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.
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.