One on One with Jon Berthal ’95

By Sacha Zimmerman

The actor talks training in post-Soviet Russia, creating his Louisiana passion project, and navigating the perils of acting.

On this month’s episode of Sidwell Friends’ Lives that Speak podcast, actor Jon Bernthal ’95 joins Natalie Randolph ’98, the School’s director of Equity, Justice, and Community, for a conversation about acting, craving people who think differently than you, and the important impact teachers can have on the outcome of a student’s life. Bernthal has appeared in such well-known films as Fury and Ford vs. Ferrari as well as hit shows like The Walking Dead. Currently, he stars in the critically acclaimed King Richard, about the paternal force behind Venus and Serena Williams. His role
as a tennis coach in King Richard has garnered him multiple supporting-actor nominations, including for a Golden Globe. You can also catch him in Small Engine Repair, the film adaptation of John Pollono’s acclaimed play.


NATALIE RANDOLPH: You play lots of characters, but who are you? What should people know?

JON BERNTHAL: I’m Henry, Billy, and Addie’s dad. That’s who I am. I’m Erin’s husband. That’s who I am. My wife and my kids are the center of my universe. It is my passion. It’s the thing that has gotten me closest to a real spiritual life. It’s very much my mission. It’s my life’s work. Who I am is those kids’ daddy and my wife’s man.

NR: I noticed that with fans, you always stop, sign everybody’s autograph, take everybody’s picture. Where does that come from?

JB: I’m really grateful I get paid to do what I love. I can’t believe it. I still literally pinch myself all the time. I work really hard at it, but I’m extraordinarily blessed and lucky to be doing what I do with the folks I get to do it with.A lot of the folks in my audience are not really the kind of people who ask to take pictures. It’s a lot of soldiers, cops, and firemen. But sometimes you can spread a little bit of joy. You can do something kind. I like to be able to have that ability. I can’t imagine not using it for good. It’s such an easy thing. When you go up to someone, you are putting yourself out there a little bit. There is this little risk of rejection. More and more, we’re hiding behind screens. So many of our interactions are cloaked, and we’re doing it at a distance. There’s so little real-life contact, especially with strangers. And I’m a big supporter of real-life contact. Chemistry, conversation, and connection, especially with strangers, is the fruit of life. Being willing and open to meet somebody is a key to being happy. I will never say no to that.

NR: I’ve known you more than 30 years. A lot of folks here at Sidwell Friends know you. I’m not sure any of us would have predicted you’d be an actor. Did you see this coming?

JB: I don’t know that anybody saw it coming. Some of the folks at this School— teachers, coaches, security folks, people on buildings and grounds—they are people that I’ve made connections with. These people that had huge impacts on me.

Acting came about because of the power of a wonderful teacher. When I went to Skidmore College, I met this theater teacher, Alma Becker. This woman just blew my life wide open. I was getting in a lot of trouble. I was really lost. I went to Skidmore to play baseball, but I wound up in her class, honestly by accident. And she really saw something in me. When an adult believes in you, especially if for a long time, you’ve felt the rejection of adults, it’s special. It is very easy for a kid to fall into a false narrative. That’s why I always tell my kids, “Don’t let anybody tell you who you are.” She believed in me. She saw something in me. She was the woman that cast me in my first real play.

After I did that play, I sat with my Sidwell friends and told them: “Guys, this is it for me. I know this is what I’m going to do. And I am never going to stop.” Through Alma, I ended up moving to Russia and studying over there. She married me and my wife. This teacher really changed the course of my life. She really saved my life in a lot of ways.

THERE IS NO FEELING TO ME MORE TERRIFYING THAN THAT MOMENT RIGHT BEFORE YOU’RE GOING TO GET ON STAGE. IT’S EXHILARATION. IT’S FEAR. IT’S TERROR. AND I LOVE THAT.”

NR: What is it about acting that you love?

JB: I love the danger of it. There’s something I like to call “reckless abandonment.” There was a type of energy that I tapped into when I was young, that got me in a lot of trouble. I loved pushing the envelope. I loved flirting with danger. I loved going places I wasn’t supposed to go. Unfortunately, that led me into a lot of places I didn’t want to be, and it had a real toll in my life. It caused pain to me, caused pain to my family— but I was good at it. I’ve always been good at getting in trouble.

When I found acting, I found that same energy: risk taking, doing the thing that nobody else would, challenging every- one in the room, really trying to flirt with danger, I could use it in such a positive way: telling stories, something that we’ve been doing from the beginning of time. I love being in a scene, not know- ing where it’s going to go, the potential of it falling apart, the potential of it being terrible, the risk, the potential that it could grow and be anything in this world. My first love without a doubt is theater. There is no feeling to me more terrifying than that moment right before you’re going to get on stage. It’s exhilaration. It’s fear. It’s terror. I mean, there is a palpable chance you’re about to go out there and it’s just not going to happen. And I love that.

Now, it’s really just about the love of doing it. Success in this business is really about being invited back. I have to be good enough to get invited back to the party.

NR: You’ve studied at the highest levels, at Harvard, and then at the Moscow Art Theater. What was that like?

JB: One of the best and worst things about being an actor is you can go and study technique for 15 years. But then there’s a kid who can wake up in Missouri and decide, “Hey, my face looks pretty good. I’m an actor.” And they’re every bit as much of an actor as you are. It doesn’t matter what degree you have. I love that about the profession, but it’s also a challenge.

For me, coming from the family that I came from, training, preparing, and being ready to do whatever it took was tremendously important. That comes from Sidwell, too. My best friends in the world are still the people I went to Sidwell with. They are the smartest people in the world. There’s something about growing up in this city, and going to this School, and this fluidity and facility with being able to converse and get close with different kinds of people that I find in Sidwell folks. So, I’m extraordinarily grateful for that, because it really helps me with what I do. It helps me find empathy for all kinds of people.

Training in Russia—I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I hadn’t done that. Theater training in this country can be a very coddling profession, where they hug you the whole way through it. It’s not like that in Russia. You have to get into that school. Once you’re in, they cut the class in half every year. It’s extraordinarily disciplined. It’s physically taxing. You have to train your body. You have to train your voice. You have to get rhythm. You have to be extraordinarily well read. There’s also just a brutality and a cutthroat nature to it that I can only really equate it to high-level athletics in this country. But I really dug that. That really worked for me, because it’s more honest. There are kids in this country who go to these graduate school programs or theater schools, they’re paying all kinds of money, and nobody ever told them that they’re actually not that good, and it’s not going to work out for them. I know that’s an extraordinarily brutal and hard thing to say, but in Russia, they’ll let you know. If you can make it through their schools, you’re good.

The other thing is that in Russia, there’s a vitality to the work, because these were all folks that came out of communism. So, if you were putting on plays back then, you were doing them in secret. Actors and directors were assassinated. Vsevolod Meyerhold, a famous Russian actor and director, was assassinated in his apartment. At one point he was revered, but then they realized that maybe what he was saying was anti-state. Actors were sent to prison because it was illegal to have public gatherings. Even in state-sponsored theaters, like the Moscow Art Theater, when the government decided the piece you were putting on was anti-government, they would literally lock you up. So, my teachers all did plays in hid- ing. They put plays on in subway tunnels and in abandoned buildings at risk of going to prison; that’s how much it mattered to them. I really responded to that vitality and putting everything you have into it.

NR: One of your passion projects is Small Engine Repair. How did that journey start?

JB: Small Engine Repair was a play I did in Los Angeles 11 years ago. It was in between season one and season two of The Walking Dead. It was this teeny, little play that we put on at a 40-seat theater at 10:30 at night after another play. It had as humble beginnings as you can imagine. We didn’t think anybody was going to come. But it was a really special, beautiful, artistic experience. We did the play, and all different kinds of people started coming. We had the theater community, which is a super progressive, forward-thinking, very smart audience. Then we had the professional fight world because I was boxing at the time. Then we had a bunch of cops and firemen coming. And then the play just exploded, moving to bigger and bigger theaters. Eventually, it ended up going to New York and winning all kinds of awards. It was very grassroots and beautiful. It was just such a fun, electric night at the theater.

John Pollono, who wrote the play and starred in it with me, and I became extraordinarily close. It was always a dream of ours to make this play into a film, and we finally did it. Making an independent film, free from a studio, is very difficult. There’s no money. You have to call in a lot of favors. But we did it, and we sold it. It was a really beautiful experience.

NR: Small Engine Repair makes a statement about masculinity. Why was it important to make that statement?

JB: Well, when we first did the play, it was 11 years ago, and the world was different. A lot of the conversations around masculinity were different. The film explores this group of guys you don’t really see much in movies. It did the best thing art can do, which is really hold a mirror up to society and make you ask questions, make you look at yourself and your own behavior, and ask yourself, “Have I been complicit in some of these things?” Not to give the plot away, but that’s what’s happening to these characters: They’re laughing and they’re joking. They’re saying things that all guys have played a role in saying, but they don’t realize who they’re actually talking about. They don’t see the impact. The dangers of that and that complicity being taken to a level far greater than what they thought is revealed in the piece. It’s forcing you to laugh and go along on this ride, but then it serves as this Trojan horse to be like, “You see that thing you’re laugh- ing at? Well, look at what that could lead to.” I think, art has to be controversial if you want to make a change, if you want to ask those hard questions. Small Engine Repair really does.

NR: Your other passion piece is about a community in Louisiana, a crime drama series for Amazon, The Bottoms. You’ve been planning the project for nearly a decade and are the show’s creator, star, and co-writer.

JB: The Bottoms, or Ledbetter Heights in Shreveport, Louisiana, the folks from that community, they’re my heart. They’re family to me. Their story to me is sacred. The fact that they’ve trusted me to tell their story is something I cherish. I’m steadfast in treating that story with the respect it deserves, and to tell that story authentically and truthfully. It’s a story about folks who often are misrepresented. It’s a story about how a community that they built and love got stolen from them. There is so much grace, beauty, love, kindness, and wisdom down there in, but for so many years, these kinds of communities were only portrayed in a very, very certain way.

I don’t want to say too much about the piece, but overall, the drug war in this country has had two approaches. We’ve either said that neighborhoods like the Bottoms don’t exist, we’re not going to pay attention to them, we’re just going to leave and not focus on them. Or we’re going to hit these neighborhoods with the biggest, hardest, bluntest hammer that we can, and just crush it. And both approaches lead you to the same place, are equally futile, and are completely devoid of compassion and empathy. The story these folks have trusted me to tell highlights this very dark chapter of American history in really human terms.

NR: What’s important for us to teach the next generation of students?

JB: Just get out there, and see the world. Listen more, talk less. Just because you went to Sidwell, you don’t have all the answers, you don’t. There is wisdom to be gained by everyone. And the quicker you humble yourself and quiet your own narrative of who you are in every conversation, you can start actually being a sponge and listening more. Just don’t prejudge. That is key to growth. So, for these unbelievably young, smart, talented people that go to this School, they should just crave those kinds of situations, crave people who think differently than them, and crave people who were brought up differently than them. Everyone has a story to tell. There is something to be gained by every interaction if you just open your heart and open up your ears to people.

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