Jon Bernthal on ‘Fury’ and the Stresses of Making War Films

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Giles Keyte / Columbia Pictures

Once in a while, an actor arrives at the steps of Hollywood looking to be challenged. Looking to test himself and the craft. Looking for a fight. Jon Bernthal is such an actor and Fury was one of those fights he lives for. Directed by David Ayer, who was following up the critically acclaimed cop thriller End Of Watch, the project required months of immersive training, daily hand-to-hand combat, and kind of mental anguish that would have lesser professionals on the first flight out of Oxfordshire, UK, where it was filmed.

“[Ayer] is a military guy, from a military family,” Bernthal, 38, straight shoots from across the table in New York. “He’s not looking for someone to stroll in, put on a fancy uniform then drink beers and chase pussy at the bar when the day’s filming is done. To be frank, we’re monkeys who put on makeup and say lines for a living, we’re not in any real danger. But we wanted to make this as true of an experience as possible.”

Others would argue that that the danger was at least a little real. During the filming, a stuntman was stabbed with a bayonet through the lung and required an emergency airlift to a hospital. The man survived, but the situation made the experience all the more real to those involved. What resulted was one of the most brutal, emotionally raw cinematic experiences of the year.

Now it’s onto the next challenge for Bernthal. He still gets stopped on the street by fans of The Walking Dead and consoled by those who thought Shane’s death was untimely. He stays in touch with cast, scrolling through recent texts with Norman Reedus, and says he plans to begin watching the new season when he gets back home. He’s been thankfully busy, with a laundry list of projects set to hit next year, including David Simon’s HBO mini-series Show Me a Hero, following this year’s roles in The Wolf Of Wall Street and TNT’s Mob City. Now, with Fury set to hitting screens, here’s hoping he’ll be able to enjoy Christmas this year.

David Ayer is doing brilliant work right now, but what exactly made this the kind of project you wanted to be involved with? The script? The character?
It’s everything that you just said. As far as David Ayer is concerned, I think there are a lot of directors trying to do exactly what he does and failing left and right. He makes real movies, about real men, and about brotherhood. The reason that he’s successful at it while most guys aren’t is he’s a guy who came from the wrong side of the tracks himself. He’s not interested in doing things in the contemporary way at all. When I read the script, it was one of the most nuanced and streamlined scripts I had ever checked out. All the characters in it were great and well rounded. I really wanted to be a part of this thing.

How is this movie different than other World War II movies we may know?
I think that part of the deal was we’re trying to take the World War II standard and turn it on it’s head a bit. It’s always been known as the Greatest Generation. WWII movies, at least from the Western end of things, have always portrayed American soldiers as these square-jawed, superhero guys. We’re not trying to argue that these men were heroes, but we’re trying to show them in a realistic way, based on tons of research and conversations with real vets that we had. When you really get in it with them these guys don’t mind talking about how ugly it was and how afraid they really were. I actually think the men in this film, shown as truly afraid and tortured with their situation, it shows that what they did was actually more heroic than they would be without those characteristics. It’s more honest. We’ve seen that side in Vietnam movies, but not so much in the WWII genre.

It’s more intimate as well. You explore the dynamic between the group of men in just one tanker really.
This is a day in the life. This is a picture about one day. There are two more weeks left in the battle, and they’ve been been through hell for four years. If you know about Sherman tanks at that period there was no more dangerous job. The chances were that you were not going to make it. This movie opens up with one of their brothers being killed. Spiritually and mentally this is a devastating moment for the film to open up on. This is a fucked up day from the jump. I think this movie is the unraveling of any sense of comfort that these guys have had. Their broken mental state is on display.

From what I’m hearing you guys really pushed the limits of your own minds to get the right feeling across.
It was part of the genius of this movie. There are actors out there that would like to go shoot a movie during the day and then hit the bar at night, eat at the restaurant, and sleep with women. I don’t have any problem with that. But then there are the people who are going in for a real experience and operating under the assumption that whatever you’re doing off screen is going to be reflected in what goes on screen. Those are the kind of actors that David hires and those are the kind of guys he got. He’s a military guy with a military family and if you were planning on just strolling in there and putting on a fancy uniform then drink beers and chase pussy all night…you’re not making any kind of sacrifice. At the end of the day we’re monkeys who put on makeup and say lines for a living. We’re not in any real danger, but we wanted to make this as true of an experience as possible.

How rigorous was the training?
We were there three months early. Every morning we would train, then we would spar. I think that there was nothing more beneficial than the sparring. There’s no lying in fighting. You immediately get to know who each other is. It doesn’t matter if you’re a huge fucking movie star or a dumb shit like me. Everything comes to the open. It’s a way to fast forward getting to know each other.

What kind of fighting experience did you have going in?
We all come from different levels and different backgrounds of fighting. Some of us had never fought at all; some of us had worked at a professional level. Personally I would fight the actors, then the stunt guys, and then the karate teacher. Even after we were done filming, I would go to our sensei, Richard Mesquita, and fight for another few hours, because I didn’t want to get distracted by anything else. I wanted to stay in that dark spot.

Did it take a lot to stay in that mental state?
I think we all knew that cell phones, restaurants, bars would take us out of the place that we were in and what we were trying to do. They were the enemy. It was, “Go do your work. Eat some food. Go to bed and do it again.” The more we could make our lives bleak and only about each other, it helped that cause. I hope it comes across on the screen. We didn’t want fancy campers or chairs off set. We wanted to be uncomfortable and live in that tank. Nobody fights like a family. Nobody loves like a family. This tank crew was our family.

Do you feel like you got to know each other deeper than most actors in a scene together would?
Undoubtedly. And even more messed up was that all that we got to know about each other became ammunition for later when the cameras came on, to get a real reaction. I said things to these guys I really regretted. They all said things to me that I like to think they regretted, but it was all for a common purpose. That was to make it uncomfortable. If a sliver of what we felt in that moment gets across on screen, it was all worth it. I would wrap after a day and leave set thinking, “I can’t believe I just said that…”

Talking of family, how was it communicating with your family while you’re in this, admittedly dark, mindset?
Oh man it was messed up. You know we took a break for the holidays before we shot the final scenes, and I’m sure that my family was concerned. We had spent the last few months going through hell, starving ourselves, cold and to be home watching presents being opened [laughs shaking his head]…I didn’t know how to process it.

Back to when you guys were sparring.
Look, it’s not about who’s toughest. If you’re going up against a guy that you’re clearly more experienced than, it tells a lot about a person how you deal with that. Do you let him hit you a bunch? Do you take your shit out on him? It wasn’t about who was the toughest. It was about how respectful, gracious, or courteous you can be in those moments.

What was it like working with Brad Pitt and more than that, what’s it to fight with him? Did he still have those Fight Club moves?
Being real? I mean, just the fact that Brad was there, I love that man. He’s 50 years old. He’s Brad Pitt and he doesn’t have to do a single thing that he doesn’t want to. Not only that, but he was not only there, but eager to throw down with all of us. It tells you a lot. The colder, wetter, and tougher it got, the happier he was. I only have the upmost respect for him.

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