Before he was fending off zombies as sheriff’s-deputy-turned-survivalist Shane Walsh on AMC’s new hit zombie series, The Walking Dead, Washington native Jon Bernthal hung out on U Street and starred on the baseball and football teams at Sidwell Friends high school.
Two episodes into its first season, The Walking Dead is winning impressive ratings—pulling in about 5 million viewers per episode—and the series was just renewed for a second season. Hollywood is clearly treating Bernthal well, but he’ll be back in Washington to spend Thanksgiving with his family. (His dad is prominent attorney Eric Bernthal, managing partner of Latham & Watkins’s DC office.) In the meantime, Washingtonian caught up with the TV star by phone. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Are you surprised by the huge ratings the show’s been getting?
“I’ve been a part of other shows before, and it’s the nature of TV, that you have to do a lot of barking before there’s any bite. That gets to be really hard, especially if you don’t believe in the show. Everyone really believes in this show. We believe in each other. I think [the show’s writer and producer] Frank Darabont is brilliant. I think the comic [that the show is based on] is brilliant. AMC is the best network on TV. You’ve got this perfect storm. The promoting of it hasn’t been a chore. It’s been something that we really believe in. AMC is just an unbelievably classy network. We’re really surprised and grateful and excited about the numbers, but these guys really know what they’re doing.”
What about The Walking Dead do you think has given it such wide appeal?
“My agent sent me 100 pilot scripts this year, and this was unlike anything I’d ever read before. Frank is one of, if not the, best writers working today. I’ve never read a script with more attention to detail of character, of atmosphere. In no way did I really read it as a zombie thing. It’s really a character study of this guy, Rick Grimes. I think AMC is the best network on TV. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Rubicon are my favorite shows. If we did our job right, we’ll fit in. But it’s a really high bar.”
Congrats on getting picked up for a second season. When will taping begin?
“I’m not sure when we’re going to start up. They said no earlier than April. I’m doing a movie right now, and I had to shave my head for it. So I think we don’t start until, the earliest, April.”
Any idea where Shane’s storyline is headed?
“Shane meets his maker pretty early on in the comic. What’s really cool about this opportunity for [the author of the comic] Robert Kirkman is it gives him a chance to kind of go back and revisit things and potentially redo things. We want to stay true to the comics to an extent, but we don’t want this to be a step-by-step recounting of the comic book. Not to sound like a douchey actor, but I think that says something really cool about Robert and the kind of artist he is. I think a lot of people would be so precious about their material. Robert was open to changing things and having things go in different directions, so I don’t know what’s going to happen with Shane.”
Is it fun to play a guy who isn’t so easy to like?
“I love playing Shane. It’s an honor for me. What’s so brilliant about Frank’s writing is there’s no black and white. There are no characters here that operate out of evil. There’s no maliciousness. My grandmother left me a message the other night after episode two sort of berating me for kissing another man’s wife. I think it’s great if that’s where you’re at with Shane at this point. I think that if I do my job right, within the next couple of weeks you’re going to totally reverse your opinion. At the end of the day, this is a survival story. I think the zombies provide an opportunity for a character to completely redeem themselves by saving someone’s life, or maybe a character loses their life because of a choice someone’s made. I don’t think anyone is clearly good or clearly bad. They’re human.”
Switching gears from the show to your ties to Washington. What was it like growing up in the area?
“I went to Sidwell, right on Wisconsin Avenue. I graduated in ’95. Went there my whole life. All of my best friends in the world are guys that I grew up with there. I know that their football team is really falling apart right now. It’s too bad. But just for the record, I want it to be known that when I was there we were undefeated. There’s a bunch of us out here in Los Angeles, ex-Sidwell alumni.”
How does Washington compare to Los Angeles?
“The conversations are definitely quite different. People look and dress different for sure. But there’s that same kind of manic, ‘I came here for a reason, and I’m trying to get ahead’ kind of thing.”
What’s it like when you come back to Washington?
“It’s amazing to me how much DC has changed every time I go back, like what’s happened on U Street and that area. My best friend lived in a house on S and 12th [streets, Northwest], and I used to hang there all the time. Now that neighborhood has changed so dramatically. I miss DC a lot. If I could do what I do in DC, I would.”
What do you like to do when you’re in town?
“I like to see my friends. I really dig the Billy Goat Trail. You’ve got to do the Billy Goat Trail. It’s just one of the coolest hikes. It’s probably about a three-and-a-half-mile hike. Unbelievable views of the Potomac. It’s really so beautiful. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. It totally trips me out when I’m there that you’re just a couple miles from downtown DC. Another one of my favorite places still is the Sidwell baseball field. And people say LA has the best Mexican food. I think Rio Grande [in Bethesda] is the best Mexican place.”
You mentioned you shaved your head for a project. What are you working on?
“I’m doing a movie now called Rampart. It’s based on the Rampart police scandals of the ’90s with the LAPD. This movie has Woody Harrelson and Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Steve Buscemi, Ice Cube, Anne Heche, Ben Foster. Really cool cast, really cool, political cop movie. We’re having an awesome time.”
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 10 PM on AMC.