Bern­thal

Esquire (Singapore) - - Cover Story -

says he’s done his re­search for The Pu­n­isher: vis­it­ing comic­book stores; buy­ing vin­tage is­sues of the se­ries; be­ing loudly told “Don’t fuck this up” by Pu­n­isher com­pletists. He pre­pared for the se­ries by wear­ing head­phones and car­ry­ing a loaded back­pack through des­o­late stretches of New York to get into Cas­tle’s headspace. He didn’t see his friends in the city dur­ing the shoot. “Ask peo­pleon­se­tandthey’ll­sayI’md­if­fi­cult,” Bern­thal told me. “But it’s not about my trailer or the food; it’s al­ways about mak­ing the role make sense.”

Bern­thal’s per­sonal his­tory—a deep ac­quain­tance with vi­o­lence that gave way to a midlife calm—made him per­fect for the role. Steve Light­foot, The Pu­n­isher’s showrun­ner, says that he told Bern­thal, “All you talk about is your wife and your kids. That’s what this guy is. His su­per­power is the rage that he has to­ward the peo­ple that took them from him.” Light­foot went on to say, “I find ac­tors are best when they are play­ing char­ac­ters that are not far from who they are.”

Bern­thal told me that he hadn’t been happy with The Pu­n­isher pi­lot. When he let peo­ple know about it, he mag­i­cally stopped get­ting to see rough cuts of the show. Nev­er­the­less, Light­foot says he mostly ap­pre­ci­ated Bern­thal’s hy­per­in­volve­ment: “Some­times we’d scream at each other for 15 min­utes, but it was never per­sonal. It was never about his van­ity. It was al­ways about mak­ing the char­ac­ter bet­ter. And some­times he’d sug­gest some­thing and I’d go, ‘Shit, that’s good.’ ”

Bern­thal’s epic feats of prepa­ra­tion have in­spired both ad­mi­ra­tion and eye rolls among his em­ploy­ers. In Wind River, an­other re­cent bull’s-eye, he had a small role as a mur­dered girl’s boyfriend. Tay­lor Sheri­dan, the film’s di­rec­tor and screen­writer, told me that he had more con­ver­sa­tions with Bern­thal than he did with Jeremy Ren­ner, the movie’s star. “He’s on cam­era for five min­utes,” Sheri­dan said. “I talked for hours with Jon about how he was go­ing to play that.” He laughed for a sec­ond at the mem­ory of work­ing with Bern­thal on the char­ac­ter’s back­story. “And Jon was only there for one day. He just was so fuck­ing pre­pared.”

Bern­thal has shown a cer­tain com­fort be­ing the guy who ap­pears on set, rips off a killer take, and heads back to the air­port. But he still hasn’t set­tled into be­ing a su­per­hero. He men­tioned that some peo­ple feel awe walk­ing into the Marvel Uni­verse, much as he did walk­ing onto a Scors­ese set. “I got re­spect for those peo­ple,” he said. “But I don’t feel that way. I just don’t. It’s noth­ing against what they’re do­ing. That’s not what I watch.” He also noted that his idols have avoided comic-book movies com­pletely. “You talk about Leo, you talk about Brad, the guys I re­ally, re­ally re­spect—and they have all kind of stayed clear of the su­per­hero stuff.”

In Ojai, I told Bern­thal that thought his per­for­mance in Sweet Vir­ginia, in which he plays a mas­cu­line man who is a husk of his for­mer self, was his best yet.

“Yeah. I’m re­ally at a cross­roads with my ca­reer,” he said. “There’s one way and there’s an­other way.”

In­in­jas, and fairy princesses. Bern­thal told me he was look­ing for­ward to the hol­i­day be­cause work had caused him to miss the last three Hal­loweens with his kids. “There’s no pain like miss­ing them,” he said. “It’s this sad­ness mixed with guilt and with shame; you’re not right there hold­ing their hand, guid­ing them through things.”

Sens­ing that I was long­ing for my own kid, he in­vited me along for trickor-treat­ing. His two boys dressed up as Darth Vader and a ma­gi­cian. His wife dressed up as a farmer and clutched their two-year-old in her arms. Bern­thal had wanted to be a pi­rate, but he ran out of time. In­stead, he played the part of a sub­ur­ban dad talk­ing about par­ent­hood with an­other dad.

The next day, he’d be leav­ing for a trip that would keep him away un­til Thanks­giv­ing. His boys ap­peared to have picked up on his sad­ness, and all three of them seemed de­ter­mined to make the most of the night. They ap­proached a two-story house manned by a fam­ily of zom­bies, in­clud­ing a zom­bie baby. None of them broke char­ac­ter. The kids grabbed candy and sprinted away. “Man, I know a bit about zom­bies, and that was fuck­ing bril­liant,” Bern­thal said with amaze­ment.

We walked in the dark, and Bern­thal told me what he hoped for his kids, par­tic­u­larly his sons. “I want them to see kind­ness as mas­cu­line, not a sign of weak­ness.”

A lit­tle later, the Bern­thal clan hit an elab­o­rate haunted house set up by a Hol­ly­wood spe­cial-ef­fects guy who lived in town. The boys were less than afraid. When a chain-saw-wield­ing ghoul jumped out at Bern­thal’s mid­dle child, the kid punched his as­sailant in the tes­ti­cles.

Bern­thal apol­o­gised to the ghoul and tried to ex­plain to his son that the man was just pre­tend­ing to be a bad guy. Bern­thal watched as his boy took off howl­ing and laugh­ing through the house.

Some­time later, when he re­mem­bered that mo­ment, Bern­thal said, “That kid isn’t afraid of any­thing. He’s go­ing to have to learn things on his own.”

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