Jon Bernthal can credit his career to a stupid mistake. A baseball player with an I-don’t-care attitude, Bernthal was looking for an easy course to fill Skidmore College’s arts requirement. The plan was to sign up for a theater class packed with 200 other kids, disappear into the far reaches of the lecture hall, and promptly fall asleep. But Bernthal flubbed his registration and ended up in a class of 10 with a professor who meant business. His blunder is our blessing, because without that class, Bernthal, 36, may have gone on to coach Little League or work in a cubicle somewhere. And we wouldn’t have met his interpretation of Shane Walsh, the deputy America had a long-standing love-hate relationship with during the two seasons Bernthal starred in AMC’s zombie hit The Walking Dead.

Instead, his no-nonsense theater teacher, Alma Becker, became his mentor, and acting became Bernthal’s outlet. “I just fell in love with it,” he says. “I finally found something that I was passionate about.” So passionate that he let his grades slip in favor of acting and, well, the college noticed. When Becker learned Bernthal wouldn’t be finishing school, she suggested he get a theater education (and a swift kick in the butt) in Russia—more specifically, at the prestigious Moscow Arts Theater. Bernthal took the advice.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Jon Bernthal was a troublemaker. He grew up just outside DC in Cabin John, Maryland, close enough to make the District his playground. When Bernthal wasn’t getting into trouble with the law, he and his buddies built forts in abandoned buildings and breakdanced on the streets of Georgetown for cash. He campaigned for Walter Mondale, though today he can’t remember why he wanted the politician to win. Bernthal attended the prestigious Sidwell Friends School, where he played sports, but still managed to find ways to thoroughly annoy the administration. “I was sort of right on the cusp of getting kicked out every year,” he says. “They would always call my parents into the office and I would turn on this performance, begging them not to kick me out.” Evidently he was already succeeding as an actor; he finished school as planned.

A series of fortunate events has taken Bernthal around the globe and across the country, but he still considers himself a Washingtonian. “I feel like my soul is definitely here,” he explains. He hasn’t returned home for more than quick trips—he visits his parents in Cabin John on Thanksgiving and attended the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner this past April—which is why many of his DC memories are from childhood: eating at Cactus Cantina and Uncle Julio’s, drinking with friends at The Brickskeller, and hiking the Billy Goat Trail. “The best section [of the trail] was by the Old Angler’s Inn,” he says. “It is one of the most beautiful hikes you can go on.”

What Bernthal really connects to in Washington, though, are the Redskins. You can call him an Angeleno, but there’s no denying he is a diehard Skins fan. “I have never missed a Redskins game, even when I lived out of the country,” he says. At home in Los Angeles, Bernthal gets together with other Washington-bred Angelenos on game day to cheer on the team.

The boy who raised hell in DC disappeared when Bernthal landed at the Moscow Arts Theater. “It really changed my life,” he says. The rigorous program taught him confidence, reverence for the theater, and some much-needed discipline. To pay for his starving-artist lifestyle, Bernthal played professional baseball on the side—though he is quick to demure when asked about his sports prowess. Theater, he says, was his main focus; he was merely “decent” inside the diamond, he adds.

If Bernthal needed confirmation that he was born to act, he got it in the form of praise by a theater department head who saw him perform in Moscow and offered him a slot in Harvard University’s Masters of Fine Arts program. “Pretty cool for a kid who didn’t finish college,” Bernthal says. While there, he acted in university productions and nabbed his first role as a professional—in a DC play that he skipped school to audition for. He headed to New York City after finishing his MFA, hoping to fulfill his dream of headlining a show in the Big Apple.

And that is how he got into television. “My dream has always been to be a theater actor and act in New York,” he says. “The people who were getting the roles I really wanted had already established themselves in film or TV.”

So he headed west. What followed was a string of one-off roles on shows like Law & Order and How I Met Your Mother. In 2006 he was cast as a regular on the short-lived series The Class, but Bernthal stayed out of the spotlight until The Walking Dead.

The zombie series, based on a comic book of the same name, drew a cult following and Bernthal’s character, Shane Walsh, became the fans’ favorite villain, thanks in large part to Bernthal’s layered portrayal of the ex-cop with loose morals. “I thought, What an unbelievable character arc. What an unbelievable way for him to go,” he says, referring to Walsh’s ultimate demise, which the actor anticipated after learning of the character’s death early in the comic. On TV, Shane lasted two seasons before he died.

His Walking Dead character’s final scene was especially moving—and not just for viewers. “Ninety percent of what was said in that scene was improvised,” Bernthal says. “The entire cast came out to that field [where the scene was shot] and watched. It was a really emotional night.”

Since his departure from the zombie series, Bernthal’s been busier than ever. He just finished filming the pilot for the TNT crime drama L.A. Noir, created by former Walking Dead producer Frank Darabont. Then he’s off to New York to film The Wolf of Wall Street with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, a fact Bernthal has a hard time believing. “It was a dream come true just to get the call that Martin Scorsese wanted to see me,” he says, recalling being asked if he could fly to New York for an audition. “I was like, ‘For Martin Scorsese? I’ll friggin’ take a Dumpster to New York.’”

Next spring, it’s back to the stage. He’ll star in Small Engine Repair in New York City, reprising the role he assumed in the play last year during its LA run. The classically trained actor couldn’t be happier about his return to theater. “I’ve been in LA for quite a while and I’ve only been on stage twice,” he says. “So I’m really excited to do more of that.”

Bernthal is sitting outside a Los Angeles boxing club (he’s there six days a week without fail), talking on the phone while his pet pit bulls lounge in the back of his truck. For at least 40 minutes the dogs have not made a sound. It’s no surprise, considering Bernthal is practically a pit bull whisperer, training his own dogs and taking in strays or former fighting dogs. (Perhaps it’s genetic: His father, Eric, is chairman of the board of the Humane Society of the United States.)

You may recognize Bernthal’s own canine posse—they’re his regular sidekicks. “I take [my dogs] to the set with me, everywhere with me,” Bernthal says. “I take them cross country with me in my truck.” By this point in his career he should be flying first-class, but the actor prefers to get where he’s going in a truck with his dogs by his side.

Bernthal may have started out as a bad boy, but that’s about the only characteristic that’s even mildly similar to his villainous alter ego Shane Walsh. In real life, Bernthal is definitely the hero.

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