Fury, written and directed by David Ayer (End of Watch), is a highly intense, very real and extremely personal look at war and the family that can get you through it. It’s April 1945 and army sergeant Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) commands a Sherman tank and its five-man crew. Outnumbered and outgunned, the men face overwhelming odds in their attempts to strike back at Nazi Germany. The film also stars Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal and Jason Isaacs.
At the film’s press day, actor Jon Bernthal (who gives a great but disturbing performance as tank loader Grady Travis) spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about not shying away from the physical rigors of the film, how this immersive experience changed him, following filmmaker David Ayer down a path where the goal is darkness and despair, sparring on set every day, which included getting punched in the nose by his director on day one, and doing what was required of him, as the character. He also talked about his experience on the Denis Villeneuve film Sicario, and why the script and director are the most important things to him, when looking for his next project. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: When you got involved with this film, did you realize just how full-on it would be? Did you have moments where you wondered whether you’d be able to survive it?
JON BERNTHAL: Yeah. I come from athletics and I have a pretty big boxing background, so I never really shy away or get nervous about the physical rigors of filmmaking. Some actors just don’t have those kinds of backgrounds and it’s a scarier thing for them. I knew, just from the level of intensity and the level of complexity and emotional nuance of the script, that this was an enormously special project. What I loved about this script was I felt that it really was a family drama. I felt that every single person got to go through a real change and a real arc. There was something about the script that just blew me away and I wanted desperately to be a part of this thing, so I definitely fought like crazy to get it.
When I spoke to you for Mob City, you said that you were setting out to do one of the darkest war movies ever made. Looking back on it, how do you feel about the whole experience, now that it’s done?
BERNTHAL: Well, I haven’t seen the last cut, but I don’t know. I try to differentiate experience from result, in these kinds of things. As far as the experience goes, it was probably the darkest period of my life and the most emotionally intense period of my life. I feel like, what we went through, there was a real cost. At the end of the day, I walk away from this job, just having immense respect for real soldiers and real soldiering, especially for the soldiers of World War II. That being said, as an actor, this period of my life really cost me something. It cost me time away from my family. There’s a physical cost. Physically, I’m a different person, from the beginning to the end. Emotionally, I went to places in this movie – and I don’t know if they’re in the movie or not – that I’d never been to before. I was affected by other actors in ways that I was never affected by other actors before. So, when I look back at it, was it the darkest war movie ever made? That, I don’t know. But when that’s your goal, and you have a group of people that are together and you have a spiritual leader who’s trying to take you down a path where the goal is darkness and despair, it’s not that hard to get there, which is interesting to me. People have different goals, when you start out making a movie. If the goal is darkness and destruction and despair, it’s not like, “Hey, let’s go to set, and then let’s hit the bar afterwards. Let’s jaunt into London and pick up some Chinese food.” No, you go home from set and you go fight at the gym, and then you go to sleep. You stay in it. You never excuse yourself, you never take it easy on yourself, you never eat good food. One thing leads to another, and you keep the darkness alive.
What was it like to spar, not only with your fellow actors, but with your director, who is essentially your boss?
BERNTHAL: I come from a boxing background, so I wasn’t really worried about that. We all come from different levels, and I think every human has their own relationship to violence, athletic violence and fighting. It’s actually something I’m pretty comfortable with. That being said, doing it in a professional setting that has nothing to do with fighting was something different. Even in my boxing training – and I know people who are fighting professionally now – you don’t spar every day. We sparred every single day. There’s no question that there was a vocabulary that was formed amongst us. Fighting really does reveal everything to the other guy. It’s not just about who can beat up to or who’s tougher, it’s who bullies who and who goes easy on who. You change from opponent, so it’s about how you deal with a challenge and how you deal with a guy who you can handle easily. I think we found out everything we needed to find out about each other, in those sparring sessions. And I’ll be honest with you, once those sessions were over, I continued. There’s a guy named Richard Mesquita who was our sensei and one of David’s good friends, and our karate teacher. We continued to spar every single night after work, for the first four months of shooting. I really wanted to stay in that. I wanted to be kicked and hit and bruised up and beaten. It became something that was an absolutely necessary part of every day for me.
Is sparring with your fellow actors different from sparring with your boss?
BERNTHAL: Well, yeah. I couldn’t believe he was there, on day one. I was just trying to feel it out, but on day one, on the first day in England, he punched me right in the nose. I’ve broken my nose 14 times, so it’s not a hard thing to do. My nose was gushing out blood, but I was like, “No, this happens all the time. I just can’t believe my boss just did it.” That being said, I loved it. Very early on, it was clear that this was going to be unlike any other job. I’ve been through military jobs, I’ve been through boot camps, I’ve been through training programs, I played sports in college, and I’ve played a bit of professional sports. This was definitely different. The end goal in this was darkness and despair, to try to understand just a taste or flavor of what being war-torn was like.
BERNTHAL: Yeah, 100%. It was just like anything else. We spent two and a half months learning how to operate a tank, so that every single thing that tank did, we did ourselves. That’s incredibly and vitally important to David. So, if we did that, as far as the guns, why wouldn’t we do that, as far as the drinking or eating? With the scene at the dinner table, we wanted no contact with those women until we actually saw them. We didn’t want any passing by them on set to be friendly or gentile. This was an incredibly important project for all of us, and we really wanted to stick to that. Any time any outsider or any new actor or any new energy came in, we all felt a responsibility to make it very clear that we’d been working really hard, that it was vitally important to us, and that there was no joking around. Whether it comes through in the movie, you’d have to tell me. I don’t know. But, I hope it does.
You’re working with another great cast on Sicario.
BERNTHAL: I’m done with that. That movie is wrapped. It was incredible. I’ve been so lucky to work with the directors that I’ve worked with. Guys like [Roman] Polanski, [Martin] Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Frank Darabont are the master directors of our time. But the thing that I’m so excited about now is working with this next generation of the guys who, instead of being on the pinnacle, are on the way up and hungry as hell. David Ayer is definitely in that group. The two directors that I wanted to work with, more than anyone else, were Denis Villeneuve, who directed Sicario, and David. I’m enormously grateful that I got that opportunity.
For me, it’s not about the size of the role. It’s not about anything, except for script and director. Since then, I got to work with Gerardo Naranjo, who’s a great director that did Miss Bala. And I got to work with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon [on Me & Earl & the Dying Girl], who’s great. That is definitely the goal for me. What I love about this business and this craft is that you get to keep growing and you get to keep learning. The goal is just to try to get better and better, and the only way that makes sense to do that is to work with the best people. Surround yourself with the best artists and learn from them, and try to sink your teeth into the best material possible.
Who is your character in Sicario?
BERNTHAL: My character’s name is Ted. I don’t want to reveal too much, but it’s a cool character. I worked mostly with Emily Blunt, who’s incredible, and I had a little bit to do with Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, who are huge heroes of mine. I can’t say enough good about Emily Blunt.
Fury opens in theaters on October 17th.