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Jon Bernthal, American Leading Man

As the 45-year-old gets more comfortable at the top of the call sheet, he’s expanding his star persona in new and captivating ways

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Julian Kaye gives off a particular vibe. As played by Richard Gere in 1980’s American Gigolo, the male escort is young, cocky, and cosmopolitan, scamming his older clients for expensive sound systems and blending seamlessly into country clubs. He speaks several languages—one of his cover stories is that he’s a translator for visiting foreigners—and has a taste for the finer things, helping one happy customer shop for high-end furniture. A proto–Patrick Bateman in head-to-toe Armani, Julian cries out for comeuppance, which is why it’s oddly satisfying to watch him get framed for murder.

Jon Bernthal—actor, podcaster, brother-in-law to Sheryl Sandberg—does not give off this vibe. Bernthal’s characters often have a brutish quality, from the literal Punisher to Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, the corrupt Baltimore cop he portrayed earlier this year in We Own This City. He does have the charisma and magnetism to carry some all-important roles: the father of ultimate antihero Tony Soprano, for example, or the deceased older brother of The Bear’s Carmy Berzatto, whose absence hangs over the rest of the show. But it’s a different kind of magnetism than that of a suave, sophisticated date for hire. Hence why, despite his obvious sex appeal, Bernthal is an unconventional choice for the new Julian Kaye.

Developed by Ray Donovan’s David Hollander, American Gigolo has been reborn as an eight-episode series on Showtime. A Paul Schrader movie doesn’t make for the most orthodox IP—imagine the big-budget prequel to First Reformed—but in today’s media landscape, some precedent is better than none. Like many film-to-TV adaptations, the additional padding does the new American Gigolo few favors. A subplot anchored by a love interest’s teen son adds little, while flashbacks to Julian’s youth are a typically unnecessary origin story. Not coincidentally, though, neither of these story lines feature Bernthal’s performance.

Were he playing the same Julian that Gere did four decades ago, Bernthal would be gravely miscast. But Hollander’s take finds the title character in a new phase of life, not just a new century. The first Julian Kaye, it’s implied, managed to dodge a conviction; this one proves his innocence only after he’s served 15 years, also the rough age difference between Bernthal and Gere at the time of the two productions. “Grizzled ex-con” is much more in Bernthal’s wheelhouse than “professional boy-toy,” and we don’t actually see much escorting in the three episodes provided to critics, though there are hints that could change. Instead, Julian ruminates on old regrets and struggles to adjust to life on the outside. The tonal shift is signaled by the soundtrack. Blondie’s “Call Me” is still the title theme, propelling Julian’s joyride down Malibu’s PCH, but the pilot pointedly features a slowed-down piano cover.

American Gigolo is not the first prestige drama to center on sex work. The Starz anthology The Girlfriend Experience, also drawn from a feature film, spent three seasons probing the nature of transactional intimacy. P-Valley, another Starz series, is less cerebral, yet still focuses on sex work as work—both an acquired skill and a source of obligation. But American Gigolo is less interested in its eponymous job title than the man who holds it, and the seedy milieu it slots him into. Julian ends up behind bars when one of his clients is brutally murdered; once he’s out, the corpses continue to pile up, attracting the continued scrutiny of the LAPD’s Detective Sunday (a high-camp Rosie O’Donnell).

Bernthal gives this Julian, née John Henderson, a certain melancholy. He’s a man out of time, pulled from the prerecession highs of the early aughts into an era when he may have aged out of a younger man’s game. (Julian posts up in a seedy motel near Venice Beach, now one of L.A.’s most expensive neighborhoods; American Gigolo’s image of the city also seems a bit stuck in the past.) Rather than revel in the perks of the gig, the 21st-century Julian is reluctant at best. In this telling, he didn’t choose this life—he was essentially sold into it as a child, joining a stable of high-end sex-workers-in-training. An older boy named Lorenzo, played as an adult by comedian Wayne Brady, takes John turned Julian under his wing.

The premise is over-the-top and more than a little absurd. (Julian’s pimp is a French woman named Olga known as the Westside Madam, an indirect nod to ’90s icon Heidi Fleiss.) But Bernthal sells the emotional realism of Julian’s lingering trauma. Gere’s protagonist was a liberated free agent; Bernthal’s is exploited and abused, a quality it’s suggested helps him connect with clients and girlfriends. The sex worker as victim is, on the whole, a tired and often damaging trope. When applied to a figure as conventionally masculine as Bernthal, though, the cliché becomes an opportunity for the actor to show his vulnerable side.

Earlier this year, Bernthal played the male lead in Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick, a pandemic-era sex farce in which a 26-year-old virgin propositions her married boss. As Josh, the object of the heroine’s desires, Bernthal makes a heinous jerk too much of a doofus to openly hate. Yes, his character cheats on his pregnant wife, then throws his mistress under the bus when they’re inevitably found out. But Josh responds to his seduction with such childlike wonderment and hapless fumbling that you never get the sense he’s truly in charge. Like Julian, his primary role is to enable someone else’s fantasy—to be physically assertive, but emotionally pliable. He’s almost unthreatening in spite of himself.

Alongside American Gigolo, Sharp Stick forms a new front in Bernthal’s career. In a recent GQ profile, Bernthal is billed as “something just short of a movie star”: partly a classic case of a character actor in a leading man’s body, and partly the product of an ecosystem that just can’t support many movie stars, full stop. But as Bernthal gets more comfortable at the top of the call sheet, he’s expanding his star persona in new and captivating ways. In real life, the actor’s fascination with modern masculinity can land him in hot water, as when he recently featured alleged abuser Shia LaBeouf on his podcast as part of a would-be redemption arc. In his work, however, it’s paying dividends. In the Showtime American Gigolo, Julian calls the iconic Armani suit a “costume”—not an expression of his identity, but a guise he slips into. It’s a pleasure to watch him transform.

An earlier version of this piece misstated how many seasons The Girlfriend Experience had.