Jon Bernthal lightens up as Lee Iacocca in 'Ford v Ferrari'

The actor, known for playing tough guy roles, switches things up to play the auto icon as a young exec in racing drama

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

If you need muscle, you call Jon Bernthal. 

The actor — known for his macho work on "The Punisher" and "The Walking Dead," and in films such as "Wolf of Wall Street" and "Baby Driver" — admits he wasn't the obvious choice to play a young Lee Iacocca in "Ford v Ferrari." 

Jon Bernthal in 'Ford v Ferrari.'

"A lot of the roles I play are hyper-masculine, muscular parts," says Bernthal. "And I love that, I enjoy that. But I really wanted to show I could do something like this." 

So he chased after it. And Bernthal eventually won the role in the racing drama, playing the Detroit icon when he was still a budding Ford executive with something to prove, before he went on to become a titan of industry in his own right. "Ford v Ferrari" opens in theaters Friday. 

Bernthal was filming the Netflix series "The Punisher," in which he played the lead role of Frank Castle, when the Iacocca part came up. Bernthal would wrap shooting in New York, fly across the country to audition for director James Mangold in Los Angeles, and turn around and head back to the East Coast. 

"I'd go right from the airport to the Fox lot, throw down an audition, get some notes, come back and do it again," Bernthal says. "And I wouldn't have it any other way."

Bernthal's father taught him that if there was something he wanted to go after to chase it with everything he had. And Bernthal saw a lot of his father in Iacocca, and thought that going after the role in such a fashion spoke not only to the spirit of Iacocca but of Detroit as well.

Bernthal, 43, grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and knew Iacocca from seeing him on TV commercials as a child.

After winning the role, Bernthal dove deep into the character, reading 1984's "Iacocca: An Autobiography" and applying the eventual Chrysler CEO's successes and philosophies to a period where he was still climbing the corporate ladder.

"This movie centers on a time when he was young and ambitious, and success was still ahead of him," says Bernthal, on the phone last week. "I really tried to pay attention to what were, in his own words, the keys to his success, and then try to utilize them within the world and circumstances of the movie." 

Learning about Iacocca, "he's just as strong and masculine as any character I've ever played," Bernthal says. "But his strength lies in his integrity, his honesty, his loyalty and his business sense." 

Bernthal appreciated those traits in Iacocca, as well as his commitment to family. Bernthal and his wife, Erin, have three children, ages 8, 6 and 4. 

Jon Bernthal 'Ford v Ferrari.'

Bernthal's path to Hollywood was different than most. He was an athlete before he was an actor, his college baseball career leading him to a pro league in Europe.

He started studying acting at Moscow's Art Theater School, which he says gave him a new way to express himself. 

"I could tap into things that always got me in trouble, or looked down upon in my normal life," says Bernthal, who lives with his family outside of Los Angeles. "When I did them on stage, it was celebrated." 

When he started going out for roles he got "a million doors" slammed in his face, but it helped him develop a thick skin. 

"I've always sort of felt like an outsider in this industry," he says. "I've always felt I was kind of different than most actors, and a lot of times people didn't really accept me." 

That's changing, as "Ford v Ferrari" casts him in a new light. Wherever it may lead down the road — he's already filmed his part in the "Sopranos" prequel, "The Many Saints of Newark" — Bernthal says the unpredictability of his career is its biggest reward. 

"The best thing and the worst thing about this job is you never know what's going to happen next. You can either let that freak you out and get upset and spiral out of control, or you can embrace it and use it to embolden you. I choose the latter," he says. 

"There's one unbelievable project that's out there, and I can't wait for it to come into my life. It's out there, and to me, that's real exciting. The unknown is a total positive for me."


'Ford v Ferrari'

Rated PG-13: for some language and peril

Running time: 152 minutes

Starts Friday