Ben Barnes on 'The Punisher,' Finally Joining the Marvel Universe and Not Glorifying Gun Violence (Exclusive)
By John Boone
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"What is a Ragnarok?" Ben Barnes suddenly considers. "I don't know what a Ragnarok is."
We're discussing the amusing happenstance of his new series, The Punisher, arriving on Netflix at the same time Thor: Ragnarok is the No. 1 movie in theaters, two corners of the Marvel universe that could not be more different. The former is a gritty melodrama that follows Jon Bernthal's Frank Castle, a one-time Army man-turned-revenge-seeking antihero; the latter is a groovy space opera full of idiosyncratic punchlines and talking rock monsters. Ragnarok, I tell him, refers to the "End of Everything," the total annihilation of Asgard at the hands of the Goddess of Death and a giant fire demon. "Well," Barnes says. "That sounds quite scary."
Perhaps Marvel's latest offerings do share bit in common, but you won't find any cosmic Vikings or green, rage monsters on The Punisher. "We're not dealing with everything that goes along with having characters with superpowers, so we can ground it in a way that a lot of the other properties aren't able to do," the actor explains. "These are all characters who are dealing with loss and with trauma and with coming back from war…The lead character is clearly a very damaged person and in many of the comics, is a villain himself."
Barnes knew he'd be scooped up into the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe, eventually. "There was certainly a period a few years ago where young, British actors were playing Batman and Superman and Spider-Man and I thought, 'Guys, could you just please leave one for me somewhere?!'" Barnes, a fellow Brit, recalls, referring to Christian Bale, Henry Cavill and, most recently, Tom Holland. He'd been called in before by Marvel regarding another character from the Daredevil universe ("I can't remember which one it was"), but it was never the right fit until The Punisher. "Inevitably, it is never even vaguely what you think it's going to be."
In The Punisher, Barnes plays Billy Russo, an old Special Forces comrade of Frank's who goes on to found Anvril, a corrupt, weapons-dealing military complex. It's a character that debuted in The Amazing Spider-Man comics before becoming the arch-enemy of The Punisher, a deformed supervillain known as Jigsaw. "Nobody has said that name still to me from Netflix or Marvel," Barnes says, though when I suggest that he missed out on the facial prosthetics required of Jigsaw's mutilated face, he demurs, "Well, I didn't say that I missed out on them, necessarily."
"I'd been training myself...to see what I could get away with in any given scene, to see how naughty I could possibly be."
More importantly, Billy Russo is not such an iconic comic book character that Barnes felt he couldn't make the character his own. (He'd only been seen once onscreen, played by Dominic West in 2008's Punisher: War Zone.) "I had a bit of a clean slate and wasn't burdened by any preconceptions of how people want Batman to be or anything," he says. So, Russo was written with a different backstory, a different past and, perhaps, a different future, and his dynamic with The Punisher was reframed from strictly the hero and villain to something more complex. "It was described to me like, Frank Castle is a bear and Billy Russo is a panther and it's always interesting to see what happens if you put those two animals in a room together," he adds.
"I'd been training myself on Westworld to see what I could get away with in any given scene, to see how naughty I could possibly be without making people laugh or without forcing them to cut the scenes that I'm in," Barnes says with a laugh. As he transitioned from HBO's world of cowboys and androids to The Punisher, it became a thread he was able to carry on in his character. "Billy Russo's probably the only character that really elicits toothy grins from Frank Castle," Barnes shares. "So, I decided early on that that was the power that Billy had over Frank, that he remembers him as his old buddy, the one that makes him smile."
The Punisher is now streaming on Netflix, a little over a month after Marvel and Netflix announced that an Oct. 7 New York Comic-Con panel promoting the series "wouldn't be appropriate" in the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting that left more than 50 dead and hundreds injured. In the ever-present climate of gun violence we live in, though, is there ever an exact right time to drop a show about an ultraviolent gunman vigilante?
"I think that was absolutely the right decision," Barnes says of the cancellation. "There is a responsibility on everyone in the entertainment industry, because we are the ones who are designating what imagery and stories to put into the public consciousness."
"It's certainly talked about on set," he adds after a thoughtful pause. "That the violence in this show is supposed to make you uncomfortable. There were times that I would turn away from seeing the screen while Jon was doing his thing." Instead of glorifying gun use, as The Punisher comics have been accused before, the series hopes to show the cost of violent acts. "Hopefully people will be able to see past guns in the trailer and be able to see their impact on the world, and the sad truth is that we live in a world where guns are a reality. But hopefully people don't [think] it's supposed to be that you're rooting for Frank Castle to be as violent as possible, because that is certainly not the way that the series is shaped."