Jon Bernthal was told he was "out of [his] damn mind" when he won and then gave up a role on NCIS: Los Angeles to audition for The Walking Dead under original showrunner Frank Darabont. The star went on to play Shane Walsh, the once best friend and police partner of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), in the zombie drama's first two seasons. Though he originally auditioned for the lead role of Rick, Shane was the role Bernthal wanted "real bad."
"I read that [Walking Dead] script and it was the best script I had ever read, best pilot script I ever read. I had auditioned for a part on, I believe, NCIS: LA, and I had gotten it," Bernthal recalled at Fandemic Tour Houston over the weekend. "I was going to go do that show — I would still be doing that show. But I had read that script, and I said, 'I can't take this part until I at least audition for The Walking Dead.' Everybody thought I was out of my damn mind, but I was like, 'I just gotta try.'"
The search for Rick and Shane was whittled down to about ten actors, all called back for a final round of auditions.
"Normally these auditions are the most artificial, worst-ass things you've ever seen. You go into a room with a bunch of people in suits, and you do the scene in front of them, and they're all awkward and they don't know what they're looking at, and they're thinking about numbers and all this bullsh-t. It's a real kind of artificial kind of situation," Bernthal said. "But Frank Darabont did something very different. For the audition for Walking Dead, he had all the people that he was interested in, all the Ricks and Shanes, and he brought them onto a soundstage, and there was a real police car."
The actors then read an early scene that introduces Rick and Shane over hamburgers in their squad car.
"I remember praying the night before I went in, I just said, 'I want to be me tomorrow. Don't let the situation get the better of you.' I wanted it real bad. And I said, just be graceful and gracious to everybody, and it was a really beautiful process," he added. "So they ended up casting me as Shane, and that's really the part that I wanted."
As AMC continued the prolonged search for its Rick, a lack of funds forced the audition process off a soundstage and into Darabont's car parked in his garage. That's where the audition process encountered an unusual hiccup.
"One of my old pitbulls would be in the back, and when Andy Lincoln came in, we knew immediately this was the guy. The only problem was, my dog was snoring through his audition," Bernthal said. "He was in the back of the car when we were doing the scene, and they were like, 'What is that fricking noise?' We put his ass to sleep, we bored the sh-t out of him. [Laughs] It was pretty crazy. As soon as Andy came, it was like, 'Yeah, that's the guy. That makes total sense.'"
Series executive producer Gale Anne Hurd previously admitted the production once worried it would never zero in on the right Rick Grimes before she reviewed a tape from Lincoln, a British thespian then best known for his role in romantic comedy Love Actually.
"I remember calling up Frank Darabont and saying, 'God, there's something to this guy.' At that point, we didn't even know if we would be able to find our Rick Grimes. It was that serious," Hurd once told EW. "We had already cast Jon Bernthal, because we knew we had our Shane Walsh, and then when we brought [Andrew] over to the US and did that initial test in Frank's garage, in the car, in Frank's garage. And that's when we said, 'Oh my God, we have our Rick Grimes.' And who thought it was gonna be this [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art]-trained UK actor, that we only knew from [Love Actually]. Literally, people thought we were nuts."