SMALL ENGINE REPAIR Interview: Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, & John Pollono On Their Unique Dynamic (Exclusive)

We recently caught up with Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, and John Pollono to talk Small Engine Repair, and of you've ever wondered what it's like to be slapped by Jon...well, we have you covered right here!

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In Small Engine Repair, Frankie (John Pollono), Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Shea Whigham) are lifelong friends who share a love of the Red Sox, rowdy bars and Frankie’s teenaged daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo). But when Frankie invites his pals to a whiskey-fueled evening and asks them to do a favour on behalf of the brash young woman they all adore, events spin wildly out of control.

Based on Pollono's award-winning play, Small Engine Repair is a pitch-black comedic drama with a wicked twist and a powerful exploration of brotherhood, class struggle and modern masculinity.

We shared all the reasons we loved this movie in our review (check it out here), but got to sit down and speak with the movie's three leads earlier this week. That presented us with the opportunity to delve into how their unique dynamic on screen translated behind-the-scenes, especially with John having to direct himself and his fellow actors as Small Engine Repair's writer, director, and star.

Plus, if you've ever wondered what it feels like to be slapped in the face by Jon Bernthal...well, Shea has you covered! This is a really fun chat, and we'd highly recommend you watch the video below!

Oh, and yes, you'd best believe we did our best to get something Punisher-related out of Bernthal...

Small Engine Repair arrives in theaters from Vertical Entertainment on Friday, September 10.

I loved the film. I watched it this morning and think it’s a really special piece of filmmaking and I can see that there must have been a real sense of brotherhood on set. That got me wondering, Jon and Shea, what’s it like when one of your co-stars is also directing you? 

Jon: [Laughs] You know, he also wrote the piece and John and I have kind of been living this for a long time since we did the play ten years ago. I think the best projects are the ones where they’re really collaborative in the real sense of the word where it’s devoid of ego, there’s no real hierarchy, and we’re all just working on something together. When you get around the real greats, that’s always the way it is. That’s how this was. Shea would come over, he’d give me a note, I’d give him a note, we’d both give John a was free-flowing like that. How do we get there? We’re digging for something. We’re mining for something. How do we make this a little bit more dangerous and what are we trying to get at here?

Shea: I never listened to a note he gave me.

Jon: And that is really why his performance is inherently flawed. Had he just gone by the buoys in the water I put forward for Shea...what he did was stunning, but I could have delivered him glory.

Shea: [Laughs]

Jon: But that’s really how it was. It was an open forum. Open books, open hearts, and it’s really the only way to work.

Shea: This was John’s first piece he directed and a lot of times, I find the early mistake is that someone writes and directs and are like, ‘No, it has to be done this way. This is the way I wrote it.’ They don’t realise how much you put into it and that at some point, an actor crosses over and understands a character even more than a writer or a director. At some point. What he did that was so beautiful was he brought us in and let me find Packie. Jon knew Swaino, but I think, correct me if I’m wrong, he changed from all those performances. He got deeper and we kept challenging each other. That’s what you see viscerally on the screen. This piece is so personal to these guys, and then I came in and you just want to fit in. You want to see how close you can get to John’s vision. That was my challenge and I loved that. I wanted to see if we could bring to fruition what he had in his mind. 

John, to turn that question back to you, you’re obviously directing but you’re also performing alongside these two. What’s it like in the moment to be thinking as a director, performer and be conscious of your fellow actors as well in the scene?

John: Look, I really try to take that adage of ‘Work with the best and get out of the way.’ What am I going to tell Jon and Shea? I’m not going to give them acting notes. I feel like I can just say, ‘Hey, this is what we want.’ I feel like my directing started when I wrote it, and to Shea’s point, these guys know more about the characters than I do as the writer or director. I think it’s about creating that camaraderie and supporting one another. Honestly, as an actor, I was trying stuff and we’d give each other notes. When there’s that level of trust, you just go for it. The script is a roadmap. This is a very simple story, but it’s about love and it’s about friendship and the characters. Why wouldn’t you let those characters dictate moment to moment? 

Shea: Sorry to interrupt you John, but the director is the captain on the ship. If I was struggling or Jon was struggling, he’d come in and say, ‘Maybe think about this or think about that.’ It wasn’t like he completely...he’s very humble. He came in and laced in or feathered something in for me, especially. Packie was tricky, so he’s incredible this is his first piece out and he got this result.

Jon and Shea, I loved the dynamic between Swaino and Packie. It’s so complicated and so pure at the same time. For the two of you, you’re going from joking in one scene to slapping each other in the next - what’s that like for you as actors?

Jon: It was a joy. Shea is a treasure. It doesn’t get better than that, and I know that. I respect him as an artist the same way I respect him as a guy. I love him and love his family. When you get to play somebody that good, that quick, the smart, there’s no place that it can’t go. Nothing is off-limits. You can throw out something and you know you’re going to get something back to surprise you and affect you. I don’t know how he felt, but it felt like we kind of flowed whether the camera was on or the camera was off. 

Shea: To be specific, I’ll take that one scene where he had to hit me in the bar. You have to have a lot of love underneath that because that wasn’t a fake hit; that was a pop from Jon Bernthal. All kidding aside, he hit me a couple of times...I think we did it four or five times, but he hit me once and that’s the one I hoped we got. Afterwards, there’s so much love underneath which is what great fights and great scenes like that should be about. It shouldn’t be just about the pop. It should be the aftermath and even before the pop. All that you’re feeling - you may not know what you’re feeling as an audience member - but you know that you’re feeling something. That, to me, is a great movie. Make me feel. Make me laugh, make me cry, scare the shit out of me. Make me feel something. They’re too formulaic nowadays. I’ve seen this two or three times and I still want to see it again.

Just very quickly, Jon, while I have you - is there any chance we’re going to see you back as The Punisher soon? There are all those Daredevil rumours…

Jon: Ah, I don’t know, man. I don’t know! You know that...I don’t know about all that. 

Well, fingers crossed, anyway…

Shea: He’s lying! He’s already filming! 

Jon: [Laughs]

Thanks, guys. This is such a special film, a real movie of the year candidate and you’re all just terrific.

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