Jon Bernthal is getting the shit kicked out of him.
The 41-year-old actor is tied to a chair in a dusty, dingy basement that doubles as an underground surveillance control center-slash-hacker mancave, complete with a dozen computers and a dirty cot in the corner. He looks like he’s gone several rounds with either Mike Tyson circa 1988 or a mack truck. The person standing in front of him doling out punches – and whose identity may or may not constitute a spoiler, depending on how far along you are in The Punisher‘s inaugural season, which dropped on Netflix over the weekend – is taunting Bernthal’s vigilante Frank Castle, telling him that resistance is futile, his days are numbered, this is a battle you can not win, yadda yadda death threat.
For his part, the man in the chair is defiantly spitting out either fake blood or fake teeth – hard to tell from the monitor, but either way, he’s definitely doing it defiantly – and countering with his own promises of dishing out pain, agony and hurt, respectively. Soon, another figure joins the party: A C.I.A. operative played by Paul Schulze, a.k.a. The Sopranos‘ foodie-priest Father Phil, who also starts talking about the wave of misery heading Frank’s way. Round and round these three go until someone yells cut. The folks situated just outside of the closed-off set in a Queens, New York soundstage, the ones listening to the exchanges via radio packs, head off to get craft-service empanadas. On a monitor, you can see Jet Wilkinson, the director of the episode (number 12 out of 13) and the show’s executive producer Steve Lightfoot confer with Bernthal, who never loses his solemn, I’ve-seen-some-shit look. Meanwhile, Jeph Loeb, the Marvel TV overlord who’s been intensely observing all of this, begins rapidly typing into his phone.
It was more or less inevitable that the Punisher would find his way into Netflix’s gritty corner of the Marvel Media-Industrial-Complex Universe (TM). The one-man-army antihero had been a favorite since he first appeared in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man back in 1974, thanks to his Dirty Harry-esque view on justice and a uniform that launched a thousand skullhead t-shirts. But it was Castle’s appearances in Frank Miller’s now-classic Eighties run on Daredevil that cemented the character in a generation of readers’ minds, so when the streaming service decided to use the writer-artist’s work as the informal basis for that superhero show’s second season, the Punisher quickly entered the picture. Besides, he already fit Netflix’s idea of what to do with the comic company’s IPs – go dark, get more streetwise, bring on the urban decay – to a tee. Plus the pugilistically handsome Bernthal, fresh off The Walking Dead, could channel the character’s thuggish demeanor like a pro.
Cue a thumbs up from fans and immediate questions as to whether the antihero – or as Bernthal’s costar Ben Barnes calls him, “a violent criminal hero” – would get his own solo series. “Like Frank Castle, I’m a good soldier,” he said right before his Daredevil episodes had begun streaming. “So if I’m called upon … I’d report for duty.”
Remind the actor of that comment, and he’ll feign amnesia. “I really said that? Man, what the hell was I thinking?” he jokes. Bernthal still has his bruised-up makeup on, hiding out in his dressing room while the cast and crew eat lunch. He no longer feels the need to get into his character’s mindset by going on long solo walks across the Brooklyn Bridge in the wee small hours – “When you’re first on the call sheet every morning, no walking the bridges all night for you” – but the lone wolf aspect has stuck with him on set. “The crew, I have to say, is great because they’ll see me off by myself, and it’s, ‘There’s Jon doing his thing, give him some space.’ But you know, there are days when I’m quite jovial. Which is not something I’d ever thought I’d say about being Frank for 12, 16 hours a day.”
Still, there’s a toll taken on playing such a consistently tortured guy, right? And while playing the Punisher is easily the most high-profile gig Bernthal has had to date, returning to that intense, take-no-prisoners headspace for 12, 16 hours a day had to offer something more than just making good on a “good soldier” promise, right?
“One of the major questions that has always stuck with me about the character,” the actor says after he mulls over the idea for a second or two, “or at least regarding certain iterations of [him in] the comic book, is: Who is the real Frank Castle? Is he the guy who lives in the suburbs with his wife and his kids – or is he the guy neck deep in blood and guts, the one who’s perpetually at war? Who is the true self here? Is this trauma just an excuse for him to be a killer, and did he somehow bring this on himself? And when your vendetta is done, what do you do next?
“It’s a long-ass answer to a short-ass question,” Bernthal adds, smiling for what appears to be the first time all day. “But one of the big reasons I signed on was because I wanted to answer that question for myself.”
When we meet up again with Castle in The Punisher‘s first episode, he’s busy tying up loose ends. After helping some bikers, a drug lord and a go-between shuffle off this mortal coil, you see him burning his signature death’s head armor. The mission is over. He’s putting the Punisher to rest, content to live out his days working a sledgehammer on construction sites.
And then just when he thinks he’s out, they pull him back in again: A former surveillance expert code-named Micro (Girls‘ Ebon Moss-Bachrach) contacts Castle about a tape involving a terrorist suspect being tortured and killed in Afghanistan. The video links our antihero with this living-underground hacker, as well as an NSA agent (Amber Rose Revah) who’s investigating some shady dealings; Frank’s former special-ops comrade Billy (Barnes) who now runs a mercenary-for-hire business called Anvil; an intelligence bigwig (Schulze); and an ex-soldier (Jason R. Moore) who runs a veterans’ therapy group. Retirement from killing bad guys, it seems, will have to wait.
“Comic books, like action movies, often default to reset mode,” Lightfoot says, speaking from Los Angeles several months after his choreographing of Bernthal’s on-set beatdown in New York. “Even when it’s a franchise, you tend to put everything back to square one so you can more or less get the hero back in the same situation. With Frank, it’s, ‘Ok, what gang-of-the-week is he going to take out this time?’ And when you have a serialized TV show with 13 episodes, you can’t do that. He has to change. Especially if you want to do this for more than one season.”
That was what was going through the British writer-producer’s head when Marvel initially asked if he wanted to come in and talk about heading up a solo Punisher series. While Lightfoot had a rough familiarity with the books, he mostly knew the character from the movies, which he said stuck a tried-and-true template: “You have two hours and you tell a revenge story. The end.” Still, he was intrigued, so he took a meeting and got an early look at the then-unaired Daredevil Season Two episodes.
Lightfoot was impressed by what he saw – especially Bernthal’s performance – and the fact that the company was looking to switch things up a bit in regards to the shoot-kill-rinse-repeat of the comics’ narratives. “Marvel never really said, ‘Oh, this is the story you’re telling,’ or ‘You have to do this run from the books.’ The only marching orders were: make it smart, make it contemporary and, first and foremost, concentrate on the character. Just let everything else come from that.”
And the fact that Lightfoot had served time as a writer on NBC’s late, great Hannibal gave him an edge in terms of taking a character most folks would deem psychotic and turning him a compelling protagonist without sanding the edges off. “The one thing I learned on Hannibal was that you have to get your audience in tune with the moral universe you’re creating early, and then once you’ve done that, they have a frame of reference for who the ‘good’ guys and ‘bad’ guys are. When you were able to root for Lecter in a situation, that meant we had done our job correctly.”
So he pitched Marvel a story in which Castle, per Lightfoot, “was the most honorable man in a world that was oft-kilter.” Dropped into a landscape of C.I.A. spooks, soldiers-for-sale companies and black-ops government units unafraid to take out its own whistleblowing citizens, our antihero is one of the few people who has something resembling a moral code. Yes, he’s still a man who will burst into a warehouse full of goons and gun them down, and who feels no remorse in using his particular set of skills against a cadre of heavily armed men in order to protect a survivalist buddy. But this Castle is also a guy who’s trying to move beyond his killing-machine mentality, or at least temper it with something besides an all-murder, all-the-time single-mindedness.
“People have always asked me, ‘So do you believe in what Frank does?'” What I believe in is Frank. I have empathy for him; my heart is open to him.”-Jon Bernthal
“I remember watching Jon’s Daredevil performance and thinking, ‘Oh, in some ways, he’s just a metaphor for how men often deal with big emotions and grief – which is to get angry,” Lightfoot notes. “As long as you’re angry, you don’t have to deal with all the other emotions, which are the ones you really need to access. So I thought, we’ve seen him project that anger. Now let’s have him deal with everything else.”
Once Bernthal heard that, he was in, and Lightfoot and his writing team began filling in the periphery. Rather than a simple vengeance-is-mine storyline, the show delves into veterans’ issues and what to do with warriors who’ve been trained for combat but not for returning to peacetime civilization. Caste is allowed to show a somewhat gentler side once he befriends his new partner’s family – something the stuck-in-exile Micro can’t do. And viewers may begin to feel that they aren’t watching a superhero story so much as a conspiracy thriller, especially since the NSA investigation and hacker-on-the-run storylines take up almost as much airtime as The Punisher‘s A-story. “Personally, I didn’t just want to play a sidekick,” Ebon-Bachrach says. “We have Trump running the country, so I didn’t want to play a smart guy who’s weak. I wanted to play a smart guy who’s courageous and strong in a different way. Because that’s what we need right now.”
Whether we needed a TV show about a white male with rage issues and a gun fetish at this particular moment in time, however, was something that also became a factor once the show found itself bumping up against current events. Right before Lightfoot & Co.’s scheduled appearance at the New York Comic-Con in October – which had been rumored to double as a Beyoncé-style surprise launch date for the series – the country’s biggest mass shooting occurred in Las Vegas. Plans to promote the show in the wake of the tragedy were wisely scrapped; right before The Punisher‘s November 17th release date, another mass shooting in Texas took place. Some have suggested that there may not be a “right time” for the show to air without drawing unfortunate real-world comparisons; Bernthal told IndieWire that “I am concerned with the desensitization of violence … it’s something we [as a country] have to address.”
The character’s association with a certain type of carnage – and a certain type of Punisher fan’s gleeful wallowing in it – was a notion that Lightfoot had been concerned with going into The Punisher in the first place, even before the series became culturally resonant for all the wrong reasons. He acknowledges that you could not make a show that stayed true to the source material without including violence; the key, in his mind, “was to also show the aftermath of both that violence and living a life devoted to violence.” And he points to a sequence in the show’s sixth episode, in which Frank and Micro have a long discussion about their spouses and being fathers. “It’s my favorite secene in the whole series,” he says. “Those could be any two guys just talking about their lives. You can’t just have mindless killing. You have to humanity in this show. Once I knew we could do a scene of just the two of them talking and still bring you in to show, then I knew we had something that worked.”
“People have always asked me, ‘So do you believe in what Frank does?'” Bernthal says. “‘Do you believe in what he thinks?’ What I believe in is Frank. I have empathy for him; my heart is open to him. I’ve been around guys who are a little like Frank … I mean, maybe I’ve even been in that space myself. It’s less about picking up a gun then about not letting people in, about hurting so bad that you build a wall around yourself.
“You know, I don’t know that it’s art’s place to tell you what to think,” he adds. “But I do think it’s art’s job to ask questions, so hopefully the show will do that – ask questions about violence, and why people go to that place, and what happens when you aren’t able to integrate soldiers back into society in a way that honors them. I know some people are just going to watch the show for the thrill. But it’d be nice if it made them question things as well.” Then Bernthal leaves to go back on set. He has to get beat up a few more times before he can call it a day.