essential roles

Jon Bernthal Will Surprise You

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by AMX, Netflix, Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros.

This piece was originally published in December and has been updated with roles from 2022.

We first must acknowledge his face, as there is nothing quite like it. Or perhaps there is — you’re just more likely to see it covered in grease in an auto shop or dirt and dust behind the wheel of a bulldozer at a construction site. Faces like Jon Bernthal’s rarely make it to the silver screen: craggy, imperfect, and sporting a nose clearly broken more than once. He wears false bruises and scrapes better than most any actor because, unlike many of his peers, you believe he’s worn authentic ones just the same. There are, then, those dark, dark eyes. They can switch in an instant from the look of a confused puppy to a wolf on the prowl. To look at Bernthal’s face is to see the elemental — it bears a soul seemingly shared not by other mortals but rather the Grand Canyon.

In the years since his breakout performance in The Walking Dead, Bernthal has built a compelling career for himself, the sort that can only come from a performer with as singular a background as his (dude played professional baseball in Russia while studying at the Moscow Art Theatre). Initially Hollywood’s premiere “guy who does primal screams,” his filmography soon went on to provide a varied study of the way men perform masculinity. He also quickly established himself as that rare actor with leading-man chops who isn’t afraid to step in as the seventh-billed performer in an auteur’s passion project. Like any actor with his history in theatre, Bernthal knows that there are no small parts.

He’s become something of an awards-season staple. While he’s yet to be nominated for any of the big acting awards, he’s a mainstay in Best Picture nominees (again, you get the feeling being on as many of these sets as possible is far more important to him than one standout award). From The Wolf of Wall Street to Widows to Ford v Ferrari, Bernthal seems to leap at the chance to work with top-tier artists rather than pad his résumé with leading-man performances. It’s created a microphenomenon any cinephile has come to know, that moment half an hour into a movie where you go, “Wait, Jon Bernthal’s in this?!”

Not quite a leading man and not quite a character actor, Jon Bernthal is simply Jon Bernthal. His presence has felt larger than ever in the past 12 months, appearing in The Many Saints of Newark, King Richard, We Own This City, and (briefly, memorably) The Bear. It’s an impressive slate of projects and performances, one that warrants stepping back and looking at one of the more compelling filmographies in Hollywood today.

The Walking Dead (2010–2022)

After years as a working actor, Bernthal broke out during the first two seasons of AMC’s undead drama The Walking Dead. He played Shane, the partner turned rival to Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes. Amid a stagnant second season, Shane remained an electric presence, with Bernthal fine-tuning what would become his signature persona — men full of complex, often deeply wounded emotions they aren’t equipped to feel in their entirety (also dudes who scream a whole lot) — over the course of the show’s run.

Streaming on Netflix

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Bernthal’s role in Martin Scorsese’s hit 2013 comedy The Wolf of Wall Street is on the smaller side, but boy, it sure is memorable. Bernthal flexes his comedy muscles as Brad, (respectfully) a dumb Long Island guido who gets roped into Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) schemes. His shouting matches with Jonah Hill are hilarious — Bernthal plays a guy who’s always, like, two or three sentences behind in any conversation.

Streaming on Paramount+

Daredevil (2015–2018) and The Punisher (2017–2019)

There’s a lot the Marvel-Netflix experiment did wrong, but among the things they did right is cast Bernthal as Frank Castle, the Punisher. The role feels like something Bernthal’s entire career preceding this moment had been preparing him for. Here is our modern maestro of the complexities of rage, a guy who makes you feel every single sob hiding behind his now-signature primal roar. Who better to play the signature vigilante of the Marvel universe?

Frank debuts in the second season of Daredevil, the high point of a mixed-at-best sophomore effort for the Marvel-Netflix run. The longevity of the character has always stemmed from the simultaneous simplicity of his vigilantism and the complexity with which that can be handled. Bernthal threads that needle, delivering the brute force one would expect from the character while imbuing him with a strange, wounded tenderness.

The character’s spinoff show made for something of a mixed bag itself, but it’s at its best when allowing Bernthal to tap into the nuance of Frank Castle rather than indulging an aimless subplot filmed in a warehouse on Long Island. From largely standalone season premieres that explore Frank’s existential longing for normalcy to the final two episodes of the first season, it’s an impressive showcase not only for Frank Castle but for Bernthal as a leading man. It’s admirable to see how often he eschews top billing for the chance to do more interesting work, but it’s hard to walk away from this show and not wish we saw him center frame a bit more often.

Streaming on Disney+

Wind River (2017)

Wind River is one of the great “Surprise! Jon Bernthal” movies. The Jeremy Renner–Elizabeth Olsen vehicle is the directorial debut of screenwriter Tayler Sheridan. Prior to this, Sheridan had written Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, in which Bernthal has a small role as a cop. He brought Bernthal back for a short but crucial sequence in the film, which revolves around the murder of a young Indigenous girl. Not present in any of the film’s marketing materials, his appearance is clearly meant to play as a reveal of sorts. Framing an actor’s appearance in such a vital and sensitive sequence could play as cheap, but with Bernthal, it simply feels like we’re meant to know that the story is in good hands.

Streaming on Netflix

Sweet Virginia (2017)

2017’s Sweet Virginia is one of the more underseen installments in Bernthal’s filmography, and that’s a damn shame. It’s a lean, rural noir that sees Bernthal’s Sam, a broken former bull rider, get tangled up in the machinations of a hit man, played by Charlie Abbott, who happens to be on assignment in his small town. The film very much centers Bernthal as the lead but in a role that carries none of his signature coiled-spring energy. Sam is, rather, a guy who comes off like someone who used to be a Jon Bernthal character until life caught up with him. He shares great, tense energy with Abbott’s Elwood, a man as sociopathic as Hannibal Lecter but without an ounce of the charm. All in all, it makes for one of Bernthal’s more unique leading-man turns and isn’t to be missed.

Streaming on AMC+

Ford v Ferrari (2019)

Bernthal’s role in James Mangold’s peak dad movie, Ford v Ferrari, will surprise you. In a movie full of race-car drivers and auto mechanics, he plays Lee Iacocca, the VP of the Ford Motor Company. He exudes warmth and charm in a film largely focused on the cold war of trying to create something great within the confines of American capitalism. Sure, it’s hard to not feel like he should be in the pits changing tires with the crew at times, but that’s a testament to his undersung range.

Available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video

The Many Saints of Newark (2021)

Bernthal was made for The Sopranos and finally got to make good on that promise in this year’s The Many Saints of Newark. A prequel to the acclaimed series, Bernthal steps in as Johnny Soprano, the father of Tony. He shines, fitting into David Chase’s vision of 1960s Jersey like a well-worn gold chain.

Streaming on HBO Max

King Richard (2021)

Will Smith runs the show (and will likely run the 2021–22 awards season) as the titular father of Venus and Serena Williams in King Richard. Still, Bernthal stands out — and not just because of his impeccable hair and mustache — as Rick Macci, the girls’ first coach. At this point, it feels wrong to say Bernthal plays against type given the range he’s displayed over the last decade. Still, it’s hard to not be surprised by his performance as Macci. His Macci is more golden retriever than pit bull, an enthusiastic sports nerd who cares for his pupils and geeks out on greatness when he sees it. He also gets off a series of impeccable fits throughout the film. Prepare yourself. Every fashion bro you know is going to be posting stills of Bernthal’s Macci for the next few years with the caption, “Vibe.”

Streaming on HBO Max

We Own This City (2022)

Bernthal teaming with The Wire showrunner David Simon on a true-life miniseries about corrupt Baltimore cop Wayne Jenkins sounded electric when it was first announced. Guess what? It is. More than that, it may stand as the single best performance of Bernthal’s career thus far. His take on Jenkins is the crowning achievement of a filmography focused on the complexities of masculinity and the performance of it. It’s a cumulative piece of acting that builds on a decade-plus of work. If Bernthal is a performer to be studied, this is perhaps the central text.

Streaming on HBO Max

The Bear (2022–)

In We Own This City, Bernthal’s Sergeant Jenkins is the central figure in a sprawling ensemble. Even when he isn’t onscreen, all of the show’s gears are turning around his performance. The Bear premiered quietly (before blowing up to Show of the Summer status) a couple of months later and features Bernthal in a role just as central but less visible.

His appearance as Mikey in The Bear is the first instance of the creative team behind a film or television series fully understanding the power of Surprise Jon Bernthal. Mikey only exists in memory for the first four episodes of The Bear, though that memory drives every cog in the lives of the ensemble. It’s the sort of character that should almost always remain unseen, their presence holding more weight undefined — a void onto which viewers can project whatever they wish. The assumption throughout the first few episodes is likely that Mikey will remain a spectral presence, nothing more.

When the show’s fifth episode opens with the reveal, it’s a fun surprise, yes, but also the sort of decision that colors our experience with the show in hindsight and moving forward. Seeing Bernthal play Mikey as the sort of garrulous, relentlessly charismatic figure he’s so suited to lends clarity to the role he must have played in the restaurant and in the lives of his family members. We feel his absence more acutely for Bernthal’s short screen time — and the power of the finale’s final shot for his presence.

Streaming on Hulu
Jon Bernthal Will Surprise You