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Jon Bernthal: 'Honor of my career' is working with vets

By Ben Hooper
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Jon Bernthal: 'Honor of my career' is working with vets
Actor Jon Bernthal, known for roles in "The Walking Dead," "The Punisher" and upcoming film "Ford v Ferrari," said he is working on writing his own TV series and plans to make his first foray into directing in 2020. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

Oct. 21 (UPI) -- Actor Jon Bernthal is transitioning from the virtual world of video games, playing the villain in Ubisoft's Ghost Recon Breakpoint, to the real world of the 1960s as Lee Iacocca in Ford v Ferrari.

Bernthal, 43, best known to audiences as the duplicitous Shane in the first two seasons of AMC zombie drama The Walking Dead and as gun-slinging Marvel hero The Punisher in the defunct Netflix series, lent his voice and motions to Cole Walker, a former member of the titular special forces team turned main antagonist of Ghost Recon Breakpoint.

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The actor told UPI in a recent interview that the role involved more than just his voice and utilized motion-capture technology to bring the character to life.

"We shoot it in this room with 800 cameras. It's like a rehearsal room, you have to use your imagination while you're working," Bernthal said. "But seeing it come to fruition and seeing all the beautiful work that the artists and technicians have done on the game, filling in the world ... it's beautiful. It's incredible how talented these folks are."

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He said acting for motion capture presented unique challenges.

"Obviously, wearing that silly outfit with the dots on your face is pretty crazy, but you get over it fast," Bernthal said.

"Suspending your disbelief is sort of a job requirement for me, so it's no more ridiculous than walking out in the woods and thinking that there's zombies out there. You've got to believe in the given circumstances of the world that you're playing in."

Unexpected turn

Walker, like Punisher hero Frank Castle, is a former soldier whose life took an unexpected turn.

"With both of them, there's an acute change in their life and their mission becomes highly personal," Bernthal said. "With Frank Castle, it's all about what happened to his family, and it changed the kind of person who he was, and his new mission encompassed him fully.

"You could argue with Cole that he always felt the way that he feels. I think he was always frustrated with the protocols and the standards and moral compass of the Ghosts."

Walker, a high-ranking member of the Ghost Recon team, turned against the military to avenge fallen teammates whose deaths he blamed on the U.S. government.

"I don't think he looks at himself as having changed for evil, or decided to live his life according to bad motivations," Bernthal said. "His motivations are the same all the way though, he's just decided to go after his goals and what he's searching for in a more direct and, to him, a more honest and unadulterated way."

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Bernthal said he had the opportunity to work with combat veterans from multiple service branches while creating the game.

"The honor of my career -- the thing that I value most -- are the vets that I've gotten to work with that have helped train me not just in the way I fight and the way I use weapons, but the way I walk, the way I talk, and to get into the mindset. That's something that I value enormously, something that I cherish with all my heart," he said.

"Ghost Recon 4 was written by combat vets and it was performed, at least in my case, under the scrutinizing eye of combat vets, guys from the special forces and the Green Berets," Bernthal said. "Authenticity is paramount for the folks at Ubisoft in making this game and that really gels with me and the way that I like to work."

'Ford v Ferrari'

Bernthal's next major role is automotive mogul Iacocca in James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari. The film follows the story of a Ford Motor Co. team working to create a racing car to defeat Ferrari's vehicle at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in 1966.

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Iacocca is best known for his tenures as president of both Ford and rival Chrysler Corp., but the film sees him early in his career as vice president at Ford.

"The Lee Iacocca that Jim was really interested in was not the Lee Iacocca from the bestselling novel or the Lee Iacocca as this bastion of industry at the top of his game. He wanted to focus on Lee Iacocca as the young, hungry, ambitious company outsider," Bernthal said.

"The bulk of the information about Lee that's out there is really seen through the lens of him having enormous success, and this was all at a time in his life where he didn't have that success."

Bernthal said playing a real-life character involved equal parts research and using his imagination to form what Iacocca would have been like at that point in his life.

"I use my dad as a real inspiration for that role, and the qualities that I really believe had driven my father," he said. "I play a lot of super muscular, ultra-masculine men, and I feel like Lee Iacocca is no different. It's just that his super powers are his loyalty and his integrity and his ethics, rather than his ability to fight and master weapons."

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Small Engine Repair, a movie in which he starred and produced with John Pollono, will be released later this year, marking Bernthal's first credit as a producer. He also is working on his first writing project, a TV series, and he plans to take his first turn as a director next year.

"I'm a storyteller, I love telling stories, I love being a part of telling someone else's story, and I'm really excited for what the future holds in acting, producing, directing and in writing," he said. I've really fallen in love with writing, and I'm really looking forward to getting my projects out there," he said.

Ghost Recon Breakpoint is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. Ford v Ferrari is scheduled to hit U.S. theaters Nov. 15.

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