Jon Bernthal has been around for 15 years, but the trained actor is still hungry for more. Over the years, he’s been weaving in and out of fan-favorite films like The Wolf of Wall Street, The Accountant and taking on more prominent roles on TV series’ like The Punisher playing Frank Castle, and The Walking Dead as Shane Walsh. His versatility in portraying nuanced characters makes him one of the most exciting actors to watch.
“I have so many stories I feel like I have to tell, and there are so many things I want to be a part of. I still go into each project with the same unbelievable amount of fear and dread. I want to put every bit of myself into it. So, it’s weird when I look back [because] I feel like the same guy.”
For Bernthal, the opportunity to take on supporting roles plays into his desire to keep the audience on their toes. “One of my favorite things to do is to enhance and add to the fabric of the film. I love movies when you see a character that comes in and out, but it leaves you wondering, ‘Who was that guy? Where did they go?’ That person has a history I’m interested in. I think there’s something really cool about kind of wanting more of someone.”
In HBO Max’s King Richard (Joey’s review is here) Bernthal plays real-life tennis athlete and coach Rick Macci opposite Will Smith’s Richard Williams’. In the film, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men), Rick is a stubborn salt-of-the-earth coach who thinks he knows best on how to guide Venus and Serena Williams’ blossoming career. With Venus and Serena Williams as executive producers, “King Richard” grounds itself in an intimate story on the Williams family before the accolades, grand slams, and iconic showings at Wimbledon, and centers the importance of Richard Williams presence in their growth as young women and formidable athletes.
Bernthal’s performance feels right at home in this feel good movie rooted in authenticity and the power of family. The actor spoke to AwardsRadar about his drive as an actor and his passion for complex characters.
Niki Cruz: When looking at the trajectory of your career, do you consider yourself a character actor. Is that something you’re even thinking about?
Jon Bernthal: I don’t know. Probably to the frustration of all the people I’ve worked with, I don’t consider myself anything. I never really look at things in those terms. I want to work on the best possible material available to me with people who really inspire me. I give zero thought to the size of the role, to the genre that the piece is in, or to the sort of commerciality of it. I want to constantly change. The best thing about this business and this profession is that you’re never going to figure it out. There’s always that fear in the beginning. There are always these mountains to climb; you always can get better. It’s a huge journey, and there’s no destination that you’re looking to land. You can keep growing. That’s what I love about being an artist, what I love about being a parent, and a husband. You never get it right and I think that’s awesome. You should constantly find journeys for yourself that there’s no end in sight, and the possibilities are limitless and endless.
NC: Fast forward to 2021, and you’ve had a slew of projects come out. Was that just the result of being locked in our houses for a year at home? Or did it just hit all at once by coincidence?
JB: Probably why I was so busy this year is that it’s the first time in five or six years that I haven’t been on a TV series. I’m enormously grateful that I support my family by doing what I love, and I’ve streamlined my life. There’s peace of mind that really comes with that. I was available this year, and things kept coming at me. I just got off of seven months on HBO’s [We Own This City], set in Baltimore. When that came about, it was really the time where I sort of said, “Okay, it’s time to shut ‘er down, it’s time to really focus on writing, producing, and my family,” but when this project came at me, it was right in the center of the things in this world that I’m so fascinated by… I have a vital interest in race and policing and the nuance of these issues. Right now, when so much of the narrative of these kinds of stories is agenda-driven flag-waving, I felt like I had to jump at the chance to tell a nuanced layered story. It was also about a region that I grew up in that’s emblazoned into my heart.
NC: For King Richard, you’re playing someone who was well known in tennis. Was that intimidating at all or did you jump at the chance?
JB: I really wanted to be a part of it. The film is really about the power of family, and I thought it explored the full spectrum of youth sports in all its toxicity and all of its beauty. I’m an ex-athlete myself, [director] Reinaldo Marcus Green is an ex-athlete, so we really bonded over sports and fatherhood. The character himself was a coach who really was led by his unfiltered and unadulterated pure love for the game, and I’m so indebted to the coaches that I’ve had in my life and throughout my athletic career. I’ve learned so much from them. I think these coaches are often portrayed as these taskmasters and these hard asses. I love the fact that this coach loved these young women and loved being a part of this family, and really saw himself as part of their journey. When I talked to Serena Williams on the phone, Serena told me that playing for Rick Macci was one of the funnest times of her life. So to play a guy that was just so fun, I had to jump at it. He’s such an interesting guy, the way that he talks and moves and his Macy’isms. In the zeitgeist, people know who Richard Williams is, and Serena and Venus are two of the most iconic and important and famous people on the planet. Most people don’t know who Rick Macci was or is. For me, when authenticity and truth are your north star like it was in Zach Baylen’s script, I thought, why not try to show Rick for Rick and try to get him right? And I’m really glad that Rei, and the producers provided the infrastructure for me to train in tennis, to understand how to coach, and to master the dialect. I’m really grateful that we attacked it that way.
NC: You talk about the Macci’isms of it all. How did you attack that specifically? Did it start with that awesome mustache? Was it an outside-in kind of thing with that infrastructure?
JB: What I love about doing this is that, like I said before, you’re never gonna have a lick, there’s no one process. So much of it was training in tennis three hours a day, learning the game. I was training on coaching, learning the psychology of coaching, the vocabulary of coaching, learning how to run drills, learning how to feed, learning how to communicate with a feed. I got to train a real top 20 Junior National Player and I trained her in character. By getting my body right, getting the physicality right, and working on the dialect—with the dialect, there’s a fear there. He doesn’t really talk like anyone else. He almost sounds like that part of eastern Ohio and Kentucky. The dialect almost sounds like five other dialects squashed together. And so I really wanted to get it right. And I think once you combine the physicality with a dialect it is that kind of like outside in. You throw in the costume, the hair, and the mustache, and you’ve got something that you can show up on set with.
NC: The film highlights this man who really believed in his children and championed them and their greatness in his own way. Within that, when considering the award season, this feels different. It has a feel good quality to it.
JB: I think that’s right. I think we can all connect to it in some way. It’s a meditation on the power of family and on faith and not delivered in a sentimental way. We all know the story of Serena and Venus but what’s beautiful about this is the centering of the story at this time in their life [when] the impossibility of their dream is so apparent. They’re so far away from it. This wasn’t a highlight film of their greatest moments in their sports career. It was about seeing the side of this family that I think really took a lot of people by surprise. At the end of the day, our family plays such an enormous part in all of our lives. I’m not interested in making a feel good movie, just to make a feel good movie but that’s what I love about this film. It’s a film that I took my kids to and we talked the entire next day about it. I love being able to do that with my kids.
NC: I’m sure you’ve gotten this question like a ton but how was it working with Will? There are stories of how he stayed in character as Richard on set. Did you get a chance to know him outside of that?
JB: Will’s generosity as an artist and a human being goes so far beyond anyone else that I’ve ever worked with. He’s super dedicated to the art and super dedicated to being a kind, generous human being. He did stay in character the whole time, but everybody did. And there wasn’t anything bombastic about it. It wasn’t this sort of contest to see who was working hardest. Everyone stayed in character because that’s where we wanted to be. We do so much to capture these few sacred seconds between action and cut. And you got all these unbelievable artists and craftsmen working behind and in front, in post and pre-production, to make something special and electric. So when you can create an atmosphere where people stay in it, and they’re not working to stay in it, they’re in it because that’s where they want to be, and then you just turn the cameras on and you capture that, it’s such a gift, it’s such a joy, and it makes the hard work that you’ve done enormously easy. With Will, when you’ve got a leader who’s an international movie star, who’s staying in it, everyone else follows suit, and it’s 100% the way I like to work.
NC: And in terms of that dynamic, there’s this pull. Both of these men want the best for these girls, but their definitions of what that looks like differ. How was it to capture those scenes?
JB: I loved it. They’re also two men who are just the center of their own universe. They’re two men who are very used to doing things their way. There’s nothing more interesting to me than playing complicated, interesting characters and putting them in complicated interesting situations. But [with that in mind] he works for Richard and Brandy, and those two young women. So, he’s forced to kind of do things in a different way and what I think is beautiful about it is he develops this real love and leans into it. Yeah, he’s stubborn. Yeah, he thinks he knows all the answers, but he sees the magic and he buys in. There was a scene at the end of the film where Rick goes to Richard and says, “forget my 15%, I don’t want any money, take this money for your daughter, you’re the best father I’ve ever seen. I love these little girls, I love them like they’re my own.” And that’s really why I wanted to do the film. I love the intimacy that was created through coaching these two young women, [and that] he fell in love with them and felt like they were his own daughters. That’s the ultimate and most beautiful level of mentorship and coaching or teaching that you can achieve. Whether or not that scene was gonna be in the film, I really wanted to play a man who could get there.
NC: Since we’re wrapping up, I wanted to bring up The Accountant. I heard there’s going to be a sequel and I know a lot of people are anticipating it. Can you tell us anything about what’s to come?
JB: I don’t know that there’s much to say right now. I know that they’re working on it. I love [director] Gavin [O’Connor] with all my heart. I love working with Ben [Affleck]. I’m an enormous fan of his. Bill Dubuque is one of my favorite writers working today. I think they’re trying to manage schedules, and they’re trying to figure it out. I’m really excited to see where it nets out. Gavin is one of these filmmakers that I love every single one of his movies. I think he does something that really no one else really does right now. So I’m excited to see what they come up with. And I really hope we can make it work.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]