Actor Jon Bernthal is at a good spot in his career. Coming off a huge exit earlier this year on AMC's hit series "The Walking Dead" when his character was shockingly killed not once but twice (the second time after he'd turned into a zombie), Bernthal next made headlines by signing on as the lead in Frank Darabont's new pilot for TNT, "L.A. Noir" where he'll play a 1940's cop. And this weekend over at NBC's legal drama, "Harry's Law," Bernthal plays a man who takes the law into his own hands during a murder trial of his sister's alleged killer.
Our Jim Halterman rang up Bernthal yesterday to talk about whether "Walking Dead's" Shane is truly behind him, the story he shared with idol Kathy Bates on the "Harry's Law" set and to also get a sneak preview into the world of "L.A. Noir."
Jim Halterman: You're at an interesting place in your career from the past year so I'm curious when you step into a show as a guest star, is it a different experience now that you're known for 'The Walking Dead?'
Jon Bernthal: That's an interesting question. I think anytime I walk onto a set, and I'm not trying to give you the political answer, I try to remind myself how unbelievably lucky I am to be there. Walking on that set, the main reason I wanted to do that show was because I'm an enormous fan of Kathy Bates. I've been a fan of hers forever. One of the places I studied at was at the ART (American Repertory Theatre) in Boston and she started her play ''night, Mother' there, an unbelievable play. I remember when I was an acting student with not a penny to my name there was a huge poster of her, a photo from the play, and I remember looking at it everyday when I was studying away and just hoping and dreaming I'd get to act on that stage. But to one day be on a set with Kathy Bates and actually have lines and have a back and forth with her was so beyond anything in my imagination so it was a real thrill to get to do that.
But, yeah, walking onto that set and have people in the cast and crew being huge 'Walking Dead' fans, it meant the world to me and, yes, it was different from any other time I'd walked on to do a guest spot before but, hey, at the end of the day when they turn on the cameras, it doesn't matter what you've done before, it's that day, that moment so you can't let anything like that get into your head.
JH: Did you share that story with Kathy?
JB: I sure did! She's such an awesome person. She's such a down to earth and real person. I was real nervous meeting her and the way the episode worked out, I sort of did all my arguments and my side of the cast on the first day and she did hers the second day. When the day was over, she looked over to me and said 'Good work. It's my turn tomorrow' and I was like 'Oh my Lord.' Her work ethic is something that I truly admire and it was really cool to get to see her work. And, interestingly enough, the guy who is the other guest star of the episode, Josh Bitton, who plays the gay brother who can't give blood, he's one of my best friends and we worked on 'The Pacific' together and in my opinion he's one of the best young actors in LA. We just ended up, by chance, in that episode and I know he's going to kill it.
JH: I remember reading an interview where you said your Grandmother wasn't real happy with some of the things you did on 'The Walking Dead' so what's she going to say when you're holding a courtroom hostage on "Harry's Law?"
JB: I don't know! The good thing is that at this point from 'Walking Dead' she's seen me in about every violent situation humanly possible so I don't think there's anything else to shock her but I'm glad I was able to keep all my clothes on.
JH: I was just as shocked as everyone about Shane's death on 'The Walking Dead' and people still talk about it. You know you're probably going to hear about that show for the rest of your career, right?
JB: If that's the case, then awesome. It was a show that I deeply, deeply believed in. I felt so honored to be a part of it. I fought like mad to get that part and play Shane. It's a story that I really believe in and these are the kinds of stories that are very rare, they don't happen often and as an actor it's exactly the kind of story you want to be a part of. I think the American audience is a smart, intelligent dynamic audience that is hungry for storytelling of this caliber and to be able to be a part of telling that story, again, is a huge honor and I knew how lucky I was to be there. I'm glad that Shane kind of resonated in that story as much as he did and they gave him a shot to be a major part of the story rather than in the comic book when he comes and goes. I'll always be grateful for that. I loved 'The Walking Dead.' I love everybody, the entire cast are my family. I'm about to start this new show with Frank, who is just the man, but they're all down in Georgia and I've been getting text messages and phone messages and emails all week from everybody - producers, camera men, actors - wishing me good luck and telling me how much they miss me and I've been sending it right back. Whether they're talking about it or not, "The Walking Dead" will always be a part of my life.
JH: Are you the kind of actor where once you are done with a role you let it go or does it always stay with you?
JB: It's weird but it's been important to Frank. I'm about to jump into this new, really, all-encompassing thing. I've never been a lead in a TV show before and this world of "L.A. Noir" is a very different world than the world of rural Georgia and the zombie apocalypse. One of the things that was important to Frank that I did... I've been wearing Shane's boots, literally, they're the most comfortable, most bad-ass boots I've ever put on in my life. I walked away after the first season with a pair and the second season, Eulyn [Womble] the wonderful costume designer, gave me three pairs to take home so I literally wear Shane's boots every single day.
One of the things that was important to Frank was I start wearing suits and the kind of shoes that my character, Joe Teague, would wear and shedding Shane's boots was an important thing. Look, I think it swings both ways. There will be a part of me that will always be a little Shane. I learned a lot from Shane and I think there's a little part of Shane that will always be Jon Bernthal, whatever that means. But I'm really diving full force into this new thing and hopefully this character, Joe Teague, will have as much of an impact as Shane did. Either way, I'm so grateful to Frank and to "The Walking Dead" audience that people not only gave the show a shot but people really dig the show.
I think for Frank, I'm just so unbelievably excited that he's back at it with energy and with full force. I believe in my heart that Frank is a national treasure. I think that he's one of the best writers and directors that our country has and him being able to produce, write and direct for long-form television is an absolute gift to the American TV audience and I'm so glad he's back at it. I'm thrilled, honored and unbelievably nervous to ride with him again. I just want to do right by him and not let him down.
JH: It seems from the pilot script that the line between good and bad is pretty thin and that's going to be the struggle of the show. Is that how you see it and how you see Joe Teague?
JB: Absolutely. I think it's a recurring theme in everything that Frank does. I think what he likes to do is scrape off the veneer off of the comforts of everyday life and really look at the core of human beings and put them in situations where they no longer are sheep having to follow the masses every day. He really tries to take people and they have to adhere to their own code and I think he really puts it in the audience's hands to say 'Do we agree with this? Do we not agree with this?' And I think people will have different opinions. It's like good versus evil. Who's clearly a good guy? Who's clearly a bad guy? I think Frank would argue and I think I would agree with him that there's no such thing as either one.
JH: I'm guessing you've gotten into costume and seen the sets. How's it being in the world of the 1940s?
JB: It's really cool. I was very much a virgin to this whole genre, the noir, the whole period. It got to be spoon fed to me by Frank. Watching all the old movies has been such a cool experience and listening to music. Jazz music in LA at that time was so cool. The clothes are great and I've been reading a lot of Raymond Chandler and just immersing myself into the period as much as I can. It's such an interesting time. I think LA at that time was really interesting. It was kind of like the Wild West out there with the glamorous and sexy shine to it. I'm really excited to dive in. You've got to know that with Frank at the helm things just look great. There's no detail that is ignored in this thing from the cars to the clothes.
JH: How are you with smoking? It seems that this is a world where everyone has a cigarette in his hand.
JB: Brother, you hit it right on the nose on that one! I've been with Milo Ventimiglia these last few weeks and putting on these old suits and going to these old school bars and smoking like it's going out of style and it's killing me. I hate cigarettes and I box regularly but it's really slowing me down at the gym. [Laughs.] I'd like to do a no smoking campaign when I'm done with this one!
JH: I didn't see a love interest for Joe in the pilot script but we know there are a lot of dames in the 1940s. Will we see a love interest beyond the pilot?
JB: Absolutely. I don't want to give anything away but I think, again, if you look at the center at all of Frank's stories it's all about love. Unrequited love, lost love and there's very much a love story for Joe. I can't tell you what it is at this point but I promise you it's not what you think and it's very, very interesting. The person who is playing the love interest is just unbelievable. They'll have to pick up the show and air it for you to find out.
"Harry's Law" airs Sundays at 8:00/7:00c on NBC. The pilot for "L.A. Noir" is currently shooting in Los Angeles.