The Walking Dead – Jon Bernthal interview

Walking Dead star Jon Bernthal talks about playing Rick’s best friend/betrayer, Shane

Shane Walsh is one of the most intriguing characters in AMC’s hit zombie series.  The cop buddy of hero Rick Grimes, Shane betrayed his friend by striking up a relationship with Rick’s wife. In Robert Kirkman’s original comic, Shane dies very early on, but in the TV show he survived to the end of the first series. To tie-in with this week’s UK DVD release of season one, actor Jon Bernthal took some time to talk to us about his character.

SFX: When you found out you were up for the role of Shane, did you go and check out the original comic at all?

“At first no, man. At first the way it works out here is there’s something called pilot season where all the new shows get a chance at being made, and it was kinda part of that. For a guy at my stage who’s sort of at the beginning of his career, pilot season is a really important time. My agent sent me, like, 150 different scripts and I had read everything, and then when I read The Walking Dead I wrote a separate letter back to my agent just saying I would love to be… I’d be an extra in this thing! It was the best written pilot I’ve ever read. I’ve never read anything that paid that kind of attention to detail in terms of atmosphere and character, it was just so rich and textured – such a wonderfully written script. I had no idea it was based on a comic. As the project went forward I began to look into the comic a little bit, but y’know, Shane died so fast in that that I don’t know how much it really helped!
“I think that in the show we’ve taken a different turn with Shane, much to Frank Darabont’s credit – and to Robert Kirkman’s, for not being overly precious with the material. They’ve really tried to make Shane a far more three-dimensional character in the show, and tried to flesh him out a little bit. I mean, for me it’s great because I get to keep my job! But I also think it serves the story, and I’m really excited that they decided to go that way with it, because I love this show so much – I love being a part of it. But since then I’ve become a fan of the comic, I think it’s great.”

SFX: The fact that Shane’s still alive at the end of the series is quite a smart move isn’t it? It’s gonna change everything about what you thought you knew from the comic.

“Well, I sure am glad that it’s gone that way! I think it’s a real testament to the kind of artist that Robert Kirkman is, the fact that he’s willing to go back to the source material and change it and go at it at a different angle. With all great films, all great television shows, music, whatever, this stuff is always a really collaborative process, There’s a world in which a guy who writes a comic that’s as successful as The Walking Dead says, ‘No, you can’t mess with the source material at all, you can’t change it’, and that’s not what they’re doing here, they’re going different angles. I think also for Robert it’s a chance for him to kinda go back and revisit things.  He’s said when he was making The Walking Dead he had no idea it was going to be a successful comic, and he kinda needed to just make things happen and kill people off and do things that kept the readers interested. And I think he likes this different way of keeping Shane alive – or keeping him around for a little bit longer.”

SFX: Shane’s a fascinating character – maybe the most interesting one in the series – because you keep changing your mind about how you feel about him as you see different sides of him. Is that really interesting to play?

“Aw, man! Well look, I really appreciate you saying that, brother. When Frank [Darabont] and I started this whole process off together in our initial meetings, that was really our entire goal. With Frank Darabont I don’t think he ever writes characters that are completely good or completely bad. Even if you look at Andrew Lincoln’s character, Rick, he’s really a flawed guy – he’s making mistakes, he’s screwing things up, he’s not just this shining hero. I guess at the end of the day what’s really interesting about this zombie series is that it’s very human, and these characters are all flawed. With Shane, in the comic book he’s very much this one-dimensional guy, but we really, really wanted to change the audience’s mind. We wanted them literally from episode to episode – and sometimes within episodes – to change their mind about this guy, and to realise that nobody does anything with malicious intent but y’know, it’s the zombie apocalypse and it’s really high stakes! It would be too simple to say that this guy’s a bad guy for scheming on another man’s wife. I think it’s way, way more complicated than that, and I’m really happy that people in the audience have had that experience, that they feel they’ve changed their opinion on Shane. It means a lot to me, because that’s exactly what Frank and I set out to do. So the answer to your question is yes, man! That’s fascinating territory to be in and I love playing in it – I really do consider it an honour.

SFX: Has it surprised you how far the series has gone with the extremity of the gore and the violence? It’s pretty strong for a TV show!

“I know, and there were a lot of times where Andy [Lincoln] and I, we’d be on set and would see what was going on right in front of us and we’d just turn to each other and say, ‘There’s no way that is getting on TV!’ And nothing got pulled, they didn’t hold anything back, and I think it’s a real credit to our showrunners, and a real credit to the network. They’ve been committed to Frank and Robert in terms of letting this be the kind of show that they wanna make, and I think it’s really rare in American TV and they ought to be applauded for it. The show pulls no punches. And you can’t do a Walking Dead Lite – you can’t do a version of this show that’s not completely gory. You can’t hold back on this show.

SFX: All that zombie-clubbing action must be a pretty satisfying work-out – do you ever do yourself any damage?

“Well y’know man, Greg Nicotero is the best in the business in terms of effects make-up. He makes these zombies, and the people that play them have all been through zombie school: they’ve done zombie theory, zombie physicality, they take it really seriously. It’s really full on, and everyone who’s there knows how lucky they are to be there – everyone in the cast and crew, everyone who’s playing the zombies, we’re all so excited and happy about having this gig and being able to be a part of a show that we all really believe in and dig. So when it comes time for the physical stuff, the killing and the beating, everyone’s really surprisingly game for a TV show! We go real hard and yeah, people fall hard, and people get banged up a little bit… but it’s kinda part of the thing.
“Look man, I hate zombies – I hate ‘em! When people are dressed up like zombies for promotional purposes, and they come up and try to pose with me – and I’m not trying to be a method actor here – I wanna club ‘em over the head with something! But it’s part of the deal living in that world: always watching, always scanning the horizon for the freaking walkers to walk up. When I actually do see ‘em I just… urgh, they make me sick! If I’m doing an interview like this and then some zombie comes up then I’m definitely looking for my shotgun!”