Since the Punisher’s film rights reverted to Marvel in 2010, fans had wondered when Frank Castle would make his presence felt in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They got their answer last June when Jon Bernthal was cast as the Punisher in the second season of Marvel’s “Daredevil” series on Netflix. Rarely has the Hollywood casting of an iconic comic book character been met with such universal enthusiasm, but then again, Bernthal’s already done comics fans right.
Along with his acclaimed portrayal of the slowly unraveling Shane Walsh on “The Walking Dead,” Bernthal has specialized in roles requiring a certain simmering intensity and dangerously explosive potential. He’s proven himself time and again from the WWII battle zones of “Fury” to the street level drug wars of “Sicario” to the Wall Street trading firms of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” And to add even more street cred, he boxes on the side. So when Bernthal was announced as Marvel’s vengeance-seeking, armed-to-the-teeth, uncompromising vigilante there were plenty of reasons to rejoice.
With Bernthal’s take on the fan-favorite character about the be revealed at last when “Daredevil” debuts its second season on March 18, the actor joined CBR News for an in-depth look at his experience bringing Frank Castle to life, remaining true to the spirit of the comics while creating a deeply grounded take on the genre’s most popular anti-hero.
CBR News: One of the exciting things, I would imagine, about playing the version of Frank Castle that we meet here is how he’s sort of a twisted reflection of Daredevil. Tell me a little bit about finding that dynamic and working with Charlie Cox to bring that sort of extreme version of The Punisher to life, in a realistic, grounded manner.
Jon Bernthal: I think, first and foremost, it’s a new experience for me because I’m coming on to a show that’s already established, already successful, and they clearly knew what they were doing, so the bar was set very high. I can’t really say enough good about Charlie. I think he’s equal parts enormously talented, gracious, kind, very classy, and now he’s become a very, very close friend who I care a lot about and I deeply respect.
I think as far as the specifics of your question, man — my job, I don’t think, is to build this character. I think one of the cool things about a character like Frank Castle is he’s on such a personal mission. Yes, I have to sort of fit this character in the world of “Daredevil,” but he’s got to be his own force. He’s got to be his own entity. He’s not there — unlike Daredevil, I don’t think at the beginning he’s concerned with the safety of Hell’s Kitchen or doing what’s right. He’s not concerned with morality or anything like that. He’s trying to find the people that killed his family, and he wants to kill them in as brutal way as possible. That’s what he’s about.
As these sort of forces collide, it’s a fun position for me as an actor because I can look at this guy who’s dressed in this devil costume and he’s supposedly this badass guy. I think Frank thinks he’s funny. Frank thinks he’s amusing, until he starts getting in Frank’s way, and then he becomes a real problem. Frank looks at this character and what he’s about and he just sort of dismisses him as being purely ridiculous.
Frank’s a guy who’s gone and fought for this country. He’s seen his buddies die right next to him. He’s killed for this country. So to come back and see this guy who’s running around in a costume, beating people up, he just thinks it’s highly ridiculous. As his plight gets deeper and deeper, and he gets further and further along his own evolution, he really sees Daredevil as a hindrance. He thinks that going around and beating up bad guys and throwing them in jail does nothing for anybody.
As the series develops, these guys realize that what they’re doing and what they’re after makes them a lot closer to each other than either of them would like to admit. Their methodology, even though it’s so different, I think they’re going to find a lot similarities and eventually, they’re going to find a mutual respect and admiration for each other.
You once mentioned to me that one of the things you had fun doing was going around to comic book shops and clearing them out of their “Punisher” back issues to read up on the character. Tell me about taking what you had on the script page for the show, then learning about the character as he’s existed in the comic book form, and figuring out what you wanted to bring to him with all of that information at your disposal.
I think the biggest thing, for me, that came out of the comic books, that I talked to the writers about and I really wanted to infuse in every part of the series with Frank is, I wanted a real deep sense of shame and a real deep sense of self-loathing and self-hatred.
Within the comics, since so much of it is delivered in soliloquy form, you get a real insight to how Frank is feeling about himself and about this dark nightmare that he lives in. I feel like the crux of the conflict that he’s going through is, he’s constantly asking himself, “Who’s the real Frank Castle?” Is the real Frank Castle the guy at war? Or is the real Frank Castle the guy who’s running around the city being a mass murderer? Or, is the real Frank Castle the guy who lives in the suburbs and is raising a family?
He’s constantly looking at himself, and he’s mortified because he’s asking himself, “Am I doing this really in response to what happened? Or is this just who I am? Is this what I’m most comfortable with? Do I have some sort of sick addiction, and why am I really doing what I’m doing? I tell myself it’s for my family’s benefit.” Maybe this is just me. I feel like once you start going down that path, you get into this incredibly dark space that Frank Castle lives in. That conflict is plucked right from the [comic] series, that he’s constantly sort of asking himself those things. That part of it really colors the portrayal.
Some of the sequences I found just as effective as anything action-oriented were the scenes that you had with Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, those quieter scenes that kind of crack open who he is a little bit more. Tell me about being ready for those as opposed to the more intense and action-driven stuff.
It’s the same thing, right? I mean, it’s really living in the character and really understanding and having that self-loathing and that sadness and that shame and that hurt and that pain right under the surface. The Frank Castle that’s introduced in “Daredevil” is a guy who’s really put effort into building a wall around his heart and around his sense of morality, his sense of his right or wrong. He’s a guy who has seen his life as he had known it is over now, and he’s in this dark nightmare and his own allegiance to kill the people that have taken his family from him.
But you’ve got to remember that anyone who tries to build a wall like this, there will be cracks in it. They’re a human being at the end of the day. What’s great about the character of Karen, and what’s so beautiful about the way that Deborah Ann plays her, is that she cracked me open and she gets in there. She’s relentless, and she’s strong. For Frank, he really looked at that character as, he swore to himself no one would ever affect him again. He would never have any emotion except for loss, and anger, and rage, and pain. Here’s this character, all of a sudden, that he’s talking to and that’s opening him up.
I really think he looks at Karen Page as if that’s what he would have hoped that his daughter would have grown into, somebody as courageous and brave and bold and intelligent as her. Deborah Ann, she’s such a joy to work with, and a wonderfully, wonderfully talented, smart actress.
You’ve had plenty of roles before in which you’ve handled different kinds of firearms and weaponry. How is Frank Castle and his relationship with his weapons different for you? How did you handle element that coming into this character?
Look, everything is different. You’ve got to look at what his level of training would be and what his experience would be. I think some of these characters can be familiar with a gun and different kind of weaponry, but it’s totally different if you’ve been in a combat situation with them. It’s a relationship with your weapons. From the soldiers that I’ve trained with and that I’ve talked to, when you’ve gone into combat with that weapon, that weapon is genuinely an extension of yourself. It’s part of your body. You know it, in and out. You care for it and treat it with the utmost respect.
The weapons training for this kind of work is one of my favorite parts of the job. There’s sort of a cerebral, emotional work, and then there’s the physical sort of busy work of really getting this stuff in your bones and being at the ranch and getting familiar with these weapons. It’s an absolute necessity for a character like this.
“Daredevil” Season Two begins streaming Friday, March 18 on Netflix.