THE PU­N­ISHER

Jon Bern­thal is The Pu­n­isher, tool­ing up for Dare­devil Sea­son 2. No com­plaints? Ex­actly

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS CHRIS HEWITT il­lus­tra­tion OLLY GIBBS

Could Dare­devil Sea­son 2’s Jon Bern­thal fi­nally be the man with the skills to wear the skull?

Some­thing very un­usual hap­pened on June 9 last year. Some­thing vir­tu­ally un­prece­dented. An ac­tor was cast as a comic-book char­ac­ter… and the in­ter­net ap­proved. Usu­ally, as soon as a film­maker or stu­dio dares to cast a comic-book su­per­hero in flesh and blood, the protests be­gin. Both Jared Leto and Heath Ledger got flak when cast as The Joker (“Heath Ledger has the charisma of a let­tuce leaf,” sniped one poster on Red­dit in July 2006). More re­cently, Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch-as-doc­torstrange in­curred ire. And spare a thought for poor Ben Af­fleck, who faced a change.org pe­ti­tion when he was an­nounced as the new Bat­man.

Yet, scan tweets from the day Bern­thal was cast as The Pu­n­isher, and there’s lots of squeal­ing, lots of caps, lots of ex­cited F-bombs. The over­whelm­ing con­sen­sus: by cast­ing Bern­thal as the cop-turned-vig­i­lante in Sea­son 2 of its Net­flix show Dare­devil, Marvel had cho­sen wisely.

Here was an ac­tor who’d made his name play­ing grim and gritty in The Walk­ing Dead. A man with a thou­sand­yard stare, don’t-fuck-with-me aura and nose bro­ken, six ways to Sun­day. Some­one who, in essence, looked like he’d stepped straight off the page of a Pu­n­isher comic.

“Part of me would rather ev­ery­body had said, ‘That’s the worst, that guy sucks!’” says Bern­thal. “It’s tremen­dously hum­bling. I just want to get this right. I walk down the streets of New York all the time and peo­ple are telling me, ‘Don’t fuck this up.’ That re­sponse did not em­bolden me, or let me hold my chin high. It just said, ‘Time to go to work, moth­er­fucker.’”

A NEW YORK COP FINDS

his life in tat­ters when his wife and child are shot dead. Con­sumed by grief, he be­comes a death-deal­ing re­venge mer­chant, hunt­ing crim­i­nals with a skull on his chest, a gun in his hand and ha­tred in his heart. His name is Frank Cas­tle, but he calls him­self The Pu­n­isher.

If the story feels fa­mil­iar, that’s be­cause The Pu­n­isher has been an in­te­gral part of the Marvel uni­verse since he was cre­ated, ini­tially as a Spi­der-man vil­lain, by Gerry Con­way and John Romita in 1974. It might also be be­cause it’s been on the big screen al­ready — three times, in fact. Each time, a dif­fer­ent ac­tor has played Cas­tle.

First there was Dolph Lund­gren, with dyed black hair and a dead-eyed stare, in a cheapo 1989 ef­fort put out by New World Pic­tures. Let’s just say it’s a good thing Twit­ter wasn’t around when Dolph had a go at the role. Or a bad thing, de­pend­ing on your point of view.

Then along came Thomas Jane in 2004’s The Pu­n­isher, which more openly em­braced its ori­gin, in­clud­ing the skull cos­tume. It was fun, but a box-of­fice fiz­zle. And fi­nally, in 2008, the spec­tac­u­larly vi­o­lent and blackly comedic Pu­n­isher War Zone saw Ray Steven­son shoot, punch, stab and blow up ev­ery­thing that moved. It’s some­thing of a cult favourite now but crashed and burned com­mer­cially, af­ter which the rights qui­etly re­verted to Marvel Stu­dios, who de­cided that the per­fect ve­hi­cle for The Pu­n­isher was the murky, mo­rally am­bigu­ous and vi­o­lent world of Dare­devil.

You could ar­gue that Cas­tle is a oned­i­men­sional char­ac­ter who glo­ri­fies vi­o­lence, who has been road­tested and found want­ing, that it’s three strikes and out. Equally, you could ar­gue that none of the previous Pu­n­isher it­er­a­tions or ac­tors have had the time, or the in­cli­na­tion, to dive deep into the roil­ing grief that makes Frank Cas­tle tick, to find those ex­tra di­men­sions. Well, 13 episodes of a tele­vi­sion se­ries solves that prob­lem. As does Bern­thal. “I’m giv­ing it ev­ery­thing I have,” he says. “This char­ac­ter and his philoso­phies and the ideas be­hind it are tremen­dously im­por­tant to me.”

Bern­thal will hap­pily de­clare that act­ing saved his life: “Grow­ing up, I was at­tracted to dan­ger and to trou­ble. This art, this craft, this work gave me di­rec­tion. All of a sud­den, that same wild­ness ended up be­ing one of my great­est weapons.”

It’s no­tice­able in vir­tu­ally all of Bern­thal’s roles, even gen­tler fare like Me And Earl And The Dy­ing Girl. This is a man who was asked to au­di­tion for

both Rick Grimes and Shane Walsh in The Walk­ing Dead, but im­pressed very strongly upon then-showrun­ner Frank Darabont that the knotty, com­plex Shane was the only op­tion for him.

“It was the char­ac­ter of a life­time,” he ex­plains. “At this point in my life I’d just played Al Capone in Night At The Mu­seum 2. A char­ac­ter like Shane was what I trained for, what I went to drama school for.”

The Walk­ing Dead put Bern­thal on the map. From that you can trace lines to Martin Scors­ese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street (where he im­pro­vised the scene in which he sells a pen to Leonardo Di­caprio’s Jor­dan Belfort), and David Ayer’s Fury, the shoot for which was so in­tense that Bern­thal didn’t see his fam­ily un­til it wrapped. That in­cluded his new­born child. “I ba­si­cally met my son when he was eight months,” he says. “You could have put ten ba­bies in front of me and I wouldn’t have known which one was mine! I go dark for the first cou­ple of months when I try to find the char­ac­ter. We all have our meth­ods.”

For The Pu­n­isher, Bern­thal’s method was sim­ple. First, he au­di­tioned by tap­ing a scene with his friend Tom Hol­land, coin­ci­den­tally enough the boy who would be­come the new Spi­der-man. Then, role se­cured, he “went dark”. Late ev­ery night, for weeks be­fore film­ing be­gan, Bern­thal strapped on a back­pack filled with weights and walked the de­serted streets, he says, “from Brooklyn Bridge on”, try­ing to find Frank Cas­tle.

“Here’s a guy who’s had the thing he cares about most in the world taken from him for­ever,” says Bern­thal. “It’s im­por­tant not to spend your nights with the crea­ture com­forts of a ho­tel and go­ing to restau­rants and par­ty­ing.” And no, no­body messed with him. Prob­a­bly be­cause he looks just like Frank Cas­tle.

A BRIGHT NOVEM­BER

morn­ing in Brooklyn, and Em­pire has come to the set of Dare­devil Sea­son 2 (work­ing ti­tle: Ring­side) to wit­ness Jon Bern­thal in the act of not fuck­ing this up.

To­day’s scene is a cru­cial mo­ment in a cru­cial episode to­wards the tail-end of the sea­son, so we’ll go light on the con­text. Here’s what you need to know: there’s a boat, and on that boat is a bad man. But he’s about to meet a bad­der man: Frank Cas­tle.

While he waits for di­rec­tor Stephen Sur­jik to yell “Ac­tion”, Bern­thal stands out­side the door of the ‘boat’ (re­ally a se­ries of cab­ins con­structed on a sound­stage). Ear­lier, when Em­pire chat­ted to him, he was re­clin­ing on a sofa in a green room, clad in civvies, with a Fri­day The 13th base­ball cap on his head. Now, he’s head-to-toe in black (no skull just yet; ex­pect that to ma­te­ri­alise around the sea­son’s end), with a black eye bloom­ing across his face. He looks ex­actly like the kind of guy you’d cross the street then hide in a door­way to avoid if you saw him walk­ing through Man­hat­tan in the mid­dle of the night.

Sur­jik yells the magic word. The ac­tor play­ing Man Jus­ti­fi­ably Ter­ri­fied By The Pu­n­isher (NB: may not be the char­ac­ter’s ac­tual name) wrenches open the door and limps through the cabin into his cham­bers. Af­ter a beat, Bern­thal — as­sault ri­fle in the ready po­si­tion — fol­lows. Gun­fire is ex­changed, and the scene ends with The Pu­n­isher stand­ing over the man as he begs for his life. Bern­thal takes out a hand­gun and puts it in the man’s mouth. Lost in char­ac­ter, Bern­thal calls the man a “cock­sucker”. “I think it prob­a­bly took Marvel a lit­tle bit of get­ting used to!” he laughs later.

And then, just as Frank is about to Cas­tle the poor chap, in barges Char­lie Cox as that do-good­ing Dare­devil. “GET OUTTA HERE, RED,” yells Bern­thal, a line which tells us that, though their meth­ods are dif­fer­ent, The Pu­n­isher and Dare­devil have formed an al­liance of sorts. What hap­pens next — Cas­tle leap­ing up and push­ing Dare­devil out of the room — tells us that al­liance is fairly brit­tle. In lay­man’s terms, it’s about to kick off.

“Frank is so filled with rage and de­spair that this idea of a guy pranc­ing around in a cos­tume with lit­tle horns beat­ing up bad guys is ab­surd to him,” says Bern­thal. “It’s ripe for a char­ac­ter like Frank to come in and shit on that. What’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing is that these guys are ab­so­lute enemies, but they start to un­der­stand each other.”

The sec­ond sea­son hasn’t streamed yet but al­ready there are ru­mours of a spin-off — so Bern­thal might fi­nally be the first to play Cas­tle more than once.

“We’re the last to know about those things,” he laughs, with the air of a man who isn’t afraid of much but is will­ing to make an ex­cep­tion for non-dis­clo­sure agree­ments. “But this guy is very much burned into my heart and soul. I think about him all the time. And I look at it the same way Frank would look at it. I’m a soldier, man. If they call on me, I’ll stand to at­ten­tion and I’ll be ready.” The in­ter­net will be pleased.

DARE­DEVIL SEA­SON 2 IS ON NET­FLIX FROM MARCH 18.

“I GO DARK FOR A COU­PLE OF MONTHS WHILE I FIND THE CHAR­AC­TER.”

Jon Bern­thal, armed and ready to pun­ish.

From top: With Char­lie Cox in Dare­devil; As Shane Walsh, along­side An­drew Lin­coln and Sarah Wayne Cal­lies, in The Walk­ing Dead; Giv­ing 100 per cent in 2014’s Fury.

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