Raised in Washington, D.C., country music-loving actor Jon Bernthal went to Russia to study acting and ended up playing professional baseball. He's no longer playing ball, but his acting career is on the upswing. In the independent film Day Zero (read the review), Bernthal plays a street-wise cab driver named James Dixon who, along with two friends (played by Elijah Wood and Chris Klein), receives a draft notice and has 30 days to report for duty. The story follows the trio as they struggle with political and personal convictions, fear, and leaving behind loved ones.
I asked Bernthal about his character, his patriotism, and his upcoming projects.
What was your first reaction after reading the script?
My first reaction was I had to do this movie. I just read a character description on Dixon, and I called my agents and asked for a script. As soon as I put it down…I was a man on a mission. I wrote to the producers, I wrote to the writer, and I said…you've got to let me audition for this, you've got to see me. I know I'm meant to play this role. You know that the business of Hollywood is difficult. These guys, they really took a risk on me. They need big stars to get these movies made, and there's a lot of interest in this. I wasn't able to get in the room because nobody knew who I was and it was a challenge. I knew I had to play this role, and I wasn't going to take no for an answer.
Your character, ready-to-fight tough guy James Dixon, seems to have nothing to lose. Then he falls in love. How did that affect the character's strong convictions?
He's a guy who lives by a code and being there for his friends, the few people he's been able to make connections with in his life. I think this code he lives by and these convictions he's lived his life by wound up getting him in a lot of trouble. That being said, he would never change who he is. It makes him the guy that he is. Finally, somebody shows him what he's shown to other people. I think that it's totally revolutionary for him, and I think that he has to stay, he has to be with her. It made everything kind of haywire, and he's got to prioritize for the first time.
Which character in Day Zero do you most identify with?
Meaning you're that patriotic?
You know, patriotic is a weird word. There's many kinds of patriotism. It doesn't mean that you have to be a hawk, you know? That you have to be pro-war. I think that Dixon isn't necessarily pro-war. I think he's pro-responsibility, pro-duty. He thinks, as I do, that this country affords many people a lifestyle that other places and other people in the world could only dream of. Unfortunately, there's not much that this country asks of us, and I think we…sometimes get caught up with being as comfortable as possible and don't think about any sort of the responsibilities we have to the environment or to our neighbors around the world. I think [Dixon's] conviction is something that I aspire toward.
What was it like working with Elijah Wood [Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings]?
Oh man, it was terrific. Elijah's the most professional person I've ever come around. He works incredibly hard. He's incredibly positive. I'm kind of a slob. I just could not believe the way he took care of his costume. He was just such a consummate professional. He was such a joy to have on set. In the beginning of that process, he was really the heart and soul of everything. He just kind of inspired everyone to work the longer hours.
We had no money, so we were up all night, you know, out in the cold and the rain a lot of the time. I know it's "boo-hoo," these actors, right? I know it's all ridiculous, but at the end of the day it was so great to see a bona fide movie star so incredibly down to earth…always has time for a guy on the street, you know? And just never a bit of negativity from him. He was an inspiration.
What projects are you working on now?
I've been working on The Pacific, which is an HBO mini-series. It's the next installment sort of like Band of Brothers. It's Steve Spielberg and Tom Hanks, just like Band of Brothers. It's another WWII mini-series. We were trained by the Marine Corps, by real Marines, and it was just an honor for these guys to take the time and let us sort of feel and taste what it's like to be a real Marine. Obviously without real bullets being shot at you.
I'm not going to sit here and go, "Oh, it was so hard," but the fact of the matter is that these guys take a lot of pride in what they do and they really want the Marine Corps represented in the right way. What these Marines did for us in WWII was just astonishing. It's time for this story to be told, and I can't imagine a better group of people to tell this story. They're doing it right, and I think it's really going to be a terrific project.
Besides that I have a project called Bar Starz coming out, and a movie called The Air I Breathe [starring Kevin Bacon and Forest Whitaker] coming out, which also was at Tribeca. They're both [directed by] first-time directors.
When you blow up and become a big star, will you let me interview you again?
[Laughing] You're crazy! I will always let you interview me. I promise you that, no matter what. And you've got to promise the same for me.