I am sitting in a hotel corridor munching on a free bun and waiting for my turn to interview Jon Bernthal, who will play Marvel's comic anti-hero Punisher in the upcoming second series of the Netflix series Daredevil. The door of the hotel room is ajar; the journalist in front is asking Bernthal if Punisher is a terrorist, a question that is diplomatically dodged.
Less imposing in real life than the huge walking shadow he creates for his role on screen, Bernthal is softly spoken, genial and incredibly careful with his answers. With every question I ask, his eyes flicker over to his handler on the sofa. There are moments when I wish his superpower was the ability to speak freely. (Rumours abound of Punisher getting his own Netflix series, but Bernthal’s lips are sealed.)
He was filming in Connemara recently for an Irish film directed by Brendan Muldowney. "I did a movie there before Daredevil [called] Pilgrimage. Loved Ireland. It was awesome," he says.
Since Heath Ledger won an Oscar for the Joker, there is no reason to suppose a comic book-inspired role cannot carry serious weight. And having worked with Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski and David Ayer, Bernthal is not taking his new television venture lightly.
He says his main preparation for this role came from being a father and husband, just like Punisher. “I don’t think I could play this part if I didn’t have kids and if I wasn’t married. I think you’ve gotta know what it’s like to love something more than yourself and to have that real unconditional familial love, and then to start to imagine what it would be like if that was taken from you.”
So he went about isolating himself and “trimming away a lot of the creature comforts of life: social media, the internet, TV, restaurants and bars. You try to create as dark and bleak circumstances as you possibly can.”
No deadbeat dad
He also separated himself temporarily from his wife and three small children. “There’s a huge cost there. But I think, at the end of the day, I want my kids when they grow up to look back and say, ‘Dad put everything into it and when he worked he gave it his all . . . Our family name is on that work.’ So they’ll look at it and be proud of it. And not hate me for being a deadbeat.”
Marvel fans are mostly delighted with Bernthal's casting. "He really showed his chops on The Walking Dead. He was so creepy, but you could tell he knew his way around a gun," said one podcast presenter.
Bernthal feels a huge responsibility taking on the role. “A lot of people feel ownership, and it’s a character that resonates deeply with the law enforcement and the military community,” says Bernthal. “There are members of the American military who have gone into battle with the Punisher logo on their body armour.”
That seems odd given the vigilante justice he stands for. “Look, I have no combat experience, who am I to talk? I can only imagine, you’re in there risking it all . . . possibly never seeing your family again, going into the hells of war and I’d imagine that that emblem emboldens you and makes you feel strong. And what an honour to be able to portray that.”
Bernthal has talked to marines who have come home and tried “to get back into the real world, which isn’t very real at all in comparison”.
He says his “heart goes out” to the character. “The thing that I love most about him is that he is in no way a superhero – there are no superpowers here. He is a man that has worked hard to build these walls around his heart and to tried to stomp out any sort of feeling of morality. He’s very much at conflict and there’s no relief.”
Acting is a vocation for Bernthal. Perhaps pre-empting the reaction to his extreme methods of preparation, he says, “I think if I was a better actor I could just sort of show up, [but] the darkness needs to be lived in and real. It’s just part of the deal.”
He says he owes everything to acting. “I think it very much saved my life. I think I was headed for some pretty bad, dark places.”
He will not be drawn on the specifics, only to say that it got him away from “the people I grew up with and the things I was into”. He considers himself “super- blessed”, which is why he cannot cut corners. “I have this wonderful wife and these wonderful kids and a wonderful home. I do not need or want anything more than what I have. So I would never disrespect any of that by not taking it vitally seriously, because this thing has given me so much, I want to give just as much back to it.”
Having worked with some of the best actors and directors in the film business, he sees his season on Daredevil as a "13-hour movie: you can take a deeper dive".
He has some input into his role. “I love the collaborative nature of television, where it’s much more fluid between writer and actor.”
He might call up a writer with a suggestion for Punisher, but he is careful not to overstep the mark. “Look, I came on as a new guy on this thing, on a show that was working. At first they were like: hey, just quiet dude, do your job. But I think as you develop a rapport, they know when to shut me up and they know when I’m on to something, which is cool.”
He refers to the "age of TV renaissance" we are in, but sees a resurgence in great writing in cinema also. "Movies like Spotlight and Room: unbelievable. I mean there's great Irish movies and Irish directors, I met with Lenny [Abrahamson], and Gerard Barrett, [director of] Glassland."
Steven Spielberg recently predicted that the mega-budget superhero movie would go the way of the western. So what, for now, is the continued draw of the superhero? “I think the omnipresent threats of terrorism, of global warming, of environmental disaster, they become more real and people become more afraid. So I think it’s only human nature then to say, I know what I want to identify with – I want to spend my free time looking at these superhumans who can come and actually save the day.”
Bernthal has built a career around various intelligent supporting roles. He was the moustached "Quaalude king of Bayside" in The Wolf of Wall Street, a savage second World War soldier in Fury, a dirty cop in Sicario. Is he ready to take centre stage?
“I have no desire to be a leading man. I think the character parts are where the fun is, it’s where the heavy lifting is. Don’t get me wrong, if there’s a great character out there that’s a leading man, I surely would dive in 100 per cent. I want to tackle the most interesting parts and the most interesting people.”
- Series two of Daredevil is on Netflix
QUITE A MARVEL: WHO IS PUNISHER?
Marvel's Punisher, or Frank Castle by his civilian name, is a shoot-to-kill ex-US Marine, who differs from most other masked avengers in that he uses lethal force. He returns from war only to see his wife and children killed by a gang, and so sets out on a murderous avenging rampage. Punisher has no superpowers. His crusade is enabled by military training, artillery and rage. He first appeared in the comic Amazing Spiderman in 1974, created by writer Gerry Conway. Punisher has previously been played by Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane and Northern Irish actor, Ray Stevenson.