A Chat with Jon Bernthal (“The Walking Dead”)

ALSO: Check out our Season Two preview, as well as interviews with actor Norman Reedus and executive producer Robert Kirkman.

BE: I’ve seen the Season 2 premiere, and from what I can tell, it seems like you guys are still playing at the same level that you were in the first season.

Jon Bernthal: Aw, thanks, man, I appreciate you saying so.

BE: So you guys got to play the love triangle in Season 1, and it’s obviously still ongoing in Season 2. Is it a challenge to play something like that in the middle of a zombie thriller?

JB: I don’t really look at it so much as a love triangle. I look at it more as a family that…these horrible circumstances, this disease that’s turned the world into this apocalyptic state, I look at it more as a family that’s been severely fractured by it. I think that it’s not as simple as two guys in love with the same girl. I think Shane is very much in love with Lori, but I think he loves his best friend, too, as well as their little boy, Carl. I think these are relationships that are immensely important to him, and unfortunately, they’re forever tainted and they’ll never quite be the same. In this world that we’re trying to create, all of these characters have lost so many people. I think what’s very interesting for Shane is that the people in the world who mean the most to him are still alive. It’s just that their relationships will never be the same because of what’s gone down.

BE: Shane is a pretty complex character because of his situation. Do you find it hard to find that balance of personality when you’re playing the part?

JB: No, man, I love it. As an actor, it’s the kind of part you look for. When I first talked with Frank (Darabont) about this, our goal was to not just make him sort of this one-dimensional villain straight out of the comic. We wanted him to be a layered, nuanced character that wasn’t a good guy, wasn’t a bad guy, but was a real guy. I think he’s just operating from a place of being a loyal friend and trying to do what’s best, trying to protect these people that he loves so much. I think he’s always coming from a place of trying to do the right thing, but it’s fractured. It’s just such a different, cold, brutal world now. Also, what’s very interesting about the character is that he’s the first one in the series, I think, to just sort of recognize the lawlessness of this world they’re living in now. He does it when he beats down Ed by the water in Season 1, and also when he trains the gun on Rick in Season 1. I think he recognizes that there are no real circumstances for your actions in this world, and I think Season 2 is very much about Rick and Shane splitting on how they feel the best way to go forward in this world is. I think Shane feels that, to survive, you have to make very brutal, very harsh decisions, and you really have to abandon emotion and morality and just do what’s best for survival, whereas Rick, I think, is kind of plagued by trying to do the right thing. They really become at odds with each other over those philosophies.

BE: So were you familiar with “The Walking Dead” as a comic book before you found yourself on the show?

JB: No, I sure wasn’t, man. I read the pilot, written by Frank Darabont, and it just had me there. I’d never read a pilot that good before, that detailed and nuanced, with that much attention to character and atmosphere. You know, I’ve read the comic a little bit since then, but, uh, Shane buys it so early in the comic that I didn’t really find any reason to keep reading! I mean, it’s very good, but, no, I wasn’t a fan before the show.

BE: What did you think when you first heard about the concept of the show? I mean, it’s a zombie show. Were you skeptical before you read the script?

JB: You know, yeah, I was. I mean, I knew AMC was doing it, and at that time, I really felt that AMC was the best network on television. I loved the stuff that they had on there, so I wanted to give it a read no matter what. But as soon as I opened it up and started reading it, and the little girl gets shot in the opening teaser, I was, like, ‘Oh, this is just bad ass.’ (Laughs) Like I said, the writing was just…it never really read to me like a zombie show or a genre show. The attention to detail in creating the atmosphere in that first pilot…there’s very few words. Most pilots are just a bunch of people talking in exposition, telling the audience exactly who they are and introducing people, and this, I felt, was just a slow, beautiful portrait of this world. I just felt that was a ballsy, beautiful thing to do for a TV pilot. I wanted desperately to be a part of this show just based on that writing and based on Frank Darabont.

BE: Well, speaking of Frank Darabont, the question is inevitable: has it been difficult moving forward without him, given how profound his presence on the show was in the first season?

JB: Yeah, absolutely, no question. I mean, Frank’s a dear friend, I believe in him immensely, I think he’s one of the best filmmakers and writers that our country has, so I think to get rid of him is an enormous loss for us. That being said, this cast and crew, I feel like, has responded really well. I’m proud of everybody. I think that everybody’s really trying to keep Frank’s vision and is trying to go at this full force. I’m really proud of the work that we’re doing, but to lose Frank…? That’s huge.

BE: On a non-“Walking Dead” topic, I have to tell you, I was a big fan of “The Class.”

JB: (Laughs) Oh, yeah? Thanks, man, I appreciate it.

BE: I feel like it’s going to end up coming out on DVD eventually, just by virtue of the fact that so many of the cast have achieved post-“Class” success.

JB: Ah, shit, man. Y’know, look, man, it was a really cool, fun show. We were all actors in our early 20s, everybody had basically come from theater, and…it was just a great family. Also, we were trying to one-up each other and entertain each other on set. Everybody would come and watch everybody else’s work, and we were just trying to make each other crack up the whole time. It was a lovely, lovely little family, and everybody’s gone on and done such cool stuff. It’s great. We still all try to get together a couple times a year and have a dinner. They’re really, really lovely people, and…I really appreciate you saying something about it, man. That was a great time.

BE: Yeah, when I talked to Jason Ritter awhile back, he told me about the dinners.

JB: Yeah, I just think that show…I mean, that’s a good example of a show that had a whole lot of bark before it had a chance to have any bite. They over-publicized the hell out of us before we ever came out, and then they kind of abandoned us once the show was actually on the air, publicity-wise. But we loved it. We loved being there, we all had a great time, and we all have remained very, very close. And that’s cool. It’s very rare.

BE: What are your recollections of working on “The Pacific”? I’ve talked to some of the other cast members, and I know it was a moving experience for them, both working on it and meeting actual veterans after the fact.

JB: Look, man, if you’re lucky enough to get involved in a project like that, it’s a real responsibility to get it right, to help memorialize these heroes. It’s a great responsibility, but it’s also a great thrill, because when you’re doing it for (Steven) Spielberg and (Tom) Hanks, they’ll spend the money to do it right. So to go through the boot camp and get trained by the Marine Corps and to experience the things that you get to experience, to live with these other guys and try to emulate a soldier’s life.. (Starts to laugh) You know, every kid dreams about that. WE get to go play war without the real risk. And it gives you such an appreciation of what our heroes, the real heroes, the real soldiers, what they go through and what they sacrifice every day. But it’s unbelievably fun, and it’s unbelievably rewarding, because, again, you get to memorialize these great American heroes and you get to learn so much and make great friends. I had a really great time on that show.

BE: To jump back to “The Walking Dead,” when it comes to the zombies…obviously, you see them around you all the time, but because of the tension and drama in that series, do you ever find yourself getting a little disconcerted when you’re looking at them?

JB: Man, I hate zombies, I’ll be honest with you. Look, Greg Nicotero is a genius, and the art he creates is just mindboggling. It’s just like everything else on our show: it’s sort of centered in being unique and authentic and real. They’re not just monsters. There’s a specific way in how each person has been bit, they create a specific human being who is turned into a zombie, which I think is pretty cool. The people who play the zombies are great artists. Their movement skills and the work they put into playing zombie is taken very, very seriously. That being said, man, I hate them. Call me a douchey method actor,  but I spend so much time hunting them, being hunted by them, looking for them, beating them, killing them…I just hate them. I want nothing to do with them at lunch, I want nothing to do with them off the set. I hate zombies. I love the actors that are playing them, but I hate zombies.

BE: Lastly, I was at the press round tables you did at Comic-Con, and at the time, Sarah (Wayne Callies) talked about how much she couldn’t tolerate scary movies and wasn’t sure if she’d even be able to watch her own show. Do you watch “The Walking Dead” yourself?

JB: I do watch it. That’s one of the cool things about this: I’m a huge fan of this show. I believe in it. I believe in all the people I’m working with. And I love this story. I love what we’re trying to do. I would watch this show whether I was on it or not, and I think that’s really cool. It’s a thrill for me to be on a show that my friends and family enjoy. I was on a show before this that I’m not going to mention, but I remember a couple of Thanksgivings ago, we were going around the table saying what we were thankful for, and my uncle Steve got up and said that he was thankful for the network that the show was on at the time ‘for canceling that piece of shit so I don’t have to feel bad every Wednesday night that I have to sit through it.’ It just means so much to me that now I’m on a show that I can be proud of, that I dig and that my friends and family dig. I’m a huge fan of this show regardless, and I really believe in the people I work with. That’s a very rare thing, and I know how lucky I am.

(NOTE: Portions of this interview appear in the print edition of TV Week Magazine.)