Jon Bernthal on His ‘Punisher’ Acting Process, Slapping Jonah Hill, and Why One of His TV Sex Scenes Never Aired

Actor also talks about improvising his final performance on “The Walking Dead”

November 7, 2017

There’s a thumb ring on Jon Bernthal’s left hand that he’s worn for good luck the last 17 years. Based on the career trajectory he’s experienced over the past decade, his lucky ring appears to be working. With credits that include blockbuster films “Fury,” “Sicario,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” just to name a few, Jon has become one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood. It was his role as Shane on the hit TV series “The Walking Dead,” though, that changed his star power forever.

Jon’s new show “The Punisher” debuts on Netflix later this month and his next film “Sweet Virginia” hits theaters Nov. 17. On Tuesday’s Stern Show, Howard got to ask Jon about his upcoming releases, his somewhat method acting process, and what he did during one of his television sex scenes that stopped it from ever airing.

Check out the highlights from Howard’s talk with Jon Bernthal (below).

Acting Is the Grandest Lie

According to Jon, finding the theater is what saved his life when he was younger. He grew up in D.C., the son of a prominent attorney, and had every advantage a young kid could ask for in life. However, Jon did just about all he could to jeopardize his future.

“I was such an asshole,” he admitted to Howard on Tuesday.

Multiple run-ins with the law for crimes “across the board” nearly cost Jon everything. Luckily, his talents on the baseball field got him into college and that’s where he signed up for an intro to acting class, thinking he’d be able to “drop acid” and hang out in the back of the room watching movies.

Instead, he for the first time encountered serious actors who sincerely studied their craft. The first assignment was to bring an object in that meant something to them and share it with the rest of the class — Jon showed up unprepared.

“I was going to fall baseball practice right afterwards, so I grabbed my catcher’s mitt,” he told Howard. “I like launched into this bullshit story about how my mom had given me this catcher’s mitt on her deathbed.”

Even though Jon’s story was a complete lie, his classmates bought every word of it. “Next thing I know, I’m crying my eyes out and everyone in the class is crying their eyes out,” Jon continued.

His dishonesty only backfired after he was cast in a play being directed by the same instructor of that class. Being proud of her son’s accomplishment, Jon’s mother (who was very much alive) asked if she could come see his performance.

“Here’s the thing, Ma,” Jon recalled telling his mother, with a laugh.

Due to his poor grades in other subjects, Jon wasn’t able to finish his college studies, but his talent was undeniable. He was accepted into an acting program at the Moscow Art Theatre. Soon after that, his gift was recognized once again by an instructor at Harvard who offered him a spot in the college’s graduate theater program.

Nowadays, Jon uses his prestigious training in roles that demand some pretty intense performances. Howard questioned if Jon considers himself a method actor.

“I isolate myself, that’s for sure,” he explained, saying he pretty much only talks to his wife when he’s trying to get into character. Other than that, he takes on the attributes of the person he’s playing, even once refusing to speak on the set while playing a mute in the movie “Pilgrimage.”

The Thrusting Dead

After reading the script for “The Walking Dead,” Jon told Howard he knew he wanted to land a role on the AMC series. The only problem was he had already been cast as a lead on “NCIS: Los Angeles.”

“I read this script and I, in my heart, I knew it was something enormously special,” Jon said of “The Walking Dead.”

He decided to turn down “NCIS: Los Angeles” in order to audition for the zombie series. And while the CBS drama he walked away from went on to become a hit, Jon is confident he made the right move.

One of the first scenes he shot as Shane Walsh was a sex scene with his costar Sarah Wayne Callies, who played Lori Grimes on “The Walking Dead.”

“It’s not pay cable so you’re not allowed to actually thrust your hips,” Jon told Howard. But, considering how seriously Jon takes his roles, Howard asked if Jon did just a little bit of thrusting anyway.

“Fuck yeah, you bet your ass I did!” Jon answered.

That Season 1 sex scene made it to air but another steamy moment from the series had to be cut entirely. Jon told Howard we wanted to go as “gritty” as possible so he spit into his own hand as the camera tilted up towards him – the move was deemed too dirty for basic cable.

For anyone who hasn’t completely caught up on “The Walking Dead,” it’s probably best to skip ahead, since Jon next told Howard what it was like getting killed off of the hit show.

“I knew it was gonna happen from the beginning,” Jon said. “To have a real beginning, middle, and end as a character, it’s an unbelievable gift.”

On the night they were set to shoot Jon’s death, he and his costar Andrew Lincoln (who plays Rick on the series) decided they wanted to improvise something different from Shane’s demise in the original comic series. “He just looked at me, he said, ‘Fuck it brother. It’s just you and me.’ And we went out there and we just went for it,” Jon told Howard of what Lincoln said to him before the fateful scene.

The entire “Walking Dead” cast gathered around to watch Jon’s final performance, too, including actor Jeff DeMunn, who flew back into town to be there even after his character Dale was killed off a few weeks before Jon’s.

“These guys are like some of my best friends on earth,” Jon said of his “Walking Dead” colleagues.

Wolf Slap

When Jonah Hill stopped by the Stern Show in 2014, he told Howard about getting punched in the face (for real) by Bernthal, his costar in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The smack was delivered during a scene for the movie but Jon told Howard on Tuesday he definitely hit him hard.

“I said to Jonah before we started … ‘Hey look man, it’s a Martin Scorsese movie, man. I’m gonna slap you,’” Jon recalled telling Hill before action was called. “It wasn’t something he was totally into at the time.”

Jon even offered to let Jonah slap him back off camera, just to go tit for tat. As Jon remembers it, it was Leonardo DiCaprio who convinced Hill to suck it up and allow Jon to slap him. He agreed to do it once and crew members even had an ice pack ready to go after the blow was delivered.

Jon hit him so hard, he wound up breaking the fake teeth Jonah was wearing.

‘Sweet Virginia’

In addition to his new Netflix series “The Punisher,” Jon has a new film due out in theaters on Nov. 17 called “Sweet Virginia.” Check out the trailer (above).

“I’m really proud of it,” Jon told Howard. For once, it’s not Jon playing the dark, disturbed violent type in the film — that distinction belongs to his costar Christopher Abbott, who fans will likely recognize for his turn on the HBO series “Girls.”

Howard asked if this role might be the one to win Jon an Academy Award. But considering he’s a lifelong Stern Show superfan, Jon replied that he’s already received the greatest prize he could ask for.

“I’ll be honest with you, this right here is just as good,” Jon said of his visit with Howard.

See Jon Bernthal in “Sweet Virginia” in theaters Nov. 17 and watch him on “The Punisher” premiering on Netflix Nov. 17.