How Vincent D'Onofrio Became the Best New Villain on TV

Veteran actor gives a bad-guy master class on 'Daredevil'

Vincent D'Onofrio had a ritual he went through every time he needed to get into the mindset of Wilson Fisk, the all-powerful, ultra-evil mobster he plays on Netflix's hit series Daredevil. The 55-year-old actor would go someplace quiet, pull out his smartphone and stare at paintings of the character from Marvel's latter-day Daredevil comics. "The way they drew him . . . it wasn't just that he was this imposing, kind of massive guy," says D'Onofrio. "He looked broken. That was the key."

It's that combination of vulnerability and violence that has made Fisk the bruised heart of the show and the best new villain on TV. "Vincent's the sweetest guy," says Charlie Cox, who plays Daredevil, "but there were days on set where it would be just chilling to watch him."

D'Onofrio remembered the brooding, bald Fisk, a.k.a. "the Kingpin," from Spider-Man comics he read as a kid. In the Seventies and Eighties, he worked as a bouncer in New York clubs. "I saw a lot of things I would not necessarily talk about in an interview," D'Onofrio says, chuckling. "It was pretty crazy. There was a lot of violence. Some of it was really tough to be around . . . . You had to watch your ass."

But while he made his name playing characters like Pvt. Pyle, the soldier who loses his shit in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, and villains in movies like Men in Black and The Cell, D'Onofrio was determined to avoid turning the hulking gangster into a cartoonish heavy. "I mean, who wouldn't want to play a Marvel villain?" he asks. "But from the very beginning, neither myself nor [showrunner] Steven S. DeKnight ever thought of Wilson as a thuggish brute. The idea was always that he was just an emotionally complicated man who, even if he was capable of doing horrendous things, had his reasons. I didn't want to make him a bad guy." D'Onofrio pauses. "I still haven't gotten used to folks calling him a 'villain,' actually. I think I'm going to have to come to terms with people saying that."

Fisk is a 180-degree turn from D'Onofrio's best-known television role, playing Detective Robert Goren on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. "I still have older women who come up to me screaming, 'Law & Order!' " he says. "But then I was taking my son to school the other day and he told me, 'My friend wants to meet Wilson.' The kid was a big Daredevil fan, so I went into the cafeteria — and I've never seen anyone so excited. It's a whole new audience."