For Jon Bernthal, the purest kind of acting happens as part of an ensemble.
“It’s such a collaborative art,” he said. “The best thing you can do as an actor, whether you’re the lead of the show or you’re just coming in for a day, is to lift everybody up and try to be a great teammate.”
That attitude served Bernthal well on the sports drama “King Richard,” in which he plays Rick Macci, the upbeat, mustachioed tennis coach who took the fledgling superstars Venus and Serena Williams under his wing while sometimes butting heads with their father, Richard (Will Smith). Though he comes into the film late, Bernthal proves so charming that he helped power “King Richard” to a recent Screen Actors Guild nomination for outstanding cast in a motion picture, and has even been the beneficiary of awards buzz himself.
With his rough-hewed looks and eagerness to plunge deeply into character, Bernthal has become one of Hollywood’s busiest actors. In the last few months alone, the 45-year-old Bernthal has popped up in the Sandra Bullock drama “The Unforgivable,” the “Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark” and the Angelina Jolie firefighting film “Those Who Wish Me Dead”; he’ll next be seen in Lena Dunham’s Sundance movie “Sharp Stick,” and the series “We Own This City” on HBO and “American Gigolo” on Showtime.
From left, Bernthal with Will Smith, Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney in “King Richard.” Bernthal auditioned for the part.Credit…Chiabella James/Warner Bros.
Part of the reason Bernthal works so much is that he has no ego about whether he is No. 1 on the call sheet. Whether it’s a brief cameo in “Wind River,” a flashy supporting role in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Walking Dead,” or the lead in a series like “The Punisher,” Bernthal will still give his all, and he has a lot of hard-won wisdom about how to succeed as an ensemble player.
“With a lot of the decisions I make, it’s never about the size of the role,” Bernthal told me recently over Zoom. “Does the script move me? Does it scare me? The people involved, are they people that have affected me?”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
When you show up on a movie and they’ve already been shooting for weeks, what is it like to find your place there as a supporting actor?
Every set has its own culture and has its own methodology. If you’re there from the beginning, you get to be a real part of welcoming others in when those people come in on their first day. When I showed up on “Sicario,” Emily Blunt made me feel like she had been waiting for me to get there: “Oh my God, Jon Bernthal! I just saw you in ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’ I’m so glad you’re here.” Whether it was real or not, she made me feel 100 feet tall. DiCaprio does the same thing.
On the other hand, I also love it when I come in and don’t know a soul and I don’t have to be a part of their culture at all. My friend James Badge Dale and I talk about it like we get to be hired assassins: We go in, throw down and walk away. There’s something unbelievably liberating in that. My favorite thing in movies is when you see a character come and go, and you’re so curious where they go next.
How can you be sure that when you get on set with the lead actor — whether it’s Sandra Bullock in “The Unforgivable” or Will Smith in “King Richard” — you’re going to be able to find some chemistry?
With Sandy, she could find chemistry with anyone. Again, she’s one of those people where you walk onto set and she’s so unbelievably welcoming and present — we just immediately started talking about our kids and connecting and laughing. But look, I’ve been with movie stars who are absolutely intent on letting you know that they’re movie stars, and when the scene cuts, everybody goes back to their trailers and it’s completely ridiculous. That’s when I know it’s all about those precious moments between “action” and “cut,” and I’ve got to get myself ready on my own.
I assume you’re at the point now where you don’t always have to audition …
But I did audition for “King Richard.” The director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, hadn’t seen me do anything like that and I really welcomed the opportunity. Man, for me, there’s nothing better than an audition. It’s the only time you get to put something down that’s totally yours and nobody gets to influence it. If I’m asked to be on set after I’ve auditioned, I know I’ve earned my way there.
So how do you deal with it when those auditions don’t pay off?
When you look at the entertainment industry, it’s amazing how doors are slammed in your face. I remember casting directors looking at my big nose and my giant ears and just being like, “What are you doing here?” Feeling like you don’t belong, agents never returning your phone calls. You get so much rejection and people make you feel so small, and the second that things start to change for you, those same people all want something.
But you’ve got to remind yourself how lucky you are to be doing this, even when it’s not working out. Look, when I was starting out and I was going through really hard times, my wife was an I.C.U. trauma nurse, so there’d be plenty of times I would get home and I would have tears in my eyes of frustration and then my wife would talk about her day. The things she was encountering — holding somebody’s hand as they were passing, or letting somebody know that they weren’t going to ever see a family member again — just put it all in such clear perspective for me.
Your first screen roles were guest-star spots on TV procedurals like “CSI,” “Without a Trace” and two different “Law and Order” spinoffs. What do you remember about that time?
I remember being so wide-eyed and so naïve. One of the first TV sets I walked into, they told me to go to hair and makeup, and I didn’t know what hair and makeup was. So I just went into a trailer, and the lead of the show was changing in that trailer and she yelled, “Get out,” and threw a shoe right at my head. I had to do a scene with her that day!
It took a real long time for me to feel comfortable on-set. I remember Vincent D’Onofrio talked to me after a take when I did his show [“Law and Order: Criminal Intent”], and he said, “Hey, what you did there was pretty good.” Something like that can carry you through months of rejection. I always try to remember that with young actors, because the littlest thing can keep you going.
Five Movies to Watch This Winter
1. “The Power of the Dog”: Benedict Cumberbatch is earning high praise for his performance in Jane Campion’s new psychodrama. Here’s what it took for the actor to become a seething alpha-male cowboy.
2. “Don’t Look Up” : Meryl Streep plays a self-centered scoundrel in Adam McKay’s apocalyptic satire. She turned to the “Real Housewives” franchise for inspiration.
3. “King Richard”: Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Venus and Serena Williams’s mother in the biopic, shares how she turned the supporting role into a talker.
4. “Tick, Tick … Boom!”: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut is an adaptation of a show by Jonathan Larson, creator of “Rent.” This guide can help you unpack its many layers.
5. “The Tragedy of Macbeth”: Several upcoming movies are in black and white, including Joel Coen’s new spin on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
And what happens when you do break through and win the role you want?
So then you get the job, now you got to do it, right? I dropped 30 pounds for this part in “King Richard.” I started playing tennis. Right here in my town, Ojai, Calif., there’s a tennis academy a lot like Rick Macci’s called the World Tennis Center. I started training every day just to get to know the game, and then I started training in how to coach, how to run drills. There’s a vocabulary in coaching tennis. There’s a psychology to it, an intimacy in it.
I heard you even started coaching Kamea Medora, a Top 50 junior nationals player.
Going into that tennis center every day and then coaching Kamea in character, I’m sure it annoyed the hell out of her and it made her laugh, but I really believe that she really looked forward to our sessions together getting coached by this crazy actor dude. It was so much fun and I really felt like I could walk in on Day 1 of that shoot and know how to coach tennis.
The first thing Serena said to me is that her time with Rick Macci was the funnest time of her life because he had this pure and undeniable love for the game. Coaches are often portrayed in movies and TV as these taskmasters, but I’ve had coaches like this where they just love it. They’re just as tough, just as masculine — they just do it with a smile, and that’s really why I wanted to play this part so bad.
“King Richard” touches on how hard it was for Venus and Serena to break into what had been considered a wealthy, white sport. You grew up in Washington, D.C., and went to Sidwell Friends, an elite high school attended by Chelsea Clinton and Malia and Sasha Obama. Did that teach you anything about class divides and prejudice?
I have such a complicated relationship with that school. When I was there, I believe 70 percent of the kids were receiving some sort of scholarship, and I saw how the fabric of the school changed when a president’s daughter started attending. I saw real racial hypocrisy, because an overwhelmingly big portion of the African American males at that school got expelled, and that was a school I don’t think had ever expelled anyone. These were kids that I felt were brothers to me, kids that I’d grown up with. That had a huge, huge effect on me.
So much of my life now and the stories that I’m trying to tell are really in response to a lot of things that you bring up. Look, I was always on the razor’s edge in that place. I was a troubled kid. Every single year, it was a meeting with the administration and my parents about me not being asked back because of the trouble that I had gotten into. I think a lot of people who knew me from back then, they’d look at me now, and they’d say, “Wow, I can’t believe that’s what you’re doing.” They never would have expected it from me.
Why were you getting into trouble then?
I always wanted to be around the most dangerous people. I always wanted to explore the most dangerous nooks and crannies of my city and see how far I could get away with things. And when you have brothers who are super high-achieving, I think maybe I was pushing the boundaries because I wanted to see, would they still love me if I did this?
I do know that before I found acting, I was really lost and everybody was really worried about me. I had never poured in all of my energy and grit and determination into anything, but when I found acting, I poured it all into that and it served me.
Do you feel more settled in your life now?
There was a time where I felt like I needed to be the wildest, most reckless version of myself in order to be a good artist. What I’ve really found in the last 10 or 12 years is that peace of mind, and investing in family, has made me into a much more streamlined person. The reckless abandonment can get put into the work, and I don’t need to go seek it out. And I’m much happier now than I was when things were wild.