Jon Bernthal Talks ‘Ford v Ferrari’ and Taylor Sheridan’s ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’
One of the best movies of 2019 is director James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari. Not only is the true-story racing drama incredibly well made, it’s loaded with fantastic performances from every single cast member. Trust me, if you want to see a brilliant piece of filmmaking, look no further than Ford v Ferrari. For more on the film, you can read Adam Chitwood’s glowing review.
As most of you know, Ford v Ferrari is set against the backdrop of 1966’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France and follows maverick American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who is challenged by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) to build a revolutionary car that would allow Ford to challenge Ferrari. Christian Bale plays the fearless British racer Ken Miles, who gets behind the wheel of the new Ford racing vehicle. The film also stars Caitriona Balfe, Josh Lucas, and Noah Jupe.
At the recent Los Angeles press day, I sat down with Jon Bernthal for an extended interview. He talked about how he gets ready for a role, why Mangold is such a great director, how movies like Ford v Ferrari don’t come along very often, if he can tell when he’s working on a project if it will turn out well, and so much more. In addition, he talked about working with Taylor Sheridan on Those Who Wish Me Dead and getting to be part of David Chase’s The Many Saints of Newark.
Check out what he had to say below.
Collider: When you rehearse for something, when you get ready for a project, have you refined the process? Or is it pretty much every time you’re making something, you start with the script and you have a kind of routine? Or have you adjusted it as you’ve been going on?
JON BERNTHAL: I think yes and yes. There are certain things that I kind of always do. And I think that there are so many different kinds of components to the work, and some of the work I consider sort of like busy work and that’s the easier side of things. Just doing the research, knowing the lines, working with a dialect coach, if you have one. Learning specific skill sets that your character had, which is literally just time in the box. You’ve got to change your habits in order to change your behavior, create behavior of the character. Habits change behavior, right? So you have to develop those habits. So, if you’re playing a tennis player, yeah, you got to do all the kind of creative work that you’re going to do, but you sure as fuck better learn how to play tennis, right? So, that’s all sort of the busy work, which kind of doesn’t change and I tried to strategically load myself up on as much as that as possible. But then there’s kind of the creative work, which I think really is how can you let other art inspire you? How can you let other performances inspire you? How can you open your heart and your mind to the other creators and creative people that are working with you on the project?
Whether it’s costumes, hair, makeup, other actors, the director, the camera team. So there’s all these kinds of different parts of the process. So, I guess I do kind of put my work into those two categories: the busy work, and then the sort of creative work, which requires kind of like inspiration, and being in proximity to inspiration. If any of that makes sense. Those two components don’t really change. But then what you do within those two components is completely different every time. It was funny, I was listening to an interview with Shia LaBeouf this morning, who, as you know, is one of my favorite people in the world. He was sort of talking about time and how there was a long time in his career where he was kind of going from job to job and the effect that that has on you. I wrapped Punisher and started this the next day. I had to get from New York, the end of the Punisher season, which ended the way that you would imagine a Punisher season to end, and then put on this suit and that’s not the way that I love to work and …
By the way, that has to be really fucking hard because mentally you have to flip it off when you’ve been wearing this character for months.
BERNTHAL: Months. Absolutely.
I can’t imagine that.
BERNTHAL: Absolutely. And, look, that was a real challenge for me. Then it really becomes an exercise in time management. As far as sort of the inspirational components of things, whether you’re getting that or not, you got to get the work done. You got to get the work done ’cause you’re hitting the ground running.
Well, the thing about this project, though, and I would imagine, is this is not some physical role that you need to be prepping for in a way where you need to learn gun work or kung-fu or whatever it is. It’s a different kind of a role. Does that make it easier to jump from something to something? Or is it still just as challenging?
BERNTHAL: Yeah. Sometimes it’s just the sort of challenge of shedding one and gaining another. Look, the sort of physicality in the characters that I play is huge and I really like to make real choices on that and whether the person is fighting a hundred ninjas or delivering a speech in a boardroom, I think it’s got to be specific and it’s got to be kind of realized, and the gestures matter and they count. That being said, I think there’s definitely such thing as over-preparing, over-researching something. And what I learned on this, I learned a ton. The absolute best thing about doing this job is that you’re on a journey and that you’re growing and that you learn each time. You fumble each time, you make a mistakes each time, and you grow, and you grow from the people around you. And I get to be around really what I consider to be some of the absolute best on this movie.
Jim knew what he wanted. He knows what he’s doing. He is a master filmmaker and a lot of what this was going in and really trying to execute his vision. Like really getting an idea. You don’t really know what you’re going to do or what you’re doing until you get there. And I love that. It’s thrilling. You’ve got to be able to throw it all away, eventually, anyhow. And what I came to learn on this one is that Jim was going to sort of guide us and let us know where he wanted us to go. And then it’s really about shedding all your bullshit and playing honestly within the circumstances that he’s setting up. And his framings, they’re very much on purpose. He doesn’t just sort of set a camera up and see what happens. And so when you’ve got a great leader like that and great people to work upon, sometimes it’s more about getting out of your way rather than trying to build this crazy house.
Well, the thing I’ve found, and I spoke to Mangold about it yesterday, is that all of his movies, he pulls out these phenomenal performances from everyone. There is no weak link in the chain. I asked him, how do you do this? Because every one of your movies has these amazing performances, and he said something about Robert De Niro, way back when he was 30-years-old making Cop Land, said, I’m here to be directed. Just because I’m Robert De Niro doesn’t mean I don’t want to be directed. And he said that changed his whole career. And so I am curious, what was Mangold like to work with on set? Because you mentioned he was very specific, but talk about that sort of dynamic on set and what he is looking for.
BERNTHAL: Look, all of the greats do have that one thing in common, in my opinion. The greats that I’ve had the honor to work with, they’re all truly collaborative. They all genuinely want the absolute best out of you. And they all are able to kind of pull it out of you in a way that there’s this absolute clarity, that everyone’s sort of like bowing at the altar of the project at all times, but the style is so different. James can be loud, abrasive. He can rip you apart. It’s equal opportunity. There’s nobody off limits. He will rip up Christian in a closeup the same as he’ll rip up me, the same as he’ll rip up somebody on set deck for where they placed a pillow on a couch. There is this sort of boisterous kind of fun energy about him that you’re constantly being sort of like pecked at and challenged and it’s alive and I think what’s so apparent at the end of the day, is just how much fucking fun he’s having. He loves it. He is put on this earth to make movies.
I know what you’re saying about De Niro. For me, and coming off of a TV show where you get a different director each week, part of your job is being enormously protective over the character, over the other actors, if you’re number one on the call sheet, over the integrity of the show. And it’s almost like you’ve got to protect it at times from this visiting director who’s the person who knows the least. Then to jump into a situation where this guy not only knows everything that’s going and is playing this multidimensional chess game with this entire film and how it’s going to fit together, but he knows everybody’s character. He knows everybody, how they should relate. And I think what’s so beautiful about this film is there’s so many reaction shots that are so vital. There’s so many closeups of somebody in the back of a conversation where you know exactly how they’re feeling and the stakes are so high. And not only is he tracking that, but he’s demanding that performance out of everybody at all times. And he takes the time to do a series of closeups, and really meticulously directing and coaching actors through closeups of scenes that are taking place almost in other rooms that you don’t have any dialogue in. And what an opportunity. I mean, that’s what we do. We’re there to be alive and to live through the circumstances that the story creates, and at Jim’s melding, and it’s a real joy. It’s a real joy.
I can only imagine that so many people wanted to be in this movie. So, what actually did you pay to be in it?
BERNTHAL: Yeah, man. These kinds of films don’t come around very often. They just don’t, and look, this was a real kind of different part for me. I was definitely not the clear sort of, “Hey, let’s go to Jon on this.” I don’t have much out there that would say, “Hey, let’s have Jon Bernthal come play Lee Iacocca.” That said, it’s a role that deeply, deeply resonated with me. I saw a lot of my father in the part. I read the script. [It was] a really sort of wonderful piece of agenting. Not enough gets said about when agents do something kind of wonderful, but my agent had read this and it really resonated that he’s the son of immigrants, that he’s sort of an outsider in this world. He knew I could do this and he got me the script while I was doing Punisher. And as you could imagine, Punisher’s grueling and I’m there all the time and when I’m not on set, I’m fighting. And I had to literally, on a half day off, fly across the country, put down a screen test, fly back and get a bunch of notes from Jim and then on my next day off, fly back across country, go right into another screen test with Jim. I had to-
No. You fought.
BERNTHAL: I did, and Jim sort of made fun of me for saying that last night. I would have it no other way. I mean, I wanted him to know that just like Iacocca would. There’s no stopping me when I really want something. It’s the same energy in Lee. He is going to keep on forging ahead and there’s something that just really spoke to me about that. Look, I’m a dad. That’s all I want for my kids. If you want something, you go after it. You go after it. You leave it all on the field.
I completely agree. Also, after reading the script, I’m sure you’re like, “Oh, I need to be in this. The script’s incredible.” At what point can you tell when you’re making a movie or a show or whatever you’re working on, do you get that feeling that, wow, this is going to be something special? Or is it only when you finally see the finished film or the finished show, that you’re able to look at it and say, that’s real good?
BERNTHAL: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, again, I think each one is different and I’m real process oriented, not product oriented in this. I do this because of how much I love doing it. Not to be a corn ball, but I think, just like they talk about in the film, you reach that 7,000 RPMs and you get to a place where you’re out of your head. You’re in this sort of like spiritual zone and where all systems are kind of flaring and you’re flying and it’s transformational. It’s beautiful. And that’s why I do this. I get there sometimes when I work and when I’m working with great people and that’s what I’m always chasing. I’m chasing that feeling. I’m chasing that thing. I will tell you on this film, to answer your question, no. You don’t sit there every day and say, “Oh, man, this is going to be so huge.” That’s not really how my mind works. What does hit me is while this is unlike anything that I feel like is being made right now, when you walk onto a set and the scale of it is this enormous and there’s really hundreds and hundreds of extras there and they are really being let off the leash and these background performers are just going full tilt. And even if it’s a closeup on Tracy Letts, behind him, off camera are screaming race cars going by at 150 miles an hour. That celebration of filmmaking and that dedication to truth and the fact that this whole thing was all analog and not digital. You felt that. That was palpable. So I felt very grateful and very honored and very blessed to be there every day.
100%. Before I run out of time again, ’cause I think I have a minute, I’m a huge Taylor Sheridan fan.
BERNTHAL: Me, too.
I know that you’ve worked with him a few times. What can you tease about Those Who Wish Me Dead? Are you allowed to say anything?
BERNTHAL: I don’t know. I mean, I haven’t been told to not say anything, but I love Taylor with every bit of my heart.
He’s another great writer.
BERNTHAL: And director and actor and a great fucking guy, man. Taylor, he’s the real deal. And, look, I think what you can expect from Taylor is going to be rich characters going through really fucked up situations. It’s going to be muscular and it’s going to be bold and daring and thrilling, as everything he does is. I think this film is a little bit more high octane than a lot of his films. This thing really moves. I mean, I’ll always, always bet on Taylor Sheridan.
A hundred percent. My last thing for you. Couldn’t be more excited for the The Many Saints of Newark. What was it like working with David Chase on that and what can you tease about it?
BERNTHAL: Definitely can’t tease much. Look, when I was coming up and studying acting, Sopranos was on the air. Favorite show of all time. I think probably the best thing about being involved in that project was going back and revisiting the show and watching every episode, which is something. I suggest to anyone, if you want to do yourself a favor, go do that because not only does it hold up, it continues to be the best show in the history of television, in my opinion. Look, David’s a genius. All these people that we’re talking about–Taylor, David, Mangold–I’m so unbelievably grateful to be working with these guys. The thing that I can also tell you about the Sopranos, or about The Many Saints, it was a real honor for me to work with Mikey Gandolfini. He’s a beautiful actor, beautiful young man. And, yeah, I really think that there’s something beautifully bold and spiritual about the journey he’s on and going and playing this role that his father ruled, that his father played. It was a really special thing to be a part of and he will always have a huge place in my heart, and I was really honored to be a part of that and to go on this journey with it.
Yeah. I’ve enjoyed his work on The Deuce.
BERNTHAL: It’s great.
Yeah. I got to go. Congrats on this.
BERNTHAL: Thanks, man.
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