, you know, we were really not privy to any of those decisions. I don’t even know what the truth is. I would be really out of turn to speak on it.

One thing everybody should know is that, as genius a writer and director Frank is, and as great as an artist he is, he’s equally that great as a human being. He’s as kind and as humane a person as I’ve ever met. And I know that if any decisions were made, they were made with utter graciousness. Some of the stuff that came out in the press, that people were fired and this and that, I just don’t believe it. I don’t believe that that’s how this went down.

There are new writers, I have met some of them and they’re all great. They’re super jazzed to get going. And I think that’s really exciting stuff.

The first season didn't stick that closely to the comic books. How true is that for the second season?
I think it’s going to be more of the same. We’ll get back to it and then we’re going to steer off of it. The comic is going to be this line that we follow; we’re always going to come back to the road but we’re going to take detours on the way.

Having the comic's creator Robert Kirkman on board must really help.
It’s a real mark of the kind of artist that Robert Kirkman is. He’s one of the executive producers on the show; he’s one of the writers. I think a lot of people out there would say, “Hey, look. I have one of the best-selling comic books in the world. Why are you steering off of it?” But instead, Kirkman has used this as a chance to revisit things, to look at things differently and to change things.

I love it when they show those iconic shots from the comic book and we’ll ride on it. And then I love that there are places, characters and settings that didn’t even exist in the comic and are part of our show. Besides, having Robert Kirkman involved in the show gives this street cred with the comic book contingent.

In the comic, Shane’s killed off pretty early on. When you took on the part originally did you know that he was going to live longer in the show?
Oh, no. I didn’t know. There’s no real knowing how long you’re going to be around on this show. I think it's part of the environment that we create--at any point, it could be your last.

I remember one of the first movies I did was with a bunch of people who had been working onThe Sopranos. They all said they never knew when it was going to be their episode and it added to the atmosphere of dread that was on set. That’s a big part of it, I think. We’re living in a zombie apocalypse and people have got to get killed off.

I love this show; I love being a part of it and I love everyone involved in it. So I want to be around as long as I can, but if the character’s got to go and that’s to serve the quality of the entire show then, by all means, it’s what’s going to have to happen and I’m cool with that. I’m really grateful that they kept me around this long.

If you could choose, how would like Shane to go: death by zombie or human?
I would like to go the exact the same way he goes in the comic.

I can imagine it will be quite interesting to see how the love triangle will play out on screen now that Shane's around for longer.
Oh, absolutely. I love that they’ve made a character that was pretty much one note in the comic and they’ve written him to be unbelievably complex. He’s constantly going back and forth on whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy.

You’re dealing with an unbelievably lonely guy and I think there are two types of loneliness in this world: there’s the loneliness that you suffer when you’re far away from the people you love and there's nothing to do except pine away and be sad, then there’s another kind of loneliness where you’re trapped with the people that you love. You see them every day and you just can’t be with them the way you want to be. That’s really what Shane’s going through, and I think that kind of loneliness really affects people's behaviour.

Shane's just discovering that there’s absolutely no law in this world whatsoever. I think it’s really illustrated in the scene where he beats the guy up on the beach and then draws the gun on Rick. He’s realising, slowly but surely, that he can do whatever he wants here. There are no repercussions, there’s no law. And I think when you have a guy in this emotional state, and realising that the environment that he’s in is this lawless, I think he can become an unbelievably dangerous person. That said he can also become an unbelievable ally and a friend.

I think there are unbelievable places where this character can go, especially with this love triangle. I think you’re dealing with characters whose minds are going to be changing, literally four or five times an episode.

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  • mermayd Apr 08, 2011

    I like it when tv shows deviate from a book (true blood does this alot). It means you can enjoy the book and the tv show without the ending being spoilt