From Violence To Show Business: The Life Of Jon Bernthal Before The Walking Dead


In a new Esquire tell-all, actor Jon Bernthal talks about time in jail as a teen, being held up at gunpoint in Moscow, and about when he nearly killed a man at the age of 32. Today, he works hard to keep his demons in the shadows.

Based on his background and his list of characters (Shane Walsh, Frank Castle, Brax), it’s easy to think Bernthal doesn’t have a sensitive side. Despite being armed to the teeth in The Punisher, there’s more to Jon Bernthal than bloodshed.

Underneath the antihero personas of a Quaalude kingpin (The Wolf of Wall Street), the sociopath tank crewman (Fury), or the corrupt cop in the drug world (Sicario), he’s an actor pursuing his craft.

Jon Bernthal Talks About His History Of Violence

Jon Bernthal | Photo Credit Esquire

“Sometimes when people write about me, it sounds like I’m glorifying the violence,” said Jon Bernthal to Esquire journalist Stephen Rodrick. The father of two boys and a girl wants to be known for his scenes in between kill shots.

Despite his defensive nature, Rodrick wrote that his MMA body can’t truly be hidden, especially when it’s attached to “Picasso nose,” which has been broken an impressive 14 times.

If anything, he knows tells about his past: fistfights, arrests, binge drinking, and a near murder.

Moving Beyond The Anger Of Youth

Jon Bernthal | Photo Credit Esquire

“I know now life is more about working things out and heading off that violence,” said Bernthal. With this hindsight, he makes sure to tell his two boys that “extremism and lack of compromise is the enemy of [progress].”

In addition to time spent with his sons and daughter, Jon Bernthal has also rescused three pit bulls. Boss and Bam Bam are often spotted with him, but Venice is best kept at home as his violent nature is still very much in tact.

Like the two rider dogs, Bernthal has left the bulk of his fights in the rearview. The possible turning point happened when a drunk followed him home. Bernthal knocked out the man for following him. The police cuffed him and said he would go to jail for life if the man didn’t wake up. That was only nine years ago.

Completing A 180 While Facing Middle-Age

Jon Bernthal | Photo Credit Esquire

“Can a man really change?” asked writer Stephen Rodrick in the article. “Can he—in the middle of life—transform himself into the man he really wanted to be all along?” Clearly, the question is different for everyone, but Bernthal believes “Yes.”

Fatherhood and age both change a man, so there’s no reason to think that Bernthal couldn’t be anyone he wants to be. Plus, he’s earned his respect, both as a fighter in his younger days and now as an action star.

It’s clear that he now has the opportunity to settle down, but his career has him in a position to face violence almost every single day.

Drawing From Violence At An Early Age

Jon Bernthal | Photo Credit Esquire

Jon Bernthal’s life depends on him channeling his inner violent streaks from youth. On The Walking Dead, he was Rick Grimes’ best friend, but also his first enemy. In the end, it got his character killed because of violence.

Not ironically, Bernthal’s rage started at an early age. Not only did he draw pictures that got him sent home from school, but he sold copies of Playboy, and once threw a ball so a stack of chairs would fall on another kid who picked on his brother.

Today, these same actions would get a child sent away for good or heavily medicated so no future events could occur. When he finally did go to jail, one minor detail proved there was hope for the boy after all.

While in a jail cell, a young Jon Bernthal told the man next to him he was worried about how his dad would react. The man said he had been there twenty years and no one else thought to even ask about or mention a parent.

The Catcher’s Mitt That Launched A Career

Jon Bernthal | Photo Credit Esquire

Eventually, Bernthal started acting some in high school and soon went to Skidmore College to play baseball. His love for baseball shined through his violent nature, but his acting proved to be the real talent. This, of course, all started with a lie. 

One day, he found himself in school with a few students talking about their prized possessions. Bernthal, unprepared for the speech, picked up his catcher’s mitt and told a touching story about how he got it from his mother while she was on her deathbed. He cried. The class cried. But the whole performance was a ruse.

When his instructor found out the story was a lie, she couldn’t help but be somewhat amused. As punishment, he was forced to try out for a play. Teachers like this one are often associated with launching careers. 

Jon Bernthal Takes On The World

Jon Bernthal | Photo Credit Imgur

In the end, the man he punched on the beach ended up costing him three years probation and a $2 million lawsuit. The suit was settled out of court, but he couldn’t leave California unless he was filming The Walking Dead.

Normally, he would have been working on movies in the offseason, but the law required him to stay put. In addition to his state-lines restraints, he had to go to therapy and anger management classes.

But, the classes seem to have worked. Not only did his career truly pick up after The Walking Dead, but he also married his sweetheart, Erin. Anger is “the slave,” said the actor. “Taking you down roads you don’t want to f*cking go on”

Since this mishap, he has made the most of his work. With small roles in The Wolf of Wall Street, Fury, Sicario, Daredevil, The Accountant, Wind River, and Baby Driver, the opportunities appear to be rolling in.

Currently, Bernthal is working on his Netflix series, The Punisher, and he’s got at least five more movies in the works.

Have you caught on all of Jon Bernthal’s work outside of The Walking Dead?

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