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