When Jon Bernthal and Tom Holland were shooting Pilgrimage together both actors were simultaneously trying to land roles in the Marvel big- and small-screen universe. During breaks from filming the gritty medieval action film, the two actors collaborated on the audition tapes that helped convince Marvel higher-ups they were the right people to play the Punisher and Spider-Man.
Bernthal read lines off-camera during one of Holland’s many Spider-Man tapes, while Holland went a step farther, and acted in a scene with Bernthal during his Punisher audition.
“They use mock scenes, but it was a man telling this young boy about shooting a deer — describing the moment of killing a deer, I believe,” Bernthal told Variety during an interview at the Tribeca Film Festival. “We had to play that the deer was there and I see him getting ready to kill it. He was off camera and we were like, ‘get in here and do it with me.'”
During another take for the audition film, shot in a park in Belgium, co-star Stanley Weber walked through the woods pretending to be the deer.
It worked. Bernthal is playing the Punisher, a gun-toting vigilante who kills bad guys without compunction, in an upcoming Netflix series of the same name. He made his first appearance as the character during the second season of Daredevil. Holland first wore Spidey’s tights in Captain America: Civil War and will headline this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. The two actors formed a bond shooting Pilgrimage in remote locations in Ireland and Belgium, where they both played men of the cloth transporting a holy relic to Rome.
“I can’t say enough good things about Tom,” said Bernthal. “He’s got strength and talent and fortitude that’s not only remarkable for someone his age, but for someone period.”
“We were all part of him nailing and tracking down the Spider-Man role,” he adds. “We got to see his determination. I’ve never seen anything like that — how hard he fought for it — and that’s how he approaches his work everyday.”
Bernthal also sounds pretty committed to his craft. For Pilgrimage, in which he plays a warrior monk who has taken a vow of silence as penance for his role in the Crusades, he stopped talking for the first ten days of filming. Shortly before production began, he wrote a note to his castmates letting them know he’d be giving them the silent treatment.
“That can be a pain in the ass for people, but it was received really beautifully by the cast and the crew,” said Bernthal. “I was never met with frustration.”
Bernthal said the experience helped him get into the right frame of mind.
“I learned a lot about myself,” he adds. “I learned about why people would take a vow of silence. It’s about divorcing yourself from your wants and your needs. You use your voice to ask for things and then it becomes a question of if you deserve that thing that you ask for. That’s where the penance and the shame of the character came in.”
But Bernthal also decided at a certain point to break character. The remote locations in the West Coast of Ireland and the Ardennes meant that cast and crew lived in close proximity, eating meals and socializing with one another. Not talking became too difficult, and he realized he’d only be remaining mute out of pride.
“I felt bad because it was like, ‘oh here’s the silent guy again,'” said Bernthal. “I’m the only American. I didn’t want to be the a–hole. The one thing I will say is when I started talking again, the cast collectively told me they liked me better when I was silent.”
Bernthal’s performance may be dialogue free, but it’s very expressive. His character is haunted by the violence he saw done in the name of God, and he seeks to atone for his sins. However, that experience hasn’t made him a pacifist. His character is ready to take up arms when needed, making bloody work of his enemies.
“He’s very good at playing a vulnerability and sadness, as well as a real danger,” said Brendan Muldowney, the film’s director. “I remember a week in saying, ‘there’s something going on here. It’s in the eyes. There’s a tragedy there.'”
Perhaps it’s the role he just played in “Pilgrimage,” but Bernthal is tight-lipped about what fans can expect from The Punisher. He notes that Marvel will exact revenge if he reveals too much.
“I just hope everybody feels like we did the source material justice,” said Bernthal, who admits that the character resonates with a wide range of fans.
“He means a lot to people, not only to the comic book fans, who this character really belongs to, but to members of law enforcement and the military,” adds Bernthal. “He means something to guys who’ve gone to fight and have died for this country with that Punisher skull on their body armor.”
Pilgrimage is screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. It debuts on Aug. 11, 2017.