If you’ve enjoyed pop culture over the last few years, chances are you’ve been intimidated by Jon Bernthal in one way or another.
The actor has had star turns in The Walking Dead and Wolf of Wall Street, but perhaps his most iconic role in recent years is as The Punisher, aka Frank Castle, a former special forces veteran out for vengeance. For gamers, soon he’ll also be recognised for his portrayal of Cole D. Walker, the villain in the upcoming tactical shooter, Ghost Recon Breakpoint.
From what we’ve experienced of the game, Walker is one of the highlights. It’s easy to forget about the story in your extra-judicial murder simulator, but when he’s on-screen he’s instantly iconic, hefting around a huge Desert Eagle .50 handgun and growling at the scenery. In a game that’s supposed to be packed with badass special forces types, he’s by far the most terrifying presence in the room.
You could be forgiven for thinking Bernthal has an attachment for a certain type of character, but when he sat down to talk to Fandom, he said the decision to play the role of Walker, his first starring role in a video game, was actually driven by the developers’ care for what they were making.
Why Ghost Recon Breakpoint?
“Throughout the whole process I was really taken with how much this meant to the creators,” said Bernthal. “… I was blown away by the level of passion here. Just like any great film or television show, you could see how important it was to the people who were making it, and I was taken with that.”
Unsurprisingly, Bernthal plays something of a badass once again. He describes Walker, an ex-member of the Ghost unit who has turned against his former colleagues and now runs a paramilitary organisation of ex-Spec Ops soldiers called the Wolves, as a driven but reckless antagonist.
“He’s a guy that really believes that the morality, the rules and the regulations, are a real hindrance to the Ghosts, and they’re holding them back from what he feels they have to do. So he’s decided to move forward with reckless abandonment to complete his mission.”
Bernthal notes that he was drawn to the game because of the high level of writing on the project, but also because serving soldiers had been involved at every stage during the process. It added authenticity, with special forces advisors on set for the entire time he was capturing his scenes. “They were there not just to help with the way you hold a weapon, the way you walk, different protocols, but also with mindsets. I was grateful for that, and it helped me get the role just right.”
Gaming and the art of the perfect take
While Bernthal is no stranger to acting, he found being a part of interactive storytelling hugely inspiring – despite the differences involved in bringing a game to life.
“I think as the world is moving so freaking fast right now and changing so much…you’ve got to just stay open to all different sorts of mediums of storytelling.
“This is very different from acting in film or television where you have multi-camera setups and you can get what you need from multiple takes and carve out the best from everything. Here, you’re in a room with 800 cameras, and the whole thing only works if you have one flawless take.”
For Bernthal, the level of theatre-esque perfection required from each actor when capturing scenes for a game came as a welcome surprise.
“[games require] one specific, perfect, flawless take,” he explains. “That’s what you need…It could be 10 pages of dialogue, but the dialogue needs to be perfect, the blocking needs to be perfect, the action needs to be perfect. Everything needs to be flawless. The technicians need to be flawless.”
“I dig that pressure,” Bernthal says. “It drives me, it makes it all high stakes. I come from the theatre, [where] you rehearse and rehearse and rehearse until it’s ready.”
Pushing yourself to Breaking Point
Bernthal admits he “loves rehearsals” and describes the process of intense preparation ahead of filming his scenes for Ghost Recon Breakpoint. He suggests that on a take-to-take level, video games could actually involve more preparation and a more rigid schedule than film or TV. It’s an intensity that those artforms could learn from.
“On a take-to-take level, it does require more. I’ve always, in action scenes, loved oners. That’s always been something I’ve really dug doing and the fact that every scene in this thing was a oner was an enormous challenge, and a challenge that I think brings out the best in everybody.”
Bernthal admits that he’s not someone who plays video games, but says he also wasn’t a fan of comic books, and that didn’t stop him taking on the role of The Punisher; one of the medium’s most iconic anti-heroes.
“I didn’t read a lot of comic books before taking The Punisher,” Bernthal says. “But I know all about that world now, and I’m humbled by it. It’s a passionate audience, a smart audience. They care deeply, and you need to respect that. I think video game fans are like that too. These games, these characters, they exist in the hearts and in the imagination of the audience long before I came around.”
“This is how people are choosing to spend their time, so I have great respect for both the comic book fans but also the video game community. When I came into the room and I saw how much these people cared, and I saw how much the fans care. Well, as I said, it’s the pressure that drives me, right? I dig it.”