Why 'Punisher' Star Jon Bernthal Took a Long Vow of Silence

"I learned how much time people spend talking and they’re not really saying anything"

Getty Images / Theo Wargo

As this story is being written and published, Jon Bernthal is behind the wheel of his pickup truck, bombing clear across the United States from New York City to California. With his two dogs riding shotgun, the 40-year-old actor will drive late into the night, pulling over for a few hours to get some sleep before hitting the road again, in hopes of making the transcontinental journey in just two days.

It’ll be a 48-hour or so stretch of silence, those hours asleep not included, but Bernthal is used to silence. To prepare for his role as a battle-scarred, shame-plagued mute in Pilgrimage, an Irish film about medieval holy wars, Bernthal went to totally quiet for the last week of pre-production and the first week of actual filming. The Mute is a monster of a man who did horrible, unforgivable things in the name of the Church while fighting during the Crusades, and his self-imposed punishment is staying quiet while serving at an Irish monastery. When the monks are forced to take to the road to deliver an ancient relic to Rome, he travels with them as their silent security detail.

“The first thing I really found out was that when you stop talking, you can’t ask for things. And [the character] is a guy who took this vow of silence really out of shame and regret and remorse because of all the ugly things he had done,” Bernthal told Inverse during an interview before the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. “The cast all lived together, in the middle of nowhere, 30 miles from any town, with no access to the outside world, no internet. So to stay silent for all of that, it was very isolating.”

The film’s director, Brendan Muldowney, knew that Bernthal going a bit method was unusual, but he had no qualms about his doing so.

“That was interesting directing him. His only communication was shrugs or pointing,” the filmmaker told Inverse. “He had said he was going to go the whole film like this, and I was fine with that, whatever it takes.”

The process allowed Bernthal to discover how to communicate silently, learn more about his castmates, and take away some important lessons about human nature. “I learned how much time people spend talking, and they’re not really saying anything. They’re just passing time,” he remembered. “They’re disguising what they want a lot of the time through just words.”

The verbal silence meant that the physical beatdowns he delivered as the Mute were even more pronounced and spoke far louder than words ever could. But he didn’t just want the character to be an enforcer and felt his vow of silence was making it harder for Muldowney to get his best work on camera.

“At a certain point, I felt like I learned what I needed to do, and now I’m just doing it out of personal pride, to say I did it,” he admitted. “I really had to check myself on that. I really started to think it was getting in the way. It was making all the other artists around me work so much harder. Things I did while silent, in reaction, those things aren’t in the script. So Brendan doesn’t know I’m doing it, so I’ve got to hope that while they’re looking somewhere else, he’s going to see that in me — and that’s a tough thing to do in an independent film when you don’t have a lot of time.”

Jon Bernthal in 'Pilgrimage'

Tribeca Film Festival

No one will question Bernthal’s passion or commitment, of course. The road trip, he says, is a way to clear his head after going all-in while playing complicated characters. And he always plays complicated characters, none of them more so than the Punisher, the merciless, bloodthirsty anti-hero of the Marvel Universe.

Bernthal just wrapped the first season of the character’s solo TV series, which will air on Netflix later this year. It’ll be his first solo headlining role after a decade of playing deceptively deep tough guys on shows and movies like The Walking Dead, Mob City, Fury, and Daredevil, on which he first appeared as the Punisher. The character is a remorseless, cold-hearted killer on a quest to avenge his slain wife and kids, leaving enough bodies in his wake to make John Wick look like an amateur. And while he is an out-and-out criminal, Frank Castle — the Punisher’s alter-ego — is a man to whom many can relate, including Bernthal himself.

“To live with that day in and day out, I wouldn’t be able to play that part if I wasn’t a dad or a husband,” Bernthal told Inverse. “I get it. I get what that love is, and to dive into it. You start asking yourself the question like, ‘What if?’ It’s a very painful place to go but a very easy thing for me to understand and empathize with.”

He has to reach deep down to play that role, pushing himself to new emotional extremes. But he’s done similar things before. The 2014 war film Fury in particular, he says, broke him down more than any other role, thanks to director David Ayer’s hardcore attitude. Beneath his mean exterior is a man who is a theater actor at heart, having studied at Harvard and opened his own stage in Brooklyn, before he made the leap to big-budget projects.

“He’s an intelligent actor, and has a look that when you look at him, you get a sense of sadness and vulnerability, as well as dangerousness,” Muldowney said.

Bernthal prides himself on being heavily involved in the production of the movies in which he acts, and it’s led to the realization that he wants to write and direct as well — and he’s already in the process of making that happen.

“I have stories that I really want to tell, that I’m working on, that I really want to get out there,” he said. “I’m developing a couple of things that are very exciting. I have something that I’ve been working on for awhile now. It’s about a little neighborhood in Shreveport, L.A. in the late ‘80s that’s extremely near and dear to my heart. I have a bunch of stories that I really want to tell about Washington, D.C., where I grew up. The real D.C., and the hypocrisy of the real D.C., this forgotten city and forgotten people in such proximity to such power.”

But all that will wait for a while; after all, he’s been talking about the Shreveport project since 2014, and his star has exploded since then, with little sign of slowing down. More immediately, he’s got a lot of driving to do, with a friend that’s been by his side since he began his journey as a professional actor.

“My one dog, Boss, he’s getting older now — 12 years old — and when I got him, it was before I had ever been a series regular on TV,” he reflected. “There was oftentimes no money at all in my bank account, and there were times I didn’t know where I’d get money to pay for a meal. Boss and I have been on this journey forever, and after every job I’ve done, he jumps in the truck and he looks at me and I look at him and we’re like, another one done, man. There’s something ceremonial about that. I’m a creature of habit, and I don’t know how many more he’s gonna be around for.”

Pilgrimage hits theaters and VOD on August 11.

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