Jon Bernthal is walking down the streets of New York, getting ready to answer a question when a passerby suddenly stops right in front of him. "Dude!" the fan explains. "Like ... dude!" The actor politely, if somewhat rapidly replies, "Hey, how's it going, so sorry. I'm in the middle of an interview, nice to meet you." Then the guy yells, loudly enough to be heard over the sound of the midtown Manhattan traffic that's bleeding through the former Walking Dead star's cellphone line: "You're the man!" Bernthal laughs, sounding slightly embarrassed. "It's been a while since that's happened," he says. "But I have the feeling it may, ah, start happening a lot more soon."
That's probably a safe bet, given that the 38-year-old Washington, D.C. native will be gracing small screens again when Netflix drops the second season of its down-and-dirty take on the Marvel superhero Daredevil this Friday. But it's not like Bernthal has taken any old role: He's playing Frank Castle, the ex-soldier better known by his nom-de-vigilantism The Punisher. A fan favorite since his first appearance as a Spider-Man villain back in the mid-Seventies, it was writer-artist Frank Miller's run on Daredevil and several subsequent miniseries that helped make the character iconic. Part of it was his distinctive costume, an all-black outfit that sported a stylized skull logo; The Punisher's ruthless, take-no-prisoners attitude taking out mobsters and criminals helped seal the deal.
"He's really popular with law-enforcement officers and military types in particular," Bernthal says. "You've had a lot guys go to fight for this country with that Punisher emblem on their body armor; people have died for this country with that skull on their uniform. It's all about 'the mission' with him. I can wrap my head around that appeal — but I felt a huge responsibility in playing him. He means a lot to a lot of people, so I really wanted to get Castle right."
"Maybe if I was a better actor, I could hit up nightclubs all night, eat Chinese food, be on my iPad, and then just show up on set as Frank Castle. But that ain't me. I had to be in it 24-7."-Jon Bernthal
Though he'd seen the character's death's-head symbol around for years, the actor had little knowledge of the comics or Castle's backstory (the ex-Marine loses his family during a Mob-related massacre; a nonstop crusade to eradicate bad guys one high-caliber bullet at a time ensues). After getting the role, Bernthal quickly immersed himself in the Punisherverse via a cross-country crash course. "When I'm acting, I tend to drive to to wherever the location is," he says. "So I'm hopping in my truck and driving across the U.S. quite a bit. And whenever I'd stop in a new town on my way somewhere, I'd hit every comic book store and clean them out of whatever Punisher books they had." He's a huge fan now, citing Garth Ennis' brutal PunisherMAX series as a major inspiration for his take. "If you went to your local comic store over the last year and couldn't find any of those 'Max comics: I'm really sorry."
Once he'd boned up on the Punisher's past, Bernthal knew that he'd need to go to "a dark, dark place" in order to do it right. So he isolated himself, temporarily moving out of the house he shares with his wife and three young kids and living a mostly solitary lifestyle for three months prior to filming; he told one fan site last year that his preparation included walking across the Brooklyn bridge from dusk until dawn every night, with a 60 pound pack on his back. Without going into specifics, Bernthal admits that he went a little nuts. "The worst thing you could do with Frank was to do things in half-measures," he says. "'Well, I don’t want to make him too bad, I may lose the audience.' No. You have to take him all the way, and because Netflix is essentially treating this as a 13-hour movie, you have the chance to risk having viewers think, I don't know if I can get behind what this guy is doing. And then maybe a few hours later, you can slowly win them back.
"But I mean, was there a toll to get to that place?" Bernthal continues. "Yeah. Look, I'm just an actor; at the end of the day, I put on makeup and say lines for a living. But I don't think I could have played this role if I weren't a husband and a father, and couldn't imagine what I might be pushed to do if these people that I love so much were taken away from me." There's a sigh on the other end of the phone line. "Maybe if I was a better actor, I could hit up nightclubs all night, eat Chinese food and be on my iPad and then just show up on set as Frank Castle. But that ain't me. I had to be in it 24-7. And you don't want to be around me when I'm like that."
He says the sacrifice and the sheer exhaustion ("I was a boxer and a college athlete, and this show was the single most physically demanding thing I've ever done") will be worth it if folks walk away feeling like the antihero from the books is present and accounted for. As for whether there's a life for Bernthal's Punisher after Daredevil's second season ends, he's not saying a thing. "When you get the first phone call about these projects," Bernthal says, "it's a two-part thing. First, it's 'Welcome to Marvel!' Then, very quickly after that, it's 'Now keep your mouth shut!' I though The Walking Dead was secretive, but these guys are super-secretive. I know there's been some talk about a spin-off, but I'm usually the last guy to find out about these things."
Then, after a long pause, he adds, "But like Frank Castle, I’m a good soldier. So if I'm called upon ... I'd report for duty."
If the Punisher is the photo negative of blind lawyer Matt Murdock's Daredevil's titular do-gooder, then the sophomore season's other big villain might be described as the superhero's unfettered Id. At least, that's how Elodie Yung, the woman who's playing the romantic interest/killer ninja Elektra Natchios, would characterize her. "Elektra is the little devil sitting on Matt's shoulder," she says. "I kept picturing her whispering into his ear: 'Come on, let's break into this house, let's steal this car, let's have some fun!' I don't know how much I can say in these interviews, but when she suddenly comes back into his life, she clearly rubs off on him.
"She brings out the evil side in him a bit," the 35-year-old actress continues. "And you know, maybe Elektra misses having someone good around her, to balance her out. Because they really do complete each other."
For those Daredevil readers who worshipped the comic's gamechanging heyday in the early 1980s, the sai-wielding lady in red holds a special place in their hearts. Introduced as a specter from the hero's college years who broke his heart — only to return years later as an assassin-for-hire — Elektra was a cult favorite from the get-go. She was both a humanizing element amid Frank Miller's noirish, urban-hellscape stories and one of the books' deadliest killers; her violent death near the end of his initial run on the title caused a minor furor, and her post-resurrection graphic novels/miniseries are considered to be some of the best "dark" superhero stories ever written. What the character lacks in across-the-board recognition a la Spider-Man, she more than makes up for in rabid fan devotion.
"That's where you see their relationship. It's 'I love you, but I will kick you in the face.' It's complicated, as you guys say."-Elodie Yung
As for Yung, she barely knew anything about the character before going in to read for the part; in fact, the French-Cambodian actress — best known for swinging swords in G.I. Joe: Retaliation and a brief love scene with Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — didn't know what part she was reading for at all when she was called in. "They're so hush-hush about everything," she says of Marvel. "The scripts have fake titles, the characters have fake names — there's no description of who they are or how they behave. You have to pay attention to the adjectives in the script; those are your clues. But I knew the lines they gave me were very well-written. And it could go so many ways, so I thought, let's just have fun with it."
Luckily, her off-the-cuff reading impressed the company brass, and like Bernthal, she then proceeded to deep-dive into every Elektra comic she could get her hands on. Thanks to a youth spent practicing martial arts ("When I was nine, my father said 'You can take piano lessons or do karate' — I had a black belt and was competing before I was 19"), she was able to jump into the fight scenes with a minimal amount of training. "Charlie [Cox] had a few months to get his moves down," she says, referencing the man who plays the Man Without Fear. "And I had ... a day or two? But the fact that every fight scene was story-based, and that every punch means something here, it was easy to make it part of your performance, if that makes sense."
She points to an early flashback sequence in which Elektra and a pre-Daredevil Murdock tussle with each other in a boxing ring, both of them teasing out the others' limits; it feels more like a sex scene that the actual sex scene that follows it. "You're not the first person to say that," Yung says, cracking up. "That was the first thing we filmed together, Charlie and I, and after that I thought, 'Okay, this will work.' That’s where you see their relationship. It's intimate and it's violent. It's 'I love you, but I will kick you in the face.' It's complicated, as you guys say."
Perhaps not as complicated as the relationship between Elektra and her creator, who let it be known that he was not happy that his beloved character would be showing up on the Netflix show. Asked about the series last December at a comic convention in Brazil, Frank Miller was quoted saying that "They can call it whatever [they] want, but it won't be the real Elektra." Yung understands his feelings of possessiveness, and hopes that, should he ever see the episodes, the notoriously cantankerous comic-book legend would approve of her interpretation.
"I loved Elektra so much; I still do," she says. "I wanted it to be as respectful as possible to who this woman was, and is — and to the person who created her. I wanted to follow his vision of her. I tried to put as much of myself into it as possible.
"I remember [Executive Vice President of Marvel Television] Jeph Loeb saying, 'With Elektra, keep the good girl in the closet, Elodie,'" she adds. "Look, she is a sociopath. She's what Matt would be like if he crossed a limit. She's saying to him, 'I know you. I know you have this beautiful darkness inside you. And lucky you, I'm going to let it out.'"