says he’s done his research for The Punisher: visiting comicbook stores; buying vintage issues of the series; being loudly told “Don’t fuck this up” by Punisher completists. He prepared for the series by wearing headphones and carrying a loaded backpack through desolate stretches of New York to get into Castle’s headspace. He didn’t see his friends in the city during the shoot. “Ask peopleonsetandthey’llsayI’mdifficult,” Bernthal told me. “But it’s not about my trailer or the food; it’s always about making the role make sense.”
Bernthal’s personal history—a deep acquaintance with violence that gave way to a midlife calm—made him perfect for the role. Steve Lightfoot, The Punisher’s showrunner, says that he told Bernthal, “All you talk about is your wife and your kids. That’s what this guy is. His superpower is the rage that he has toward the people that took them from him.” Lightfoot went on to say, “I find actors are best when they are playing characters that are not far from who they are.”
Bernthal told me that he hadn’t been happy with The Punisher pilot. When he let people know about it, he magically stopped getting to see rough cuts of the show. Nevertheless, Lightfoot says he mostly appreciated Bernthal’s hyperinvolvement: “Sometimes we’d scream at each other for 15 minutes, but it was never personal. It was never about his vanity. It was always about making the character better. And sometimes he’d suggest something and I’d go, ‘Shit, that’s good.’ ”
Bernthal’s epic feats of preparation have inspired both admiration and eye rolls among his employers. In Wind River, another recent bull’s-eye, he had a small role as a murdered girl’s boyfriend. Taylor Sheridan, the film’s director and screenwriter, told me that he had more conversations with Bernthal than he did with Jeremy Renner, the movie’s star. “He’s on camera for five minutes,” Sheridan said. “I talked for hours with Jon about how he was going to play that.” He laughed for a second at the memory of working with Bernthal on the character’s backstory. “And Jon was only there for one day. He just was so fucking prepared.”
Bernthal has shown a certain comfort being the guy who appears on set, rips off a killer take, and heads back to the airport. But he still hasn’t settled into being a superhero. He mentioned that some people feel awe walking into the Marvel Universe, much as he did walking onto a Scorsese set. “I got respect for those people,” he said. “But I don’t feel that way. I just don’t. It’s nothing against what they’re doing. That’s not what I watch.” He also noted that his idols have avoided comic-book movies completely. “You talk about Leo, you talk about Brad, the guys I really, really respect—and they have all kind of stayed clear of the superhero stuff.”
In Ojai, I told Bernthal that thought his performance in Sweet Virginia, in which he plays a masculine man who is a husk of his former self, was his best yet.
“Yeah. I’m really at a crossroads with my career,” he said. “There’s one way and there’s another way.”
Ininjas, and fairy princesses. Bernthal told me he was looking forward to the holiday because work had caused him to miss the last three Halloweens with his kids. “There’s no pain like missing them,” he said. “It’s this sadness mixed with guilt and with shame; you’re not right there holding their hand, guiding them through things.”
Sensing that I was longing for my own kid, he invited me along for trickor-treating. His two boys dressed up as Darth Vader and a magician. His wife dressed up as a farmer and clutched their two-year-old in her arms. Bernthal had wanted to be a pirate, but he ran out of time. Instead, he played the part of a suburban dad talking about parenthood with another dad.
The next day, he’d be leaving for a trip that would keep him away until Thanksgiving. His boys appeared to have picked up on his sadness, and all three of them seemed determined to make the most of the night. They approached a two-story house manned by a family of zombies, including a zombie baby. None of them broke character. The kids grabbed candy and sprinted away. “Man, I know a bit about zombies, and that was fucking brilliant,” Bernthal said with amazement.
We walked in the dark, and Bernthal told me what he hoped for his kids, particularly his sons. “I want them to see kindness as masculine, not a sign of weakness.”
A little later, the Bernthal clan hit an elaborate haunted house set up by a Hollywood special-effects guy who lived in town. The boys were less than afraid. When a chain-saw-wielding ghoul jumped out at Bernthal’s middle child, the kid punched his assailant in the testicles.
Bernthal apologised to the ghoul and tried to explain to his son that the man was just pretending to be a bad guy. Bernthal watched as his boy took off howling and laughing through the house.
Sometime later, when he remembered that moment, Bernthal said, “That kid isn’t afraid of anything. He’s going to have to learn things on his own.”