LOS ANGELES — The post-apocalyptic drama “The Walking Dead,” which resumes its second season Sunday on AMC, prides itself on its sprawling ensemble cast: one part zombies looking for their next meal, the other part survivors trying not to become dinner. Although all the survivors have struggled to maintain a semblance of humanity and sanity, no one has struggled with it more than Shane, played by Jon Bernthal. (Spoiler alert: If you’re not caught up on this season, you may want to stop reading now.)
In the midseason finale, the incessantly brash Shane initiated a zombie shooting spree, enraged that the owner of the farm where he and a group of survivors were staying had been housing a swarm of the living dead in a nearby barn. After opening the barn doors, Shane shot the creatures as they stumbled out, to demonstrate his power. But then he stopped in his tracks: The young girl they’d been searching for all season shuffled out, and she’d been transformed into a zombie. Paralyzed by shock, Shane stood by as even-tempered Rick — Shane’s former colleague and best friend — raised his gun and fired.
“It was a commanding moment,” said Bernthal, recalling the game-changing scene. “And it wasn’t Shane’s.”
The bleak turning point has helped the 35-year-old actor bring added depth to a seemingly one-dimensional character — one who got killed off early on in Robert Kirkman’s comic book on which the series is based. In the TV version, Bernthal’s Shane is a man who has mastered discreet yet expressive glances, artfully embodied a disgruntled disposition and wrestled with questions of morality.
The Shane viewers met at the start of the series — a man guarding his lover (the wife of Rick, who was originally presumed dead) and her son while also acting as the de facto leader of a group of survivors — is now the frustrated second in command who must sit back as Rick resumes his patriarchal role.
“Once you get a taste of that No. 1 position, it’s a real hard thing to give up,” said a lively Bernthal, discussing the character over breakfast at a restaurant near his home in Venice Beach. “It’s an incredibly intoxicating position to be in as a man.” The result is a roguish character who is neither hero nor villain: just a man in extraordinary circumstances embracing a different code of conduct.
“I think what’s so beautiful about Shane is he kind of adopts this new world order,” Bernthal said. “He’s realizing that there’s actually no laws in this world. And he’s kind of becoming this creature of the zombie apocalypse where he can shut down all emotions. But the tragedy of his character is he realizes that’s an impossible task. He’s probably the most emotional character on the show. So he’s tricking himself. It’s just such a great role to play.”
“It’s always more interesting any time you can have the audience questioning whether or not this guy is actually a bad guy,” Kirkman said by telephone. “Being able to take our time and show Shane evolving and growing into himself is a lot cooler than the ‘Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am’ that you get in the comic.”
Shane is Bernthal’s most high-profile role. “The Walking Dead” stands as the most-watched drama series on basic cable in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic. December’s midseason finale drew 6.6 million total viewers, with 4.5 million in the 18-49 demographic.
Bernthal’s pre-“Walking Dead” TV career is comparable to that of a zombie walk: slow but resolute. The D.C. native started as a stage brat, training at the Moscow Art Theatre School in Russia during his early 20s. He peppers his conversation with references to Anton Chekhov and Konstantin Stanislavsky and speaks excitedly about his training, which involved acrobatics, speech and ballet.
Despite the ballet training, Bernthal appears to be as much of a man’s man as his current role would suggest. During his stint abroad, he also played professional baseball in Europe. Not the usual prerequisite to earning a master’s in fine arts from Harvard, but that was Bernthal’s route.
He originally took to television (a small role in “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” in 2002 and later parts in CBS’ short-lived 2006 sitcom “The Class” and ABC’s 2009 series “Eastwick”) as part of a scheme to get back onstage: “I saw that people who were getting the roles I wanted to play all had been on TV. So I thought, ‘I gotta get out to L.A. and get on TV so I can do theater.’”
These days, although he takes on the occasional theater role — he last appeared in a small production, “Small Engine Repair,” in Los Angeles in April — he enjoys being in front of the camera. Last year, he appeared in the Woody Harrelson-starring cop drama “Rampart”; his next film project, “Snitch,” which features Dwayne Johnson and Susan Sarandon, will be released in 2013.
And what of his “Walking Dead” character? Is Shane doomed? Word recently leaked that Bernthal is in conversations with TNT to star in its period drama pilot “L.A. Noir,” steered by Frank Darabont, who developed and executive-produced the first season of “Walking Dead” before parting ways with the show last year.
During the interview, weeks before murmurs of a new gig, Bernthal was mysterious about Shane’s life span on the show.
“The way I look at it is — and I know I’m being a cheese ball — but I really do look at what I do as being a soldier for the story. I want nothing more than to work with them forever. But if to service the story characters have to be sacrificed, so be it.”