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Jon Bernthal on why Benicio Del Toro shoved his finger in his ear in 'Sicario'

"Sicario" actor Jon Bernthal was so excited to work with director Denis Villeneuve and Emily Blunt that he took a small part. But he wound up with two of the dug war thriller's best scenes.
Jon BernthalSicario

More than most actors, Jon Bernthal is effusive about those he works with — the filmmakers, his fellow performers, his cinematographers. The “Walking Dead” and “Wolf of Wall Street” actor is especially fulsome about “Sicario.” He only has a small role, playing Ted, a man Emily Blunt’s federal agent picks up in a bar — only to find out, in a nail-biting scene, he has a horrible secret. (He also gets a memorably nasty scene with Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, playing a corrupt DEA agent and assassin working for him.) But that’s fine with him; he just wanted to be in “Sicario” in any way, especially since director Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” was his favorite film of 2013. Bernthal is often drawn to dark movies and shows — he’ll soon play The Punisher in Netflix’s “Daredevil” — but he does want to prove he has other colors.

You’re now a regular character actor in movies. Was there an interesting way you found your way into this film, even in such a small part?

I auditioned for this part. It wasn’t offered to me. I just said I’m a big fan of Denis’ and I’ll audition for any part they’ll see me for. Normally I wouldn’t audition for a part this small. But I would fight for it because I’m such a fan of this guy. The thing about this job is you’re just trying to get better every day. I really believe in the three or four days I was there [on set], I learned a ton. I’d go through any process to get there.

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You sound like you’re really high up on Denis Villeneuve.

It’s one of those things where you get to work with an established filmmaker. You don’t have to worry about things. Some of the films I’ve done [the director] is still on his way up or doesn’t know that much. You have to concern yourself with these issues — how they’re setting up the shot, how they’re going to use the light, about who else is in the shot. To work with guys like this, you turn all that off and just go in and do your job. It’s so much more satisfying, and there’s more opportunities to do something far more rich. So many of the other wonderful, top-notch directors I’ve worked with, their job at the end of the day is to create an atmosphere where people can be completely at ease. Then anything is possible. Denis, more than any other director I’ve worked with, made me feel right at home. That’s a feat considering my scenes are so high-stakes.

So much of what makes your big scene with Emily Blunt intense is that you’re not sure about this guy yet — whether he’s good or bad or somewhere in between. You don’t know how far he’s going to go.

What I wanted to do was definitely not make him the bad guy. I wanted to make him a guy who’s made a bad decision and now he’s getting more and more and more in over his head. The situation is getting away from him. It’s not necessarily about hurting Emily’s character. It’s about keeping her quiet, and then one thing stacks on top of another. A lot of films where you play a small role, the script has you go from Point A to Point B. The great directors, they see something like that and see it as an opportunity to allow the actor to create something three-dimensional, with a real backstory. You just add layer upon layer in your limited screentime.

It can be make an impression with so little screentime.

We did this on “Wolf” too, but moreso on this: it was unbelievable what we accomplished in a day. We would show up with the scene on the page, then we’d make it much different. It could become anything. Figuring out who this guy really happened in the moment and it created a conversation with us and Denis. The bulk of the dialogue was improv’d. We created it as we went. That can only work when there’s real trust, and working with real people who can roll that way. Very few can. That openness is part of the best films I’ve been a part of. That’s how it was with [“Fury” director David] Ayer, that’s how it was with Scorsese, and that’s definitely how it was with Denis. You never know what’s going to happen. It generates the best work.

Can you talk about Emily Blunt? Your big scene with her is just the two of you. That must require so much trust.

It’s a huge testament to Emily. Most of the stuff I do, I get to know everybody, I become part of the family. This one was very different. I just got in my truck with my dog, drove to New Mexico, shot for a couple days. I knew I had these few intense days. Not only did Denis create a relaxed atmosphere to work in, Emily was so unbelievably cool and professional. The mark of all the great actors I work with — Di Caprio was this way, Brad Pitt was this way, Benicio was this way — they know this is only going to work if she puts everyone around her at ease. To go in and meet somebody and all of a sudden you’re having sex and all of a sudden you’re in a fight scene — if she had come in with her nose in the air and acted the star of the movie who was too cool for school, those scenes would have been very different, and difficult. We never would have been able to accomplish what hopefully we did. She came in just as excited to be a part of the scene as I was and was really collaborative. You’ve got to shed the bulls— if you want to work. This was a no-nonsense, no bulls— set, and that starts from the top.

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You also get a big scene with Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, which includes Del Toro torturing you by shoving his finger deep inside your ear. How did that come about?

I’m a real believer in going as far as you can, sometimes to a fault. I want to be that kind of actor. Benicio is definitely that kind of actor. That take was the only time we did that. We decided to change it up. Denis challenged us to do something different, and Benicio’s answer was to put his finger in my ear. I was so excited that was the take they used. It was unscripted, no one talked about it and it came out of the moment we created together. That shows what an exciting actor he is. I only worked with him one day, but he’s definitely the kind of actor who will surprise you. You have to be on your toes. That’s the kind of actor I want to be.

You do a lot of movies with dark themes, even a sort-of-comedy like “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Is that something you’re drawn to or is that just coincidental, depending on what comes your way?

The material I pick is not thematic. I’m attracted to who’s making it and how good the material is. I started my career in comedy. I definitely do not gravitate towards any genre. It’s not even a consideration for me. I do want to show other colors. I would love to get back into comedy. But I’m also happy doing what I’m doing. I’m not going to change it up. I want to work with the best. That’s my plan.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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