With director Jamie M. Dagg’s thriller Sweet Virginia now playing in select theaters and available on VOD platforms, I recently landed an exclusive interview with Jon Bernthal. He talked about how lucky he’s been getting to work with such talented directors, why he’s excited for people to see Sweet Virginia, why he wanted to be involved in the project, how he collaborated with Dagg on his character, if he’s able to leave the character he’s playing on set or does it come home with him, why he likes to drive to the location where he’s filming, and more. In addition, he talked about playing Frank Castle in Netflix’s The Punisher, getting ready to film Damien Chazelle’s First Man, and Steve McQueen’s Widows.
If you’re not familiar with Sweet Virginia, I’d watch the trailer before reading the interview. The official synopsis is also below. The film also stars Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Odessa Young.
A burglary-homicide rattles the residents of a small Alaska town, in particular two women made widows by the crime and their mutual friend, Sam, the proprietor of the local motor lodge. Sam is an outsider himself, a former rodeo champ all too happy to leave the jolt and violence of the ring behind. So when his guests prove unruly or a stranger reaches out to him, reluctance is his natural response. Secrets are revealed, violence increases, and the people in town act more unhinged. His hesitancy — and his willingness to move past it — becomes the lynchpin for his survival.
Check out what Jon Bernthal had to say below.
COLLIDER: Do you feel like the last year or two have just been really, really good for you in terms of the different roles and the different gifted directors you’ve gotten to work with?
JON BERNTHAL: Hey, man, look. I think the whole thing has been really good. I’m kind of blown away. Look, I feel like this has been a really great year for me because I’ve gotten some real time with my wife and kids. I feel like the last few years have been unbelievable, in terms of the people that I’ve gotten to work with and the advantages that I’ve had. I’m enormously grateful for it. I think it was … It’s a real honor of mine to be able to play Frank Castle. It’s a character that I know means a lot to a lot of people, has real resonance in the law enforcement community, in the military community. That’s something that I take unbelievably seriously and I love the character. He’s in my blood. He’s in my bones and it’s an honor to play him.
I think for a movie like Sweet Virginia, it’s a movie that I’m thrilled to be a part of. I think it’s a throwback to the ’70s movies, from my favorite kind of movies. It’s unbelievably elegant filmmaking by Jamie Dagg who’s, I think, one of the most exciting directors working right now and definitely one of my favorites. I think it’s a movie that people are going to go see because of the filmmaking and because of the performance. I think when you see what Chris Abbot does in this film, I think it’s going to blow people’s minds. I think it’s like Javier Bardem in No Country.
I remember when I was young going to the movies to see great performances and to go get my ass horrified by somebody’s performance. I think that’s what you have with what Chris did and I was thrilled that I got a front row seat to it. I’m thrilled that I get to be a part of it.
Chris definitely did a great job on his role and with his work in the film. What I really like about the film is that it’s a slow burn without unnecessary exposition. It’s just a smart script. Talk a little bit about when you read the script — What was it that first hit you and said, “I need to do this?”
BERNTHAL: Look, man, I think what hit me was why I was wrong for it. I think that’s what hit me more than anything else. I think you’re right. I think it’s a very smart script but it’s enormously, unbelievably intelligent filmmaking. I think much of the script was sort of stripped down and that’s just the kind of filmmaker Jamie is. He’s making the film for an intelligent audience. I believe in the American film audience. I believe that it’s an intelligent audience and I believe that we don’t need to spoon feed information or try to manipulate people’s feelings. I think we should present things and let people sort of heart and minds … Let them make their own determinations.
When I first read the script, the part was written for a guy in his fifties or sixties and needed to be somebody who was sort of at the end of their life. There needed to be a feeling of someone who was very broken down physically, emotionally and, in a sense, was sort of just hiding, living out the rest of his life. They were originally talking to Forest Whitaker about playing the part and me and Forest don’t really go up for too many of the same roles. Anyway, he … When he was too busy and decided not to do it they came to me, which is not the most logical next step. To me, I was faced with this sort of enormous problem. I loved the film. I loved the filmmaker. I really wanted to be in it but I didn’t think I was right. I said, “It’s so essential that we get this broken down quality about this character.
I think often times with this kind of work, if you can really pinpoint and locate the crux of the problem, the number one problem or the number one sort of dilemma for a character and what doesn’t work, if you can figure that out, everything else sort of trickles down from there. Jamie was bold enough to really collaborate with me on this and he came up with this idea of having him have early onsets Parkinson’s. I was really built up and strong at the time, so going right into Punisher afterwards, so we needed to play against the way I look and play against the type of character I normally play. Jamie was completely open at every step of the way.
There’s a scene where I get in a fight with the motel guest and it was written that my character beats him up. I offered, “What would happen if I got beat up? What would happen if I’m not the physical person that he once was?,” and Jamie loved it. He ate it up and we really were partners on that. I think it’s been my experience with all great filmmakers, they’re truly collaborators and I believe that of Jamie. We made a special film.
I was just going to bring up the fact that what I really liked was the scene where you do get beat up because it just shows a lot about the character. Also, you’ve played a lot of characters that can kick people’s ass. It’s a nice change where you’re the normal guy in the room.
BERNTHAL: Yeah, and, again, I think that it would’ve been a great moment in the script but you have to understand it’s a huge story point that Sam is brought into an act of violence. It was written that I pull that guy out of his room and I beat the living shit out of him. I think that, when I had this idea of what if I go into the room, I go to handle that guy but I completely get my ass kicked, it’s sort of this thing you really don’t see happen to kind of heroes in films very often. Jamie immediately said, “That’s brilliant. That’s great,” and as soon as I knew he liked it, I knew it was going to work.
Again, that’s rare. I think some people, and it’s really the mark of, in my opinion an amateur artist who’s not open to new ideas, not open to seeing what if we do the absolute opposite of what’s written. It’s really what’s been uniform in every great artist that I’ve had the privilege to work with is that they’re completely open. They’re wide open to other ideas, wide open to doing the opposite. Jamie’s definitely that and also he has the boldness and the courage to tell me, “Hey, man. That’s not a good idea. We’re not doing that.” You know what I mean? That’s when real artistic trust is formed and I really hope to keep working with Jamie. I think he’s a really, really talented filmmaker and he’s got a really exciting career ahead of him.
I’m always curious with actors, how difficult is it for you to distance yourself from a character when you get off set. Can you flip a switch and it’s shut off?
BERNTHAL: When I get off set or when I finish a job?
When you get off set and when you finish a job.
BERNTHAL: When I get off set, it’s interesting, man. I think that you always have to stay in proximity to your character. I think based on what the work ahead of you is, when you finish a night, it’s good to say goodbye to everybody, go home. If my family’s there, I want to be with my family, there’s no question. To me, you have all these people, these wonderful people, these wonderful artists all coming together to collaborate and put all this time and energy and preparation and work into what really comes down to just a matter of seconds between action and cut. At the end of the day, your proximity to how far away from that character you are to the second before they say, “Action,” that’s really your work.
Look, there’s some times where being far away from it is cool. If it’s a scene of you driving down the road and they’re just shooting the car, you don’t need to stay in character. Or you don’t need to stay in an emotional place that serves the project. There’s some scenes that you absolutely do, at least I do, and everybody’s work is different. Everybody’s way they approach their work is different. I respect everybody’s way and I’ll never get in the way of anybody’s work or judge anybody else’s way of working. For me, there … I never want to be …. I never want to be right before a scene and be searching for something and sort of be like muscling up some emotion. I want to be there. I want to be there ready to go, rearing to go, chomping at the bit, and to be close to it.
I think that that’s a huge part or your job description and, if you go onstage, you got to get ready each night. This is different. It’s you never know when they’re going to say action but … You got to have time for yourself and it comes with experience and it’s fun. I think one of the best things about this business is it’s impossible to get it right. It’s impossible to arrive. You’re always learning. You’re always figuring out new tools and you’re always trying out new things and you’re always trying to get better. That’s the real great adventure of this job.
As far as when the job is over, that is part of the reason why I drive to work. I don’t fly. When I did Sweet Virginia, I drove from my home in California up to Vancouver, up to British Columbia. Part of sorta going in and going out is getting my dogs and getting them in a truck and packing up. On that drive home, we have time just to sort of decompress and get back to being dad, which is your most important job.