Jon Bernthal is no stranger to putting it all out there in service of a director with a vision — including Martin Scorsese on The Wolf of Wall Street, Oliver Stone on World Trade Center, Roman Polanski on The Ghost Writer and Frank Darabont on The Walking Dead. But director David Ayer (End of Watch) put him in a world of hurt for Fury, a WWII drama which revolves around a single tank and its overtaxed crew — played by Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena and Bernthal — in the waning days of the war. Boot camp; remote, hostile terrain; the perils that come with actual WWII tanks — Fury wasn’t a walk in the park for anyone. But to hear Bernthal tell it, he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The actor spills the beans in this exclusive interview and fields our inaugural Lucky 7 questions.
How big of an impact did the remote locations and actual WWII tanks have on you in going to work everyday?
It was a really special thing. A huge part of the job of a great director, and David is great, is making the set a different world and protecting it and creating a real atmosphere, and so much of the actor’s job is to just live in that.
For this character — redneck loader Grady Travis — there are serious shades of darkness and violence there. How did you come in and out of that emotion every day? Or did you stay in it?
It was more staying in. I think it was really important for me, and for all of us really, to really stay in [character]. This was not the kind of movie where you wrap and go to the pub or go get Chinese food. There was a Karate sensei [on set] teaching us — he and I continued to spar everyday after work. We’d have a 15-hour day, then I’d go fight, eat some chicken and go to sleep. I wanted no sort of outside distraction or creature comfort; that was the enemy, I knew it.
What was the biggest difference between the intensity on this set versus other filming environments you’ve experienced? Because you’ve done other intense shoots.
I don’t know. Work is always pretty intense for me. This is, sort of like The Walking Dead, this is another world. David is a different breed of filmmaker. I’ve been so lucky in that I’ve had the pleasure of working with Scorsese and Polanski and Oliver Stone and Frank Darabont; these world-class filmmakers. David Ayer is of that caliber but he’s on his way up and he’s still hungry. This thing was so vitally important, he’d kill somebody if they got in the way of this movie and I love that. I love those kinds of stakes. I love how much everything mattered, I love the sense of leaving it all on the field everyday. I felt real lucky to be there, I felt like I defeated the odds to get there so I wanted to make it count.
Is there a moment when you and the cast all met and got a sense that you’d get to know each other as more than just actors?
Yeah, I think the pre-production of this movie was beautifully setup. We met in Santa Barbara and it was the first time we met a tank. The [military advisors] were like, “This is a Sherman tank. This thing is built to kill everything outside of it, but also everything inside. The turret will snap off your leg at any given point, you could lose your arm like that, the hatches are 70 pounds you could lose your fingers.” Every time they do a professional tank training exercise somebody dies or loses a limb. So the stakes were high and then it was, “Now you guys have to fight each other, now you have to go to boot camp.” I’m an athletic guy, I played sports and am a boxer; it wasn’t physically overwhelming to me but it was all geared toward breaking us down and realizing we’re nothing without each other.
Playboy’s Lucky 7 Questions
What was your first encounter with Playboy?
When I was a kid there was another kid up the street, named Paul, who had a whole collection of them, I guess they were his old man’s. On my third grade camping trip he gave me one and I told all my buddies I was going to bring this Playboy on the camping trip, show it to everybody. I even asked my old man; I said “Hey I’ve got this Playboy; everybody thinks I’m going to bring it.” I remember he had this whole conversation with me, he said “That is peer pressure and you’re weak if you bring it just because those other guys want you to. Don’t bring it.” I said, “Alright, Pop, I give you my word I won’t bring it.” And sure enough I brought it. All the kids wanted to sleep right around me because I had the Playboy. And you know, I was never even really that into the pictures of naked ladies: Even now, I like the articles but I like real naked ladies not pictures of them. It got out to the teachers that I brought it. My parents had to come pick me up and take me home. It was the first time I got in real trouble, because of Playboy.
What movie scared you most as a kid?
Shit, I don’t know, man.
What is your pop culture blindspot?
I don’t know anything about Maroon 5 or Justin Bieber. Pop music. I listen to old country. Hank Williams.
If, heaven forbid you were on death row, what would be your last meal?
A cake with a fuckin’ key in it to break the fuck out.
Which celebrity do people say you look like?
I’ve heard Robert DeNiro and Richard Gere.
What was your first car?
An old ‘92 Jeep Wrangler.
What was your favorite mistake?
Ah, I don’t know. Probably… shit, man, we’ve been saying the same shit all day and now I’ve got to think? [Laughs.] I don’t know.