‘Walking Dead’ Star: Shane and Rick’s Relationship Will Become ‘Very Explosive’

Jon Bernthal also talks about whether Shane is a hero or a villain, and how he — and his character — are fueled by fatherhood

The second half of season two won't pick up until February, but "The Walking Dead" breakout star Jon Bernthal — who plays Shane — teases that it will be well worth the wait.

From the set of a movie he's filming with Dwayne Johnson, Susan Sarandon and Michael Kenneth Williams, Bernthal chatted with TheWrap about last week's crushing midseason finale of "The Walking Dead," how he feels about Shane's controversial Otis offing and how that Rick/Shane/Lori triangle is going to play out when the show returns. Two words: "very explosive."

Are you getting a lot of feedback from fans, and how strongly they're reacting to Shane and his actions in season two?
You know, I am. I mean, it's always kind of garnered strong reaction, both good and bad, from the beginning. Before we even started, you know, I remember going to New York, last year, before the show had even aired, and when I was announced at Comic Con … everybody sort of announced their name and what character they were playing, and I said I was playing Shane, and I just got this chorus of resounding boos from the audience. (Laughing)

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In the comic book, he's sort of this … I think he could be perceived as this kind of one-note, sort of villainous kind of character.  But I always thought, even in a comic book, there's so much more to him. I think he's just a character that kind of got caught up in a situation that was so much bigger than him.

And that's what initially drew me to the character and made me so desperate to play him.  I just think he's such an interesting guy, and I think that one of the greatest things about our show is that it really ignites the audience; it really pushes them to ask questions.

I think there's so many people were sort of … themselves, was this something — you know, was this the right thing to do.  Is Shane a villain?  Was he wrong to do this? And any time, through your art, through your work, you can sort of get the audience to ask questions and look inward, that's the biggest thrill that we can possibly have as actors.

So where did you land on the issue of Shane killing Otis? Is he a hero or a villain?
I think it's really important when you're playing a character to love him and believe in him, and to never act out of … I don't think people act out of evilness. I think that Shane is a guy who is really trying to adapt to this new world order where things like shame and emotion and a moral compass, where they, I think he looks at those as things that will hold you back in this world. You have to make hard decisions and you have to sort of build this wall around your emotions.

What's so interesting about the character is that that's an impossible thing to do, and he's an unbelievably emotional guy. He's a hard feeling guy, and it's impossible to build a wall around your heart, and I think that he's really trying hard to show how he's different than Rick … (that) he's the guy who's willing to make hard decisions, and he is a survivor.

The sort of dilemma of the character is, again, that building this wall around your emotions is an impossible task. It's what makes us human, and although he is adapting to this new world order, it's an impossible task and I think he got through (killing Otis) by thinking he was doing it for the boy; he was doing it for Laurie; he was doing it for Rick.

And I think he thought that it was something that he'd be able to sort of block the emotion out of. But he realizes very quickly that's an impossible task.  And it haunts him.

Shane is also in a unique position, in that he hasn't really lost the people he loves most … they're right there in front of him, but he can't be with them the way that he wants to be.
Yeah, I think you really kind of got to the crux of the character with that. That's it. I think that there's — and I've said it before — there's two kinds of loneliness in this world. There's the loneliness when you're away from all the people that you love.  Most survivors in this world have lost everybody that was important to them.

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I think that's a very lonely existence, but it's a very different kind of loneliness than that biting, gnawing, awful loneliness of being right there with the people that you do love more than anything, but you can't deal with them the way you want.

I think that that will drive a man to unbelievable acts, whether it's a desperation to sort of win back the relationships he had, or whether it's in an effort to sort of rebel against the loneliness or whether it's in an effort to redeem himself. That kind of loneliness, I think,
really brings out the best and worst in people.

And I think it's such a cool thing for the character, because it will make him do things that are absolutely heroic, but I think it will also make him do things that are absolutely deplorable and vengeful.  

In season one, it seemed clear Shane's purpose was to protect Lori and Carl. But then Rick came back, and in season two, he has definitely taken the leadership role, yet Shane doesn't seem to believe Rick can hack it in this new world. So is his purpose, in his mind, still to protect Lori and Carl?
Yeah.  I think that's it.  I mean, I think it's very important to remember that in the beginning, this decision to take Lori and Carl and try to get them to Atlanta and try to get them to safety, to just do whatever it takes to keep them alive, that came out of a love for his best friend Rick, and I think that's what makes it so interesting.

Somewhere inside of Shane, he really feels like all of this was an unbelievably unselfish, altruistic move for his friend, the exact guy who now he feels like he's getting in the way of. And that's where you start to get feelings of betrayal and feelings of, all the guilt and shame that he feels for sleeping with his best friend's wife. But I think (Shane) feels like the kernel of all this was him just trying to be a good friend.

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Shane's a very driven guy and once he sort of made the decision that his life now is all about keeping (Lori and Carl) alive, then he fell in love with these two people. He loves being a father figure for Carl.  He loves being Lori's man.  You know, once he adopted that, anyone who gets in the way of that is getting in the way of his mission and violating his code of why he's now alive.

And the number one thing in the way of it now is Rick.
Yes. That's what's so interesting about it, is it's the very guy that set him on the mission in the first place that's now getting in the way of it.

One of the really cool things about the show is that all of these things are really multi-layered and nothing's really black and white. I think that, yes, Shane does believe that Rick's moral compass and him making these sort of weak decisions will get in the way of these people's safety.  

And I think there's also an underlying tone to it that he doesn't admit to himself, that he really wants to prove to Lori that he's more of a man, and that he can keep her safe in a way that Rick can't.

A lot of his behavior, I think, is reactionary to the fact that she's choosing Rick over him.

So where can he and Rick go from here? They're kind of dancing around each other right now, but that has to boil over eventually, right?
What's so interesting about the second half of the season is that Rick is going to prove that he's very much capable of keeping these people alive.

What that does to Shane is really, really interesting. You want somebody to be a certain way, and then they prove that they actually are that way, and what happens then can be very explosive.

And there's the whole matter of Lori's baby … Shane really believes the baby is his, doesn't he?
He absolutely does, and I think that you've got to look at just sort of realities of living in the world of the zombie apocalypse. I think Shane is sitting there thinking, you know, in this world, you're never going to find your wife.  You're never going to find a woman.  You're never going to settle down. You're never going to have a family.  All those dreams and all those things that we take for granted as possibilities of our life, in this world, you know, once you put yourself in the world that our show takes place in, it's a very hopeless existence in that way.

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And then all of a sudden, boom, here it is; here's this chance, and yes, I think that absolutely he has to believe it's his kid.  It's the only hope his character has.  And again, what's so wonderful about the character is the same thing that makes him so dangerous: once he gets an idea in his head and he believes it as gospel, he'll go to the death to defend that.

"The Walking Dead" cast seems like a very tight-knit group, especially since you're filming away from Hollywood, off in Atlanta together. How was the cast affected by the situation with Frank Darabont being fired?
You know, with Frank, that was a devastating blow to all of us, creatively, emotionally. I mean, it was an awful thing to go through. Frank is my dear friend.  I love him with all my heart, and this show is a show because of Frank. I think the reason why we went forward and we continued to do the best work we possibly could, was because Frank put together such an unbelievable group of artists on the ground, and we all believed in each other so much. We only had one choice, and that was to kind of soldier on.

But losing Frank was enormously sad for everybody, and you know, yes, I think it really helped that we were in Georgia, kind of away from everything, and that we could band together and concentrate on the people that were on the ground, making the show every day. But, you know, losing Frank was enormously sad to me.  I love Frank, and, you know … I don't really know what else I could say about that.

Are you finished filming on season two?
We're all done.  I'm in Shreveport now.  I'm shooting here in downtown Shreveport.  I'm doing a movie right now called "Snitch."  So it is very odd to be playing a character other than Shane.  It's very weird, kind of starting over.

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That's the movie with The Rock?
Yes, it's with Dwayne Johnson and Susan Sarandon, Barry Pepper, Michael Kenneth Williams who played Omar on "The Wire." He's one of the best actors our country has.  So yeah, we're just down here in rehearsals right now. We get started on Sunday.  And we're working with this great director, Ric Roman Waugh, who did a movie called "Felon," which was just a great movie. I'm really excited to get started, but I'm very nervous.

That's a great cast.
Yes, it's a really cool cast.  I mean, and there's others … Benjamin Bratt, David Harbour, Harold Perrineau … it just goes on and on.  It's a really, really cool cast, and I think it's going to be a really interesting movie.  I just, I hope I don't screw it up.

I'm sure that won't happen. Can you talk about what the movie's about?
It's basically about, it's based on a true story.  It was a PBS "Frontline" special about mandatory minimums in drug sentencing. It's about a young kid who's sentenced to 10 years in prison, and his father makes a deal with the DEA, to get him out, to try to bring in a bigger drug dealer.

And his father teams up with an ex-con who's trying to get his life in order for his own son.  They team up together, and they brought down some members of the Mexican mafia and the drug cartel.  Dwayne Johnson plays the father, and I play the guy who he teams up with, the ex-con.

You're also in "Rampart," right, with Woody Harrelson?
Yes, "Rampart" was an awesome experience.  I think that the focus of the story changed a lot of my stuff in it; I ended up not being in the movie as much, which is always sort of too bad. But to be able to work with (director) Oren Moverman was such an unbelievable honor for me.  I think he's a national treasure.  I think he's one of the best directors working today, and I'll love him and work with him forever.

And getting to be friends with Woody Harrelson is sort of a dream come true for me, because he's my favorite actor.  He's been my favorite actor since I was a kid, and now he's one of my dear friends.  And I believe in him as an actor and as a man, and he's just the best as far as I'm concerned.  It was an awesome experience making that movie.

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Your bio says you played professional baseball and studied acting in Russia … how did that come about?
Yes, I moved to Moscow.  I left school. I was sort of a knucklehead, troublemaker kid growing up. I went to school, in America, to play sports, and I found acting in college, but then I left college. I didn't finish, and I was kind of getting in trouble all the time.  I met this wonderful acting teacher in college named Alma Becker, who told me about the Moscow Art Theater in Russia, and I moved to Moscow and started studying acting there.

It saved my life, and taught me things about acting that I could have never learned here. Unbelievable discipline, training in acrobatics and ballet … it's an unbelievable sort of belief, almost religious belief, in the craft of acting.

And I played pro baseball while I was there, and it was really the experience of my life. I lived in Moscow for a few years, and then from there, I went to graduate school for acting (at Harvard).  They had seen me in a show in Moscow, and they asked me to come to graduate school there.  

So I really credit Alma for saving my life and putting me on the right track. What I learned in Russia was just so unbelievably valuable, and it was, I think, the most important — aside from the birth of my son and marrying my wife — it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

And then (Alma) ended up marrying my wife and I last summer.

That's cool. She's really come full circle with you.
Yes, definitely, full circle. She's my angel, no question about that.

How old is your son?
He's about five months old now.

Wow, so he was born during the show, and while you were filming these dramatic storylines about Shane's fatherly feelings towards Carl and possibly having a child of his own with Lori?
Yes, and it was a crazy thing to go through, because, you know, he was born while I was shooting, and I rushed off the set. Andy Lincoln offered to cover for me. He insisted that I leave. I got the news while I was covered in mud and blood, and he covered for me, took care of my dog, and just said, "Go, go, go, we'll take care of the show!"

They're really, they're the best TV family you could ever hope for, that cast and that crew, so yeah, my son is really a child of "The Walking Dead," you know. He moved back to Georgia with us, and he's on the set all the time. He's the gift of my life, this little man.