‘I’m a big believer in pain being an adhesive’: Jon Bernthal on ‘walking through fire’ for Ava DuVernay

<span>Jon Bernthal … ‘Isabel did not adhere to the echo chambers that we are in, that drag humanity down.’</span><span>Photograph: Joe Pugliese/August</span>
Jon Bernthal … ‘Isabel did not adhere to the echo chambers that we are in, that drag humanity down.’Photograph: Joe Pugliese/August

As Jon Bernthal’s face pings on to the screen from his California home, I’m peering in to his giant living room, looking for his three pit bull terriers. While he was, for a long time, mainly thought of as the square-jawed beefcake Shane Walsh in The Walking Dead (2010 to 2012, then again in 2018 and 2022), and later as the iron-pecced Punisher in two eponymous series and various episodes of Daredevil, the 47-year-old has become more associated with social conscience, on screen and off.

He has a podcast, Real Ones, where he talks to people on the frontlines of big issues – police officers, gang members, doctors, soldiers. He runs a community empowerment NGO, Drops Fill Buckets, with his brother Nick, an orthopaedic surgeon and professor at the University of California in Los Angeles. (Their other brother, Tom, is a business consultant and is married to the former Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.) And he advocates for pit bulls, the much-demonised dog breed, and has three of his own.

They’re not here: but there is a boxing ring behind him, complete with a heavy bag. “I train a bunch of kids locally, my children” – he has two sons, 12 and 11, and a nine-year-old daughter – “and then kids in the area, that want to learn boxing. We do some jujitsu, too. This is where it all goes down.”

What an unbelievably cool pursuit, I say – learning the fighting arts with a decorated superhero. “I really feel sports, athletics, competitive fighting: these are a few of the only areas left where everyone is judged by their work ethic, their humility, their grit, their determination, their kindness,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like, who you pray to. We have kids who are dealing with things that my kids have never had to deal with, kids from a much rougher setting. They’re all brothers and sisters.”

He ties this back to the film we’re here to discuss, Origin. He says it’s the first film he’s been part of that he’s been able to take his kids to see – not, I think, because it’s the first he’s made with a pro-social message, rather a combination of it’s progressive theme and his kids’ ages. It is a complicated, deeply unusual film. It’s a biopic of the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson, but it’s also an adumbration of her 2020 book, Caste: the Origin of Our Discontents, which was considered the most important intervention in the issues vexing the US for years, and was lauded by Barack Obama.

In it, Wilkerson argues that racism in the US is actually a caste system, characterised by the same social structures of hierarchy, inclusion, exclusion and purity that defined Nazi Germany, and that continues to shape Indian society. Wilkerson creates a detailed taxonomy common to all three, her so-called “eight pillars of caste”; divine will (the idea that social stratification is ordained by a higher force); heritability; prohibition of sex and marriage between castes; the belief that the dominant class is pure and mixing with others pollutes it; occupational hierarchy (this has been much more persistent in the US than its anti-miscegenation law); dehumanisation and stigma; terror and cruelty; and a belief in the inherent superiority of the dominant class.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor plays Wilkerson, and Bernthal her husband, a mild, semi-saintly presence. “Brett is this man who is there to bring the tea and find the keys and take out the trash, just to be this enormously supportive structure and I thought, you know, it’s really something you don’t see in films often, that the man has that role,” he says, winningly.

The experimental thing about the film is that it only intermittently tries to draw these ideas back into human stories, so a lot of the action is in the form of conversations between academics, or lectures, or lightbulb moments in the protagonist’s head. “It’s a hard thing to grasp,” Bernthal says.

“How do you convey it in a film and make it not feel like medicine? Make it not feel like a spoon-fed liberal woke agenda that you’re cramming down someone’s throat?”

He continues: “We had no contact with Isabel. She blessed the movie, she met with Ava.” (This is Ava DuVernay, who directs – she was the first African American woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe, for Selma, in 2014, so if anyone knows their way around a political biopic, it’s her.)

“Then Isabel said, ‘Go on your ticket and make it yours.’” He calls that a brave, selfless and smart decision, given how tempted any of us would be to tell our own story, and says it’s totally on-brand for Wilkerson.

Bernthal says Ellis-Taylor is a brilliant actor – “literally, I think my favourite working actor,” Bernthal says. “I got to know her on King Richard,” (the biopic of the Williams sisters’ dad) “I just believed in her so much and I was so blown away by her talent.”

I salute the audacity of the project because it is, unapologetically, a progressive provocation, a gauntlet, the assertion that you can think seriously about prejudice and its unifying themes, and bigotry doesn’t have to be arranged in a hierarchy, all its victims pitted against one another, and you can draw a direct line from the Holocaust to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and that it’s impossible to overstate the seriousness of terror and cruelty.

Basically, I like that it is so political, but Bernthal doesn’t agree. “I don’t think there was a political agenda behind this film at all.” Wait, what? “I don’t think that this was a Trojan horse for liberals. Isabel purposely and actively did not do that. She did not adhere to the echo chambers that we are in, that drag humanity down in such an acute and barbaric way, where we just hear what we want to hear.” He describes a scene in the film in which Ellis-Taylor shares a moment with a plumber in a Maga hat: they start off so suspicious of each other, and then find their common humanity talking about grief.

Still, I insist, it’s a film about ingrained racism and the structures by which it is upheld and replicated – how can that not be political? “I don’t think there’s anything political about equality between the races. I think people on all sides of politics believe in that. Think about all the things that we would be able to achieve as humanity if we just didn’t adhere to any kind of divisive bigotry. I think we all believe in our heart of hearts that we were created equal. This film says that our tendencies to try to be divisive will make us weaker in the long run. And I don’t think there’s anything political about that.” God love him, but I wish, like all liberals, he would be a bit less tai chi and a bit more jiujitsu.

It’s not that Bernthal is squeamish about politics in the arts: he lived in Moscow for two years between 1999 and 2001, studying acting,: “That’s really where I became an actor,” he says. “There’s a vitality to performance and to art in Russia. My teachers came up at a time where public gatherings were outlawed; they performed plays in secret, in abandoned buildings and subway tunnels. Everyone who saw those shows risked being imprisoned. I carry those people with me.” Putin was already in power; corruption was rife. “It was a wild time, quite lawless; the energy was unbelievably palpable. I never found a place more beautiful, and I never found a place more brutal.”

If Origin was a labour of love for everyone in it, that was especially true for DuVernay, who raised the money for it independently after parting ways with Netflix. She told CNN when it was released that it had been “shot in 37 days on three continents by two black independent producers and no studio.”

“When I heard about this singular and lonely journey that Ava was on to make this happen,” Bernthal says, “I thought: ‘Man, I want to be a part of that. I’ll walk through fire for you.’” The pair first met in Savannah, Georgia, to talk about the project, and ended up talking about everything – “How I moved through the world versus how she moves through the world – as a white man and a black woman.” They discussed the US civil rights movement and how it echoed through their families, “Young African Americans and young Jewish Americans were always down there together, fighting, dying for this cause”. They “basically fell in love, artistically”, he says. “I’m a big believer in pain being an adhesive. We should be bound by our pain. I love that this film really dissects that. What a ridiculous argument, to try to figure out whose pain is worse.”

• Origin is released in the UK on 8 March.