'Walking Dead': Jon Bernthal talks 'Better Angels' shocker
Another week, another jaw-dropping shocker on The Walking Dead. So stop reading right now if you have yet to watch Sunday’s episode of the zombie drama. [SPOILER ALERT! Seriously, stop reading now if you have not already watched Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead.]
When you consider how the character fared in the comic book on which the show is based, Jon Bernthal actually had a pretty nice run as Shane Walsh. Shot to death by young Carl in issue #6 of the comic, Shane made it all the way to episode 18 of The Walking Dead series…only to again be shot by Carl. However, this time it was after Rick had already stabbed him to death and he had reincarnated as a zombie. (Yep, turns out that — like in the comic — you don’t have to get bitten to turn into a walker. Bummer!)
I spoke with Bernthal to get his thoughts on Shane’s shocking death (and subsequent reanimation and death again), spying in the woods on his castmates after it was all said and done, and whether he asked to be written off the show once executive producer Frank Darabont was fired. (Note: Scroll through two pages to read the entire interview.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So after spending almost two seasons trying to take out zombies, how did it feel to switch sides and play for the other team, if only for a few seconds?
JON BERNTHAL: You know, man, it was crazy. I didn’t even realize that I was playing a zombie until I was playing it. There was a lot of discussion going back and forth, a lot of arguing going back and forth on what that last scene actually should be — between myself and Andy and the writers. And everybody kind of got their own little say in what that last scene actually was. But then at the very end I realized, now you gotta go play a zombie! I never even thought about that. Then all of a sudden I’ve got these contacts on, I can’t see anything, and I’m a zombie. And I’m like, “I don’t know how to do this! What do you do?”
So you didn’t get to practice your zombie walk in advance or anything?
Not one bit. I tried to convince [executive producer and zombie makeup guru] Greg Nicotero to let me be the only zombie with a speaking line, like, “Riiiiiick.” But he didn’t go for it.
I know you and Andrew Lincoln tested for this show together and were the first regulars cast, so what was it like, now, completing that journey? Take me inside the filming of that final confrontation and the emotions at play while playing it.
We shot that scene all night long. And the entire cast came out and spent the entire night out on that field to be there for the last scene, and Jeff DeMunn [who played the recently deceased Dale] actually had been gone. He lives on a farm in upstate New York, and he had flown down and surprised me to be there for my last scene, which just touched me. And like I said, there was a lot of feeling about the last scene. The writers wanted it to be one way, the actors wanted it one way, the producers wanted it to be another way, I think everybody just sort of had their idea of what that scene should be, and it was just Andy and I in the woods walking out together, and Andy and I turned to each other and said, “You know what, man, this is you and me. Let’s do this for you and me.” I can’t imagine a better actor, a better partner, to do this with, and it’s been the honor of my acting career to act alongside Andrew Lincoln. He’s my brother, he’s my best friend that I’ve made in the acting world, and to go out the way I did and go out with who I did — it was, and still is, very emotional.
The sense I got during that final scene was that Shane is processing like 10 million different things at once and trying to make sense of it all. He’s thinking about his relationship with Rick, his relationship with Lori and Carl, the safety of the group. In terms of Shane’s mental state at that point, what were you trying to get across?
There’s a whole part of the character that I think some people may or may not pick up on, but I think there’s a part of Shane himself that knows he is no longer fit to be among the people. He knows how much of a danger he is. He knows now he’s killed yet another human being, and I think a part of this is him really spurring and challenging and getting Rick to step up and encompass what Shane has and take Shane out. I think there’s a suicidal flavor. There’s a flavor there that’s really saying, “Come on, man, I’m challenging you to be the man that’s fit to raise the woman I love and the child I love and my child on the way. Come on and step up, raise your gun.” And there’s a part of him that so desperately wants Rick to be that man, and when Rick finally does it, there’s an element of some sort of relief.
Did Rick make the right move? Would you have killed you?
I think so. And I think that no matter what, somebody was going to die that night. And Shane really did set out that night to kill Rick, and through the conversation, by the end of the scene, he just knew one of them needed to die. I do think he did the right thing.
You’re obviously very close to Frank Darabont and were quite candid about how upset you were when he was forced out. So naturally that begs the question: Did you ask to be written out of the show?
You know, no. I did not. This was always the plan. This was always the plan that this was going to do down this way. [However] when Frank left, there were some discussions that it was going to go a different way. One of the things I was really, really looking forward to is Frank always said he was going to write and direct our last scene — the last scene Andy and I would play together. And I’ll be honest: It brought all those feelings back up, because at the end of the day, this thing started with Andy, Frank, and I. Frank continues, I know, to live in Andy’s heart, as he does in mine, and I think that he was sort of there in that last scene. The fact that now I get to go work with him again [on TNT’s upcoming L.A. Noir] is something I’m just tremendously excited about.
Obviously Shane dies very early in the comic. When you first took the role, was it spelled out in terms of how long he was going to last?
When the show first started, I auditioned for Rick first. I think the majority of actors that were brought in were all brought in to audition for Rick, and then the way Frank handled it is he brought all the actors that were in close consideration for basically both roles. For me, very early on, I really wanted to play Shane, and I remember the initial conversation was with casting, and they said, “You know, Shane is not going to be around for very long. He dies in the comic book.” But those things really aren’t important at the end of the day. This is an unbelievable story to be a part of. I know it sounds cheesy, but I want to serve the story, and I always said Shane’s got to go, and if that really services the story, then by all means, I’m down for that. My biggest fear, and the thing that I was sort of most concerned with, especially when Frank got fired, was, Is this now going to resonate? Frank started out in this story, and this was really Frank’s thing. And I think what the writers tried to do was to honor what Frank was originally trying to do. But look, I don’t think that there was ever really a clear path of when. I knew that there was some talk of him dying at the end of the first season, and then early on in the second season. I’m not privy to knowing exactly when they were going to get rid of him, but I’m grateful that Frank was very clear with me at the beginning of the second season — this is when you’re gonna die, this is how it’s gonna come out. So it gave me a chance to map out an arc.
You touched on it a little bit with everyone coming out to see that scene, but tell me a little bit more about saying goodbye to the cast and crew.
Man, it was really, really sad. I love that cast and crew with all my heart, and it meant the world to me that everybody was out there that night. And you know, usually when someone shoots their last scene the AD says, “That’s a picture wrap on so-and-so,” and everybody claps. But I made him promise me he wouldn’t do that. For some reason I really didn’t want to do that, and when the scene was over, it was like six in the morning, and the sun was starting to come up. Everybody was freezing cold, they’d been out there all night, and we all just sort of huddled, kind of like a group of zombies. Nobody said anything, everybody just silently walked together. I kind of made a speech and I was crying a little bit and I talked about how I was so proud of everybody, how we did stick together, and we came through everything that happened.
And that was that.
It’s funny because I promised everybody that I was going to come back and sort of say my final goodbye. And I came into work while they were shooting the next episode and I walked out onto the set and I saw the cast and the crew and everybody was working, and I realized I’m no longer a part of it. And I really didn’t know what to do. This was my show! These are all my friends, my family. And so what I did was I actually went out into the woods and I hid and I watched them shoot for about two-and-a-half-hours, and I was just sitting there. I sound like the biggest weirdo in the world, but I didn’t say goodbye. I couldn’t. I just wanted to watch and spectate. And none of them even knew that I was there, and I just walked back to my car and went home with my dog Boss. But this will always be the greatest job I ever had. I’ve never met people who care about what they do more, and it was just such an honor to be a part of it, and I’m gonna miss them all so much.
See more of my Jon Bernthal Q&A — including his thoughts on his upcoming collaboration with Frank Darabont on L.A. Noir — in the next issue of Entertainment Weekly. And follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.