We interviewed The Punisher star Ben Barnes, who plays Billy Russo, about his role as the series villain and the show's violence. When Marvel TV and Netflix announced their own series of shows that would culminate in a team-up miniseries, they already had a plan in place for the lineup that would come to include Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders. Each series has been successful in its own right, and Netflix has ordered additional seasons of every show except The Defenders (though it's still early yet to see if that will continue). However, what wasn't part of the plan was Marvel's The Punisher series being spun off from Daredevil.
In season 2 of the first Marvel Netflix series, Matt Murdock faced off against Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) aka The Punisher, but they eventually discovered they weren't necessarily enemies. Bernthal's Punisher quickly became a fan-favorite of Daredevil season 2, and it wasn't too long after that Marvel and Netflix gave the green light for his own solo series. Now, The Punisher has finally hit Netflix, introducing fans to a whole host of new characters existing in the world of Frank Castle. One such character is Frank's best friend, Billy Russo, played by Ben Barnes.
In an interview with Screen Rant to talk about the latest Marvel Netflix series, Barnes discussed the violence of The Punisher, how he landed the role of Billy Russo, and whether there was another Marvel - or other - superhero character he had his eye on before landing this role. Barnes also addresses Netflix and Marvel's decision to cancel The Punisher panel at New York Comic Con, as well as the series' delayed premiere date.
What drew you to this project?
It was a combination of the fact that I had met some of the Marvel guys over the years on a couple of different projects and I hadn’t quite been the right fit for any of their characters. They obviously had these very specific archetypes in their minds particularly usually for their characters. And then they actually have memories [like] elephants at Marvel and they tend to bring people back in when they think of something that they do fit for.
It was a combination of that and speaking with our showrunner Steve Lightfoot, who was very keen to ground the show in a way that was even more realistic than the other Netflix Marvel shows in that you can portray this particular world without necessarily having anyone with any superpowers. So you can ground it in a way that is impossible for other properties.
The thing that got me really excited actually was my screen test that I did and they sent me these sides - which are the lines for the audition - and they send you dummy sides, they’re not real lines from the show that they’re going to do so that nobody gets overexcited that they’re auditioning for something that they know about. And they’d written this speech for Billy Russo, which was a speech about this childhood, which actually wasn’t in the end anything to do with the show and I was very, very disappointed when I found out I wouldn’t be able to give this speech in the series - in fact, I even said at one point to Steve on the phone, ‘If this speech is in the show, I’ll do the show, that’s as simple as it is.’ And he goes, ‘It’s not, but we’ll write you something similar’. It was actually this crazy story about a little kid beating up another little kid with a bat and I just found it really powerful and thought if this the sort of style that they’re going for, then it’s something that I would be really keen on.
Were aware of the other Netflix shows when you got involved, had you seen any of the others?
Yes, I’d seen Daredevil and Jessica Jones because I’d worked with both Charlie Cox, who plays Daredevil, and Krysten Ritter, who plays Jessica Jones. They’re both friends of mine, so I’m always very very keen to follow all my friends’ careers and I was really excited both of their shows got great reactions. So I called them when I got the offer and said, ‘Is this a great place to come and work?’ They were both very supportive of the choice.
So yeah I’d watched those shows and I just thought they were terrific. They were eminently bingeable shows so I moved through them quite quickly. Then I watched the other two that were out. While we were actually prepping or in the early stages of shooting The Punisher, I was making my way through the others. That’s one of the great things about being an actor, is that you can pretend watching television is homework.
From what I’ve seen of The Punisher, there’s a lot of action, what did you do to prepare for those scenes?
Well my particular involvement in the action was structured in a way that I had more time near the beginning to train than some other people. So I found myself, any day that I wasn’t shooting I would go into the - they’d set up a Punisher dojo with a giant Punisher skull spray-painted on a wall in a warehouse in Brooklyn. I would go in there everyday and I would have our fantastic stuntmen - Tom Williams is the stunt coordinator - particularly one stunt guy called Evan who took me through all sorts of various techniques. They took me to firing ranges and got me familiar with the weapons that will be used - a lot of knife training. In the end, I was calling him Mr. Miyagi because it felt very much like the montage sequences from Karate Kid to be honest, without the painting of the houses and sanding the floors obviously.
I said I wanted to learn how to do this and I’m quite accident prone, so every time to actually apply these skills that I learned on the set, I would inevitably fall over something and come home covered in various bruises, but it was really fun doing the training. We did a lot of boxing, a lot of knife fighting and gun training.
I watched a lot of Special Forces documentaries as well. I would watch them on the comfort of my sofa and try and work out how far into the training I think I could get, and I usually decided not very far. But I must have watched about 10 of those documentaries about Navy Seals training or Green Berets training or Special Forces training. I must have watched at least 10 of those documentaries as well.
In regards to The Punisher, the issue of gun control is obviously a big topic in today’s political climate, how aware were you during production of how this show might be perceived through that light? Did it impact your character or performance at all?
The truth about our show, and also the truth about the world in general, is that it’s a very complicated and traumatic place and I think these characters, even more so than in other superhero shows - which is why you don’t see a lot of guns in other superhero shows unless it’s a gun being kicked out of a nameless bad guy’s hand by a hero that would rather be nonviolent. But I think our characters are complex, particularly the character of the Punisher, he’s very much an anti-hero. He’s almost a villain character in some of the comics and the Daredevil series.
I think it was always laid out for us that the violence in our show was supposed to make you uncomfortable and you’re supposed to see the wear and tear on characters if they are violent. Nobody, I think, in our show is violent and lauded for it, especially if they’re using weapons. So that’s definitely not a message that’s being put out there, and that was something that was talked about, but obviously the conversation gets hugely heightened when things happen in the world - the tragic events in Las Vegas and everything - when the conversation escalates. But it was certainly something that wasn’t taken lightly, the violence on our show was never something that was meant to be glorified.
What did you think of Marvel’s decision to cancel the show’s New York Comic Con appearance and delay the premiere date?
Obviously, on a personal level, you see on Twitter that there are people who have bought tickets to come and meet you and obviously it’s difficult to know you’ve disappointed people through no action that you’ve taken. But I thought - y’know they decided between themselves that it wasn’t an appropriate time. I fully supported that. I mean, you have to be very careful what imagery you push into the public consciousness and the timing of when you do that and they decided that that was not the right time to air a show which has guns in it and I think that’s absolutely the right, responsible thing to do.
Switching gears a little bit, before you were cast as Billy Russo, were there any Marvel characters that you were interested in playing, any that haven’t been cast yet?
Oh, that’s interesting. … My old roommate used to have a book - I’m sure you’ve seen it before - but it’s like the big bad book of Marvel characters or something and it’s a huge, huge, huge coffee table book. I used to flip through it thinking - because when you’re an actor, you always think, ‘Oh well if I was to ever play a superhero who would it be.’ And then slowly you kind of realize they’ve all been picked off the list. There was a time a couple of years ago when Batman and Superman and Spider-Man were all young British actors and I was thinking, ‘Well hang on a minute, you’re not leaving me one!’ And I could never sort of work out which one it would be.
Inevitably it’s always one that you’ve never really thought of at all, but I think there’s something that happens to actors when you hit 35 and you get the opportunity to spread your wings a little bit in terms of the types of characters that become available to you and [what] people take seriously are lots of different types of things. Actually the opportunity to - not originating a character, this character has been on screen before, but to really sketch out a character, then flesh it out, then create a character really because the version of Billy Russo that we see in this show is not one we’ve really seen before.
Have you heard anything about Westworld season 2, if you’re coming back or not?
I definitely have heard because I can tell you that I have been on set at least once already.
The Punisher season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.