(SPOILER ALERT:This interview with Jon Bernthal includes Walking Dead revelations a-plenty…)
The initial draw for any show about zombies will always be the zombies. But especially for serial drama on TV, the thing that’s gonna keep an audience riveted is characters. There’s been a lot of naysaying about The Walking Dead on its way to nailing down the highest ratings for a TV show in cable history: The show is too slow. They’re still on the farm? When is a zombie gonna eat someone? And yet the ratings kept mounting and mounting like zombie carcasses on Shane’s burn pile.
The reason for those ratings is characters. Characters who viewers can care about, fall in love (or hate) with, or, in the case of TWD, worry about getting ripped apart and eaten alive. It’s that last element that’s really put a charge in the volatile relationship TWD fans have with their show: after what happened to Sophia, after what happened to Dale, after all the divergences from the show’s source material that have kept fans of the comic on the edge of their recliners, any character you fall in love with on the show can get killed without notice.
And in the case of Shane, they can even get killed twice!
Actor Jon Bernthal had the shock, the indignity, and the sheer pleasure of portraying Shane Walsh – one of the most popular characters on the most popular cable TV dramas to ever get killed off twice. (Actually, he’s probably the only actor in TV history to have that honor!) In a cast stacked with solid talent, Jon’s was a bravura performance that deserves recognition when next year’s Emmy and Golden Globes Awards season buzz gets revved up.
The two-season long emotional arc Jon portrayed was a veritable Bataan Death March of manic deterioration. Flashbacks to the world before zombies revealed Shane to be a sensitive, loving, sturdy friend to Rick. By the end of his character arc, after fate had played one too many cruel jokes upon him, Shane was reduced to a desperate man clinging to the last shred of reality that made sense to him: protecting Lori and Carl and his unborn child.
Jon and Shane’s final moments were downright Shakespearean: Just as shocking as when Shane got knifed in the gut by best friend and spiritual brother Rick Grimes, was the moment when he rose from the dead to take his place among the undead – with a taste for Rick’s flesh. Only thanks to the unerring aim of his surrogate son, Carl, was Shane’s bad zombie self taken out for good. (Et tu, Carl?)
But make no mistake: that is not where the character of Shane will end. Jon Bernthal’s memorable performance as the yin to Rick’s yang in the zombie apocalypse power structure will make sure that every decision Rick makes from here on out will be clouded with the question: What Would Shane Do?
Jon’s twisted but beloved characterization of Shane may be behind him (indeed, he’s tapped to star as Joe Teague in Frank Darabont’s new AMC drama L.A. Noir), but there’s still a lot to look forward to in a hot career that’s really just getting started. Jon checked in with us at Starcasm to talk zombies, Frank Darabont, and his next role in L.A. Noir.
Shane is trapped inside a school bus after his fight with Rick. Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
STARCASM: The struggle between Rick and Shane for dominance of the group was the overriding theme of the show’s first two seasons. Among fans of the show, there were two main camps that seemed to develop: Rick supporters and Shane supporters. I wonder if that kind of debate ever broke out among the cast about the philosophical underpinnings of the two approaches?
JON: Not really. I think that one of the really cool things about the show – and it started with Frank’s idea of the show – was that there were not going to be good guys and bad guys, no “heroes and villains”. We were really trying to make this as authentic and real a piece as we could. I think that’s what the draw is. It’s a zombie show, but we are not doing it in a campy way, we’re not winking at the audience. We’re playing it for real.
And I think what’s so important for that is to have characters that are always trying to do what they think is right all the time. There is real validity and weight and truth in each character’s argument – whether it’s Shane or Rick or Andrea or whoever.
Andy Lincoln is an amazing actor, and one of the things that’s so brilliant about his portrayal of Rick is that Andy hungers for Rick to make mistakes. He hungers for his “hero” to have flaws. And I think for Shane’s character, it’s really short-sighted to look at him as a villain. He’s very much operating from a place of trying to do what’s best for the group and their survival.
As far as how the rest of the cast felt about things, I think we just wanted to tell the story. Andy would joke around a lot that “Rick keeps messing up”. I think everybody felt that Shane was right a lot of the time – it’s just that his delivery was kinda rough.
STARCASM: In the narrative of the comic book, Shane dies an early death. By the end of Season 1 of the TV show, I was frankly surprised to see Shane still alive. Do you know if Shane’s character evolution was fixed early on to extend to two seasons, or did they adapt to the popularity of your portrayal of Shane and keep you around longer?
JON: You know, I don’t know for sure what the original plans were. I was told that Shane was always positioned to die. Going in to take the job, I knew that. They made me very aware. I fought very hard for the role of Shane, and they were clear with me that I was fighting to play a character that wasn’t going to last too long on the show.
Shane on the run from zombies at the school. Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
But that was all right with me. That was a gift, because I could really craft a beginning, middle and end for Shane. I could track where he was the whole time. I was able to really show the colors that I wanted to show through his whole arc. It’s very rare on TV to know that you’re going to die and to actually know when that’s going to happen.
STARCASM: That arc you mention was very visible from Episode 1 of Season 1 to the climactic scene of Shane’s death, and it was all downward! The deterioration of the character – from his confident and in-control self before Rick showed up, to what we saw in the latter episodes where the character had pretty much gone off the deep end struggling with everything that had been loaded on to him – made for compelling viewing. How did you keep that arc so well maintained over the two season haul?
JON: That’s a tough question. Like I said before, I was able to arc out this map ahead of time, but when it came time to shoot, I also had to be very clear about every single moment that the character was going through. It’s always really important to focus on what you’re trying to do when you’re trying to do it.
Shane plays surrogate father to Carl. Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
At the end of the day, it’s a very, very consistent, very solid through line: what Shane wants above all else is for Lori and Carl to be safe. To put that one thing above everything else, I think, was the real key to this character. It never occurred to me to think, “I want to be a little bit villainous here!” Or, “I want Rick to think I’m on his side here!” None of that plays. It’s all about, does Shane think these people’s safety is compromised, and to fight for that no matter what.
As long as that’s my through line as an actor, then it becomes harder and harder for Shane to do, as in his mind, he keeps seeing his best friend making mistakes, his best friend being a hindrance to these people’s survival. That led to him becoming more and more desperate. Especially when he’s losing his control of the group, losing his ability to protect them. I think that’s what was driving Shane nuts.
STARCASM: At the end of the episode where you died, there was that great scene where the bond of brotherhood and friendship between Shane and Rick was coming down to this seemingly final moment. But there seemed to be some character interplay between the two that indicated that maybe Shane was going to come around. And then, of course, Rick drove the knife into him! Is it telling too much to share what you were inputting into that character?
JON: I think a very big part of that scene that I always wanted to be in there – and look, we all had our ideas about what that scene was supposed to be ¬– but I wanted Shane to force Rick to kill him. I wanted it to be that Shane was making Rick take a step that he had to take in order to keep Lori and Carl safe – and Shane’s unborn baby, too. (Because in Shane’s mind, it’s his baby.) He was pushing his friend, and with all the frustration that goes with that; thinking, “Even here, when I’m raising this gun to you and I’m telling you that I’m going to take you away form these people, you still won’t fight!”
Shane leads Rick to their final showdown. Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
It’s a through line with Shane: he’s constantly pushing Rick to fight, to man up, to take a step further, to realize that we’re in a world now where being the good guy just doesn’t cut it anymore and understanding that is vital for these people’s survival.
Part of me really wanted there to be a color of suicide in that ending. Some people picked up on it, some people didn’t. But perhaps that’s a little bit about what you were suggesting: at a certain point in that ending, when you say that Shane may have been coming around, I think that’s Shane realizing when he’s approaching Rick, he’s testing the waters. Will Rick actually do this? Will he take this step? It wasn’t anything he necessarily thought out; I don’t think he knew the knife was coming. But he really wanted Rick to take that step that he desperately needed Rick to take.
I mean there’s a lot of complicated stuff there. He loved that guy. He loved him with all his heart. There’s a great amount of shame in there as well.
Shane looks after Rick at the hospital after his shooting. Photo Credit: Scott Garfield/Courtesy of AMC
STARCASM: The personal dynamics of the show are the primary thing that keeps a show about zombies eating people watchable. One thing we don’t know too much about, though, are the personal dynamics off the set. Which cast members did you really bond with down in Georgia?
JON: I loved the cast and crew The Walking Dead. They’re like family to me I know people talk about that all the time. I have never had an experience where I’ve gotten so close with the people I’ve worked with. We all know how lucky we are to be there. We all believe in the show immensely. We all believed in each other immensely. I miss them with all my heart. I’m so sad I don’t get to go mix it up with them again. I love them all. I could go on and on about any single one of those people. It was such an honor to be with them, and I’ll miss them.
STARCASM: There’s a connection between L.A. Noir and The Walking Dead and that’s Frank Darabont – well, and now you! What’s your take on Frank as a director/producer/writer, and what he brought to The Walking Dead?
JON: The Walking Dead is what it was because of Frank Darabont. End of story, in my opinion. I think he’s is one of the greatest filmmakers – writers/directors/producers – that our country has ever had. I think that anybody on that Walking Dead set who shoots film, creates the sets, creates the makeup, anybody who speaks any of the lines – anybody who is involved with the making of it was brought there by Frank.
When I desperately wanted to be an actor, he was on the shortlist of directors and filmmakers that I would have done anything to work with, so it was such a thrill and an honor that I got to work with him once, and the fact that he’s gonna hire me back, it just means the world to me. I’m thrilled, I’m touched, I’m flattered, I’m nervous as all hell! I really don’t want to screw this up! I want to do right by him. I believe in him so much, I’d follow him anywhere as long as he lets me follow.
STARCASM: You will play the role of Joe Teague in L.A. Noir. Can you tell us a bit about the show?
JON: It’s about how dynamic a city L.A. was in the late ’40s, with the rampant Mafia, the police corruption, Bugsy Siegel, Mickey Cohen, jazz music, the Hollywood studio system – it’s all an interesting, dangerous, dark intense world full of some really brutal love stories. It’s really going to be a terrific piece.
And it’s Frank, man. The guy really knows what he’s doing. It’ll be a really special show. Who knows what’ll come of it, but I’m thrilled to jump in with him.
Shooting on L.A. Noir starts May 1. The show will premiere on TNT later this year. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled to the big screen for Jon Bernthal in the Rick Waugh-directed film Snitch. Production wrapped on the film starring Jon, Duane Johnson, Susan Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt, and Barry Pepper. The film is in post-production now and a release date has not been set.
First night at Edwin Jenner’s CDC lab. Photo Credit: Scott Garfield/Courtesy of AMC