Actor Jon Bernthal is as straight a shooter figuratively as The Punisher is literally. Which can be tricky when you’re trying to talk about your entry into the always-secret-heavy Marvel Cinematic Universe.
From his days on “The Walking Dead” Bernthal learned the art of sharing a little but holding back a lot from the media, but he recently offered some up some intriguing details about his approach to carrying Marvel’s most menacing anti-hero as The Punisher makes his MCU debut in the second season of “Daredevil.” After joining the cast and creative team on stage at Netflix’s presentation to the Television Critics Association, Bernthal joined CBR News and a small group of additional press outlets to fire off his opening salvo on becoming Frank Castle.
What’s your take on the Punisher? Is he a hero, a villain, an anti-hero?
Jon Bernthal: I think any time that you play a character, you can’t think about it in those terms. I think what attracted to me so much about this show in the first place was Season One when Charlie [Cox] was able to accomplish… it’s not a superhero show. It’s a show about a human being going through unbelievable circumstances. He created a completely nuanced and rich character. I think that was my job here, was to try to get to the bottom of why this man is on the mission that he is on, and to delve into that as fully as I possibly could.
I think these writers were courageous enough to not do anything as a half measure and be bold enough to lose the audience if necessary and to go full out and not worry about whether people will abandon the character or not and trust that within later episodes we can win them back.
And that’s one of the pleasures of being on a show on Netflix where you don’t have to worry about maintaining that audience. You don’t have to worry about, let’s set up the next episode because people will have a completely personal relationship to when and how they view the show. So you can sort of free yourself of those responsibilities. It’s an unbelievable honor to do this. I don’t think of him as a villain at all.
Along with the scripts you were given, where else did you find inspiration? Did you look in a lot of the source material?
Were there certain story arcs that you said, “Oh, I really kind of get him from this”?
Absolutely. You can’t get too entrenched with the storylines that you love because then you just want to put that — it’s not my job to write the show. But yeah. Look, Garth Ennis and the “Punisher MAX” series was huge for me. That’s just in my line of what I dig, and that’s the iteration of the character that resonated the most with me.
But I’ve got to tell you, I think that being a father and a husband was sort of all the — that’s the major preparation. I think this guy lives in a world of darkness that no other person in this universe can compare with that. My goal here was to put myself in that darkness and bring it up and again, to never pull punches. To never do half measures. To never be apologetic. To never pursue likability at all. To be completely unapologetic at all times because this is a highly personal mission that this man is on, and I think that this show, I’m not just whistling dixie, I think that this show and what they accomplished with last season is a perfect fertile ground to bring a character like that to light. It’s not a superhero show. It’s a human show.
He is introduced in this sort of boogieman in a “Terminator” type of way, a man of few words and a lot of action. You’re getting to use your physicality. He’s making quite an impression but not saying a lot.
Sure, sure. Look, I think the way he’s introduced, what I dig about it and what’s bold about it is, you can lose the audience by Episode Two. They could just be like, “No matter what happens with this man before we know anything about him, his actions in Episode One and Two, I can’t get behind. In this day and age with everything that’s going on, I can’t get behind this man.” I love that.
I love that because then my goal, and the team’s goal, is to win them back and explain it and get that life and fill in the blanks. And whether you can get behind him or not, you sure will understand him. You’ll understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. Then, I think if we’re lucky and if done well, we can sort of accomplish the best thing I think a series like this can accomplish: we’ll force the audience to ask questions about themselves, about their own behavior, about the world. Look, that’s what we set out to do, and I hope we’re successful.
Not wanting to spoil any surprises, but when you got the job, were you hoping you were going to get to wear a skull on some sort of costume, body armor or t-shirt or something?
You know what man, I hope you don’t take this as being political, but every step along with way with this, I feel such an enormous — I’m extremely humbled to have this job. It’s an extraordinary honor for me. I take it as a responsibility the same way I would representing any soldier. This is a character that resonates deeply in the military and law enforcement. People have gone into war for this country with the Punisher logo attached to their armor, attached to their uniforms. That’s something that just really resonates with me and it goes right into my heart.
So as to those decisions, I divorced myself from all wanting this. My only want is to do the best job we possibly can to honor the character and to do it justice, and to pull no punches.
There is so much excitement from the fans about the character — even the idea that maybe there could be your own show one day, is that just kind of amazing to see? Again, as you said, this character means a lot to people.
It’s exciting. Of course it’s exciting. Look, my responsibility again is to them. And our responsibility is to try to get this right. I’ve got to tell you, when you work for these guys, when you start working in the Marvel Universe, it’s unlike any other place I’ve ever worked, and information and what’s going on is not necessarily — I know we don’t give it out to you guys freely, they don’t give it out to us freely. In the beginning, at first, in the growing pains, potentially there was frustration there. I’ve come to love that. I’ve come to love that because what it allows me to do is just do my job. To just show up, dive into this character as fully as I possibly can, and all this other stuff is way beyond my pay period. My only concern now is what we did this season, and I’m hoping that it resonates.
How was your comfort level with weaponry? Did you have to get to a certain level that you were happy with?
Look, I mean, across the board on this show, it’s an unbelievable team, all the way across the board. There’s not a single weak link. I’ve had the luxury in my career to work on huge feature films and other television series. I’ve never worked with a crew of people all the way through that is this accomplished. I think it’s the best fight team that I’ve ever worked with. The New York-based crew is one of the best I’ve ever worked with. The firearms specialists, they’re one of a kind. Hopefully, when you watch the show, it will definitely look like I know what I’m doing with these weapons, and we put the time in at the range. It’s part of the job.
How much awareness did you have of The Punisher prior to getting the gig? Did you get the basics or was there a pretty steep learning curve?
I had to learn. I mean, you always have to learn, right? And that’s been one of the joys of doing the job. I think what sort of hit me like a tidal wave is not just how much there is out there, but again, how important he is to so many people. People care deeply about this character and again, that just makes my responsibility deeper and deeper, bigger and bigger. But it was, I will tell you, one of the real joys for me about this process was to go into comic book shop after comic book shop all across this country and just sell them out of “Punisher” stuff. That was a real joy for me. I’m a fan for life now.
Obviously there are long days on set, but are there also times when you and Charlie are having a fight scene that you still get to be like, “Wow, we’re getting to play Daredevil and The Punisher fighting each other” and have that 10-year-old’s fantasy as an adult?
Look man, I wish I was a little less serious. I’m a pretty serious guy when it comes to that stuff. There might be moments of that, but what’s so wonderful about Philip Silvera, the stunt coordinator, fight choreographer, there’s no fighting just for the sake of fighting. I dare anybody to say that there’s any stunt work or fight work on television that even comes close to comparing to this.
I’ve been in big features with great fight teams where we have six months of rehearsal to do one fight. This is television. We’re racing a clock. We’ve got to get this in. It’s so ambitious and they never scale back. They go for it and they get it done. The best thing I think about the choreography on the show is it’s all character-driven and story-driven. Every punch, every kick, every way in which you deal with a weapon is character-based and story-based. So it’s not as simple as just, “Oh I’ve got to fight this guy.” There’s a reason: “What’s my goal and what am I after? What am I going through and what’s behind it?” What a pleasure.
When you dive into such a character who lives in that dark space, is that difficult for you as an actor to have to kind of pull yourself out of there?
Yeah, look man, it’s part of the deal. Everybody works different. I respect everybody’s way of working. Unfortunately, I don’t trust my skill enough to just sort of go to work, be The Punisher, then go have a latte or go out to a nightclub. It’s just not who I am. It’s not what I’m about. A lot of it just means, for me, it just means really having the discipline to adhere to a certain lifestyle.
In the first few weeks, it was putting on a 60-lb. backpack and walking around the Brooklyn Bridge all night long until the sun came up. I don’t know why I did it, I just did it. It’s weird, it’s actor crap. It’s what I did. I think for me, again, the big thing is I have three young children in my life. It’s the only thing aside from my work that I care about in this world: my family. I have to separate from them. I have to lock them out for a few months to really dive in. Then you transition. Your kid doesn’t care that you’re The Punisher. Your three-year-old couldn’t care less. You know what I mean?
In different incarnations, he’s been a cop, he’s been ex-military, a war veteran — is this a very specific take on him?
I don’t know what I’m allowed to share with that. To me, it’s incredibly important not only that he’s military but that the specificity of what his military background is, where he served, what he did, who he served with, what were the circumstances of his service. And more importantly, I think who he was before he was in combat, and after — you’re going to have to wait and see, but I will say that it’s quite specific.
Talk already started about a “Punisher” spinoff series. Did you enter something like this with the knowledge that it could go that way?
I really don’t. I really go into this just kind of looking at the job at hand. I mean, I’ll tell you that, again, this whole company here shrouded into secrecy. I don’t look at that, at first, where it was frustrating, I look at it now as: I love it. I love it. I don’t have to concern myself with it. It’s not my business. My business is the task at hand. But I will say, this is a character that resonates deeply with me. Like Frank Castle, I stand ready at attention.
For me, my concern here is what did we do this season? You watch Season One and it is just a kickass television show. I got the opportunity to play this character in Season Two of this television show, and that’s the Frank Castle that I’m concentrating on now. That’s the deal. You know what I mean?
“Daredevil” Season 2 premieres March 18 on Netflix.