For ten long years I have been haunted by a set of paparazzi photos taken of actor/pit bull enthusiast Jon Bernthal walking one of his dogs in Los Angeles in the spring of 2012. Elements of these images I can recall instantly: the Champion sweatpants pulled up to his navel, tucked into calf-high mustard yellow socks. The mismatched Adidas sneakers. The absence of a phone, wallet, keys, headphones, and shirt. The photos are unsettling and intriguing at the same time, like a painting by one of the Dutch masters, or making prolonged eye contact with a wild animal. More than anything I believe this uniquely hideous outfit paired with Bernthal’s totally unbothered smile acts as a visual metaphor for the trials and tribulations of adoring one of America’s preeminent hot, goofy fellas: slightly embarrassing, strangely alluring, and hard to explain to anyone who doesn’t spend their entire life on the internet.
Real Ones (also the name of Bernthal’s very earnest podcast where he interviews “ordinary people”) know that the actor has been on the scene for a long while. He completed the American-actor-trying-to-make-it trifecta by appearing in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: SVU and CSI: Miami and made the most out of every bit part (shout out to his cameo as Al Capone in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, setting up a career defined by playing Tough Guys and Wise Guys). Hell, Bernthal even bounced back from Michael Mann rudely calling him a terrible actor during his Public Enemies audition (a slight for which I am yet to forgive Mann) to land the role of psycho cop/wife-stealing BFF Shane Walsh in AMC’s zombie apocalypse drama The Walking Dead. Walsh starts off as the immaculately coiffed, jovial, die-hard bestie of beleaguered sherriff’s deputy Rick Grimes, but duly unravels due to a) being in love with his best friend’s wife and b) the zombie apocalypse. The point of no return comes when Walsh shaves off his beautiful head of hair, thereby indicating he’s about to do some fucked-up shit.
Like De Niro, there’s something tightly coiled and explosive about the way Bernthal performs.
Bernthal has since made a career out of playing bad men by drawing on his own experiences as a tearaway middle-class teenager who rejected his comfortable suburban upbringing as a lawyer’s son in favor of street fighting and unwise decisions. It helps that he looks the part: his face falls into an imposing scowl easily; he’s stocky and tattooed; he has a booming, east coast accent that passes for Jersey or New York. He practically screams bad news, at least until that scowl is replaced by a crooked grin — a fact wonderfully utilized for his tiny but pivotal role in Denis Villeneuve’s mirthless hitman thriller Sicario.
He has one of those handsome but distinctive faces that’s catnip to casting directors working on anything related to the mob, corrupt police departments, or miscellaneous Men Who Are Angry And Will Make It Your Problem. Just look at him. Look at him! There’s the crooked boxer’s nose, broken no less than 14 times. The soulful, slightly mischievous eyes. The luxurious head of hair that could give him a nice side hustle in Head & Shoulders commercials if he’s ever short on cash. The way his smile seems to take over his whole face. How his laugh is a little silly (hot people have funny laughs, this is fact). There’s a definite physical resemblance to a young Bobby De Niro — something acknowledged when he played his son in the largely forgettable boxing comedy Grudge Match. And like De Niro, there’s something tightly coiled and explosive about the way Bernthal performs.
When speaking about De Niro in relation to Bernthal, the most obvious citation might be Netflix’s The Punisher — the Marvel antihero now coopted as a totem by Blue Lives Matter, blissfully unbothered by the irony of siding with a man whose whole deal is unlawful gun-based vigilantism — in which Bernthal plays Frank Castle, a traumatized army vet who transforms into a gun-toting avenger after his wife and son are fatally caught up in a mob execution. Travis Bickle served as a direct inspiration for the characterization, and there’s an obvious element of violent self-loathing turned outward about both roles, though screenwriter Paul Schrader, the magnificent sicko who gifted us Taxi Driver, has always embraced the idea that his characters, as much as they might long for redemption, may be fundamentally irredeemable. This is something Marvel is yet to come to terms with — for them even an antihero has to ultimately be the good guy.
While his stint in the Marvel IP machine might be his most recognizable performance, it’s eclipsed in quality by others: his bombastic, scene-stealing appearance as quaalude-dealing gym rat Brad is a highlight of The Wolf of Wall Street, a turn as Ben Affleck’s menacing-sexy-sad hitman brother in The Accountant and its upcoming sequel, and the time he managed, against the odds, to pull off these glasses in Show Me A Hero. Without a doubt his best work to date is in We Own this City — a spiritual sequel to The Wire based on the impressively corrupt Baltimore PD Gun Trace Task Force — where he plays Chief Scumbag Sergeant Wayne Jenkins (currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for racketeering and robbery). Bernthal spent hours interviewing former colleagues, as well as Jenkins himself, to nail the exact brand of self-aggrandizing contempt for others and grubby greed. The research clearly paid off; Bernthal doesn’t so much move across the screen as prowl, waiting for half a reason to maul an unsuspecting gazelle, or enact some more police brutality.
Bernthal talks a lot about acting. It’s here that he is very much not like the famously taciturn De Niro, who treats interviewers largely as though they’re trying to get state secrets out of him (love you anyway, Bobby!) He lights up when extolling the virtues of research, discipline, and trying to get to the root of why a character acts a certain way. He talks reverently about studying acting in Moscow in the aftermath of the Cold War; he’s candid about how anger management and therapy helped him build his career. It’s endearing to see an actor speak with enthusiasm about their craft rather than as if it’s a dark art that involves living as the character for a year or making a pact with the devil — something beautifully illustrated by his episode of Desus & Mero (RIP).
The next two months see two Bernthal projects on the horizon: his turn as a dorky DILF in Lena Dunham’s erotic comedy Sharp Stick and playing wrongly-convicted sex worker in a not-Paul-Schrader-approved television adaption of American Gigolo. Dunham’s friendship with Bernthal came to public attention when she spoke to him for Interview Magazine last autumn; this was after she had cast him as her cheating husband in Sharp Stick, where he plays the very hot, very stupid Josh, who begins an ill-advised affair with his son’s naive babysitter, setting her on a pathway to sexual enlightenment. I have issues with Dunham’s script more generally but Bernthal plays the fool with glee, and looks very handsome even as he’s ugly crying on the kitchen floor. American Gigolo presents the bigger challenge: how does one follow up Richard Gere’s iconic turn as original himbo Julian Kay who is framed for murder then actually (accidentally) commits a murder? The trailer indicates the answer will be “with a lot of nice suits and slutty little chains.” Which, fair.
It does help that Bernthal is a great, very diligent actor, but I always come back to those ancient paparazzi photos (and his Instagram, which excludes a powerful Dad Energy). Questionable sartorial decisions aside, I’m continually charmed by his enduring lack of pretense. Whether it’s his mission to heal the world through podcasting or the fact he’s rarely seen without at least one of his three very cute rescue pit bulls (the best dog) at his side, he possesses a doofy earnestness that feels rare in Hollywood. Perhaps it feels more evident due to that penchant for playing scumbags and lowlifes, but even his tiny role as the very fun, very secretly sad sandwich artist Mikey in The Bear highlights his indisputable screen presence. Wear your weirdly high sweatpants with pride, Bernthal. You’ve earned it.
Hannah Strong is the Digital Editor at Little White Lies magazine and author of Sofia Coppola: Forever Young. She lives in London.