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Why Jon Bernthal Was Never The Same After The Walking Dead

Jon Bernthal has had a unique path to acting success. He didn't grow up dreaming of being an actor. He first fell in love with the craft while taking a class in college. After that, Bernthal studied acting in Moscow and later earned his MFA from Harvard. His acting career began in the theater, and in his early days, Bernthal didn't aspire to being a television and movie star.

That all changed when Bernthal read Frank Darabont's pilot script for "The Walking Dead." He felt immediately connected to what the show was trying to accomplish, and he set out to do everything in his power to be a part of it. It may be a worldwide phenomenon today, but back in 2010, almost no one thought "The Walking Dead" would be a massive hit.

Through intense dedication and a penchant for method acting, Bernthal helped to make "The Walking Dead ” one of the most successful shows in the history of television. The process forever changed the course of Bernthal's life and career. He gained a deeper appreciation for his craft, lifelong friends, and star power. In more ways than one, Jon Bernthal was never the same after "The Walking Dead."

He auditioned for Rick but wanted to play Shane

Rick and Shane were the first roles to be cast for "The Walking Dead," and when Jon Bernthal went into his audition, he initially read for Rick's part. Bernthal said that despite reading for Rick, from very early in the casting process he "really wanted to play Shane."

Showrunner Frank Darabont warned Bernthal that "The Walking Dead" comics killed Shane off early in their run. That wasn't a big concern for Bernthal, who said, "I know it sounds cheesy, but I want to serve the story, and I always said Shane's got to go, and if that really services the story, then by all means, I'm down for that."

He was excited when Andrew Lincoln was cast as Rick. The two became best friends, and they still have a close relationship to this day. When it was time for Bernthal to leave the show, he said, "It's been the honor of my acting career to act alongside Andrew Lincoln." Luckily, it wasn't the last time the two got to be onscreen with each other.

He learned how to build a show

In the early days of "The Walking Dead," few people thought the show would become a record-breaking success. AMC picked up the first season for only six episodes, a sure sign that the network didn't have full confidence in the series. The ratings in 2010 proved that the zombie apocalypse was a hit with viewers, but the show didn't become the phenomenon it is today until Season 3, when its ratings doubled.

When Jon Bernthal worked on "The Walking Dead," the series functioned much more like a low-budget passion project. He's said that during his time on the show, "there were no trailers, there were no craft services." Instead, the cast "would just hike out into the woods” and try to make magic happen. Helping to create "The Walking Dead" taught Bernthal that with enough hard work and dedication, a creative team really can take a far-fetched idea and turn it into an unprecedented hit. At the same time, being a part of "the wart on [AMC's] a*s" kept Bernthal humble, even when the show proved itself to be better than anyone had anticipated.

Jon Bernthal went 'method' for The Walking Dead

Jon Bernthal has said he went a little "method" when it came to playing Shane Walsh. Bernthal did his best to really get himself into Shane's mind while portraying the character. The focus comes through in Shane's unique gait and tendency to scratch at his head. According to Bernthal, the uneasiness of Shane's physicality shows he is "constantly boiling and constantly at war with himself."

The dedication to his character bled into Bernthal's everyday life. He said that fighting zombies day in and day out while filming truly made him hate the creatures. While working on the show, he'd frequently have dreams about fighting zombies in-character. When he saw fans of the show dressed as zombies at conventions, his "first instinct [was] to take their heads off."

Bernthal's method acting on "The Walking Dead" carried over to the rest of his career. In 2016, he told Jimmy Kimmel that he stayed in character between takes on the sets of "Daredevil" and "The Punisher." He said that "it sounds so pretentious," but staying in character helps him deliver the best performance possible.

It taught him how to play an antihero

Some might credit Shane as being the first villain in "The Walking Dead," but the character really is more of a hero than a villain. In the beginning of the show, he saves Lori and Carl, and he helps lead a whole group of survivors to safety. While tensions rise between Rick's and Shane's leadership styles throughout Season 2, Shane is still fully committed to doing what he thinks is best for the survival of the group.

Jon Bernthal believes that even in Shane's final moments, he's acting in the interest of the group. He thinks there's a part of Shane that believes "he is no longer fit to be among the people." By threatening Rick in "Better Angels," he's really forcing his friend to be the kind of man who can make difficult decisions on behalf of everyone else. Bernthal thinks "there's a suicidal flavor" to Shane's last moments because he knows that the group would be better without him.

Of course, the Punisher is Marvel's most famous antihero, and his pursuit of justice in "Daredevil" certainly has that "suicidal flavor." The work Bernthal put into crafting Shane as a sympathetic antihero arguably helped prepare him for his next major role.

He found a family

The early days of "The Walking Dead" were like a pressure cooker for the team involved in creating AMC's zombie apocalypse. The project brought everyone close together, and Jon Bernthal found a family among his co-workers on the show. He grew very close to Frank Darabont, the show's creator and first showrunner, and to Andrew Lincoln, who auditioned for the show alongside Bernthal. "The bonds that were formed in the beginning of that show, a family was formed," Bernthal said in an interview.

Those bonds didn't disappear when Bernthal left the show. He still describes his "Walking Dead" companions as "some of my best friends in the world." He says that his co-star Andrew Lincoln has become like a brother to him. In Bernthal's opinion, those close bonds helped to make the show as special as it is. He learned that genuine connections on set spill onto the screen. They not only make filming a show more enjoyable, but they also make the series better for its viewers.

It prepared him for a zombie apocalypse

Anyone is bound to pick up a few survival tips and tricks while spending years working on a show about living in a post-apocalyptic world. That's especially true for Jon Bernthal, since his character has a heightened survival instinct, even when compared to the other characters on "The Walking Dead." There's nothing that Shane won't do to keep himself and the people he cares about alive, even if that means abandoning some pre-apocalypse morality.

When asked if starring on the show improved his odds of survival in a real zombie apocalypse, Bernthal said it had because "there's definitely some things I know now that I didn't know then." However, that doesn't mean he thinks that he'd make it in the long run. According to Bernthal, "when you really let your mind go there, and you think about the ins and outs of what would go down, I think we'd really all be screwed." That's a disappointing prognosis for the state of humanity, but it comes straight from the horse's mouth. Hopefully the Wildfire disease keeps itself confined to "The Walking Dead" universe.

He had an emotional exit from the show

Shane's death on "The Walking Dead" was one of the show's most dramatic moments early in its run. Despite Jon Bernthal saying, "I loved being there when I was, and I loved getting out of there when I did," his exit was more emotional offscreen than in the series itself. Shane died in "Better Angels," the second-to-last episode of Season 2. Bernthal shot his final scene with Andrew Lincoln, and they were joined by the rest of the show's cast. The group spent the entire night in a field by Hershel's farmhouse, making sure that they got the scene just right.

Even Jeff DeMunn, whose character Dale had died a few episodes previously, made sure he was on set for Bernthal's last scene. He flew out to the set in Georgia from his farm in upstate New York to be there for the sendoff. Bernthal described shooting his final scene on "The Walking Dead" in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, saying, "to go out the way I did and go out with who I did — it was, and still is, very emotional." The scene finished shooting at 6 a.m., after which the cast quietly walked back to the farm, where Bernthal gave a teary-eyed speech to close things out.

He never really said goodbye

Jon Bernthal's last shoot wasn't supposed to be his last day on set. "The Walking Dead" still needed to film the Season 2 finale, and Bernthal was invited out to the set to join the cast for filming. He hiked out to Hershel's farm with Sarah Wayne Callies (who played Lori Grimes), intending to spend the day with his co-stars, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Bernthal has said he saw everyone out on the farm, gearing up to film the chaotic conclusion to Season 2, and he had a sense that the show "was their thing now" and that it was time to move on.

Instead of joining everyone on set, Bernthal found a place in the woods to sit back and watch the filming by himself. He later laughed about what happened on his actual last day. "I sound like the biggest weirdo in the world, but I didn't say goodbye. I couldn't." Since leaving the show, Bernthal has stayed close with everyone involved in it, especially Andrew Lincoln. Of course, he later had the opportunity to make a couple of cameo appearances, but nothing would ever be the same for him after those first two seasons.

The Walking Dead Gave Jon Bernthal Star Power

Before joining "The Walking Dead," Jon Bernthal split his time between acting for the camera and acting on the stage. Talking about his start in acting, Bernthal said he was first exposed to the craft when taking a class in college "almost just to get rid of an arts requirement." He credits his professor, Alma Becker, with truly making him fall in love with acting. She encouraged him to study in Moscow, and after that Bernthal attended the ART at Harvard, where he earned his MFA.

Early on, he "really had no interest in going into TV or film" and preferred being a theater actor. He spent years acting on the stage and slowly started taking parts in films and television pilots. When he first read the pilot script for "The Walking Dead," he told his agent, "I would do anything to be an extra in this thing." Bernthal actually turned down work offers on the off chance that he got a part in "The Walking Dead."

When he was cast in the show, Bernthal completely dedicated himself to making it a success. "The Walking Dead" outperformed everyone's expectations, and Bernthal himself was a major part of that. The role became his breakthrough, and he's been steadily starring in shows and films ever since.

Jon Bernthal eventually stopped watching the show

There always comes a time when an actor stops keeping up with a show after they've left it. Jon Bernthal revealed that he stopped watching "The Walking Dead" for fairly mundane reasons. After playing Shane, his career skyrocketed, and his schedule became much busier. On top of that, Bernthal has a family of his own, including three children and a handful of pit bulls.

Bernthal said that while he stopped watching the series, it "is and will always be sort of the center of my heart." He said he's "enormously grateful" for the show and all the people who were involved in creating it. He said that the "spirit of collaboration and community" on the set of "The Walking Dead" represents the best of what filmmaking can be.

Even though Bernthal is too busy to keep up with "The Walking Dead," he's made two guest appearances on the show. The first was in Season 3, Episode 8, and the second was in Season 9, Episode 5. He also still stays in touch with the crew behind the series. "I love that crew down in Georgia," Bernthal said, adding, "They're all family to me."

Jon Bernthal might be returning to The Walking Dead universe

There's a chance that fans haven't seen the last of Shane Walsh. AMC announced the production of a trilogy of "Walking Dead" films focused on Andrew Lincoln's character Rick Grimes back in 2018. The trilogy is still in development, and new rumors hint that Jon Bernthal could be making an appearance in at least one of the movies. Shane died very early in the "Walking Dead" comics, but Bernthal's portrayal of the character has become so popular that he's taken on a larger role in the universe of "The Walking Dead."

We Got This Covered reported that there are plans to include Shane in the first of the upcoming films. There will be some flashback sequences throughout the movie that would offer Bernthal the chance to reprise his role in an extended cameo. In April 2021, Andrew Lincoln offered an update on the progress of the first film, which could begin shooting in late 2021, but he didn't say anything about Bernthal's involvement. Considering how much love Bernthal has for "The Walking Dead," there's little doubt that he'll say yes if asked to take part in the franchise's first silver screen outing.