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MOVIEFONE– Jon Bernthal’s year has been filled with plenty of violence — and that’s been a good thing for the actor.
In project after project — including the high-octane, high-impact “Baby Driver,” the bleak and chilling “Wind River,” the brutal Medieval period drama “Pilgrimage” and his pending return to Marvel’s unstoppable vigilante The Punisher as the star of his own Netflix series — Bernthal’s work provides a compelling new window on the resounding impact of violence on the characters he plays and those around him.
And Bernthal always rises to the physical challenge — in “Pilgrimage,” in theaters and available on VOD and Digital HD Aug. 11, he not only mastered 13th century swordplay, he took on the task of playing a mute character who must communicate entirely without words. And as he tells Moviefone, it’s tests like that — and turning The Punisher into a enduring protagonist — that keeps him coming back for more.
Moviefone: Tell me about figuring your way into playing a character with almost no dialogue in “Pilgrimage.” Was it an unusual experience for you?
Jon Bernthal: Yeah, absolutely. I think everything about this experience was pretty unusual. Jamie Hannigan’s script really blew me away. I love the use of language in it, and I love the fact that there’s about seven different languages on the page that’s used in the film. With that, I saw this other language that needed to be created, and that would be the language of the Mute.
He’s a guy who is a central character in the film, but he has no dialogue. Therefore, I had to kind of create this own sort of way of communicating. It was a tricky sort of way. My first instinct was just to stop speaking totally, and that’s what I did for the first couple of weeks, both on set and off. I felt a learned a ton about myself, I learned a ton about my character. In the end, I thought that it was sort of hurting the process of the movie.
Cutting off my ability to communicate with the director was tough, because I needed him to sort of see the dialogue that I was creating. When I couldn’t tell him about it, it was a rich experience for me in terms of learning about the character, but I was worried that the film was suffering for it. So I decided to abandon that going silent after the first couple of weeks — much to the disappointment of my cast mates, who all said they enjoyed my company more when I was quiet!
It was a very unique challenge. It was an experience that I’ll never forget. It let me meet a group of people that will now be a part of my life forever. I really love the people that I made that movie with.
You’ve had such a great run of projects this year, and so many of them deal with the language of violence, in different ways. What’s been the endgame in your head as you’ve been exploring these different characters in things like “Wind River,” “Baby Driver,” this film, and “The Punisher”? To look at the ways we use violence in the arts, and what we say through that violence.
It’s a really good question, and I’m not going to sit here and try to convey a message to you like I sat down in the beginning of the year and said, “You know what? This is going to be my thesis on violence and the effect it has with the roles I take.” Look, I really try to choose parts that resonate with me. I try to work with filmmakers that I believe in, on material that I think will challenge me and that’s great. I try to work with other actors that I admire. I’ve been really lucky this year that I’ve gotten to do pretty much everything that I’ve done.
I think as far as the question is concerned, I really do believe in being part of projects with a cogent voice, and that really makes you ask questions. I love to read a script and not really know who I’m “rooting for,” or who I “believe in.” I like it to be challenging. I like there to be a lot of grey area. Yeah, I think all the projects I’ve done lately, that’s in there.
I think with both “Wind River” and with this film, I think that the characters that I play, you might think they’re one kind of guy, but then they end up being something completely different. I really like that, too. Then, obviously with Frank Castle, violence is a huge part. I didn’t pick these things purposely, but yeah, I’m really glad and grateful for the projects that I’ve gotten to be a part of this year.
Along that vein, in terms of making Frank Castle more of an antihero at the center of his own series, what kind of shift did that involve for you creatively, kind of figuring out how to play him as, yes, he’s the protagonist, but we’re also aware of what kind of antagonistic baggage he brings from the “Daredevil” series?
It’s an interesting predicament. To put him as the central character is interesting. I think that my big struggle with him is that one of my biggest kind of things that I’m always fighting for on set is, I always want to preserve the essence of Frank, and have the right and be bold enough to really turn my back on the audience, and not do things to win the audience’s favor, but rather stay true to the character and the essence of who he is.
I think Frank is brutal. Frank is damaged. Frank is tortured. I think Frank, when he engages in violence, there’s something utterly satisfying and addictive for him to be doing that, and that may not be something that the audience can agree with or get behind. But I’ve always fought to preserve that, and I think that that’s a part of him. I think the pain and what’s behind the violence and the reason why he’s committing the violence, that’s a different story. I want to explore that, too.
So I think that’s the real challenge: being bold enough to not make him too heroic, at least “heroic,” is important to me. That being said, I think there’s Frank Castle inside of everybody. I think being a father and being a husband, he’s a character that I deeply empathize with.
The role in “Pilgrimage” is as physical as anything you’ve done. What do you enjoy about the physical discipline that these types of roles require, and the different sort of fighting skills that you’ve been picking up over the years?
Look, I was an athlete before I was an actor, and I’ve always looked at acting as very much an athletic endeavor. In this movie, I had to pick up a whole new skill set, training with sword masters and learning those kinds of skills.
With this kind of film, our back was really against the wall in terms of the fights. We didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t have a lot of time. So what that meant is, Paul Burke and the stunt team, we had to rehearse our a**es off, and know that fight in and out. And then have the fortitude and the courage on the day to improvise, and go with it, and make it work in the moment, because we were chasing the sun. Literally, to have a half day to do a fight scene — on a bigger studio film, we would’ve taken two/three weeks to do these fight scenes.
I’m used to that from television. I’m used to that from the Marvel world. And I like that. It raises the stakes on the fight days. It adds the vitality of it to the in-the-moment-ness of it. It makes it much more on the line, and makes it much more dangerous, and honestly violent, rather than trying to create violence. And I dig that. I dig that. I dig that being full out. I like, at the end of the day, being all banged up and bruised, and feeling like we actually earned our money that day. It’s a good feeling.
For me, finding new ways to express that, I think that the way that characters fight, the way the characters act when their backs are up against the wall, tells an enormous amount about the character. I’m grateful for the opportunity.
IGN – If there’s any actor that might be considered an “actor’s actor” who has gone to great lengths for his craft, then Jon Bernthal has worked his butt off to get where he is now.
It’s been five years since Bernthal was a regular on AMC’s The Walking Dead, but he then got an even more high-profile gig as The Punisher in the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil. Bernthal’s version of Marvel’s Frank Castle proved popular enough to get him his own series, which he shot earlier this year and is expected to debut later in 2017.
Between doing those shows, Bernthal still found plenty of time to make movies, and he even found time to chat with IGN about a variety of topics.
Brendan Muldowney’s Pilgrimage couldn’t be any more different from Bernthal’s normal role, if there is such a thing, because it takes place during 13th century Ireland as it follows a group of monks on a dangerous journey through the rugged Irish landscape to bring a sacred relic back to Rome. The diverse group of monks is played by Stanley Weber, John Lynch, Hugh O’Conor and none other than Tom Holland, and Bernthal is playing a character simply known as The Mute, a man unable to speak who comes from a violent past.
Other than Pilgrimage, Bernthal still has a busy month ahead of him, appearing in Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut Wind River (now in theaters), as well as Ric Roman Waugh’s upcoming Shot Caller, playing gritty criminal characters in both. (Jamie Dagg’s Sweet Virginia, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring as did Pilgrimage, hasn’t figured out its distribution yet.)
IGN: When you read the Pilgrimage script, how were you able to envision what the character would be without having any dialogue?
Jon Bernthal: But that’s the fun and challenge of it. There are seven languages spoken in this film, and there’s also the language of the mute, and that’s something you gotta come up with, and you have to do extensive work on the guy’s backstory. You have to come up with a reason why he’s come up with this vow of silence. One of the things I really wanted to dive into in order to do this was to see what that was like. And to go to Ireland and be silent, and not speak on set and not speak at home. That makes things difficult. We were all living under the same roof and had every meal together. We were together the whole time. To do that in silence, at first, was very isolating and frustrating, but I learned a ton about who this character is. I think on a film set [it’s important] to divorce yourself from your wants and your needs. We use our voice to ask for things, to say, “Hey, I gotta go to the bathroom” and “Hey, can I get a glass of water,” and if they’re passing out apples, “Hey, can I have an apple?” The mindset of someone who has taken a vow of silence [is,] “Oh, I want that apple, how do I get someone’s attention? Okay, I’m just going to let that go. Do I deserve that apple?” I think somebody who has done that, it comes from the shame of, “Do I deserve that? I’m going to divorce myself from these wants and only take what I need.” I think that’s the kernel of the character.
It was an interesting process to go through, being silent on set and off, and then it was interesting to get out of that process and realizing that the film would benefit a lot more. I need to start communicating, because we need to develop this language of the mute. You cover the guys that are talking, and I need to say, “Hey, at this moment here, I’m giving this look – that’s my line.” Brendan and I, we worked well on how to communicate. On a certain days I had to be silent. On certain days I didn’t.
IGN: You had mentioned earlier doing a lot of activities with the other guys in the cast. Were you remaining silent that whole time?
JB: So, yeah, for the first few weeks, silent 24/7, and then I started talking. All the guys decided as a group that they like me better where I’m silent, because once I started talking, I wouldn’t shut the hell up. But yeah, in the beginning, I think the day I really found it was the day when we got out to Western Ireland — me and Tom Holland and Stanley Webber, we went to climb a mountain together, and we had met in Dublin, and we were talking and we were out before the process started, and then on the train out there, I just wrote them a note that said basically I’m done talking. We climbed this mountain together, and we really started to learn a lot.
IGN: Is that a very common thing you do on movies, trying to stay in character, especially when you’re playing someone very different from yourself?
JB: You know, yes and no. What I was saying before is … staying in character. I feel like you have all these artists working together in all these different departments on a film, both in pre-production, camerawork and post-production. All we’re trying to do is work on the 15 seconds you have between “action” and “cut.” I think that if the work you do when the camera is not rolling is what makes the work work between “action” and “cut”… To just sort of turn on, I think some actors are better than others. I don’t think I’m good enough to do that. I think I have to, with some degree, sort of stay with characters, have it be alive inside of me, and sometimes, fully. When you go home at night, often times, it’s not best to just turn off. You gotta come up with techniques and ways to stay on. As far as “staying in character,” I’m not sure what that means. I think everybody has a different idea about it. For me and this, it was an exercise to do that. I learned a lot, I got what I needed out of it, and then I stopped.
IGN: How was it being silent on set but also being able to communicate with Brendan or the crew about what you need? As an actor, I’m sure you need things from make-up and hair.
JB: In the beginning, I was talking. I only did it for the first couple weeks, but through that, from the actors to the hair and make-up team to the crew, Brendan, everyone was extraordinarily understanding. Look, at the end of the day that was something I did for me and my process and made their jobs harder. That being said, I’m a firm believer that when you do a film, your hair belongs to the hair department, your face belongs to make-up. Your body belongs to wardrobe when they’re dressing you, and you’ve got to be cool with that.
IGN: Do you consider yourself religious? And was that something you were able to tap into for a movie like this?
JB: I think with him, I definitely consider myself spiritual. I think with this character, he’s a man who has done so much in the name of religion. There’s so much violence and so much dedication to religion by the characters in this film, and he’s a man who’s seen probably the worst violence that has ever been caused by religion by being in the Crusades. I think part of his penance and his vow of silence is to never commit violence again in the name of the church. I think he’s seeing just how ugly that can be. What’s so powerful for me about the story is the bond he forms with this young man in this group of monks causes him to engage in this violence that he swore he would never [do again]. It’s not because of a love or commitment to a higher power, it’s a lot for his fellow man on his earth right next to him. It’s a beautiful statement.
IGN: How do you decide to parcel your time off from your TV commitments, so you can commit to something like this?
JB: Look, it’s just when something comes up, you read it, you look into the filmmaker and sometimes it’s a filmmaker you’re dying to work with, sometimes it’s a discovery, and you just try to choose the best material possible. But you’re right. There’s a real opportunity cost, and I got three young kids and any job means I’m not with them, and I’m gone a lot for the TV show. You gotta really weigh a bunch of things. At the end of the day, I have a very curious heart, and I love the journey of this job. I’m in no way trying to arrive anywhere. I just want to keep growing and struggling, and I look for jobs that scare me. I look for jobs that are not easy. I look for jobs where my first instinct is that I’m probably not the right guy for this, and then see if I can make myself fit, and what’s my version of this? And is that something that resonates in my heart?
IGN: What was interesting about doing Shot Caller after working with Ric Roman Waugh on Snitch? He’s told me it’s a companion piece to his movie Felon.
JB: I love Ric, Ric’s my brother, and I’ll work with Ric on anything. That really was what that was. I was in Ireland finishing up Pilgrimage, and I talked to Ric via satellite phone in the States and I hadn’t done much talking on the phone, and he was like, “Hey, man, I need you brother,” and I was like, “I’ll be there.” He’s my guy that I’ll always work with.
IGN: I want to ask about going into the Punisher, because it’s different times now where it used to be where you’re either a movie actor or a TV actor, and now TV shows are so good, you can do both. But what’s the commitment like to take on a character where you have your own show and possibly will do more in the future?
JB: It’s long and it’s arduous, and it’s hard, and you’ve gotta put everything into it. Look, I think the one thing to keep in mind is the way Netflix delivers content. So many of these places are delivering content, so you’re not making episodic TV. You’re making 13-hour movies that you don’t have to spend 10 minutes at the top and back of every episode telling people what you told them last week and bringing the audience back in. People are watching this in a much different way, and they’ve proven this model of 13-hour binge-watching is totally possible. Some people can, some people can’t, but at the end of the day, most people when they watch it do not say, “Okay, there’s 13 episodes. I’m going to watch one per week.”
IGN: That’s interesting, because I like spacing things out when I watch shows.
JB: And that’s great. You can watch it that way. I just know that the way that the filmmakers attack it, they don’t need to remind you what you saw last week or put a cliffhanger at the end of each episode. I think the delivery system is different, but the challenges from TV, you’ve got to fit a lot into an eight-day episodic TV schedule, and it’s very challenging, especially with the ambition of the fights and the scope of those shows.
IGN: I’m not sure when you shot Pilgrimage but had you already booked appearing on Daredevil at that time?
JB: I sent my audition tape for Punisher while I was in Belgium.
IGN: And that was before Tom Holland signed on to play Spider-Man, too?
JB: So we were making audition tapes for Spider-Man and he helped me. He’s in my Punisher tape, so I saw him through that whole process, and again, it was watching him go through it and the way he attacked it and went after it. It was completely inspiring. I think Tom Holland is just an absolute beast and a wonderful person.
IGN: I’m sure a lot of people would someday like to see your Punisher with his Spider-Man, because as you probably know, Punisher’s first appearance was in The Amazing Spider-Man…
JB: Oh, s#!t. I’ll probably be the last to find out.
IGN: Do you even know if you’ll be back for the next season of Daredevil?
Bernthal: They haven’t mentioned it. I know nothing.
IGN: Your other Tribeca movie, Sweet Virginia, is interesting because you play a former rodeo cowboy managing a motel, and it’s always following two different characters, not just yours. What appealed to you about doing something like that?
JB: Again, the challenge of it. I loved the script. I loved Jamie Dagg’s movie River … and I thought the theatricality and the style of the script would just be so interesting to be attacked by a guy like Jamie who made such a cutting and antiseptic, raw, real, gritty movie like River. So I thought that was great, but for me, that role was originally written in the script as a guy who was 65 years old. For me, I went into it like, “Why would you ever want me in this part? I’m not the right guy.” What Jamie and I really worked on was how do we achieve what you gain from having the character be 65 years old by having him played by someone in their late 30s? That’s why we added the tremors and the early onset Parkinson’s. In the fight with the loud neighbor, I was originally supposed to beat him up, but I said, “Well, what if he beats me up?” To try to gain the things you get from a guy who is a little worn in and older, but you play that in a younger man who’s got so much potential life ahead of him, but he’s there kind of giving up until this violent act comes and shakes things up in that town. It was really the challenge of it, and I thought it was a beautiful script, and then Chris [Abbott]. I saw James White, and I really wanted to work with him and I was really blown away by his performance.
CRAVE ONLINE – Jon Bernthal has made a career out of looking tough, but being vulnerable. The actor’s most memorable roles have often by intimidating men of action who, when you look past the macho façade, are clearly in genuine pain. Shane Walsh in The Walking Dead, Grady in the World War II drama Fury, even Frank Castle, the Punisher, in Netflix’s Daredevil and the upcoming Punisher series. He’s one of the most empathetic actors we have.
So it’s interesting to see Jon Bernthal in Pilgrimage, a new historical thriller about a group of monks charged with escorting a religious relic across the Irish countryside. Bernthal plays “The Mute,” a character who – true to his name – doesn’t speak a word throughout the movie, but does reveal many secrets about his past through kindly, and eventually violent actions. When the monks are beset by bandits, it falls to The Mute, The Cistercian (Stanley Weber) and The Novice (Tom Holland, Spider-Man himself) to protect the relic at all costs.
I spoke to Jon Bernthal on the phone this morning about the physical and performance challenges of his new role, and how the fast pace of the Netflix superhero shows helped prepare him for the rigors of low-budget action cinema. He also admitted to being “very nervous” about his upcoming solo series, The Punisher, and explained why it’s so very important to him that they do justice to the character of Frank Castle.
Crave: Pilgrimage looks like quite production. It seems like the perfect film to do if you want to be an actor and also get some hiking done.
Jon Bernthal: [Laughs.] Yeah, I mean look, I think there’s some truth to that. The team that made this movie was very smart. They did not have tens of millions of dollars to make this movie, so instead of creating the majestic beauty of western Ireland and these unbelievably remote locations, we sort of just hiked to them, and went into them, and found places that had 360-degree views of area and land that hadn’t been touched in tens of thousands of years.
I thought that was really smart. I think it added to the richness of the movie. It definitely added to the richness of the experience. And I think that we all went to this very remote part of western Ireland, we’re thirty miles from any town, there’s no internet, there’s no phone, there’s no night life or anything around there… we were just there making that movie. When we had time off we hiked up a mountain. When we were shooting, we hiked up a mountain. I think that it added to the camaraderie and the closeness of the group, and I’m really grateful for the experience.
What were you carrying that whole time? They’ve got you carrying one of those big wooden things. Was that extra hard for you or was it full of something soft to make it easy?
No, I asked for it to be weighted down. It wasn’t terrible by any means, but it was an interesting way to carry something. I was happy for it. I think it added to the nature of the character. I wanted there to be something sort of animalistic and simple to him, especially at the beginning part of the movie. You know, unassuming. And I wanted him to be looked at, especially among the other travelers, as an animal that was there to help them.
Your character doesn’t speak throughout the movie. Was that part of the appeal to you? Did that force you to work outside your comfort zone?
Yeah, it was. I mean look, when I first read the script, Jamie Hannigan’s script really blew me away. There was many different languages used in the script. I was the only American in the movie. When I read it there’s French and there’s Gallic and there’s English, and there’s all this different use of language in the film. There’s Latin. And I thought that would be interesting, to create another language, this language of a mute, this guy doesn’t talk but clearly had a voice and clearly has wants and feelings and reactions. I thought the opportunity to create that was a unique one, and it scared me, and precisely why I went after it.
Why did it scare you? Were you concerned about losing so much of your instrument?
No, it scared me just because it was different. It’s difficult. It’s something that I hadn’t done before. I think that I’m a physical actor. I like doing things full force and going big, and I think this, you know, taking away your voice requires a different skill set than I’m used to. I normally play… I’ve come off of a string, you know? Shane Walsh [from The Walking Dead] and Brax from TheAccountant, there are very verbal characters, you know? Guys who really talk a lot. And taking that away is a unique challenge. Trying to be as cogent as possible with your expressions and what the character’s going through, but not being able to reveal anything through dialogue, I think offers a unique challenge.
That’s interesting to me because from my perspective, as an audience member, you tell so many stories just with your eyes. You’ve played so many “tough guy” characters in things like Daredevil and Fury, and every time I look at that guy I say “That guy has been through a lot. That poor bastard.”
What do you do? Do you practice in front of a mirror? How do you convey that much with so little?
Each job’s different. For me it’s not so much in front of a mirror, it’s just I’m trying to create as rich and as deep a backstory, and play with my imagination, as much as possible. And take things from my own life and I think that, for me, the more clear your character’s history is, the easier it is to access it when the cameras are rolling, and the easier it is to actually be in it.
I think with a character like this we really got to time travel. Jamie gave me some great pieces of historical fiction. Being isolated the way that we were really made it so there weren’t a lot of outside distractions. And I was able to really create this pretty clear, pretty specific history for my character. And having that secret, and having those memories, and having that frame of reference, and not necessarily having… there’s no need or desire to share that with the audience, I can keep it completely mine, I think is interesting.
I think having a lot going on and only revealing a little bit is always better than pouring it all out, and I dig that. I dig roles like that, as a character. I dig the art of suppression. I think that it’s very human.
It gets complicated, though, when you’re doing television, because you never know what the next big revelation is going to be, right?
Yeah, I think so, but you can only deal with what you have at hand. I think that there’s all sorts of complications in doing television and not knowing your beginning, middle and end. But I feel that, like in this movie, I think the time restraints and the pace of television, and how fast you need to move, also really mirrors life in a much more realistic way than film does. You don’t have time to think most of the time in life, and you don’t have time to plan, and you’ve got to be willing to change in the moment and be adaptable and fly by the seat of your pants.
You know, in a film like this we had these fight scenes. If this was a big studio movie that we had tens of million of dollars for, we would have taken weeks to shoot those fight scenes. We had to shoot, each one of the fight scenes in this movie, we shot in a half-day. And what that requires is an unbelievable amount of preparation. No stunt doubles. We had to learn that fight inside and out. But then on the day you still fight. You don’t have time to make sure you’ve got it. You don’t have time to be safe. You don’t have time to go back and do it again. And if something goes wrong you’ve just got to cut it and move on.
[Like] fighting in real life, or like any sort of big action sequence, I think having the stakes being that high really creates another layer to the scene and makes it more rich and more dangerous and more vital. I like that. I think a lot of people get frustrated by those types of things, but I’ve got a lot of practice with tv. I like having my back against the wall in an action scene.
Is that what it’s like on the Netflix shows? They look really expensive but I imagine the pace must be intense.
Intense, man. Yeah. The prison fight in season two of Daredevil, we did that in one half-day. We did that after lunch. We tried to get in one or two takes, and what that requires is getting in that prison and practicing the hell out of it in the little bit of time off that you have, and again, it’s not for everybody. Some people really don’t like working that way. In the moment sometimes I get frustrated by it, but looking at it in retrospect I enjoyed that. I enjoyed having to get it. I enjoyed trying to get it once in sort of a dangerous and dirty way. Sometimes you get hit, sometimes you get bumped, but I’d rather do it like that than do it a hundred times and lose that sense of danger, and lose that sense of anything can happen here. I think that that sort of color really affects the scene on the screen.
How excited are you to show the world your own superhero tv series, coming up? We all love The Punisher and want to see more of him.
How do I feel about it?
Yeah, it’s got to be exciting, right…?
Yeah, I mean look, man, I’m nervous. You know? I’m very nervous. I care a lot about Frank. I care a lot about this character. I think that this character resonates with the law enforcement community, resonates deeply with the military community. That’s something I care a ton about. The comic book audience is an audience that I respect and revere, and I want to do want to do right for them and by them with this character. It’s a big responsibility and I just want it to be good. I just want it to work. And I fight like hell when we’re making that show to try to make it a certain way, and I hope that the fighting pays off.
COLLIDER – It would be an understatement to callJon BernthalandTom Hollandtwo of the more in-demand actors in Hollywood right now. Both hot off pitch-perfect, fan favorite streaks in their respective Marvel universes and with more on the way, it’s notable that the two are now being seen together, on the big screen, in a very different sort of project.
That project is Pilgrimage, an austere, period epic that follows a group of 13th century monks tasked with transporting an ancient holy relic across a landscape riddled with enemies. Among the group is the Novice (Holland), a young and relatively altruistic monk and The Mute (Bernthal), who’s as stoic as characters get, uttering just one word for the entire duration of the film. It’s a gritty, bloody thriller with lofty ambitions, and features two incredibly impressive performances from its leads. Click here for my full review from Tribeca.
I had a chance to sit down with Bernthal and director Brendan Muldowney to talk about how Pilgrimage came together, the complications of shooting a period film on location, how they pulled off the film’s impressive gore effects, why Bernthal was so attracted to a character with next to no lines, how he went method for the role, and why he considers Tom Holland “one of the best actor’s [he’s] ever worked with”.
COLLIDER: I would love to just sort of start out by asking about the period aspect of this. I imagine achieving the style of this is mind-boggling in terms of the preparation and everything you need to do as an actor and you need to do as a director. I’d love to just hear about that process.
BRENDAN MULDOWNEY: Yeah, the writer did a lot of research, so he starts it, then I have to do my research, but he sort of truncated a lot of that for me. Then it comes down to all the different departments, the head of departments, and talking to all the actors, so I mean, it’s like any filmmaking process, it’s not a simple, quick thing, but once you take it every day at a time and each problem at a time, you just get through it.
JON BERNTHAL: I think we were really lucky to have a group of producers, a director, a writer, a crew and a cast who were enormously committed. Everybody was there for the right reasons, you know? And you don’t do a project like that for anything but the right reasons, because there are no other reasons, you know. And I think that the way in which we tackled it was literally going out to the most beautiful places on earth that were nowhere near any sort of civilization or sign of modern times, and that really does have an effect on you to not only work in it but live in it and to be in a place without internet, without access to the outside world and be together and be out in the elements, there’s nothing cushy about that job at all. So I think that really helped, it was a great group in a great place. Hopefully those two things kind of come out on screen.
How did it change things sort of shooting on location, especially with all this insane choreo – and how does that change it versus doing things like The Punisher, which I assume is much more controlled.
MULDOWNEY: Yeah, because Jon did a lot of work beforehand with the fight coordinator. You did a lot of work. While I was focusing on other things, I could just hear them screaming and shouting inside. But yeah, how did you find taking that to the location?
BERNTHAL: Great. I mean, look, then it becomes real. I think just like in anything with independent film, having your back against the wall and having a fire right under your ass, it’s tough, but it also helps and it means, we have got this afternoon to shoot this fight and that’s it and we’ve got to do it. So you can’t, like, any sort of the polite side of filmmaking really has to get out of the fucking way, and I think that, you know, for me also coming from a lot of TV fighting on Daredevil and stuff like that, I think that really helps it. It just makes the fight a little bit more like a fight and a little bit more unpredictable, and if things get messed up, just go and come at me and go hard, and I dig that. I think that the end fight scene, the stuff on the beach, we were literally, literally horrified. I thought we had a less than 50% chance that we were gonna make it that day all day, up until the very end.
MULDOWNEY: The sun was going down.
BERNTHAL: The sun was going down and we just didn’t have the money, it was that day or not. And ridiculouslycold, you know what I mean? And hard, but I do think, I haven’t seen the film, but I hope that energy and that desperation, those are all kind of part of it.
MULDOWNEY: Yeah, and we never went into it thinking it was going to be very designed. I went into it wanting a loose, more visceral styling to the way it was shot. It was my only note. It’s the same with Savage as well, I wanted the violence to be messy. Like, have more of a feeling as closer to real violence than to real choreographed violence. Even though it obviously is choreographed, but to have a different feeling.
Where did the choice to go violent with it, go all the way, come from? Because I think, in this kind of subgenre, there’s not always that commitment to realistic gore.
MULDOWNEY: No, I understand, because I think that’s one of the, I would call it, the interesting things about the film and I definitely could see it from an outsider who goes, “Hang on, is it sort of like this serious profound drama or is it a B-movie with heads being split?” For starters, it was in the script, so I’m not taking responsibility, I went with that and I liked it. I would be a fan of violence in films that it has some repercussions. I’m not trying to be too preachy with it, but I like to see consequences and mess, rather than see violence where – I remember growing up and watching The A-Team, which I loved, I loved it, but there was never blood. It was sort of a lot of violence with no blood, and I’d be more on the side of, I like to see the repercussions of violence. Not necessarily wagging fingers, but violence is messy and that would be my thinking, and that’s probably why I went that route.
Yeah, I mean, for you, obviously you’re familiar in kind of working in fight-heavy situations, but do the squibs and all of that kind of stuff, does it complicate the fight scenes on the day or does it make it more interesting?
BERNTHAL: It’s what you make out of it, I think. In this, we were talking about the visceral nature of the violence but we’re also talking about a time where if you were going to engage in warfare, battle, into a fight with someone, you weren’t shooting them from across a room, you are hacking their limbs off. It’s very up close and very personal and extraordinarily violent, and I think that the themes of violence in this film are tremendously interesting, the reasons why people commit violence in the name of religion and in the name of spirituality and in the name of trying to defend your brother who’s next to you, and all those things are explored. I really, again, I haven’t seen the film, but I really felt like it was a necessary component to not shy away from and kind of dive in fully.
Obviously one of the most interesting things about your character is that he has only one line. Was there ever a conversation about whether or not The Mute would say anything else or was it always that way?
MULDOWNEY: It wasn’t with the writer, sort of as we were shooting, ideas would happen all the time, and Jon and Tom did come to me with an idea, which was as Jon’s character The Mute leaves to defend them for the last moment, and Tom, The Novice, is thinking this might be the last time he sees him, he might shout his name which would suggest they had actually been talking behind the scenes. Which I thought was a nice, clever idea, but you know, that doesn’t mean we lost that idea. It’s just that we never know whether he spoke. Maybe he did shout to The Novice, but we didn’t overstate it, which I was sort of trying to do as well, not maybe overstate things. But that was the only one I can remember.
BERNTHAL: Yeah, I heard there was an idea, I heard from somebody there was an idea you were thinking about or maybe someone was thinking about potentially dubbing in a line at the end rather than one more line to Richard, maybe in Arabic or something like that?
MULDOWNEY: Oh, yeah, there was! Which would’ve completely changed his character, because at the moment he’s a Christian who was picked up somewhere in Europe on the way to this crusade, this is the backstory. Or maybe it wouldn’t, maybe the line in Arabic would’ve been a reminder to Raymond where they would’ve fought, but where I go is it’s starting to bring up too many questions, but there was a discussion about that as well, yeah.
BERNTHAL: But I think overall, that was why I wanted to do the film. And there’s so many languages in this film and I think his language, the language of The Mute is another language that we had to come up with, a way of how do we communicate his language?
MULDOWNEY: Yeah, it was pretty unique, so like to actually then drop lines in was sort of taking away the purity of this unique idea.
I think it works very well with just one, but I can see how that would be the draw.
BERNTHAL: Yeah, and to try to express yourself and communicate these things without it, and not know, there’s also a challenge. We talked about it a little bit, but standard filmmaking is like, you cover the people that are talking, you have to cover the lines, right?
MULDOWNEY: It doesn’t help the writer’s given a line to each character.
BERNTHAL: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and it’s like he has to cover the language, but then it’s like, my dialogue is the moments in between, seeing a guy talking and how that affects me or a little sign that I might give to someone else. We’ve talked about it before, but I decided at the beginning of the process that the only way for me to do this was just be silent all the time on set and at home.
BERNTHAL: Yeah, I mean, like wow, like that was cool, I learned a lot, but I think that after a bit it was really starting to get in the way. Because we needed to be in sync, hey, at this moment now, I’m going to do this, and then it’s up to him how he wants to cover it, but I wanted to at least be able to express that and to let that go.
MULDOWNEY: It’s interesting you say we had to shoot everyone’s lines. At one stage, I did a whole pass on the edit with the editor where we just looked at The Mute.
BERNTHAL: Oh, that’s cool.
MULDOWNEY: What’s he saying? Where is he positioned, how is he reacting to what’s been said? And it was really interesting to, during the edit, it started to come alive, after we did that pass.
I would love to hear about Tom, too, because you guys have an amazing chemistry in that movie. It’s a strange relationship, but you guys very well convey this far deeper relationship than we actually see on screen and I would love to hear about the process of casting him.
MULDOWNEY: There was a list suggested to me from the casting director and I watched him in The Impossible, How I Live Now, it’s a post-apocalyptic film, and he was superb, so I offered it to him. But the relationship, I have to give credit to Tom and Jon, the two guys really worked on that and brought what was unsaid within the script, they brought that alive. And there was lots we filmed, more, there was moments where they go further with that relationship, there was moments where we shot things where they had other activities together, but we tried to give it the right balance.
BERNTHAL: I think, at the end of the day, one of the things for my character in the piece is that he’s done all this fighting and killing and losing people in the name of religion, but now he’s committing violence because of his love for this young man, for Tom. We needed, it was essential that you saw that these guys loved each other and cared about each other, and it’s not just enough to say like, ‘I love you and I care about you, I’m going to look at you like I love you,’ you have to see things that are happening where they’re having fun together.
That stuff really wasn’t, I have to be honest, wasn’t in the script, and I think that, you know, I can’t say enough good about Tom, I think he’s one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with and he’s unbelievably kind and good and works unbelievably hard and has an inner strength and inner power within that’s so crazy for someone his age, but just so crazy for someone period. He’s a fighter and I think there’s definitely a reason for everything that’s happening to him right now, there’s a reason for it, but he was very, very smart. We were constantly going back with ideas on how to build that. For me, I felt that if we didn’t have that, if that relationship wasn’t there, that was kind of the whole point for this character, and to try to express that without words is tough, you know? Because he doesn’t really talk to me that much either.
He talks The Mute’s language, which I thought was really — he really dove in on that. I just remember even when I was being silent, just one little anecdote: when I was being silent, it was really Tom who I bonded with the most. When you’re silent you can’t ask for things, I remember we were eating at the place we ate every night, and all we really ate was salmon, and we were eating the salmon and I really wanted some lemon to go – I like lemon with my salmon, you know? And I could just point on the menu to the waiter, but I really wanted some lemon and I was trying to communicate with Tom how much I wanted some lemon for my salmon and finally I just got a pen and I wrote, “can you get me some lemon?” He was always the guy I went to, you know, I depended on him. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable going to anyone else, he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, I got you, mate.” He asked the waiter for some lemon and the guy brings it and like drops it into my soda, you know what I mean? He just thought it was the funniest fucking thing in the world, but for some reason, there was a sort of mutual dependence for us. He was a joy to work with.
If you want a sense of what you’re in for viewing Irish director Brendan Muldowney’s third feature—the Tribeca-premiering Pilgrimage—you may want to look to his 2009 feature Savage as a guidepost. A visceral experience rife with violence, it’s interesting to note that for the director, this preoccupation with violence is entirely subconscious.
“I would say that I’m more interested in existential sort of filmmaking questions about why we’re here, and I suppose that’s where religion maybe attracted me—and without ever being conscious of it, I suppose I have explored violence,” Muldowney says. “Now if you take three films, the two of them explore it, so that’s over 50 percent. That’s a subconscious thing, though—I must be just drawn to that.”
A powerful and versatile actor known to many for the role of the Punisher—which he will bear out in an anticipated upcoming Netflix series based on the Marvel character—and a critical role in The Walking Dead, Jon Bernthal brings similar intensity and commitment to Pilgrimage, in which he portrays a mute lay brother with a violent past, owning his shame and regret over past events by taking a vow of silence.
“I think seeing Brendan’s film that he directed before this, Savage, I just thought that the marriage between this material and the way in which he dealt with violence in that film, and character in that film, it was just something that I was real hungry to work on,” Bernthal explains of his attraction to the role.
The actor discussed bonding with his co-stars—including Richard Armitage and Tom Holland (the latest actor to take on the role of Peter Parker, with Spider-Man: Homecoming arriving this summer)—living in close quarters many miles from the nearest town, without internet and other conveniences of modern life, which facilitated an intimacy and a deeper connection to the process.
“We were all kind of together, just all the time—the Irish actors that didn’t know me, they had never heard me speak until I started to, and then they told me they preferred me a lot better when I just shut up,” the actor joked. “But it really helped to kind of get in touch with why a man would make a decision like that—when you stop talking, you kind of give up your wants and needs. If you want a glass of water but you can’t ask for it, you ask yourself, do I really need that glass of water? And then, do I deserve that glass of water? Maybe that’s what this vow of silence is about.”
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