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Remote Controlled: ‘The Punisher’ Star Jon Bernthal on Why the Role Scared Him

Welcome to “Remote Controlled,” a podcast from Variety featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.

In this week’s episode, Variety’s executive editor of TV Debra Birnbaum and senior reporter Daniel Holloway talk with Jon Bernthal, the star of Netflix’s “The Punisher.” Bernthal opens up about why he signed on for the part, why he fought for keeping Frank Castle unlikable, and what he’s most worried about.

Bernthal admits he resisted the idea of playing the character. “Fully candid, being part of a superhero franchise was not something that I really had an ambition towards; it wasn’t really on my radar,” he says. “A lot of the people that I really admire, actors that I really look up to have avoided that whole thing.”

But when the project came to his attention, he learned more about who “The Punisher” is and he was convinced. “He didn’t have any super (powers); he didn’t have a mask,” he says. “He was a grieving father and husband who was reeling from this unbelievably traumatic event. There was something about that that scared the you-know-what out of me and left me intrigued.”

The character was first introduced in “Daredevil,” and the experience of working on that series convinced him he’d made the right decision. “Seeing the liberty and the time that Charlie Cox was given — in the first episode he delivers this monologue. There’s so much patience,” says Bernthal. “You don’t see that much on TV and especially in that genre. They give the performance time to breathe and you get to know who the guy really is. And then I saw Vincent D’Onofrio do his thing. This is a world I want to play in.”

That the role is also an origins tale appealed to him — and terrified him, he admits. “I always try to gravitate to stuff that scares me,” he says. “I love my wife and my kids more than myself. I’d willingly give my life for them. Until you understand love like that, you can understand what it would be like to lose it. Just that kernel of an idea, it scared me.”

That’s why he fought for keeping Frank Castle unlikable, embracing his violence. “I’m not interested in making him likable. I’m not interested in making him relatable,” he says. “If there was any back-and-forth with me with the powers that be on my show that’s where the crux of any argument lay, in saying let’s say bold. He’s a guy who’s living in darkness. He’s not trying to win people over.”

But he’s worried about how comic book fans will react, given their passion for the character — and his experience on the “Walking Dead.” “I’ve become plagued with worry about it,” he says. There’s something about the act of reading a comic. The audience has to infuse and fill the breaks between the captions within their own imaginations. There’s a real sense of ownership there. You have to honor that sense of ownership. You don’t want to get it wrong.”

You can listen to this week’s podcast here:

New episodes of “Remote Controlled” are available every Friday, and you can find past episodes here.

Jon Bernthal photographed exclusively for the Variety Remote Controlled Podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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