Emmys 2012: 'The Walking Dead's' Jon Bernthal on Killing Characters, Challenging Scenes and the Ending Nobody Saw
From turning down "NCIS: LA" to the scene that made him -- and co-star Andrew Lincoln -- break down in tears, the actor reflects on his time with the AMC zombie drama.
The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal always knew his days as Shane were numbered. Since auditioning for former showrunner Frank Darabont, Bernthal says he fell in love with the character after reading the script and turned down not one but two roles -- including a regular gig on NCIS: LA -- just to get the chance to audition for the AMC zombie drama.
Now, two seasons later, Bernthal's character has met his maker (twice!) after one of the TV season's best confrontations that left Shane dead and Rick with a massive personality overhaul that will play huge in the upcoming third season of the drama based on Robert Kirkman's comic series.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Bernthal to discuss Shane's epic death, the ending he and co-star Andrew Lincoln (Rick) pitched to producers and how his character in TNT's Drabont pilot L.A. Noir compares to the duplicitous Shane.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did you find out that Shane was (finally!) being killed?
Jon Bernthal: From the beginning, this was a job that I desperately wanted. It was the first pilot season that I went in and auditioned for a show that was on the air and had a syndication deal. I'd gotten a regular part on it and I'd gotten another part another show on a pilot. I'd read the pilot of Walking Dead that Frank Darabont wrote and it blew me away. I had two other offers on the table and, much to the shock and amazement of my representatives, I said, "Look, until I get to audition for The Walking Dead, I'm not accepting anything." This is advice I'd never give any young actor to follow, but I went with my gut on it and it's one of those rare times where it really paid off.
What were the other two offers?
One was to be on NCIS: L.A. as a new regular, the other was for a pilot that didn't go. It was one of those things that I just knew. The audition process was so long and everyone auditioned for both Rick and Shane. There was something about this character that I thought was so unbelievably compelling. I knew he'd become this guy who'd lose it and turn on his friend and if we were following the comic book at all, he's going to come to this part where he's wracked with jealousy and shame. I looked at the opening scene where Frank introduces Shane and you have these two friends sitting there and sharing a couple burgers, and you see this guy with humor, charm and flaws and he's sitting there being the best friend a friend could actually be trying to help his friend communicate work through his marital problems. And I thought, with knowing where Shane was going, what a beautiful introduction.
Did Frank tell you during your audition that Shane's days were numbered?
When I said that Shane was the character I wanted to play, [producers] said, "He's not going to be long for this world; this is based on source material." There's nothing like getting your dream job and sitting down with source material and by the time you finish your sandwich, your character's dead. It was quite a shock.
LG: When you got the script with Shane's death from new showrunner Glen Mazzara and Robert Kirkman, did they call you in to warn you?
I knew from beginning of the second season it would be in the last or second-to-last episode; it was a two-season arc. I was able to be strategize about what colors I showed and when. The biggest concern for me, in losing Frank, I was worried it wasn't going to resonate the same way. There was a lot of back and forth between Andy [Lincoln, who plays Rick Grimes], Glen and Robert and I about how this death should be and how it should go down and how it'd have the most impact on Rick. I will say that Andy and I didn't necessarily get our way, but what ended up on the screen was a combination of everyone's ideas.
What was you idea with Andy?
We really believed Shane was not a guy who would take Rick into the woods and not have an end game and come back and say, "Shoot, the prisoner killed Rick and I'm sorry but I killed the prisoner." He was going to go back to the group and say Rick was dead? We felt that that didn't quite ring true. So one of ideas that we had was that Shane's gun was not going to be loaded. That at the end of the day, when Shane was bringing Rick out into the woods to drive Rick to kill him, Rick would discover once Shane turned into a zombie, he'd pick up Shane's gun to kill Zombie Shane and see that it wasn't loaded. The producers wisely decided that it was too much. Andy loved it because it would be an unbelievable weight on his character.
Was there ever a moment where you went to the guys and said, "Bring Shane into Season 3"?
I believe that Shane really had to go, it's essential for the story. Of course, I wish at times,
"Man I wish they could keep me around for Season 3," but at the same time I get it. The only thing I care about -- and I think the proof's going to be in the pudding next season -- is that this death really resonates and that it affects Rick and sets other things in motion. Just from seeing Andy's performance in Episode 13, I think that you can see that it has; he's already taken on more of Shane's energy. That's really the goal: Rick Grimes needs to harden and become more bold, become more decisive and be rocked by this death and I hope that we earned it.
What was it like filming Rick and Shane's final confrontation?
Jeff DeMunn (Dale) flew in from upstate New York to be on set that night and the entire cast stayed up all night and sat in that field while we shot that last scene. Ninety percent of what was said in that last scene between Rick and I was off-script -- we were improvising and making it up as we went along. It was such a thrill for Andy and I to be alone in the woods shooting this scene together. I remember after one take, I walked up to him and said, "Do you think it's bad we're not saying any of the words in the script?" And Andy said, "It's just me and you, brother. Let's just finish this up, me and you." What was weird was breaking out of that to go and play a zombie. I'm a preparation freak, and I tailor my life toward the character and stay in it as much as I can and it totally slipped my mind to prepare for being a zombie. I didn't go to zombie school and all of a sudden I had the makeup on and eyes in, and I said to [co-EP and makeup artist] Greg Nicotero, "I haven't played a monster since I was a little kid." But at the end of the day, it was a pretty cool exercise because acting is all about going after what you want. Zombies just want to eat, so it was actually a really easy thing to play.
What was your most challenging scene last season?
The stuff at the school with Otis and shooting him in the leg and the struggle we had was difficult and was a lot of heavy stunt work. Not just to get dirty, sweaty and eaten by bugs but when we fight, we really fight. People do get hurt and people do go for it, and I'm not going to say that there's a complete lack of concern for safety, but I'm a boxer, I played sports in college. I've been around the bend a bit, and this is a really intense show. It's funny because I did The Pacific and the whole Marine Corps boot camp training and that is nothing compared to what we do on The Walking Dead. So that stuff in the school was difficult because it was different: we had a new director and a new guest star actor (Pruitt Taylor Vince, who played Otis), who did wonderfully, but it was hard to sort of maintain the level of intensity.
Which scenes were harder, the emotional scenes with Rick and Lori or the physical zombie kills?
Definitely the emotional stuff. After Carl got shot and Andy and I were in the farmhouse and it looked like he was going to lose his son -- that was difficult for me. I got a call on the way to set from my wife that she was going into labor and Andy said he'd cover me, Sarah grabbed my dogs and I jumped on a plane and flew across the country and got there just in time to see my son born. I was with him for three days, but then I had to go back and right after that we had to play all the scenes where Rick is wondering if his son is going to die. I remember trying to play those scenes with Andy, and both of us are young fathers. After shooting one of those, we just walked out of the farmhouse down the road and were both sitting there crying our eyes out. I put my arm around him and looked at him and said, "Man, if anybody could see us right now, they would think we're stark, raving lunatics."
What do you think of so many shows taking big risks and killing off central characters in the final episodes -- certainly Shane and Dale, plus Boardwalk Empire with Michael Pitt and nearly everyone on American Horror Story?
I saw it happen on Game of Thrones, and I was devastated. Even as the sword was coming down on his head, I was like there's no way that was going to happen. There's a real hunger for innovative, shocking, creative and rich story telling, that's why so many people are shying away from the formulaic television that's been on forever. There's a real hunger for shock. As long as it services the story, sheds light onto a new character, raises stakes in some way, it's wonderful and ballsy. It's saying that there's no limit to what can happen. It refuses to let the audience relax for one second, which is a wonderful story telling device.
Since The Walking Dead, you're reuniting with Frank and Jeff DeMunn for TNT's L.A. Noir. How does your character, Joe Teague, compare to Shane?
Joe Teague is this guy who, like Shane, really does operate by his own code and it's very specific to him. He does not believe in the status quo, in terms of right and wrong. What was very interesting about Shane was his sense of right and wrong and his sense of what do we need to do to stay alive changes as Shane became a greater part of this world. It's interesting to see Joe, who has already been through this world. He's a Marine who's a veteran of Guadalcanal, which was an unbelievably bloody chapter of U.S. history; the marines of Guadalcanal were almost entirely wiped out. He's already been through his apocalypse, and now he's settled in L.A. He's a police officer who's in the middle of the mafia, the corrupt LAPD and the Hollywood studio system and navigating it all by his own code. He's a guy who acts first and thinks later. It's a lot like where we got to with The Walking Dead.
Sundance: On the Scene