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It’s early April, and Jon Bernthal, an actor famous for playing cops and cartel affiliates, mobsters and professional thieves-for-hire, is facing a new kind of adversity: His dress shoes are too tight. “I’m sitting here on set,” Bernthal, 45, says over the phone, “wearing a fancy suit and some shoes that hurt my feet. I never wear shoes that [make it so] I couldn’t run away from something if I needed to, or couldn’t stand my ground if I needed to.” But Bernthal is unlikely to need either fight or flight as an immediate response today. He’s filming American Gigolo, the Showtime series based on Paul Schrader’s film from 1980, reviving the lead role of a framed-for-murder escort originally played by Richard Gere. And still, he runs down the rest of his character Julian Kaye’s wardrobe—a “goofy” shirt and a tangle of gold chains—as if each item is a talisman of the cursed life Kaye leads, rather than a convenient find from wardrobe. “It’s crazy to me,” he says, “but it scares me—and that’s why I’m gonna see it through.”
Over the past decade or so, Bernthal has gone from moderately recognizable screen presence to something just short of a movie star. A principal role in The Walking Dead and a scene-stealing one in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street established him as someone who could leverage his physical presence—Bernthal is a veteran boxer and street fighter with the nose and muscularity to prove it—for interpersonal drama. He makes a habit of fleshing out characters where there were once two-dimensional cops-and-robbers cutouts. Even his foray into the Marvel universe, as the PTSD-riddled veteran who becomes the Punisher, is grim and cerebral. He’s acted alongside Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf), Ben Affleck (The Accountant), Emily Blunt (Sicario), and Will Smith (last year’s King Richard), among numerous other A-listers, almost never seeming overmatched in terms of technique or charisma.
As his roles get bigger and his name inches toward the top of the call sheet, Bernthal has accelerated his already rapid pace of work. Sharp Stick, the new Lena Dunham film in which he plays a pivotal role, was acquired at Sundance and is slated for an August release. American Gigolo, meanwhile, is the kind of series—pulp with prestige, IP but the good kind—that can mint new stars or give existing ones new dimensions. And this week sees the premiere of yet another Bernthal-led series: We Own This City, a new HBO series from The Wire veterans David Simon and George Pelecanos, in which he stars as Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, the leader of a criminal conspiracy that festered in the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. In these new roles—as in much of what he’s done to date—Bernthal pokes and prods at masculine ideals, warping those molds into cruder or kinder shapes. At a time when Americans seem open to reexamining these archetypal male roles, Bernthal is able to scramble them just a bit. The ur-Bernthal Character is a Marlboro Man with a therapist and a death drive he hasn’t fully shaken.
Yet We Own This City, which transposes The Wire’s concerns about police overreach and the human cost of criminal enterprise into a post-Freddie Gray Baltimore, presents a unique challenge. In 2018 Jenkins, who was the ringleader of a plainclothes police squad that stole cash, drugs, and guns from citizens, planted evidence on innocent people, and generally terrorized the city, was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. Bernthal has played a number of unsavory figures; even if Jenkins were a fictional creation, he would be among the most distasteful. In searching for a way in, he found himself gravitating toward the thing that is the centering force in his own life: his, and his character’s, wife and kids. “Every single person that I talked to about Wayne—I talked to guys whose careers were ruined because of the things he did, guys he put away—to a person, they all said he loved his wife and kids. That’s something I could latch onto.”