Bernthal took off-set vow of silence

From left, Hugh O'Conor, Jon Bernthal, Tom Holland and Stanley Weber in "Pilgrimage,”

a drama directed by Brendan Muldowney, which is set in Ireland in the early 13th century.


By Karen Butler

Jon Bernthal says his non-verbal character in director Brendan Muldowney's Irish medieval drama, "Pilgrimage," has his own language even though he doesn't speak a word.

"As an actor, it's way less lines to learn, so that's good," he told the Irish Echo in a phone interview this spring before the movie screened at New York's Tribeca Film Festival. "I really try to go after things that will present a challenge.

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“The script really blew me away when I read it. One of the things that I loved about it is how many languages are spoken in the film. You have French, you have Gaelic, you have English, you have Latin. You have all these different languages that are spoken and there's this other language, which is the language of the mute. I had to try to figure out a way to communicate, to make this man at least communicate to the other characters and to the audience what this guy was going through. I found that really interesting."

"The Walking Dead" alum and "The Punisher" star said when he first showed up to work on "Pilgrimage," he and Muldowney decided he should stay silent for the first few weeks on and off set to understand exactly who this man was.

"And I did that and I learned a lot about myself and I think I really learned a lot about the character," Bernthal said. "The first thing I noticed, when you stop talking is, obviously, you hear a lot more, you see a lot more. But, two, I think you really have to forego your wants and your needs. We use our voice so much to ask for things -- a glass of water, a banana -- especially on a set when you have to stay in your place. I need to be excused for the bathroom.”

He added: “When you quit talking, any time you really want something, you go through this process of saying: 'Do I really want that? Do I really need that?' And, then, for this character, who has taken his vow of silence, in my interpretation, from the shame and the sort of inner torment of everything he has been through and everything he has done in the Crusades, you start asking yourself: 'Do I deserve it? Do I deserve this thing that I want? And maybe I'll just stay quiet and be penitent.' And there is something there for me that was really sort of the kernel of the character."

Sense of mystery

The actor admitted it was difficult to abstain from talking to his co-stars when the cameras stopped rolling in those early days of production, but he said once he broke his vow of silence, he and the other actors bonded quickly.

"We were living in a place in western Ireland, on the coast, 30 miles from any town," the only American cast member recalled. "We lived all under the same roof. We ate all our meals together. So, for me, committing to this silence off-set meant I was around everyone, but I couldn't just turn it off and go into a pub and have a conversation or a meal. I was with these guys, so I had to remain silent,” Bernthal recalled. “So, I think, in the beginning there was a real sense of mystery. A lot of these guys had never heard my voice and I was spending all day, every day with them. They were always unbelievably respectful and kind, but I could tell, also, that was probably a little annoying because there is a guy sitting there at the dinner table every night, they're all having a beer and I'm sitting there silent the whole time.

“I remember it was probably a week or maybe 10 days in on a Friday when we wrapped and I decided to introduce myself to some of the members of the cast who I'd been spending hours and hours and hours with and it was funny,” he said. “We got to know each other really well and after I made the decision to say, 'OK, I've learned what I've learned from that and now it's time to start talking,' they all joked with me that they liked me a lot better when I was quiet.

“But we all became enormously close and there are unbelievable bonds from this movie. It happens on some movies, it doesn't on others,” he said. “But, I mean, really, really, really deep relationships were forged on this. Guys that I am enormously close with now, I consider them part of my family, we stay in touch and we see each other all the time."

Asked if he felt a particular connection to his co-star Tom Holland since they both also appear in Marvel superhero projects, Bernthal declared: "I can't say enough good about Tom Holland.

"His process of tackling Spider-Man [the character he plays in 'Captain America: Civil War' and 'Spider-Man: Homecoming]' was all going on through this film. I think he made three audition tapes while he was there. He was part of my audition tape for 'Punisher,'" Bernthal revealed. "I saw a fortitude with him and a drive in him. It's not even that you don't see it in kids his age, you just don't see it in people. He was absolutely determined to win that part. It's how he lives his life. He is incredibly brave, just ridiculously talented. But, more important, he's very kind and a great, great young man from an unbelievably beautiful family. I've gotten to know his parents, his brothers.”

Tapestry of real events

Written by Jamie Hannigan, "Pilgrimage" casts Holland as novice monk Brother Diarmuid and Bernthal as his protector. Together, they travel across Ireland, heading toward Rome, with members of a Catholic order sworn to guard a sacred relic against vicious blackguards, led by Richard Armitage's Sir Raymond de Merville, who want the artifact for their own purposes. While the story is a work of fiction, it is woven into a tapestry of real events.

Muldowney explained in a separate phone chat with the Echo the same day. "There are so many things going on in the film -- the 13th Apostle to the Norman invasion in Ireland to the fact that King John of England was fighting with the Pope because the Pope had tried to put a different Archbishop of Canterbury in. So, when King John didn't like it, the Pope put an interdict on the country, which meant no one could say Mass, no one could be buried, nobody could be baptized and the Crusade's going on the whole time."

He further noted the backstories for Bernthal and Armitage's characters were that they had fought in the Fourth Crusade. "Which was a sort of a disastrous crusade where they sacked Constantinople, which was a Christian city they raped and pillaged. So, there is a lot going on -- a lot of different, historical moments in the film," the filmmaker said, indicating why Bernthal's mute feels the need to atone for his wartime deeds.

So, what makes now the perfect time to tell this story?

"Well, I'm careful about suggesting about anything I do, unless I directly went out trying to have a relevance for today, which we didn't do," Muldowney said. "We went on with a story about the past, about corruption of faith and extremism and, yet, the world is moving in dangerous directions. Everything seems to be extreme from the right to the left from Christianity, everywhere seems to be moving in an extreme direction, so, I suppose -- not that we have any answers -- but, I mean, just watching a character who is so driven by his fundamentalism is frightening to watch."

The Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art and Design graduate went on to say he was happy his lead actors arrived with loads of stunt experience behind them and were well prepared to execute the epic fight scenes in "Pilgrimage."

"That helped a lot," Muldowney said, adding: "Even with that, the last shooting day in Ireland was on the beach with this fight that happens at the end and we shot until the sun went down. So, everyone went, I think, three hours over. That was the only day, really. We didn't go overtime much, but we just had to get it. Without their experience, it would have been a lot harder."

Co-starring Stanley Weber, Hugh O'Conor, John Lynch and Rory Conroy, "Pilgrimage" was released on DVD and Blu-ray yesterday.