Exclusive Jon Bernthal Fury Interview
With the upcoming release of World War II movie Fury on Blu-ray and DVD on 23 February we had a chance to sit down and talk with Jon Bernthal who played Grady Travis, the gun loader in a Sherman tank that is fighting its way across occupied Europe during the latter stages of the war. Written and directed by End of Watch helmer David Ayer, Fury bids to demythologize Hollywood’s often glorified take on WWII, showing instead the full violence and horror that accompanied the Allied invasion of Europe. It focuses on the five-man crew of a M4 Sherman tank, commanded by a character known as Wardaddy, who is brought to life by iconic actor Brad Pitt. The film is a tough and unforgiving look into the lives of men at war.
Such was Jon Bernthal’s dedication to the war movie that he finished each day with blood all over his hands. “Each day my knuckles would be pouring with blood from really punching the shells into the cannon,” Bernthal begins. “I was really doing it. They wanted me to wear protective gear but I didn’t. I wasn’t trying to be a tough guy, but I just thought that doing it for real would be interesting and would add to the performance.”
For Bernthal, who also featured in Steven Spielberg’s WWII miniseries Pacific, it was unlike anything he’d ever done before. “I’ve been in some intense situations in my life but never like this,” he says. “Doing Pacific was great and I loved working on that and some of my best friends who are actors came from working on it. But I did not have the same level of emotional investment as I did on this job. “Also, while that was about being in the open, this movie was all about claustrophobia and containment and being trapped with each other. They were very different experiences.”
Indeed, much of Ayer’s motivation when writing the Fury screenplay was focussed on the idea of containment — the filmmaker wanted to explore the life of a family, men pressed together in the service of their country, and who lived and fought together in a confined and dangerous enclosure. And the inside of a Sherman tank is one very tight and dangerous space. “I remember the first time we saw a Sherman tank was in Santa Barbara about four months before we started,” explains Bernthal, who is well known to television audiences courtesy of his roles on The Walking Dead and Mob City. “And when we first got in I remember thinking that we couldn’t spend more than a couple of minutes in there because it was so tight.”
The film was shot over a 12-week period in the English countryside, using a selection of authentic battle tanks and, it transpired, the actors had to spend hours upon hours inside their war machine. “Strangely enough, by the end of our time that tank became one of the most comfortable places I could imagine,” Bernthal adds. “We could do everything — sleep, cook, eat on the tank — and we became proficient with all the weapons. The tank is a huge character in this movie and we came to love her.”
Alongside Bernthal’s Grady Travis and Brad Pitt’s Wardaddy, the tank crew comprises the gunner Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan (Shia LaBeouf) and the driver, Trini Garcia (Michael Pena). Their lives are thrown into turmoil as the movie opens when the fifth member of their team, the assistant driver Red, is killed in action and a new recruit — a rookie with no combat experience — is foisted upon them. The rookie is Norman Ellison, played by Logan Lerman, and it is up to Pitt’s Wardaddy character to bring him up to speed, to break him of his innocence and to ensure that he is ready to fulfill his role as a killer of German soldiers. It is a painful journey for all involved but if Ellison fails to become a man of combat, his naivete will endanger the entire crew.
“In the beginning everyone is melting down psychologically because one of the crew is dead and we’ve been four years without losing anybody,” Bernthal explains of the film’s opening moments. “Now all of a sudden Red is gone and you find this family in an absolute state of fervour. And with the introduction of Norman’s character the main conflict becomes the three original crew-members — Shia, Michael Pena and myself — looking at the attention Wardaddy is giving this new kid. That is a source of tension in the group. ‘Why is he paying all this attention to the new guy?’”
There is tension throughout the movie, Bernthal says, which arises from the shocking situations in which the characters are situated. “There are times when we’re all at odds with each other at some point,” he notes. The crew are also very tight, and Bernthal’s character, as the loader, is especially close to the gunner, nicknamed Bible. “We decided it’d work as a brotherly relationship and my character doesn’t really make a move without Bible telling him which way to go,” says Bernthal, whose recent film work includes Rampart, Grudge Match and The Wolf of Wall Street.
“I see Grady as the guy you want alongside you in a fight but he’ll never make the decision himself. Any time danger comes he’s looking to Shia’s character.” Bernthal’s character is a blue-collar worker and the actor adopted a distinct accent that hails from the remote Appalachian region of America. “He’s probably never been out of the small, tiny hollow that he grew up in and yet here he is fighting overseas in Africa, Italy, France and Germany,” says the actor. “So for me a big part of Grady was observing. He is a guy who’s a killer through manual labour, loading those shells. He doesn’t get to see the enemy. He just works.”
Preparing to play the role, Bernthal, did a lot of research — studying the language and difficult lives of those who lived in Appalachia during the Depression era. And, as with all the other actors, he also underwent a tough boot camp in pre-production. “A Navy Seal, who had been all over Iraq and Afghanistan, ran the boot camp,” he explains, “and the whole idea was to break you down individually and to slowly build you back up. They had us do a lot of things that we can’t talk about. We had to lose ourselves psychologically.
“We are actors but we were asked to stay in this psychology for this entire seven-month period [during pre-production and filming]” he continues, “and we helped each other do that. There was no escaping off to bars or restaurants and there was no desire to get back into the comforts of everyday life. “I have two babies and yet I isolated myself from my wife and my kids. The hardest part was staying in that mind-set, but it is something that I am grateful for.” The Washington-born actor notes that he was particularly impressed with Pitt, who endured the same training schedule and boot camp as the rest of the cast, in spite of his elevated status as one of the most iconic actors in the world. “I love Brad,” he says. “He was part of our unit, he was the tank commander and he was one of the guys.”
Fury is out on digital download now and on Blu-ray and DVD on 23 February.