It was the first day of filming "Fury," the drama of a five-man tank crew that defies the odds behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany. Jon Bernthal was waiting for cameras to roll for one of his scenes as Grady Travis, a womanizing country boy thrust into a battle as the tank's loader, when director David Ayer whispered into his ear.
Bernthal knew the words he heard — that his wife had been attacked in Venice by a group of men, that they had left her with shattered eye sockets — were untrue. Still, the actor trembled, he said. More important, Ayer's suggestion created an emotional path, a way to tap into the role of a short-tempered soldier trying to survive the last legs of war.
The actor soon came to realize those whispers from his director would be key to drawing out the performance audiences see on-screen.
"You need to get someone out of their comfort zone, do what you need to do and apologize about it later," Bernthal recalled, slouched in a chair at Sony Pictures Studios earlier this month. "What I think David is really into is making someone really uncomfortable and filming that."
The process has largely paid off, as "Fury" opened at No. 1 at the box office and passed the $60 million mark after its third weekend in theaters, earning an A-minus grade from audience polling firm CinemaScore in the process. For Bernthal, it's the latest success coming off a string of roles large and small: a drug dealer in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," Det. Joe Teague on TNT's short-lived series "Mob City," and the part that many will remember him most for, the conflicted Shane Walsh on AMC's hit drama "The Walking Dead."
"Fury," the actor said, was a bonding experience with the men who played the tank crew: Brad Pitt as the leader, Army Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier, Shia LaBeouf as gunner Boyd "Bible" Swan, Michael Peña as tank driver Trini "Gordo" Garcia and Logan Lerman as typist Norman Ellison, an inexperienced soldier whose arrival as a second driver heightens tensions.
Just as director Ayer had dropped a quiet emotional bomb in Bernthal's ear, so too did his fellow actors, slinging provocative comments at one another, all in hopes of prompting an emotional response.
"You allow yourself to go to this unbelievably vulnerable place, knowing it's going to break you," Bernthal said.
The actor recalled a dinner scene in which the tank crew was at odds with Wardaddy for coddling newbie Ellison. Bernthal wouldn't divulge what was said off-camera to create a sense of conflict in front of the camera — only that he later apologized to Pitt, who shrugged off the episode and compared the process to boxing, Bernthal said.
"No one can love you like your family, no one can hurt you like your family," he said. "It had to be this thing where we loved and respected each other so much that we could do these things."
Peña described Bernthal and LaBeouf as the "motors" behind the taunts on set. He said the cast bonded well, so the prodding proved to be motivation, not irritation.
"You have to get close to push each other's buttons," said Peña, who first worked with Bernthal on "World Trade Center."
The verbal jabs "can help you get over that hump" and make the scene "as real as possible," Peña said by phone. "There are certain people you don't have to worry about on set. Jon is one of those guys."
The sparring was physical too, as Ayer requested that the actors box daily as part of the process.
"You punch someone in the face, you get punched in the face and know everything about them," said Bernthal, who also boxed with stunt men and trainers and even Ayer. "That exposed all of our strengths and weaknesses right off the bat."
Bernthal's weak spot, his cast mates discovered, was his family: a wife and two young sons, from whom Bernthal was separated for more than six months while he filmed "Fury" in England and finished a string of other projects. In one of the film's final scenes, the tank crew is stranded at a crossroads as hundreds of German soldiers march closer with night looming. The crew readies to flee into the woods, but Pitt's Wardaddy stays behind. When Bernthal's Travis fails to coax his sergeant down from the tank, Bernthal's face twists with pain — a reaction to what Pitt said off-camera.
"He looked at me and said, 'Go, go be with your son,'" Bernthal said, striking his sternum with his fist. "There was no mention of Grady having a kid [in the script]. I think he was saving it, or the big man [Ayer] told him to say it. It just crushed me."
It took the whole ensemble to create his character, Bernthal said — cast mates who pushed the actor and made him search for his limits. His time on "Fury" reminded him that sometimes, film sets need chaos.