Jon Bernthal on the Very Human Elements of the Punisher in Netflix’s ‘Daredevil’
Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil is well behind us, but Jon Bernthal’s performance as Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher made a lasting impression. Punisher seemed like the type of antihero Bernthal was born to play, though if his recent comments about the character are any indication, he only came to understand the role after being exposed to it for the show; in other words, he brought no prior comic book knowledge to his performance.
What’s interesting, however, is just how deeply involved with the Punisher’s story Bernthal became. While chatting with Awards Daily, it became quite clear that the actor found his character’s human side much more interesting than any sort of comic book shenanigans he got up to. It wasn’t the weaponry, the tech, or the intimidating presence that led Bernthal to inhabit the role of Castle, but rather the man’s pain, loss, and vulnerability. It’s an interesting angle on the Punisher that’s rarely explored, but to hear Bernthal talk about it, it makes perfect sense.
As far as his introduction to Daredevil, the Punisher, or comics of any sort:
My first real exposure to the comic books and the comic book world was through The Walking Dead. It was also an exposure to the comic book fans and their enthusiasm and how much it means to them. I had no idea how committed that fan base is … I experienced it firsthand with The Walking Dead. With this character, Frank Castle, I really dived into the comic book. I got a lot from the books and the research process was fun.
When asked what it was about the Punisher that really drew him in, Bernthal focused in on the less-than-superheroic qualities of the character:
I wasn’t desperately trying to get into the comic book world. [laughs] For me, it’s about the human being. He has no superpower. His superpower is his humanity. It’s his drive, his rage, and his loss. I could never have played this part if I weren’t a husband or father. Until you really understand what it’s like to love somebody more than yourself and to willingly give your life for them, only then can you understand what it would mean if they were taken from you …
It’s very rare for characters like this and these broken people on a mission is a necessary part of being a soldier and being a man on a mission. To say things like shame, regret, and humanity. I’m not letting those things penetrate me because I’m just about this mission. What was great about that was that it reminds us that it’s impossible to build a wall around your heart. It also tells us that all humans are reachable, and some light penetrates that wall, and feelings are underneath there. What an opportunity for a guy like this to share that and open up about it.
Bernthal certainly made the most out of his opportunities as the Punisher, but there were a few scenes that stood out in his experience:
A big part of this guy is a guy searching for himself. He’s got pain, regret and remorse. There’s the graveyard scene where he opens up. He delivers this scene where he explains what it’s like to come home and see his daughter. It was such a gift from John C. Kelley. I had been away from my kids for three months, and I was at the crux of my own torture, going through that.
I really tried to drive into what this guy was going through. Not only was it beautifully written. What it allowed was a man who doesn’t open up much, doesn’t share, who has been alone, and this circumstance found him where he didn’t think he’d be able to get up from that gravestone. He has this opportunity to open up. Those moments and that speech gave me the ammunition to go as far as I wanted the other way. You could be as brutal as possible, as depraved, as tortured as possible because at that moment, the audience got to see what was going on in that man’s heart, and he’s unbelievably human. He’s in an unbelievably amount of pain. That speech was the anchor of the season for me.
Bernthal also had some interesting insights into how the Netflix model of television actually makes it easier to bring a character like the Punisher to the screen in a way that’s true to his comic book origins:
A character like Frank Castle, he goes all the way, and later on humanity sets in. The regret, humiliation and shame pour in later with him. I love that you don’t have to tell all these different stories and let that affect you in a natural way. There’s no question that the Netflix model is a real ally in that.
You can’t talk about the Punisher, or Daredevil itself really, without talking about the fight scenes. Bernthal addresses them here:
This team that’s been assembled, they’re unbelievably ambitious. The fighting in this show everybody working together. I also believe the way in which he fights tells you volumes about the character. There’s a story with each and every punch, and they allow us to approach it like that. These guys are good enough to choreograph in that way.
I think when you’re talking about characters like these, the way they fight, what’s motivating the fight is very important. Beating someone up to drag them into jail is different than someone who is exercising his rage on people. The Frank Castle you find in this story is not The Punisher. He’s reeling from the loss of his family. He’s driven by rage and is on a singular mission to find these people who took his family from him, and do it as brutally as possible.
But it wasn’t all about knock-down, drag-out fights; the Daredevil writers also took time to flesh out Castle’s character, humanizing him and allowing him to interact with the unlikeliest of people:
I think the relationship with Karen surprised me the most. It was a rare thing that can happen when you have a real collaboration between writers and actors. These writers and producers watch the dailies, they see things that were happening. You might not be able to put words to it, and they develop that. In the same way that there’s this connection between Frank and Karen and we never explain exactly what it is. I felt what it became was that I thought he looked at her as, this is the kind of woman his daughter could have become, bold and intelligent, and courageous, independent, bold and caring. I think he saw his daughter in her. I think as a man that swore off caring about anything besides his mission and completing it, I think he started to care about her, her well-being, and her opinion.
[laughs] I have no idea. We are going to do a show with him next year. I’m really excited about that. We’ll have to see.