Ray Stevenson knows that he can kick plenty of ass. After first entering the Hollywood system as a Medieval warrior in 2004’s King Arthur, the Lisburn, Ireland-born actor went on to star in HBO’s gladiator series Rome (2005-2007) and play Gary Oldman’s top enforcer in last year’s The Book Of Eli. Comic book fans, meanwhile, should remember him as the most recent—and best, frankly, even though the movie itself was uneven—actor to play Frank Castle, in 2008’s hyper-violent Punisher: War Zone.

The burly 46-year-old has already proven his proficiency with high-concept action, so what’s the next logical step? Showing his acting skills in a deeper way, which he does in full force in the mob movie/biopic Kill The Irishman, out in limited release this Friday. Stevenson plays Danny Greene, an Irish-American who evolved from a grunt union worker into a powerful thorn in the sides of Cleveland’s top Italian mobsters during the 1970s. With an eclectic and strong supporting (among them Christopher Walken, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Paul Sorvino), Kill The Irishman is a scrappy little gangster flick that’s briskly paced and well acted, namely in Stevenson’s case.

Kill The Irishman is the actor’s first of three notable projects this year. In May, he’s co-starring as jolly Asgard brute Volstagg in the much-anticipated Thor, followed by the major role of Porthos in Resident Evil franchise head Paul W.S. Anderson’s reimagining of The Three Musketeers, due out in October. Complex spoke with Stevenson about his unique mafia flick, the chances of another Punisher movie, and how Thor is like Fantasia, in a good way.

Complex: What sort of preparation went into playing Danny Greene?

Ray Stevenson: Well, essentially, once I sorted through a lot of the news reels and available documentation, I basically started to work on the script, really. In the script lies this man’s journey, and I was trying to get the subtlety and the sort of nuances that bring out what I think is the heart of the movie, which is his journey, engulfed in this world of mobsters and car explosions.

ray-stevenson-in-kill-the-irishmanWas it difficult to develop a larger-than-life character like Danny Greene using news reel footage and other secondhand resources?

Ray Stevenson: It’s all there for me and the filmmakers to have a look, but we’re not making a documentary or a pastiche or anything. So I knew there was a point where I’d have to actually pull away from the sort of documented history, because we’re making the script. Sometimes, that stuff can actually get in the way; you can get an overabundance of information about a particular event. And, of course, that’s only one person’s point of view; several individuals wrote history. So, yeah, we used it as far as capturing certain nuances of Danny Greene, but we didn’t rely on it.

Were you aware of Danny Greene prior to hearing about this project?

Ray Stevenson: The strange thing is, when [director] Jonathan [Hensleigh] brought me the script, I started reading it, and it wasn’t until I was about halfway through that I went, “Hang on, I know this story.” And then I remembered how. Two or three years previous, I watched on cable TV some program called American Mobsters, and it was the story of Danny Greene. So I had seen that documentary before.

Is the mobster world something that has always intrigued you?

Ray Stevenson: Not to a great extent. I love the genre, and I love the stories and movies in it just as much as anything else. But it was great to get involved with this film, especially since it’s about a man whose story hasn’t been told in the mainstream, really. There are so many wonderful stories, I’m sure from other cities, as well. The big sexy sister New York gets most of the attention in the mob storytelling world.

The Cleveland setting in Kill The Irishman definitely lends a certain grittiness to the film.

Ray Stevenson: Yeah, yeah. It’s not a city you’ve seen several times before in this context.

Interestingly enough, the film was actually shot in Detroit. Why was that?

Ray Stevenson: Yeah, because Cleveland wasn’t available for us at the time, so it ended up happening in Detroit.

Was it awkward to shoot such a Cleveland-specific movie in a different city?

Ray Stevenson: Well, it really kind of worked, because it was Cleveland to us. We were able to close off a ton of city blocks, and then throw cars down them and blow them up. In our world, wherever we went was Cleveland. I didn’t actually get to do a journey to Cleveland. In fact, tomorrow I’m going to Cleveland for the first time, so that should be a lot of fun. It’s going to be crazy. We actually had a pre-screening down in Palm Springs, and I met this lady. She came up to me, introduced herself, and told me how she much enjoyed the film and everything. And then she says, “Yeah, I’m Shondor Birns’ niece,” and now Shondor Birns is a major racketeer, number one guy in the movie, played by Chris Walken, and Danny Greene blew him up. [Laughs.] So it’s going to be very spooky for the people of Cleveland who have ties to these people to make those connections in the movie.

You’ve mentioned the car bombings—Kill The Irishman has to have the most car bombings ever seen in one movie. I lost count at about eight or nine.

Ray Stevenson: I know! [Laughs.] We had one go at each, being a low-budget movie, so we had to make sure that we got each shot in one try, and that we spread the bombs around. Fortunately, there was no big, major hiccup or failed try at shooting a bomb. None fizzled out; they all went off. We had some great people working with the pyrotechnics, as well, and they knew the pressure was on.

Getting back to the character, one thing that distinguishes Danny Greene in the movie is the vulnerability you give to him. There are scenes where he’s crying, or showing real emotions. A lot of mob movies don’t let their main characters go beyond the tough exterior. Was that something you worked into the script?

Ray Stevenson: Absolutely. The script is this great big story about this Cleveland mobster rising up to the ranks of the longshoreman’s union, and then trying to ingratiate himself into the mafia. But then, it all falls down, and he gets imprisoned, and then he’s back again. The heart of the story is this man’s journey. It’s like a kind of “rites of passage” movie, but he’s not like some 18-year-old kid. It’s a man journey, and that’s what really drew me and intrigued me about it. We have all this other stuff, but it’s a really human story.

What’s great is that, while he’s vulnerable, he’ll also knock your teeth out with ease. The movie makes no mystery of his brutish presence.

Ray Stevenson: Oh, yeah. I like the way it doesn’t pull his punches. It doesn’t try to glamorize him, or appease for his actions, or redeem him. The movie just shows you what he is, in all those colors and shapes, yeah.

Other than Punisher: War Zone, you haven’t had the chance to take on too many leading man roles like in Kill The Irishman. Do scripts of this kind not come across your desk often, or are you just selective?

Ray Stevenson: Well, I’ve been doing very sort of varied work, as well. That’s very important to me, being able to play such big characters in diverse films. There hasn’t been a strategy of any kind, though. I just hope there’s more. [Laughs.]

ray-stevenson-as-punisherSpeaking of Punisher: War Zone, were you happy with how that film was received?

Ray Stevenson: I was happy with the movie. I thought the press and advertisement campaign could’ve been handled a little bit better, though. I wish more people would have been made aware of the movie. It seemed like the fan base was very happy with it, I believe. We gave them Frank Castle from the Punisher MAX series, and that’s what we set out to do. I hope it’s got legs. I hope it’ll come around again.

What about the marketing didn’t sit well with you?

Ray Stevenson: Well, I basically didn’t like the poster campaign. There were other images that I thought were going to be the sort of poster artwork, and then this image came out, and I thought, “Where on Earth is that from?” It was sort of airbrushed a bit too much, and it didn’t look like the character I played. I don’t know; just personally, I don’t think it captured anything of the movie. It was a little bit bland, and nondescript, and just disappeared, so people didn’t even know that the film had come out.

Are there any plans for you to revisit the Punisher character in another movie?

Ray Stevenson: Well, first off, I feel flattered by Marvel, because they’ve allowed me to play two principle Marvel characters—Frank Castle and Volstagg in Thor. As far as Frank Castle, I always bend their ear about it whenever I see them. [Laughs.] I would like to have another go at the character.

If another Punisher movie ever happens, what changes do you think should be made?

Ray Stevenson: Yeah, I’d like to see him brought, in a sense, into the 21st century. The storylines in the movie were taken from the comic books, which were about 10 or 12 years old, so I’d like to see it brought right up to modern times, to contemporary times. Take a new, fresh look at Frank Castle’s world.

Moving into Thor, what can you tell us about your interpretation of Volstagg? We hear there was a fat suit involved.

Ray Stevenson: [Laughs.] Yeah. It’s Volstagg, with a big red beard, red hair, six-bladed battle ax—basically, he’s 1,000 pounds of fun. I made him sort of epicurean, as well, sort of like the dancing elephants in Fantasia. [Laughs.] He’s like on the tiptoes of his feet, and he’s always the life and the fun of the party.

thor-volstaggHow’d you get involved with that project?

Ray Stevenson: I’ve worked with [Thor director] Kenneth Branagh previously, many years ago. He just called me up and said, “I know that you’re a big strapping lad,” and all this other stuff, “but I just think you’d be great in this. We’re going to put you in a big fat suit, if you choose to do it. But it will never be dull.” And I thought, When else on Earth is somebody going to put that proposition on the table? So I said, “Absolutely! Where do I sign up for this fat suit?” [Laughs.]

He made you an offer you can’t refuse, huh? See what I did there—mafia reference? It all comes full circle.

Ray Stevenson: [Laughs.] Well done. It was such a fun film to work on, though. Just walking onto some of the Asgard sets, you’re expecting 100 lined-up dancers to come across this sort of black glass floor. There were these great big giant gilded ram heads, which were actually chimneys over a lava rock, fire pit. It was just insane. It was one of the biggest sets that I’ve ever been on. And then, of course, we went to New Mexico. Asgard lands on Earth, and, strangely enough, we land on America. [Laughs.] Like every other UFO in history. Go figure.

One of the biggest questions comic book fans have about Thor concerns Chris Hemsworth, and how he’ll play the character. Having worked next to him, how do you think he did?

Ray Stevenson: I think he’s great! He’s got that bit about a young male right on the cusp. Is he old enough? Is he responsible enough to take over the throne of Asgard, or is it all so far away from him still? It’s a really complex journey. Chris has such openness. I think he was an inspired choice for Thor—he’s going to be great. The fans should feel at ease.