By Hilton Collins
Rising star Jon Bernthal, most famous for playing nefarious, tortured deputy Shane Walsh on the first two seasons of The Walking Dead, answered fan questions during a Q & A panel Sunday at Wizard World Sacramento at the Sacramento Convention Center.
The actor shared numerous anecdotes from his career, mostly from his time on the wildly popular zombie apocalypse drama. He had at least one thing in common with Shane—a hatred of zombies, but not his character’s comfort with the Hyundai Tucscon.
“Screw that Hyundai. That was the biggest bullshit,” he told a fan who asked him about the ride. “It’s a zombie apocalypse. You have your choice of any vehicle you want in the world, and this dude picks a lime green Hyundai. That was pure product placement and I was like, ‘Bullshit.’”
Bernthal tolerated the Hyundai much more than he did the zombies when he was himself out of character. The beasts unnerved him on set even though he knew they were fake.
“I don’t like them at all. I like the people that play ‘em; they’re great artists, but you know, I wasn’t into zombies. Zombies would sort of jump out at us at press events, not that I’m a weirdo method actor or anything, but I was like, ‘Hey look dude, I want to kill you.’ I wasn’t into it at all.”
The zombie actors and cosplayers were wise to mind boundaries. Bernthal, a boxer for years, expressed confidence in his physical prowess. He claimed his character would whoop Darryl Dixon in an arm-wrestling match, though Bernthal personally had nothing but love for Norman Reedus, Darryl’s portrayer, whom he referred to as “Normy.”
“I love Normy. I love him. That’s my brother,” Bernthal said.
The cast was like a family to him, including fellow ex-costar Laurie Holden (“Andrea”) whom he called his sister. Bernthal had several favorite moments from his time on the show, but Shane’s clearing out of the walkers from the barn in Season Two stood out.
Bernthal also had love for his character, a polarizing figure with show fans. A murderous, Shakespearian, quasi-homewrecker, Shane began The Walking Dead as main character Rick’s best friend before starting an affair with Lori, Rick’s wife, while Rick was believed dead. He also took on a surrogate father role for Carl, Rick and Lori’s son. That all went straight to hell when Rick returned, but Shane’s feelings for Rick’s family didn’t. Shane grew jealous and resentful of Rick, plotted his death, and became so psychotic and unruly that the writers had to kill him off in the second season finale.
Millions of viewers still found something likeable in the character. Unbound by Rick’s moral compass and indecision, Shane was efficient and mercenary in his actions to keep the camp safe—and himself, an attitude that upped his toughness cred. He mercilessly executed people who were obstacles to survival, and he was a great zombie killer, despite (or perhaps because of) his increasingly destructive role in the camp and in Lori’s and Carl’s lives.
It’s unclear if Shane was that great of a guy before the zombie outbreak, but it’s possible that he exemplified the toll an apocalypse can take on a person’s psyche, devoid of a civilized society’s comfort, legal system, and social rules, and thrust into kill-or-be-killed chaos.
“I dig that Shane resonated with people, and a lot of people say, ‘Oh man, I wish you were still on the show,’ or ‘You died too soon,’ but I really felt that Shane had to go,” Bernthal said, though he also acknowledged Shane haters who called him an asshole, which he said was “awesome,” to audience laughter.
Bernthal read the show’s pilot script before he took the role, but not any issues from the Robert Kirkman Image series. He knew from the beginning that Shane was going to die, but he was stunned when found out how quickly the character got killed off in comic’s second issue.
“After I got the job and got to know [then-producer] Frank Darabont, it got even better, then I got to know his bad ass cast, but then when I went and read the source material… you’re like, sitting down on the crapper one time and I’m dead by the end, you know what I mean?” he joked. “It was so quick, and I was like, ‘Ah man, this awesome job isn’t going to last very long.’”
But Shane did last on the show for two seasons and became one of the most memorable players, thanks in large part to Bernthal’s performance. He had sympathy for Shane, not disdain.
“My heart went out to him. I don’t judge these characters. If I do, I’m an asshole. I’m telling you how you should feel about him. I don’t want to do that,” Bernthal said. “I want to just play him like he’s me and come from a place where he’s believing in what he’s doing.”
Other insights from the panel include:
Judith’s paternity. “That is definitely my baby,” he said, which the crowd loved. “I know this for a fact. It’s going to have a big ass broken nose and giant ears.”
What he’d have Shane do if he hadn’t died? “Kill the Governor quick.”
If Shane could defend the survivors better than Rick could. “He felt that trying to be a good person, do what’s right—that had to be thrown right out the window, and you have to build a wall around your heart to survive in a world like that. I think he felt that, yeah, he could do a better job because he wasn’t sort of burdened with all this moral anxiety.”
Which superhero would he want by his side in a zombie apocalypse. “Darryl Dixon.”
The conversation briefly went to Bernthal’s experiences on other projects, like The Wolf of Wall Street, from director Martin Scorcese.
“You’re attracting the best of the best. They’re all on their A-game and not just [Leonardo] DiCaprio or Jonah [Hill] or any of those guys, but all the people that are playing waitresses, any extra, is leaving the set and going to a Broadway show. It’s a super high level of actors,” he said. “It’s great great talented people who are all there committing fully because they’re like, ‘This is a fucking Martin Scorcese movie.’”
Bernthal closed the panel by giving poignant professional advice to a girl who asked him what pointers he had for aspiring actors.
“It’s an art and you have to work on your craft. Everybody gets caught up in trying to get in a room, trying to get an agent, trying to get in the business somehow, and I think that everybody will get their shot,” he said. “The problem is that everybody worries about the shot and then when they get the shot, they can’t do nothing with it. When they get in the room, they got nothing to show, so I think it’s all about taking it as seriously as possible—learning, getting as good as you can, and the shot will take care of itself.”
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