Jon Bernthal had been stealing scenes and holding his own for the better part of a decade in such high-caliber films as The Wolf of Wall Street, Fury, and Sicario before his starring role in Marvel’s The Punisher. Since then, his career has been ascending at breakneck pace, with roles in last year’s Oscar-winning King Richard, HBO’s We Own This City, and most recently stepping into Richard Gere’s iconic shoes in the Showtime series remake of American Gigolo, out September 9th. If that wasn’t enough to keep him occupied, his weekly podcast, Real Ones with Jon Bernthal, finds the actor creating engaging, authentic, real-talk style discussions with people on the front lines of some of the big issues of our time.
Despite being best known for portraying a series of complex brutes, in real life, the D.C. native is disarmingly personable, funny, a doting father, and seemingly well-liked by pretty much everyone he’s ever encountered. Below, we sat him down for a bit of off-the-cuff insight into some of his favorite things and the cultural staples that helped shape him—be it Waylon Jennings, Scorsese, crying at Rudy, what he would go back and tell his 13-year-old self, and the spaghetti carbonara dish that won over the neighborhood.
What do you read or listen to daily?
I definitely listen to Joe Rogan. I don’t know that I listen to it daily. Daily, I listen to The New York Times’s podcast. I like to do that. I wake up super, super early, take my dogs up in the mountains, and like to start my day with The New York Times’ The Daily, or a phone call to my dad—one or the other.
Favorite book growing up?
Here’s the thing, when I moved to Moscow to study acting, one of the things that happened there, they have something called Black Tuesday every month where they cut the class in half and they’re very brutal and very honest—something that I ended up being unbelievably grateful for. But one thing that my teacher said to me: they said that my talent was a gem, but it was completely un-shaped and I lacked all elegance, and they said it was very clear that I’d never read a book. I was a troublemaker growing up, so I really didn’t read. But once I had that conversation with my teachers in Russia, there was never a time after that that I wasn’t reading.
Reading is everything to me. I think the first book that I actually fell in love with was The Prince of Tides, funny enough. I thought it was a very lackluster movie, but I absolutely love that book, and I love all Pat Conroy. That was the first book I really fell in love with because it was my mom’s favorite.
Favorite book now?
That’s really hard. I really love Les Miserables. A lot of people don’t really read Hugo, and I really dug it because it’s an exercise. The way the book works is, there’s the story, and then every 120 pages or so, there’s a 50-page historical section, but it totally informs the reading. At first, you have this tendency to just skip those parts, but if you actually read them, it makes the story so much richer and so much more nuanced, and you have such a beautiful perspective. That’s been kind of a lesson in reading and art in general, that if you dive in fully and do the work, the rewards are so much richer.
I also loved East of Eden. There’s a book called All Involved by Ryan Gattis which I really love. That’s just incredible. And I’m super into this guy, D. Watkins. He’s one of my favorite authors working right now. He wrote The Cook Up and The Beast Side. He’s a Baltimore writer. I really dig him. I don’t know that I can pick a favorite.
Song, band, or album that brings you back?
I love Waylon Jennings. He centers me. I sang this song Freedom to Stay to my wife, which is all about being a rambling man and a crazy ass dude with no roots. I think a lot of us—a lot of young men especially—get lost trying to go after this thing called freedom, which they don’t even really know what it is, but really, the freedom is when you find somebody who you love and who you trust and who you want to build a life with. And she gives you the freedom to stay with you. You find that life is so much better to go through with somebody instead of living just for yourself. That song means a lot to me and always reminds me of her.
Song you blast in the car?
Oh man, I fuck with some Rick Ross for sure. I blast it with my kids. When they play tackle football, when we go to games, we do a lot of Pusha T, If You Know You Know. I blast that a lot. But also Waylon, Lonesome, On’ry and Mean. I’ll blast the hell out of that. A Country Boy Can Survive, I’ll blast that. I really vacillate between hardcore outlaw country and gangster rap. That’s what gets the volume cracking in my truck.
Album that is the soundtrack to your life?
I think my album of all time, that is the story of my life, is Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson. It’s a story album, and it’s about loss, and it’s about revenge, and it’s about forgiveness, and it’s about ultimately finding love and moving on. It’s just such a beautiful, lovely, wonderful album. The whole time I was living in Russia, all I had was this tiny little boom box, and I listened to that album over and over again. “Don’t cross him, don’t boss him. He’s wild in his sorrow. He’s riding, he’s hiding his pain. Don’t fight him. Don’t spite him. Just wait for tomorrow. Maybe he’ll ride on again.” How do you get better than that, right?
Your first car?
A black Mazda 323. It was stick shift, and man, did I drive the hell out of that car. I set land speed records in that car. I duct-taped a white boom box right over the gear shifter so I had a radio, because it had no radio. It had no air conditioning. It had no clock, so I taped one of these little circular velcro clocks onto the thing, and I had bumper stickers all over it. I loved that car.
Your dream car?
I have it. As soon as I left The Walking Dead, I bought a Ford Raptor, and that’s the only kind of truck I’ve driven since. That’s it. I’m very happy in that truck.
Tech you use daily?
I don’t really mess with tech. I live in the country. I guess I listen to my iPhone. That’s pretty boring.
Favorite video game?
I don’t really play video games. I used to love Galaga. I’ll mess with some old-school Galaga.
Favorite junk food?
I’ve got celiac disease, so I’m allergic to flour, but I will get down on some gluten-free pizza, and it’s almost obscene. When I go there, I don’t do moderation very well. When it comes to eating, I’m a quantity guy, not a quality guy. When it comes down to gluten-free pizza, there’s no stopping me.
Favorite dish your mom or grandma makes?
Growing up, my grandma used to make this spaghetti carbonara that was really, really, really amazing, but she made it with peas and prosciutto, and it was so unbelievably delicious. I remember my grandpa would serve everybody, and it was something we looked forward to. Friends and family, and these big, big, big, Sunday night dinners, every single Sunday of my life. I’m so grateful for that.
Dish you make when showing off for guests?
I’ll be honest with you, the guests I care most about showing up for is kids. My kids bring a lot of friends over, and I make them that same dish, spaghetti peas and prosciutto, and they all tell their friends. I think when kids see it at first, it’s like, “What is that?” But I’ve made a bunch of believers up in the Ojai Valley. A lot of these kids come near and far for my spaghetti carbonara, which really is my grandma’s spaghetti carbonara.
Your go-to cocktail?
Tequila on the rocks. That’s really it. I prefer smoking a joint, if I’m being honest with you.
Movie you have seen the most times and why?
A tie between Goodfellas and True Romance. Scorsese is the king. Goodfellas balances comedy and drama better than any movie ever made. It’s so theatrical and so unbelievably hilarious, but also, the danger and anxiety in the film is palpable. The characters jump off the screen.
I also love True Romance. There are so many unbelievable performances in that movie. One of my favorite things to be a part of in a movie is to play a character that just sort of exists for a scene or two, and then disappears, but always makes you wonder where they are, and I feel like no movie has captured that better. It’s a movie full of these small performances, where every single one of those characters could have a movie made about them. It just makes the world so rich and so exciting. It makes you want to stay there. I love both those films. I can’t get enough of either one of them.
I come from a family of athletes. There’s no way in my family you can watch Rudy without falling apart. I was such a fan of watching my little brother play, and now my kids play even more so than we did. The brother relationships in Rudy and the father… and when they go back to see Rudy playing in that game, oh my God, I am a crying mess, and so is everyone in my family.
Favorite holiday movie?
I really like Christmas Vacation. I really like Die Hard. We watched Love Actually with my kids. We liked that.
Favorite sports movie?
Major League. I’m a baseball player. I think that movie got baseball right. It’s hilarious, but it never spills over to slapstick. You buy the baseball, you buy that all those guys played. 20, 30 years after that movie, people on baseball fields still quote it left and right, and that’s the best thing I think that a sports movie can do.
Favorite foreign film?
A Prophet. Unbelievable French movie. One of my favorite things that a movie can do is take you to a specific time and place. I’ve never been to prison in France, but you watch that movie and you believe that that’s what it’s like. Such an incredible film. I also love Burnt by the Sun, which is a Russian film, and my teachers from Russia were all in that movie. Oleg Tabakov was my main teacher and he’s brilliant in it. I love that film.
Favorite movie you were in and why?
It’s kind of impossible to pick a favorite. I loved making Fury. I loved that entire experience. We all became impossibly close. I think that there’s something about tank crews. They say nobody gets closer in the military and nothing’s more familial than being in a tank, because you’re in such close quarters at all times. And I feel like we really captured that, process-wise, and it was just such an indelible mark.
I love Wolf of Wall Street because it totally changed the way that I worked, and it totally changed the way that I approached acting in movies. But then I made a small movie called Sweet Virginia that I was really proud of. I think when it’s really working, it seems kind of effortless. It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite. I’m just really grateful I get to make them.
TV series you can binge watch more than once?
The Sopranos. The best part of being in that prequel, besides becoming so close with Michael Gandolfini, was that I got to go back and revisit the show again, and it’s unbelievable. This show more than holds up, and it’s something you can watch over and over and over again. I’m sure a lot of people say that, but yeah, I’m all about those Sopranos.
Favorite TV show growing up?
I love Good Times. I didn’t know anything about what it was like to live in Chicago, but I felt like that was a real window. I love that show. My parents watched Hill Street Blues, and I used to love sitting there and watching that. Some character acting happened in that show that I think was super formative for me.
Dramatic actor who had the most influence on you?
Robert De Niro.
Comedian who had the most influence on you?
It’s a toss-up between Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay.
Director who had the most influence on you?
Favorite bar in the world?
Either The Deer Lodge in Ojai, California, or Garrett’s in Washington D.C.
Place that makes you feel nostalgic?
My high school baseball field, or the Billy Goat Trail in Washington, D.C.
Favorite restaurant anywhere?
Cactus Cantina in Washington, D.C.
Best game you ever watched?
2004 ALCS Championship Series between the Yankees and Red Sox. I was so rooting for the Red Sox and it looked like they didn’t have a chance in hell.
Best sports moment of your life?
I’d say going undefeated in football, my junior year of high school. Winning our last game.
Michael Jordan or Mike Tyson.
Workout you always avoid but really should do?
Morning person or night owl?
I used to be a night owl. Now, I’m definitely a morning person.
How many hours a night of sleep do you need to function?
Favorite character from anything?
Hotspur from Henry V, or Drexl from True Romance, or Tommy from Goodfellas, or Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.
Character you dressed up as, as a kid?
Jason from Friday the 13th.
Person you look up to the most?
In another life, I would have been…
I don’t know. I was a mess. I used to want to be an undercover cop.
What would you go back and tell your 13-year-old self?
Fucking straighten up.
Advice you would leave to your kids?
I’d say, beyond everything else, just try to be kind. Be bold, be beautiful, be brave and be kind.
CHECK OUT JON
As Julian Kaye in Showtime’s American Gigolo
As Wayne Jenkins in HBO’s We Own This City
As Frank Castle in Marvel’s The Punisher
As Brad Boding in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street
As Rick Macci in the Oscar winning King Richard
As Grady Travis in David Ayer’s Fury
As Griff in director Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver
As Ted in director Dennis Villeneuve’s Sicario