Spoilers for the first season of FX on Hulu’s The Bear below.
You’ve probably seen the image floating around your timeline: Jeremy Allen White, hair rakishly disheveled, raising a tattooed forearm in frustration. The still from Christopher Storer’s The Bear has fueled an admirably loud corner of Twitter to thirst for his character, unlikely Chicago sandwich shop owner Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, despite all better judgment: it’s a face you can’t quite look away from, vacillating between composed stillness and rapid bursts of emotion; his eyes perpetually slightly wide, even as he holds his scene partner’s gaze; a smile like an apology and a smirk like an inside joke.
White’s performance — his first lead TV role since another famously Chicago-based show, Shameless — as a fine-dining chef who returns to his home city to take over the family business after his brother’s suicide guides the series’ thrilling first season through turns both comedic and dramatic. He imbues Carmy with a deep, sometimes conflicting interiority: a sense of regret over his emotional distance from his family is tied to his aversion to spending time with them, and a gentle camaraderie with Original Beef of Chicagoland’s other employees is nearly overwhelmed by his own reckless ambition. White’s Carmy is bruised and bruising, and The Bear beats to his rhythm.
What did you find so compelling about The Bear?
I knew immediately how much I cared for Carmy and how much my heart really hurt for Carmy, and I don’t think I knew exactly why yet. In retrospect, it’s because I saw this lonely man whose identity was so wrapped up in this thing, and if he didn’t get it, he really felt like he was going to die. That was something accessible to me. I’m older now, and my life’s gotten bigger and better. [Pauses.] But there was a time as an actor, a young actor, that I felt very wrapped up in my profession. If I wasn’t succeeding, or I wasn’t getting everything I wanted, it was like the end of the world. That’s a sad existence, if you can’t find joy outside of your profession. That clicked with me early on and helped me get into it.
You did a two-week culinary-school crash course and worked at restaurants in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to prepare. What was the most difficult part of that process?
I knew I would never be as good as Carmy. I made a decision very early on: I need to learn the stuff I can fake. There’s a real ballet to kitchens in the way people move, and if I could get that movement down, that would be really great. The one thing I did get better at, but it took a lot of work, was the knife skills. I knew the knife skills were important. That was something I needed to do all the time. When I shot the pilot, I had my knife set and a cutting board in my hotel room. There was a grocery store around the corner, and every night before I went to bed, I was doing half an hour to an hour of cutting. I did get better at that. But at the beginning, it all seemed daunting because I had no skills in the kitchen. It was all learned from the show.
Were you able to suggest any qualities or details for the character?
Chris was really wonderful. Before we shot the pilot, we were getting together for coffee once a week for six weeks or so. He was asking me, what do I think, what do I want to do, what do I think Carmy should do. I was asking a lot about Michael’s funeral: “Did Carmy go to the funeral? Where are his parents?” Then we made the decision together. There’s that scene in the first episode where Fak [Matty Matheson] asks Carmy, “Did you get the flowers I sent you? I didn’t see you at the funeral.” And Carmy says, “Yeah, I didn’t go.” That’s such a crazy thing, to not attend. But Carmy was in so much pain and had been suffering for so long, even before his brother committed suicide, because his brother had become so absent. He’s so angry at his brother that he felt like he couldn’t go.
Something I talked to Joanna and Chris about is, what’s Carmy’s life outside of the kitchen? I don’t think it’s there. That is so heartbreaking. What a lonely place to be in, when you can really only feel like yourself when you’re in your place of work — and now that he’s in this place of work where nothing is working the way he thinks it should be, where is the space for him? That’s why it’s so easy to get angry. Never mind the fact that he just lost his brother. Carmy’s got a lot going on.
Mikey was very absent, and we see Carmy re-create some of those cycles — willingly and unwillingly — in pulling himself away. Is it genetics? How they were raised? Is it the stress of the restaurant?
It’s inherited. That’s who he learned from. Mikey was being avoidant, right? He was not talking to the people who love him and care for him. He was isolating. And whether Mike knew it or not, he is Carmy’s hero. That’s who Carmy’s learning from. Of course he’s going to react to trauma and pain in a similar way.
At first glance, people could say that Shameless’s Lip Gallagher and Carmy Berzatto are very similar. There’s the obvious stuff —
But I’m curious what you think the differences are.
Where I see a really big gap between them is their confidence. Lip was so fun to play because I had faith in him. He had a good sense of self. He knew how smart he was, how gifted he was, to the point of being obnoxious. Yes, Carmy’s gifted. He’s a talented chef. He’s worked very hard at it. But I don’t think he had that same confidence or sense of self. While Lip and Carmy can both be considered fragile characters, Carmy is on the edge all the time. Everything is life or death for him. If he fails, it’s the end of the world, and if he succeeds, maybe he gets everything he wants. If we get to do more of the show, I’m curious to see Carmy getting everything he wants and how he behaves after.
I want to talk through several scenes that feel important for Carmy. The first is the braciole-preparation scene in “Ceres,” where Jon Bernthal’s Mikey is holding court with this story about running into Bill Murray at a bar. You take over the food prep, and it feels very indicative of their brotherly relationship.
That scene was easy for me. I’m such a big fan of Jon’s that to look at him in awe, which is what Carmy needed to do in that scene, wasn’t a stretch for me. In general, it’s very hard to come onto a show for one day and understand the world and the character you’re playing and where you fit into it. But it’s another thing to like, walk onto set for a day and command that space because that’s what’s necessary. Michael had to be telling the story, everybody needed to be engrossed, everybody needed to be connected. That’s a difficult thing to do. Jon is so charismatic that he did it with seemingly great ease. I think you’re right that in the way they cut it together, Carmy is kind of finishing what Mikey started, with respect to the meal itself — there’s a metaphor in that for show, for the restaurant.
Did you know that Mikey was going to be played by Bernthal from the beginning?
We didn’t, and that was hard. I’d been thinking about Michael for a long time, and I hadn’t exactly put a face to Michael, but I kind of did, you know? Not any particular person, but Carmy is spending so much time on the show thinking about Michael that it was necessary for me to be like, Who is that guy? What’s he like? What’s he look like? It’s weird to build an imaginary person in your head and then for someone to be like, “And here they are!” But Jon’s better than my imagination. He didn’t have to do this, obviously, so something must have clicked with him in the story where he felt like he should.
In episode eight, there’s the one-shot speech Carmy gives in an Al-Anon meeting about his relationship to Mikey, about trying to prove himself as a chef to earn his brother’s approval and living with the pain and trauma of his death. The camera stays on you this whole time and the scene depends entirely on your performance. Can you talk about that responsibility?
It was so hard. That was our last day of shooting. I was thinking about that scene every day. It always goes like that: For every actor, there’s one scene where you’re like, Oh, this is going to be hard, and I better have it that day. It’s always on the first or the last day, that’s just how it goes. I was thinking about it the whole shoot, and I used that speech as an in. I would read it most mornings before work because it seemed like a map for Carmy. I’d perform it alone a lot, in my apartment. Sometimes I feel like I did better in my apartment than I did on the day, and that’s really difficult. [Laughs.] Chris has had this character in his mind for like ten years, and I knew how important that moment was to understand Carmy, understand the story, and to make sense of the stuff that was going on. I felt a lot of pressure.
But also, we shot this a traditional way — several sizes, and we shot the meeting. I didn’t know at the time that it was going to be a single shot of my face talking, for however long it was. I just wanted to do the writing justice. But the outcome of it being one shot was something I only learned a month ago, and I only watched the eighth episode recently, like two nights ago. Chris sent me all the episodes a month ago and I watched all of them up until eight because I was nervous. I knew how important that scene was. [Pauses.] I don’t know. I know it worked. But you always want to do better. I don’t think there’s any actor that’s finished a job and been like, “That’s exactly how I wanted everything to go, and I’m perfect! I learned it all!” It’s a process.
But that’s a compliment, right? Your performance was so powerful they decided not to deviate from it?
For sure, it is. [Pauses.] Doing film and television, you can rely on a great director, a great editor, a great cinematographer. You know if you’re not doing your absolute best work, every single take from every single setup — if you have a really good editor, you’ll be okay. They can protect you. So yes, it is a really nice compliment and testament to the work I did that day that they decided to do it in one shot, because usually as an actor, you can have faith that they’ll piece something together and make you look good.
Another scene that fascinated me is also in the finale, a Carmy nightmare where he’s doing a Food Network–style cooking show. People have had a hard time describing whether The Bear is a comedy or a drama, and that scene walks the line between absurdism and fear very well.
It was such genius writing. I love that we bookended it that way, too. The opening of the show, on the bridge with the bear, is one of my favorite scenes. It drops you into this world immediately. It was really nice to have another version of that.
There was a different version of the scene in episode eight, where we were trying to get a certain celebrity chef to be in the scene with me. I’m cooking with her on a food show, and then I look at her, and I think it’s my mom, and Carmy starts sobbing and he hugs her. But this celebrity chef didn’t understand the show and she didn’t want to be involved. That happened a couple days before we were shooting this scene, where she was like, “I’m not doing it.” So all that stuff to camera was pretty new, the idea of Carmy being the only one on the show and looking at the audience the whole time. That was our first day of filming, the first scene we filmed. They were really fucking with me. [Laughs.]
I’m curious about Mikey’s note. It’s Richie’s most vulnerable moment: He finally hands it over to Carmy after finding and rehiding it earlier. Then it’s an interior scene for Carmy, who’s trying to make sense of what Mikey has written him. Can you walk me through that?
The exchange of the note was something we talked about a lot. There was another version where Carmy lights a cigarette, the oven kind of blows up, there’s the fire, he’s in a trance and doesn’t know if he wants to let it all burn or put it out, it gets put out, and then Richie comes in. He smacks me in the face and says, “Are you okay?”, walks away, gets the note, and brings it back.
I said to Chris and Ebon [Moss-Bacharach], “I think these are two different moments. The moment with Richie and Carmy is the most vulnerable you’ve ever seen Richie, and the most honest and loving they’ve ever been with one another. That deserves its own thing.” We ended up shooting it by the lockers. It was only one setup. They put the camera where we were both sort of profile-y, and the scene played out. Ebon and I, I don’t know if our process is similar or we just immediately knew that we understood this world the same, but everything was very easy with Ebon.
Seeing the note outside afterward, he was like, Oh man, this is the closest I’ve felt to Michael in such a long time. He wrote this thing for me. But there’s also this thing of like, once you open that note and read it, it’s done. It’s over. What I wanted to do in that scene was show how torn Carmy is about the choice to read it. What it said was so simple and sweet, but also like, Fuck you, you know? That’s it?
Was the “opening tomato-sauce cans” scene the funniest experience on set?
The image was hilarious, yes. In the moment, I was also questioning it, like, “Is this tonally correct? Is this too silly?” They were like, “And Sydney’s going to walk into the room and catch you guys!” And I was like, “Is this that kind of show?” But Chris was like, “It’s great, it’s going to work.” And he was absolutely right. There’s this image that our first assistant director, Duccio Fabbri, took, this really beautiful black-and-white photo from Ayo [Edebiri]’s perspective, looking at everybody with sauce everywhere, money on the table. It’s totally absurd. But somehow, and I don’t even really know how, Chris managed to ground it in something where you’re like, “Oh, sure, I believe that!”
What I kept wondering about that scene was, “How did Mikey reseal the cans?”
There’s a machine that does that in restaurants. I asked the same question.
I’m so torn about that scene too, because on the one hand, it feels like a redemptive moment for Mikey; he was seemingly saving and there was money being put away. On the other, it raises so many questions that are the exact opposite: Was he saving? Was this just Uncle Jimmy’s money that he was holding onto and sort of stealing?
For sure, and it leaves a lot of space to go. I don’t know if everybody caught this, but in the pilot, they’re telling him to cook the spaghetti the whole time. The show wouldn’t have happened if Carmy had just cooked the spaghetti. I was like, this close, can opener in hand, had it already cracked, probably threw out like 20 G’s in the trash, at the end of the first episode because Carmy was like, “I need to prove myself.”
Which lesson needs to be learned? Did Carmy need to go through all that in order to be ready to get the money, in order to do something with the restaurant? Yes, obviously, he did.
The Bear does end on this potentially hopeful note that also asks, “Where do you go next?”
And there’s a lot at risk, right? He’s doubling down. Really, they should have found that money and they should have gone to Cicero and said, “Here’s the money back, I’m going to keep working at this restaurant, and I’m going to keep trying to make it great.” Instead, he doubles down, and he’s going to avoid Cicero — as he has to — and it sounds like he wants to put this money right back into the restaurant and turn it into something else.
Maybe I misunderstood this scene, but I thought, “Surely, they’ll pay back Cicero! They’re just going to raise money on their own for this restaurant that will become the Bear!” I didn’t realize the series ends on, “Hey, don’t tell Uncle Jimmy we have all this money!”
No, no, no. I think Carmy’s got an addict brain too. He’s chasing something, and nothing is going to stop him.
Fire comes up often on The Bear: Carmy almost burns down his apartment by sleep-cooking, almost burns down the Beef in that trance, tells Marcus the story about almost burning down his prior restaurant. You mentioned that Carmy is thinking, I could just let it burn. Is he thinking that every time, as he hesitates to act? Is it always a self-destructive tendency?
You think of suicide, and people who love people who commit suicide; often their first reaction is, “How could you be so selfish? That’s what you needed to do?” Carmy has been thinking about Michael so much, and Michael’s suicide so much, and that’s what that looks like to Carmy. He went, “Fuck it all. I’m just going to burn it down.” I think his nightmares and his reality, that’s what he’s been thinking about — is that the easy way out? Maybe it is. Okay, if Mikey could just do that, maybe I can just do that. That’s something Carmy had been battling with the whole season: Should I just forget it?
Richie’s fear of the neighborhood changing poses a question: Is his concern fueled by ethnic whiteness? Did you have conversations about gentrification while working on the show?
Gentrification is certainly something we discussed, but belonging is more the way we were thinking about Richie. The place is changing. Is he going to belong to this new place? We talked to Chris about the accents, and Chris was like, “Jeremy, I don’t want you to have an accent. Maybe you had it at some point, but you’ve been working for a long time. Maybe you actively tried to get rid of it. Maybe when you talk to Richie, it comes out a little bit here and there, but nothing crazy.” I was like, “That makes sense to me. I think Carmy’s been on the run.” But for Richie, he puts that accent on. He thickens it. While Carmy’s identity is so wrapped up in being a successful chef, Richie’s identity is wrapped up in his environment and the old-school — whatever the old-school means to him. Being a street guy, whatever that is.
In an interview about The Rental, you said, “I feel like I’m drawn to the kind of characters that tend to be a little bit explosive. I feel like it’s kind of a healthy way to get that stuff out of me, so it doesn’t have to come up in my day-to-day life.” Were there any explosions from Carmy that felt particularly cathartic?
Yes. Episode seven was a really great exercise in, How far can I really push it? I talked a lot with Lionel [Boyce]: “How physical can I get with you?” And he was like, “As physical as you want. You’re tiny, I’m a giant person. I’ll be fine.” [Laughs.]
In the pilot, there was a scene where Carmy loses it in the kitchen. After he finds the knife on the floor, he throws a pot, makes a big mess, and then he starts shredding everybody. Really laying into them. That was the most angry Carmy got, from my perspective, and they cut it. I don’t know exactly why, but I assume it was because they weren’t sure if audiences could get onboard with a character so quickly losing it on everybody else. In the long run, that was probably very wise. I’m a pretty easygoing guy in my life, and what a cool thing, to be able to explore those different parts of yourself that don’t show up so much in your life in a safe place. [Laughs.] Screaming into a pillow or taking a baseball bat to something where you’re not hurting anything or anybody — it feels good.
You’ve talked about being inspired by Al Pacino and said, “I steal things, or try to steal things.” Were there any moments in this season that felt inspired by other actors?
I watched The Panic in Needle Park probably 30 times in a week before I shot the pilot. I don’t know exactly what it was, but there was a feeling I got from Al Pacino in that movie, that when I read The Bear script, it made me think of that performance. I wasn’t trying to mimic him, but I watched it a lot so it could be up in my head somewhere, even if I wasn’t aware of it.
I’m curious about your career choices. It feels like you could easily wind up in a franchise — the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe. But you’re picking TV and indie films. What do you prioritize when you’re looking for the next thing? Has avoiding bigger stuff been deliberate?
Not really. I don’t think I’ve been invited? But that’s not where my interest necessarily lies, either. At one point in my career I wanted so much success so quickly. It was the time in my life that I clicked into with Carmy. I felt like I was really good at this thing and wasn’t getting what I deserved. It was such an ugly place to be coming from. I would want these movies so bad, or I would want these other jobs so bad, and I wouldn’t get them and it felt so terrible. Now I’m in a place where consistency is more important to me, longevity is more important to me. I don’t feel like I need to have a breakout, whatever a breakout means. If I can work consistently with talented people, with good story, that’s all I need.
Is there anything you didn’t get that you would be willing to share?
I really loved The Spectacular Now, and I read with James Ponsoldt a lot for that. When Miles Teller got that, that was a hard one.
The flip side of that question is, since The Bear came out, you’ve become a new internet boyfriend. There are a lot of thirsty viral tweets. There was one recently that was a picture of Carmy and said, “I’m too scared to watch The Bear because I’m actively in therapy to stop falling in love with men who look like this.”
I wouldn’t call Carmy a scumbag!
No, no, me either.
Is that something you’re aware of?
I am aware. I don’t have Twitter, but friends will send me stuff every once in a while. [Laughs.] I don’t know, I guess it’s nice? I’m also like, Chefs are hot. I’m wearing the uniform, you know what I mean? I think people are just getting tricked.
Did you have any say in Carmy’s tattoos, as you just gestured to your hands when mentioning the chef uniform?
Yes, I created all of them with a friend who is a tattoo artist. His name is Ben Shields. He has an incredible knowledge of the history and art of tattoos, and even the geography of it. He can see tattoos on older people and generally figure out where they were and when they got it. It was actually my introduction to figuring out Carmy, because Ben wrote down a list of questions. He was like, “When people get their first tattoos, it’s going to be a boyfriend or a girlfriend or their parents or an area code or an address, because that’s something about your identity no one can challenge you on. It’s a very safe first thing to get.” He had a whole list of questions like that: “Did you get something when you were at Noma in Copenhagen? Who gave that to you?” It was a really great exercise in writing a background for your character through the art they have.
Do you personally have any tattoos?
I’ve got something for Mom, something for Dad, something for my wife, something for my daughter. All the safe ones.
Can you talk about Carmy’s pushing-his-hair-back move? How did you achieve that voluminous texture?
[Laughs.] I think that’s something I do in life, and I was also looking for tics. I tried to do this blinking thing with Carmy. I wanted him to seem very unsettled all the time, like he couldn’t ever be still. I also wanted Carmy to always look just a little dirty. There’s a sink on set — everything was functional — and before most takes, I would get water in my hands and run it through my hair to get it looking kind of greasy. And then this stuff called — funnily enough — Pacinos Pomade. Al Pacino has no connection to the product, but it does happen to be called Pacinos. I went to a CVS and was like, I need something. It’s super cheap, nothing fancy.
Original Beef or Patsy’s Pies?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.