King Richard Star Jon Bernthal Explains Why Supporting Roles Are His Favorite Roles [Interview]

Jon Bernthal is one of those rare actors with a distinct presence who somehow still has a chameleon quality about him. For example: his role in "King Richard." Bernthal, who looks like an action hero, plays tennis coach Rick Macci with one of the biggest grins and can-do attitudes you will ever see. With tennis shorts and a rocking 'stache, Bernthal disappears as a guy who just loves coaching the game of tennis. He approaches a complex mental and physical sport with simplicity. 

In the film, Macci is one of those strong characters not defined by physical strength, although the coach does possess it — just through kindness and encouragement. For Bernthal, those admirable qualities were pure joy to play. The actor, like his favorite roles, breezes in and out of the movie as a key supporting player. Recently, Bernthal told us why those are his favorite roles and opportunities. 

"Everybody's good, but who has got that mental edge?"

It's always nice to talk to a fellow DC native.

Oh right on, DC. Where you from, man?

Born in Georgetown, like yourself.

Beautiful, man. Beautiful. Right on, dude. I love it. I love it.

I hear stories about you when you're in town. 

Oh, boy. 

[Laughs] Nice things.

Okay, good. As long as they're not from back in the day, I'm good with it [Laughs]. Man, I'm shooting in Baltimore right now, so I go back, whenever I have a day or a morning off, I go back and do the Billy Goat Trail down in Cabin John. I still have so many friends around DC, so I'm running into a lot of people.

It's a good place. I was just watching interviews with Rick Macci, who's one of the smiliest people. Such a can-do attitude in the movie. Was that your initial impression of him?

Yeah. I've read his book and I've talked to so many folks that train there, and talked to him. Everybody sort of came from the same place, that being at Rick Macci's was just fun. He knew how to make the game fun. It was constant gains. He loves the game of tennis. I'm an athlete myself, and I have so much gratitude and love for some of the key coaches in my life. I think we have this idea in our head of these sort of high, high level coaches, of all just being task masters and discipline and putting in hard work.

Rick was a guy who's just as fierce as a competitor, as anyone who's ever a part of any sport, but he does it with a smile, and he loves the game and he wants people to laugh. He doesn't care if you laugh at him, just as long as you're laughing and enjoying yourself and pushing and competing and being positive. And for such a mental game, I really wanted to capture that. I'm glad I got the opportunity.

He talks about the power to forget, forget the mistakes, and be in the moment. Did you find any of his teachings applicable to acting?

Totally. Not only did I find them applicable, I mean, it was such a beautiful set because there was so much fluidity. I find the best filmmakers are the ones that are the most comfortable with going off track and exploring and improvisation, and trying to make things electric and nuanced. And there were things that I threw in. I remember, it ultimately wasn't in the film, but the first time he went and saw Serena and Venus play in the movie in Compton, a train went right by where they were playing. And later when they were in the room and he was trying to make his case on why you should come down to Florida and train with him, I improvised from the book and from sort of a Macci-ism, and I said, "When you guys were playing, that train went by. And if I were to ask you what color was that train? I bet what you would say is, 'What train?' Because you were so focused on the game and your mental game was so sharp."

And something that he talked about all the time, that if something is a distraction, how that can completely get you out of your game. You got to have, what you're talking about, this inner ability to forget, to block things out, to play little games with yourself. I'm not going to listen to that. The game is so high level. Everybody's good, but who has got that mental edge? I love the gamesmanship of that, and I love learning that. And then putting it to practice in my own tennis training that I did for the film.

"This one was all joy."

That seems like one of the biggest perks of acting, just all the research you get to do and all the skills you get to learn.

Oh, man. You're right. It's the true gift of this. I mean, everything from the training I've done with special forces for military stuff, to the other stuff I've done. I mean, I trained in mathematics when I played this math genius in this play I did. There are so many things. The show that I'm doing now, the driving, the stunt driving that I get to do. But in this film specifically, there was a lot. I played sports in high school and college, but I never really played tennis, but I was really, really grateful to Reinaldo [Marcus Green] and the producers, they wanted to get that right.

So they let me train sometimes three to six hours a day at the old tennis academy in my little hometown with the best trainers. And when you have professional training that long with guys that focus on getting you good, it's amazing how much you can grow when you have the time and the infrastructure to do it. Not only did they train me in tennis, but they let me train their players, their young sort of juniors, top 20 juniors, and learn the vocabulary of training, the mindset of training, and different drills. I could just be fluid with it. I'm so extraordinarily grateful for that. I would start showing up at my training, and I would go as Rick Macci. I would just start training and talk like him. It was so good to carry that onto set. I have this unbelievable new skill now. I play all the time now. And I love it. It's really fun. And I'm training my son now.

Ah, that's great. You've talked about that before, sometimes staying in character or that mood when cameras aren't rolling. For "The Punisher," it was darker material, but when you're playing the opposite of that, just a friendly character like Rick Macci, is that a good space to stay in?

Yeah, I did. I really did. It was just such a joy. This one was all joy. It was all family, all righteous. I mean, it was just beautiful. Everyone's family was around. My kids were around. Saniyya and Demi's family were around. Just the young women as a unit, they were so awesome. Will is literally the most generous and wonderful person on earth. There's just such great people around you, that cast, that crew, and Reinaldo. I think you do, you do take that stuff on. I think it does really influence you. There are great kernels of wisdom to pick up from all these different characters you play. Look, I learned a lot of appreciation, and a lot of hard lessons from playing Frank Castle for a long time. And equally so, I think I learned from Rick Macci in terms of how I want be with my family and his positive outlook on life. So yeah, truly a much lighter and funner headspace.

Very good supporting roles in this movie and "Many Saints of Newark." When your role is supporting, how do you want to support the lead actors?

Oh, I love it. I love it. Especially with somebody like Will, who's just so unbelievably committed. What an honor to see the work that he was putting in, and to try to go right there with him, and challenge him and push him, and stay in it with him. And really not just with him, with everyone. I don't look at my commitment, or look at my journey really any differently whether I'm in one scene or whether I'm in the entire film. I really don't. Some of the favorite projects I've gotten to work on are things like "Wind River" or "Sicario" where I just kind of like breeze in and breeze out.

The more you live in it, and the more you sort of burn that character into your heart, I think, I love watching movies when I see a character kind of roll through. And then you think like, "I wonder where that person's going? What's their life like? I believe that that person's been through some stuff." Or like, "I wonder ..." I love that. I loved that growing up as a film fan. To get the opportunity to play those kinds of characters, awesome.

"True Romance is one of my favorite movies."

Those supporting roles you talk about, they're usually the best roles, too. Those are the characters that can just light a movie up.

I think they just add so much authenticity and life and texture. "True Romance" is one of my favorite movies. And if you look at Brad Pitt in that movie, or if you look at Gandolfini in that movie, they come in. If you look at every character in that film, you can make a movie about each one of them. It's just what it does to the collective. It's just so beautiful and fun. You believe in the world.

There's one scene in particular in "Many Saints of Newark" I wanted to ask about, where Tony's dad shoots the beehive hairdo in the car. It's so shocking. How was your day on set shooting that?

Look, that day, it was pretty by the book. You know what I mean? I think the thing that you learn quickly with David [Chase] and his genius is that every iteration that I read of that script, you could see that the pieces were set within the series. Meaning he has this sort of Shakespearean knowledge of these characters. He knew what their lives were like 30 years earlier, because you can watch the show and you can see these things. It's not just the sort of the literal, "Hey, this story happened. Now we're going to recreate this story." But there are little things that never even made it into the movie, or never even made it into the ultimate script that you can see play out throughout the series.

And to me, just as a writer myself, it's such a staggering level of comprehension and understanding and detail to know the nooks and crannies and the history of your characters in that way. With David, he's the Maestro and you want to make sure you're honoring what was in his head and his heart.

What are you writing at the moment?

Oh man. There's one sort of project in particular, this project about Shreveport called "The Bottoms" that is really my heart, and I'll have more to say about that very soon. But yeah, I fell in love with the process. There are many important and beautiful stories that I want to tell. I'm really grateful for the opportunity that I'm starting to get to tell them on my own.

As a writer yourself, what did you appreciate about the script for "King Richard"?

Look, I can't say enough good about Zach Baylin. I just can't. I think it's beyond just like how good it was on the page. The greatest filmmakers that I've worked with, without a doubt, I'm really proud of the list of folks that I've gotten to work with. I'm really grateful to have worked with them. They're also unbelievably different,but what I find is uniform among all of them is this real willingness to play and to change it up, and to let it be alive in the moment, and to let go of the strict and rigid rules. They create an environment where everyone's doing their work, everybody has this intimate knowledge of what we're trying to do in a scene, but now let's throw it out and let's see anything can happen.

You really can capture the electricity that way. So, that script on the page was unbelievable. It was unbelievably nuanced. The dialogue itself, the characters were written, you just believe the words. It made that easy. That being said, Zach was so willing and able and hungry to change on the fly. Improv snuck its way into every single scene of that film. It was supported and bolstered through Zach being right there, being like, "Well, what if you say this? How about this?" It was complete egoless collaboration, which again, I find uniform in all the best filmmakers, at least that I've worked with.

"King Richard" is now in theaters and available on HBO Max.