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.”