Ray Stevenson has worked for many years in Great Britain, and while he'd done a few Hollywood films, he was not very well known in the States. He first made a big splash in the HBO series Rome, in which he played Legionnaire Titus Pullo. The part caught the eye of director Lexi Alexander, who cast him as Frank Castle in Marvel Productions' Punisher reboot. A newcomer to the comics world, Ray learned his character's nuances quickly. He recently set down to talk about the film, the work he did for it, and the challenge of measuring up to fans' expectations.
Question: What was your first exposure to the comics and what role did they play in helping you shape the character?
Ray Stevenson: It was Garth Ennis's writing that really pulled me in. I wasn't really a comic book reader, so this world sort of came crashing in when I got the part. The writing in these books is phenomenal, the artwork is amazing, and yet it took so long for Hollywood to really notice. The fans knew, of course. They've invested years in buying these books and they really do have ownership on the characters. I learned that when I went to the Comic Con for the first time. Tim Allen made that movie, Galaxy Quest, and I thought all those convention scenes in there were total exaggeration until I went to San Diego. The fans are committed, they're invested, and they know their stuff. I've started to get it since then. I would never presume to call myself an expert--I'm a child in that world--but I've become a much bigger fan. That world has opened up with movies like these, and it deserves to be.
Q: Did you have any expectations going in about the role?
RS: I wasn't aware of the character beforehand, and I got this call about it without having read the script. They were still working on the script and I couldn't read it. I thought, "Well how do they know I'm right for the part?" Then Lexi [Alexander] called me up, and she was so certain. She said, "You are Frank Castle. You're going to be Frank Castle. You're going to do this movie and if you have any doubts about doing this movie, I'm going to put those doubts to rest." Who's going to argue with that?
I actually think the seeds got planted early, during the casting of The Incredible Hulk. I had met with Louis Leterrier at the Marvel offices. They hadn't cast Edward Norton yet and I was up for the nemesis part, the part that went to Tim Roth. It was a great meeting and I had a great time, but Tim got the part and that's the way it goes sometimes. So I went back to England and moved on to the next thing. Unbeknownst to me, I had made enough of an impression that they were apparently thinking of me as they were gearing up for the Punisher.
Q: What kind of physical preparation did you do for the role?
RS: We had an extensive pre-film period where I worked out for about three or four months. Thankfully, there was an awful lot of endurance training, which paid the biggest dividends in what turned out to be a very punishing schedule (excuse the pun). It was two-and-a-half months of night shoots and the endurance really paid off. We did do some very concise work with the weapons as well. There were some great military guys from the Marines, and also some from Special Forces to help us out.
With the Punisher, it's not about having the biggest gun: it's about having the right gun and knowing how to use it. He's not a superhero. He hasn't got superpowers or anything, and he doesn't have magic guns with magic magazines that never run out. He's got his training and his discipline and his weapon-handling skills. That's it. So we wanted to show things like quick magazine changes, and we really worked at that. We also knew that he's a very popular character with the military, and they're going to watch it. We all hoped that some GI or trainee somewhere would watch it and say, "That's why they train us for 16 hours a day." You just use the weapons like it's second nature. You didn't want it to feel stylized or gung ho. Frank Castle is the weapon and the guns are just tools, just extensions of him. That needed to come through. Someone asked me if Frank had a favorite gun. I said, "Yeah, the one that was loaded and pointed at the enemy."
Q: Was that Lexi Alexander's view of the character too?
RS: Absolutely. One thing I really like about Lexi--with her history with kickboxing and karate--is that she knows what it's like to step into a ring and face somebody who is going to hit you as hard as they possibly can. You're going to hit them back as hard as you possibly can, and only one of you is going to walk away. You've just got your training and your resolve. That's it. And Lexi grasped that mindset. It's easy to talk about it, but unless you've been in that situation--and I'm not talking about schoolyard scraps or bar fights, but real, serious fights with trained professionals--you're not going to really grasp it. There's an inner working there that Lexi completely understands.
And she's not scared to show Frank's vulnerability as well. She understands that it's part of his strength, not his weakness. Anyone who says they are absolutely fearless is either stupid or a liar. In fact, it's the fear that focuses the mind and keeps you sharp, and Lexi was onto that from the beginning.
Q: There's a rather striking early moment where you jam a pencil up your nostril to correct a broken nose. Dare I ask how that was done?
RS: Lexi had seen something similar at a kickboxing championship where a guy had a broken nose--it was literally diagonal across his face--and he stuck a pencil up there and fixed it right there in the ring. So we wanted to have a gag like that in there. We had a very careful piece of prosthetic that made the nose look broken. If you look closely at the film, there's actually two shots: one to show the broken nose, and then a closer shot where his hands are at his face. That's where we made the switch.
We thought it was a great bit, but it was also an important way to show that bullets don't bounce off Frank. He gets hurt. I was fascinated by the aspect of the character, and also how clear he is about what he has to do. There's something about Frank that's fundamentally honest. He's chosen this path with his eyes open. There's no redemption for him. There's no light at the end of the tunnel. It's tragic and yet there's also something mythic about it. He's not there to protect the innocent or save the weak. He's there to punish the corrupt, and there's a price to pay for that. I liked the fact that his commitment had an honesty to it and that he knew all that going in.
Q: Does he have a death wish?
RS: I don't think so, I think he's just made up his mind. He's going to kill the enemy, and yet he knows that the enemy will never stop coming. There's that scene with the widow in the film where she points a gun at him and says, "Who punishes you?" And I think he feels at the moment that--if it's going to happen--it should happen now. It's not nihilistic or fatalistic, it's just that she, perhaps, has a right that other figures don't have.
Q: Did you look at any of the earlier movies before taking on this one?
RS: No. I was aware of the Thomas Jane version, and I was aware of the Dolph Lundgren version, which I still haven't seen. I looked at the Jane version afterwards, but the producers made it clear that we were starting from the grassroots. We weren't building up from anything and it was no way connected to the earlier films. We were committed to the MAX series, to the Garth Ennis writing, to the Tim Bradstreet style of illustration. That was the character we were doing. So there wasn't any need to go back to the earlier films. As an actor, if I'm going to play a role onstage, I wouldn't necessarily go and watch another actor play that role, which is being directed by someone else and featuring other cast members. You take yourself to it and give it your shot.
Q: What other kinds of material did you study?
RS: I remember seeing a documentary about the Normandy invasions where they interview this old guy who was a young solider on the beaches there. He talked about the first time he ever killed a man. He was there on the beach with his fellow soldiers around and this German popped up right in front of him. The soldier just brought his gun up and killed him. He saw the German's face clear as day, it couldn't have been more than ten or fifteen feet away. And for the rest of the campaign, that particular German just kept popping up again and again and again. The "enemy" was the same guy to him, no matter who he killed: I presume he saw the face in his nightmares afterwards. And for Frank, it must be the same way. The enemy's just going to keep popping up.
Q: I assume you're signed up for more films. Are there any specific storylines from the comic that you'd to do?
RS: Oh I'm signed up. We'll have to see if this works, but we'd all love to see the franchise continue, and there's certainly stories to tell. There's a storyline about white slavers and prostitution that I loved. There was also a series where he gets out of the States and goes to Afghanistan. The Man of Stone sequence in connection with the SAS guy. There's a great character who's a law enforcement agent, the wife of a double agent. She's a fantastic character--very in your face--and I'd love to do something with her. We'll see what happens with this one.
Come back tomorrow as we chat with Lexi Alexander about her experiences bringing Marvel's grim avenger to the big screen. 'Punisher War Zone' opens in theaters everywhere this Friday.
What do you think? Can Ray Stevenson fill the skull shirt of Marvel's darkest hero? Post your comments below.