‘No place and no people had an effect on me like Ireland’
‘Pilgrimage’ and 'Punisher' star Jon Bernthal on how he got his life back on track, and shooting in Ireland, 'the most beautiful place in Earth'
Jon Bernthal credits a stint at the Moscow Arts Theatre during the late 1990s as the reason he outgrew his brattishness. Photograph: Rachel Murray/Getty Images
‘Pilgrimage’ co-star Jon Bernthal and director Brendan Muldowney. Photograph: Erik Tanner/Getty Images
Jon Bernthal, left, in a scene from the film shot in the west of Ireland
Move over, Avengers. Pilgrimage, a thrilling new adventure in which 13th century Irish monks take on a sacred quest and maggoty medieval foes, features not just one, but two Marvel superheroes.
Tom Holland (21) is currently wowing critics and crowds as the newest incarnation of Spider-Man. Meanwhile, the first series of The Punisher is due on Netflix, starring Holland’s Pilgrimage co-star, Jon Bernthal. The actor has previously essayed the MCU vigilante Frank Castle (aka Punisher) on Daredevil. Aged 40, he’s had to wait a little longer for superheroism.
“Everybody has their own journey,” says The Wolf of Wall Street star. “I wouldn’t change a thing . . . Besides, at Tom’s age, I was a maniac. There was no way I was ready to be given the kind of freedom and responsibility Tom has. But he’s going to be just fine.
“He’s a gymnast; he has the best work ethic; he has discipline; he comes from an unbelievably great family that love each other so much. We all know of young actors who combust. Sadly, had I gone that route I would have been one of them.”
Bernthal, a former professional baseball player, credits a stint at the Moscow Arts Theatre during the late 1990s as the reason he outgrew his brattishness.
“My experience in Moscow saved my life. I was a cocky kid from Washington DC. Thought I’d seen everything. Moved to Moscow, got my mind completely blown. It was the Wild West when I was there. Shootouts at the Duma. The mob involved in everything. All kinds of street violence. But there was still a reverence for the artist there that was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
“On every street corner there was a statue of a writer or a painter or an actor. Acting was unbelievably respected. It was a masculine in a way that it wasn’t at home. To be an actor you needed to train in acrobatics and ballet. I had played college sports and professional sports but I’d never done anything as rigorous in terms of training.
“When I came to Hollywood and faced rejection and rejection, I could think back to my teachers in Russia and winning them over. If you’re not good, they’ll tell you. They’re brutally honest. And if I could make it there. . .”
Between takes on Pilgrimage, Bernthal and Holland assisted each other in their respective Marvel auditions. “We all gymed together and the pair of them kicked. Our. Pale. Irish. Asses,” admits their slightly less ripped Irish co-star, Hugh O’Conor.
I was completely silent for the first couple of weeks on and off the set
The monastic actioner is a remarkable project. The clever script – anybody know where can we get odds on the Foreign Language Oscar 2018? – features seven languages, including Gaelic, and, for good measure, a mute, as played by Bernthal.
“What captivated me was that this character would have to come up with his own language,” he says. “A very specific way to communicate to the other characters in the film and to the audience. I was completely silent for the first couple of weeks on and off the set.
“When you say nothing and you need a bottle of water and if you can’t work out a way to express that, you start to ask yourself: do I really need that bottle of water? And then a step further: do I deserve that bottle of water? I eventually had to stop doing that. As I couldn’t communicate with the director. It was messing things up.”
Does he often disappear into character like that? “Certain roles I’ve played – Frank Castle is one of them – require real solitude. You have to know the state it’s going to put you in. For me, it doesn’t make sense to be in bars and Chinese restaurants in New York City, hanging out with friends, and then turn up to play Frank. If I was a better actor perhaps I could do that.”
Directed by Brendan Muldowney (Savage, Love Eternal) from a lean, mean screenplay by Jamie Hannigan, Pilgrimage offers a perfect distillation of the Crusades, replete with a journey to Rome, a religious relic, and medieval instruments of torture. There will be blood. This is hardly a novelty for Bernthal, who has plenty of violence on his acting CV, including prime roles in The Walking Dead, Fury, The Accountant, and, most recently, Baby Driver.
I didn’t just want to swing a sword and have a cool fight scene
“I have no interest in being in something just because it’s violent,” says the actor. “It might be a cliché but I’m always looking at character. So action scenes have to come from an interesting place.
“The idea that he’s fighting for something he loves is interesting, whether that’s religion or nationality or family. I didn’t just want to swing a sword and have a cool fight scene.”
He does, nonetheless, get to swing a sword in more than one cool fight scene. He is full of praise for fight co-ordinator Paul Burke, who helped to maximise the onscreen ass-kicking and bloodshed on a tight budget.
“Paul got us to a place where we could do it,” says Bernthal. “We knew going into each fight scene that it may or may not make it. We had to work on the fly as we were shooting. Things would get carved out because we knew we wouldn’t have time. And there was no possibility of coming back and doing it again.
“I’ve been in big blockbuster studio films where we took two weeks to shoot a fight scene: one little bit of the fight a day. It’s an incredibly detailed way of making a movie, but it does rip some of the urgency that needs to be apparent in violent scenes. I was grateful for the way we shot. There’s no doubles or delays. I think that makes for a physical quality and an immediacy that hopefully translates into the film.”
Budgetary constraints also forced the cast and crew to bond as they ventured into lesser-spotted Galway and Mayo for the shoot. “We weren’t in a studio trying to create magical worlds. We were trekking into them. Where we were shooting was so beautiful, you’d think: this is the most beautiful place on Earth. Until the next location: nope, this is the most beautiful place in Earth. I’ve had the privilege to shoot in a lot of countries but no place and no people had an effect on me like Ireland. Everyone was kind. I’ve never met an Irishman I didn’t like.” Pilgrimage is out on Friday