Hollywood has tried to bring the Punisher, a war veteran waging a one-man vendetta against crime, to the silver screen in the past, and has failed. Dolph Lundgren dyed his hair black for an underwhelming 1989 Punisher flick, and Thomas Jane picked up the mantle for a 2004 Punisher film that met the same fate. 2008’s Punisher: War Zone received a few accolades (Patton Oswalt called it “THE BEST time” he’d had in the theater in years), but was another film that, while ultraviolent, didn’t deliver on the emotional intensity needed to properly pull off Frank Castle’s blood feud with bad. What past iterations have failed to understand is that the Punisher is a two-way name: sure, he inflicts pain on others, but he inflicts just as much pain on himself.
So when Marvel nerds heard that Jon Bernthal—the Washington, D.C.-born actor most-easily recognized as Shane Walsh from The Walking Dead—had been cast as the Punisher in season two of Daredevil, you could practically hear a collective sigh of relief. Bernthal, a former boxer who has the nose to prove it, is a physically imposing force. Just looking at him, you can see he has what it takes to portray the Punisher’s violent streak. And with films like Sicario, Snitch, The Wolf of Wall Street, and the aforementioned Walking Dead under his belt, it’s clear he can dig deep enough to aptly depict the anti-hero’s emotional turmoil.
Daredevil’s second season has already been devoured by diehards, and some of the biggest praise (outside of THAT fight scene) has been handed out to Bernthal. While unseen throughout most of the first episode, his presence is felt—he singlehandedly takes out a crew without anyone catching a glimpse of him. And when he does finally hit the scene, he’s pure menace: One grizzled war vet, walking cool, calm, and collected through a hospital war, shottie in hand. Then when Bernthal’s Castle and Daredevil finally meet in an epic rooftop battle, it’s a beautiful struggle, a symphony of violence, martial arts versus a pump-action shotgun. If that wasn’t enough to convince you that Bernthal was the perfect Punisher, he seals the deal a few episodes later in a subtler way, with a stunning speech in which Castle explains how and why he became the Punisher.
We caught up with Bernthal not too long before the premiere of season two of Daredevil to discuss how well he connected to the role of Frank Castle, and what it was like acclimating himself in to Marvel's world.
First off, I'm loving your take on Frank Castle and the Punisher. You’ve nailed the real grittiness of the comics. You must have been very aware of the Punisher before being called into this role.
Nah. I mean, it's an iconic character, so obviously, I've had some kind of exposure to it. But I didn't know that much about it before I got the job. One of the real joys of doing this has been to just gobble up as many comics as I possibly can. I pretty much drive to every job that I do. So every city that I went through, I found the first comic book store and pretty much bought them out of their Punisher line. I’ve really gotten into the character through the comics.
I've seen you mention how into the Punisher Max series you are, and I've noticed some similarities between that series in particular and your portrayal. Was that something you or the showrunners gravitated to?
When I got the gig, I was doing a movie in Albuquerque. I went to a comic book store there, and they were the ones that turned me on to it. Then when I talked to Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez about where they were going, I just told them that this was really what I was responding to. And they seemed to be right on the same page with that.
What was it about the Punisher that made you want to go up for this role?
I don't think I would be ready to even begin to tackle this part if I wasn't a husband and a father. Until you have that, you don't really love something more than yourself, and know what it's like to give your life for somebody else. The first step in trying to fill Frank Castle's shoes is to try to understand what would happen if somebody tore that love away from you—tore those people away from you. And that's something that just filled me with so much emotion and made me so scared, so angry. It's always sort of been my philosophy in life. If something really scares you, if something really kinda sets you on fire inside, that's exactly what you need to step towards.
“If something really scares you, if something really kinda sets you on fire inside,
that's exactly what you need to step towards.”
What was it like working on this season of Daredevil, as opposed to, say, The Walking Dead?
Every job comes with its own thing. The Walking Dead, I was there from the beginning. I was one of the original people. That show had unbelievably humble beginnings. We all dove into it together and depended on each other, and had no real expectations for success. We all really believed in the script, believed in each other, and believed in our showrunner, Frank Darabont. We just kinda gave it our all and we saw what it was. This one is different in that I'm coming onto something that's not only already been going, but has been successful. So there's a pressure there to stepping into an unbelievably iconic role. I think for that reason, and the fact that the character resonates so much with law enforcement and the military, and that's something that means an enormous amount to me, this was just different. The responsibility here is to do justice to the iterations of the character that have come before me, but then obviously to make it unique, and to make it real, and to make it mine.
Was it ever overwhelming or weird being thrust into this large Marvel machine?
Marvel has it's own culture. Literally, the same phone call that I got from Marvel saying "Hey, you got the job," in that same sentence, they said, "Now keep your mouth shut." And I think at first—the culture is so shrouded in secrecy—it kind of rubbed me in a weird way, and I sort of bumped up against it at times. But now that I've been a part of it for a while, I really embrace it. The secrecy is totally there to serve the fans. I really dig it.
You and Charlie Cox don't really have a lot of interaction in the early episodes of this season, but there are some big climactic fights. How long were those days where you had to nail these really intense battles?
I'm a physical guy—I've been boxing for a long time, I played sports in college—but this is one of the most physically demanding things I've ever been through, and think that Phil Silvera, the stunt coordinator, is one of the most creative and skilled people in the business.
What's so cool about it, is they're doing movie-level fights, but on TV. And the big difference there is with a movie, you've got months and months and months to rehearse the action scene. In TV, it's a new action scene each week. So you're really racing the clock, and you're really flying by the seat of your pants. And he never scales it back. He just goes for it. You just gotta kick ass. And I really dug that. Another thing that they do, which you see it as the season develops, is that it's never just fighting for the sake of fighting. All the fighting is character-based. It's story-based. As the season progresses, and as Frank Castle becomes the Punisher, his fighting style becomes more and more lethal, and more and more specific.
Were there any scenes that didn't necessarily involve fighting but took just as much out of you?
There's a monologue at the end of episode four where Frank really opens up to Matt—or to Daredevil—and explains everything that happened to his family; his relationship with his daughter. He goes into detail about the nightmare that he's living in and he reveals this unbelievable state of darkness. I think it's important that the Frank Castle that is sort of revealed in Daredevil is not the Punisher. He's not a guy who’s at all concerned with cleaning up Hell's Kitchen, or ridding the criminal element of Hell's Kitchen. He's a guy that's absolutely unhinged. He's absolutely reeling from this severe traumatic event in his life, and his only mission is highly personal: find the people that took his family from him and kill them as brutally as possible. There's some deeply, deeply, emotional breakdown scenes—those were the most difficult. I think because being a husband and father, I just had to tap into some pretty dark places.
You might not immediately think you'd find that in a show about superheroes.
This is a show about real, three-dimensional, nuanced, rich characters. With a 13-episode season, you really get a chance to portray these characters in that fashion. You can really be bold and turn your back on the audience, and you can go all the way. You can be bold enough to lose the audience because you know three, four episodes down the road, you're going to win them back. And they don't have to wait through four weeks to get that.
Outside of this season of Daredevil, there are a lot of rumors, talk and hope from fans for a Punisher spin-off series, to the point where Marvel had to step in and say, at this time, we're not planning on that. What are your hopes for the Punisher?
For me, it's not a question of what they want to do with a character, it's more, how are they going to do it, and who's going to be the ones to do it. This character is in my bones now, he's in my blood. If they want to go forward in any way, for me it's just really going to be about making sure we do it in a way that's raw and intense. I want to push the envelope. I wanna alienate more of the audience and try to bring them back.
“his only mission is highly personal: find the people that
took his family from
him and kill them
as brutally as possible.”
There was talk that you and Tom Holland had worked on your Marvel audition tapes together. What was it like to finally see your buddy get that spotlight at the end of the Captain America: Civil War trailer?
I worked with Tom intensely in Ireland on the movie that we did; a group of us were all living in a remote part of Western Ireland, eating every meal together, on set all day with each other. And I got to tell you, in all my years in Hollywood, I'm probably more impressed with Tom Holland than anyone else I've ever met. For a guy his age, he's a force of nature. I saw him go through the process of trying to win that role. He fought for it. He just went out and got it. That's not an easy feat.
Finally, it's been awhile since you've been in The Walking Dead; have you been able to catch up on the show since you left? If so, what are your thoughts on how the shows progressed since?
The short answer is not really. I got three young kids, and I've been terribly busy. I really stayed with it religiously for a while, but I fell off this last year or so. I'm still enormously close to Norman Reedus, Andy Lincoln, and Steven Yeun—they're brothers to me. We still get together as often as possible. That original group of people that started making that show, there's no way for anyone to understand how humble that show was in its beginnings. We just had no idea.