'Daredevil': Jon Bernthal Opens Up About Taking On (and Sympathizing With) the Punisher

The 'Walking Dead' alum dives deep into playing the militaristic villain Frank Castle in season two of Netflix's Marvel drama.
Courtesy of Netflix

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season-two premiere of Netflix's Daredevil.]

For Jon Bernthal, Daredevil represents more than just a comic book show — the Walking Dead alum saw an important message in the story of season two.

"I hope that this makes people think twice about the role of guns in society," Bernthal tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Because my role [as the Punisher] shines a light on that."

Bernthal made his debut in the season-two premiere of Netflix's Marvel drama Daredevil as iconic comic character Frank Castle, aka the antihero known as the Punisher. When Hell's Kitchen becomes ground zero for what seems like an army waging a war on gangs using military-grade firepower, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) soon finds out that it's actually only one man seeking out a personal vendetta.

In the opener, Matt suits up as Daredevil to find and take down the man the city has nicknamed the Punisher — but he quickly learns that he may have met his match. The Punisher easily bests Daredevil in a brutal fight by using guns — something Matt wasn't prepared for. The premiere ends with Matt falling off the roof after being shot during a confrontation with the Punisher.

The Hollywood Reporter talks with Bernthal about the Punisher's preference for guns and whether he considers Frank to be a hero, a villain or something else entirely.

The Punisher is such an iconic character. How did you prepare to take on this role?

The Punisher means so much to so many people, and it lives in so many different people's heads, so they care about it so much. That's huge to me, and I understand it. I'm familiar with the comic book audience from my time on The Walking Dead: They're very intelligent, loyal and passionate. This character also resonates deeply with law enforcement and military. People go into battle for our country with the Punisher logo on their equipment, their body armor, their vehicles, and they die for their country with that logo on them. There's no words for how much that means to me. This is a real honor and responsibility to try and get this right. It's not even about whether people like it or not, it's about people believing it and believing in him.

When you first started playing Frank, what surprised you the most about his story?

Netflix and long-form television is such an awesome opportunity to deliver a character like this. You can be brave and bold enough to willingly abandon the audience. You can risk losing them completely. You can go really far in the direction of turning your back on the audience and do things that are so despicable and bad that the audience just can't be behind your character anymore because you know, in two or three episodes down the road, you're going to win the audience back. With Netflix, you have the confidence to know that they're not going to have to wait two or three weeks for that episode. They're probably going to watch it all in the same night. It's like a 13-hour movie.

So I knew they wanted to take a deep, dark dive with the Punisher, and that's why they cast me. I was very clear that my version was going to push the envelope and be as honest and dark as possible. And I don't think I could have ever played this part if I wasn't a father or a husband. Until you love something or someone more than yourself where you would willingly give your life for someone else, you can't begin to imagine what it would be like to lose those people. I took this very seriously, and what Daredevil accomplished in season one, they set the stage for this character.

What was your biggest challenge in playing Frank?

A big part that I really had to fight with was separating myself and my life from this role. I've got three kids, and to separate myself completely from them for months to play this guy who is also a father and husband was difficult. But it was necessary to separate myself from them to tackle this.

Frank has such a complex history that has motivated him to take these actions against the gangs of Hell's Kitchen. Do you consider Frank to be a hero, antihero or villain?

None of that, actually. I don't think it's my job at all; I'd be doing myself and the audience a disservice if I tried to play a hero or tried to play a villain. I just believe this guy's circumstances and believe him and believe in him. As far as I'm concerned, my heart truly goes out to this guy after all he's been through. You never know what you'd do until you're in the situation that he's in. Many would think what he's doing is deplorable, but it's my job, again, to get behind him and justify it. No one wakes up in the morning and thinks, "I'm a good guy." Or, "I'm a villain." Or even, "I'm somewhere in between." You live your life, and you believe what you believe. It's not up to me to judge him for his actions.

The action scenes you're in are incredibly intricate and intense and gritty, despite the fact that Frank prefers to use guns over fists. How did shooting those fight scenes compare to your action scenes on The Walking Dead?

Phil Silvera, the fight coordinator on Daredevil, is just one of a kind. I was a college athlete, a boxer. I've been a part of a lot of action movies, but I've never been a part of something that was this physically demanding or this physically ambitious. He pulls off movie-quality fights on a TV schedule, and that's so difficult to do. Any one of the fights on the show would have been rehearsed for three months if it was for a movie, but here we would learn the fights and just shoot it immediately. It's so incredible how lethal and brutal these fights are, and they're so intricate and beautiful to watch. But the greatest thing is how all the fights are character-based. There's a reason and an action behind every single punch thrown and blow taken. There's a purpose behind it all.

The final scene of the season-two premiere, when Frank actually triumphs over Matt, felt like it could have been a season finale. How will their fight scenes escalate from there?

They really do, which is shocking. But it's all about purpose. A guy looking to beat a guy up or apprehend someone is much different from someone looking to kill somebody or end a life. Last season was all about this looming showdown between Daredevil and Wilson Fisk [Vincent D'Onofrio]. They waited five to seven episodes for them to even be onscreen together. So the writers wanted to just start off this season with a bang and set these guys up against each other right off the bat. They start off and meet fighting as total adversaries, but as time goes on, they find out that they're a lot more like each other than they think. Their respect and admiration for each other will grow.

It was also pretty shocking that Frank was able to beat Matt so easily, just by using a gun.

Matt is used to having an easy time fighting people, but Frank is a highly skilled soldier and fighter. With guns. And he's really angry. (Laughs.) He's so unbelievably dedicated to his mission, so it's going to take a lot more than fancy fighting to stop him.

How does the Punisher's agenda compare to Daredevil's? On the surface, they seem to be fighting for the same side ... just with extremely different ways of going about it. Frank even says at one point, "You're one bad day away from being me."

Yeah, I think that's right. But it's important to recognize that when we meet Frank Castle at the beginning of the season, he's in no way the Punisher. He's a guy who is reeling and completely unhinged after all that's happened to him. He's just a man on a mission. He's not concerned with keeping the streets of Hell's Kitchen safe. He's not concerned with right and wrong or his own personal morality. He's built a wall around all of that. He wants to find the people that killed his family. He wants to kill them in the most brutal ways possible. That's different from what Matt Murdock is doing as Daredevil. But as the season continues, their philosophies and what they're going after will get a lot closer.

Daredevil season two is now streaming on Netflix. Stay tuned to THR's the Live Feed in the coming days for more coverage.

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