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As ‘Punisher’ debuts, Jon Bernthal reveals why veterans relate to his Netflix character

Jon Bernthal attends the New York premiere of Netflix/Marvel’s “The Punisher.” (Marvel/Netflix)

As Jon Bernthal began preparing to shoot the first season of “The Punisher” (now streaming on Netflix), he noted the textured approach that writer-producer Steve Lightfoot was taking to depict Frank Castle, who’s otherwise known as Marvel’s most lethal vigilante.

When Bernthal debuted as the Punisher last year during the second season of Netflix’s “Daredevil,” he said, Castle could retain an air of mystery as a side character, largely because the show was focused on the title superhero, as played by Charlie Cox.

Now, though, “The Punisher” “really shines a light on [Castle] and explores different sides of his personality,” Bernthal told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs.

“I think there’s something really fitting about Frank being on his own,” said the actor, who is a Washington native.

Lightfoot and his writing team wanted to show Castle’s difficulty with coping with life, noted Bernthal, adding: “They really wanted to create a well-rounded, three-dimensional character vs. this guy who sort of just lives in the shadows. What does he do when you bring him into the light?”

Part of what makes the Punisher compelling are his thoughts when he’s not in action: What gnaws at him when he believes that his war against corruption (which contributed to the murder of his family) has ended? “What do you do when you put that skull down,” Bernthal said, “and you go back to living your life?”

Bernthal has talked with combat veterans about how they handle the brutality of war. And he said he’s built a bond with many in the military who are fans of his portrayal of the Punisher. They especially like how he conveys the character’s sense of loss and the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“One thing I’ve heard from a lot of people who have gone through severe trauma in combat is that, when the fight’s on, and when you’re on mission, your training kicks in and you know exactly what you’re doing and you’re moving forward,” Bernthal said. “But it’s when the mission ends, it’s the quiet afterwards. It’s going to sleep. It’s returning home. That’s when the war inside begins.”

As Bernthal launched into his solo series, he said, he welcomed two familiar faces.

Deborah Ann Woll resumes her “Daredevil” role as Karen Page. Bernthal calls her his anchor. “I believe in her deeply as an artist,” he said. “I can’t say enough good things about her.”

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Then there is castmate Ebon Moss-Bachrach, whom Bernthal has known for years. Moss-Bachrach plays Micro, the Punisher’s tech-savvy computer man whom Castle is reluctant to team up with, let alone trust.

Bernthal and Moss-Bachrach have an on-screen chemistry bred by familiarity. Bernthal’s first acting job was as an understudy to Moss-Bachrach in a New York play. “I’m a huge fan of Ebon,” Bernthal said. “He comes from a very similar world that I do. We approach work in a very similar way.”

Netflix and Marvel had planned to debut “The Punisher” earlier this fall. But after the recent shooting incidents in Las Vegas and Texas, they decided to cancel their appearance at New York Comic Con and postpone the release of the series out of respect for those connected to the tragedies.

Bernthal agreed with the decision to delay “The Punisher,” which leans heavily on the comic book series’s armed violence and brutal combat. “What happened in Texas and what happened in Las Vegas weighs on me, period,” Bernthal said. “It weighs on me as a father. It weighs on me as an American. It weighs on me as a man.”

Bernthal said he also hopes that his show can be a part of a requisite conversation about gun control in the United States.

“There’s no end in sight. Unfortunately, in this country right now, I think rigor and steadfastness in your political position has totally trumped being rational and talking about the issues.” Bernthal said. “Both sides of this issue [have] real merit. I think opposing views and listening with an open mind and an open heart, I think that’s strong. That’s patriotic. I think that’s American.

“As far as the show is concerned,” he continued, “I think art at its absolute best holds a narrative to society and begs society to start asking questions of itself. I don’t think it’s our place to answer those questions. I think it’s our place to ask them.”

And more personally, Bernthal said, “I think we have to start approaching each other with much more tolerance and much more patience, and we need to start admitting to ourselves that we have a real crisis on our hands.”

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