EVEN BEFORE he was on the show, Jon Bernthal loved the show.
During its first season, Netflix’s “Daredevil” was one of the “best things on television,” he says. And as he became a fan — as he watched Vincent D’Onofrio deliver a menacing performance as the debut season’s Kingpin — Bernthal wanted to be a part of it.
Bernthal praises “any world in which they’re letting an actor of that stature come in and play a guy who’s so villainous and so dark and so messed up.”
“To give him an opportunity and a voice to show where he’s coming from and why he is the way he is, and to try to make an effort to understand that character — it was really beautiful work,” says Bernthal, a D.C. native who attended Sidwell Friends in Northwest Washington.
For the new second season, Bernthal would get his own shot at inhabiting such a world. He makes a powerful impression as Frank Castle, aka the Punisher. As Castle, he’s a military veteran who comes home from war, only to then lose his family to armed violence; as the Punisher, he’s one of Marvel’s most lethal antiheroes.
“After getting the part, one of the real joys I had was going around the country and stopping in every comic-book store I could and buying them out of Punisher comics,” Bernthal tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “I love the comic. There’s a lot of iterations of the character — I think the Punisher Max series [by Garth Ennis] is my favorite.”
Bernthal landed the role after several auditions, including an audition filmed by friend Tom Holland, who by coincidence will be introduced as Marvel’s new Spider-Man in May’s “Captain America: Civil War.”
For all his love of playing a menacing character, Bernthal — whose film credits include “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Sicario” — doesn’t think it helps actors to label characters they are portraying as heroes or villains. That approach especially relates to “Daredevil,” because Marvel’s Punisher has been considered both — and sometimes neither. Bernthal also emphasizes that he spends much of the season as Castle, who is searching for meaning after a family tragedy.
Castle “is not a guy who’s concerned with morality or doing right and wrong,” Bernthal says. “He’s not concerned with cleaning up the criminal element of Hell’s Kitchen. None of those things are even on his radar.”
“He’s a guy who is suffering from an unbelievable traumatic event of having his family killed right in front of him,” the 38-year-old actor continues. “His whole mission is deeply personal. He’s out to find the guys that killed his family and to kill them in as brutal a way as possible.”
And Bernthal appreciates that the 13-episode format of a Netflix series allows for time to explore deeply the actions and motivations of a of such a tortured character. Even when Castle does less than heroic things that might repel some viewers in the immediate, the long character arc permits for plot points that win them back over onto his side.
“When Frank Castle does things, there are parts of his mission that can be conceived as completely evil and could make audience members say: ‘I’m not going to be behind this guy. He’s gone too far,’ ” Bernthal says. “It gives us the permission to be bold and to turn our backs on the audience, because three or four episodes down the road, we can win the audience back.”
Consider the second season’s debut episode, when Daredevil and the Punisher cross paths. These two vigilantes, Bernthal says, are only separated by a single line: Whether to kill in the line of crimefighting duty. And over time, they realize they are more alike than different.
Castle “finds Daredevil ridiculous,” Bernthal says, “[even] absurd in the beginning, but the guy keeps getting in his way. He keeps stopping him from completing his highly personal mission.
“I think that he feels that [Daredevil] has no understanding of what he’s going through,” the Moscow-trained actor says, “and once they actually connect and open up to each other, and learn more about who each other are, I think they’ll deeply affect each other — and develop and admiration and respect for each other.”
And Bernthal learned from working opposite the actor who plays Daredevil, Charlie Cox.
“Being the lead character of a television program, is a very specific job, and it goes a lot further than being an actor,” he says. “You can’t show fatigue, you can’t slow down. You can’t be frustrated. You’ve got to be the guy. There’s people who do it well, and there’s people that don’t. Charlie is an awesome leader of a show.”
During the first season, Cox’s character underwent a season-long transformation. This season, it’s Bernthal’s character who develops gradually — only eventually donning the Punisher’s iconic white skull look. “I really wanted the character to earn it. I wanted it to be as truthful as possible,” Bernthal says of the moment Castle officially becomes the Punisher. “It was very important to me that it was tactical, and that there was a genuine story for why that decision was made.”
And because so many comic-book readers have long felt an emotional attachment to the Punisher, Bernthal says he feels responsible to the fans upon inheriting and developing the role.
“This is a character who has resonated deeply to members of law enforcement, the military, guys who have gone into battle with the Punisher logo on their body armor,” Bernthal says. “That’s something that is extremely important to me.
“I look at this as a real responsibility — a real honor.”