While you’re reading this interview with Ben Barnes, who talked exclusively to Brief Take about his role on Marvel’s The Punisher as Billy Russo, try to picture these incredible, in-depth answers but with a mellifluous English accent. Got it? Okay, now you’re free to experience this deep dive into season 2 of Marvel’s The Punisher (recently proclaimed by IMDb as the most popular series in the world right now) by a most talented performer. He also discusses some future aspirations that sound like a fascinating trip for such a versatile talent.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our exclusive interview with the charming Ben Barnes.
Brief Take: Congratulations on the series! Watching season 2 is such a visceral experience.
Ben Barnes: I felt like the first season we were so physically exhausted by the time we came to the end, because we spent the last couple of weeks shooting the finale episode with the huge fight on the carousel. I was just battered and bruised and exhausted from that. I felt like I earned my stripes when you shoot something with that kind of physical and military aspect. But this season, I didn’t have very much hand-to-hand fighting, there’s obviously all these little trip hazards along the way, but equally intensive from an emotional, psychological aspect. My adrenaline would build up and instead of worrying about, you know, being punched in the face by Jon (Bernthal), I would be worried about not being able to reach the kind of histrionic states that were demanded in the scripts. I remember very vividly some of the breakdown scenes and the scenes of confusion, and it was very vulnerable. I tried to make them a bit different from each other as well. And I remember the enormous pressure of reaching those emotional places, and I took something of the, as you say, emotional exhaustion with me afterwards.
BT: As you were saying, season 2 is so different than season 1, it must have been like hitting the reset button.
BB: It was, it was a bit like hitting the reset button in terms of slipping the archetypes a little bit. Billy’s story was similar to how Frank’s was in the first season. He does seem confused and he doesn’t know what happened to land him in this state, and does feel like he’s been betrayed by somebody who is close to him and is seeking retribution for that. He kind of sees himself more as the protagonist, where in the first season, I think that he knows that he’s a liar and a manipulator. He’s someone who is hiding his villain status who deep down knows that he is wanting to condone it based on his upbringing or the wounds that he suffered as a young man or whatever. He really condones it, but in the second season, that’s sort of a positive for him. I was really excited about the second season when I took the job in the first season, because again I knew it would give me this opportunity to have this unpredictability and this emotional fragility and that psychologically tortured aspect to the character, which kind of fascinated me with my parents being psychologists and psychiatrists. Prospectively, that’s what sort of fascinated me.
BT: What do you think is ultimately more villainous, being aware or unaware of your villainy?
BB: Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? I think that I’ve been really lucky with Westworld and with this show to invest in these characters that are either outwardly Machiavellian or villainous, and in the case of Westworld, arrogant and just kind of awful. In the second season, I got to kind of peel back the layers and show how they became that way, or what it was that led them to be like that and just to dig a little deeper into the psyche. I think it’s sort of a theme in the second season of The Punisher, in which if you don’t know what it is that you’ve done or for what you are responsible, to what extent are you guilty of it? I think that it’s definitely scarier if someone doesn’t know what they’ve done to hurt you. I think better the devil you know, in terms of the expression. But yeah, I think that, certainly for me anyway, it was a lot more fun to play the outward and sort of gangster quality of the second season, rather than the Brylcreem and Burberry and narcissism and manipulation of the first season.
BT: How has acting opposite dynamic performers such as Evan Rachel Wood of Westworld and Jon on The Punisher helped enrich your performances?
BB: I’ve always been fascinated since I was a little kid by people who could do things that I didn’t know how to do in any kind of creative form, and I still am. I think that particularly with acting, the real treat of getting to work with all these different types of actors is that they bring something to the table so naturally. Evan (Rachel Wood) is a bit of a jukebox of acting – if you demand something of her, she will find a way to immediately achieve it. I’ve watched her where she is walking down a corridor in complete screaming distress and turns the corner and she’s completely blank faced in the same take. And someone like Jon Bernthal brings an extraordinary tension of violent things with trying to be a gracious leader of men, and he brings that so naturally to what he does. I think that it’s really interesting that I’ve heard the phrase of myself “what do you bring?” and I’ve taught a couple of acting classes recently in London and I talked to them about what do you get for free?. Like what aspect of the character do you not have to try very hard to play because it’s already at your core it’s part of your etiquette. Whether that’s a wackiness, or a vulnerability, or a nobility or a regal quality, or a violent sort of quality, it’s about finding other shades in the character. For me, that’s the sort of broken, vulnerable side of Billy that comes more naturally, so I have to work extra hard on the sort of grittier side of the character.
BT: How incredible are the costumes on Westworld by Ane Crabtree and on The Punisher by Lorraine Calvert?!
BB: Having both Ane Crabtree on Westworld the first season and Lorraine Calvert on this season of The Punisher is the most fantastic. I wanted to find something that was the equivalent of Jon’s Punisher vest. I wanted to find something the characters would keep most of the season, and keep all the way through, almost like a superhero cape, and I came across this long black leather jacket with a collar, I just found a picture, and Lorraine managed to track it down. I was especially happy in January when we started filming, and very, very, very upset with myself when it became August and I realized that was a really bad decision to be wearing that coat in New York. [laughs]
BT: It was curious that the dynamic this year between you and Jon was one of distance.
BB: The Punisher character exists in an anti-hero grey area, and I think that what showrunner Steve Lightfoot wanted was for all these characters and the whole show and theme to exist in a sort of grey area that is is Billy so different from Frank? They both murder people and it’s both sort of a means to an end, and they’re both looking for some sort of salvation and love. Actually at the end of the second season, Billy is going to choose love over this other path, over the vengeance, which is something that Frank was never able to do. They’re actually extraordinarily similar in a lot of ways. My biggest regret of the season is not being able to have more time with Jon, we were constantly back and forth, throwing back and forth ideas of what could happen in the story, could they both end up in prison and have long scenes together of not killing each other? Is there some scenario that could force us to team up together in some way? I think that we got along so well as people that we wanted to respect each other as actors. We wanted to get as much time together as possible, and of course we barely got two runs at each other this season, but I think that you still feel, like you said, that history between them, their shared history, their intimacy. You know I always talked about Billy up until Krista (Floriana Lima), which is a real set of feelings, that Frank is the only person that Billy loved or to whom he felt connected, and so I felt like that’s very much like how I tried for it to come across.
BT: Did you expect to find such rich roles on television even in the era of “Peak TV”?
BB: I really didn’t. I mean literally seven or eight years ago, TV jobs would come in and people would say “you can always do a TV show” in addition to the films. The landscape changed in five minutes to which films are the things that are struggling a little bit more. I mean obviously there are still brilliant films every year, but there are so few brilliant ones made and they’re either really, really, really big blockbusters or really, really, really tiny indies. The real character development and the real opportunities for actors to tell stories and to disappear inside the minds of different kinds of creation is on television and on streaming services. I’ve never felt more creatively gratified than I have in the last five years doing these two shows, and I just did another six-part series for the BBC called Golddigger, which is another real opportunity to play another interesting layered and ambiguous character. I couldn’t feel more grateful for the opportunity to play characters that are fully realized and three-dimensional.
BT: What about a role involving playing music and singing?
BB: I would love to go back to the stage if there was a play or musical that excited me enough. I felt so fulfilled by the few projects that I’ve done that have music on-screen, I’m thinking obviously of Jackie & Ryan, also Killing Bono in a much sillier way, and the soundtrack of Easy Virtue. I love it when the projects manage to involve music. Watching Bradley Cooper write, direct and star in A Star is Born, he’s obviously someone with whom I’ve worked, and watching him achieve that is definitely something that I strive for one day.
BT: Who are some people with whom you’d like to work again? And what are some of your future goals?
BB: I’m pitching a project with somebody with whom I’ve actually worked before that might be in the pipeline. But I’ve always wanted to do a Broadway musical one day, that would be one thing that would be on the bucket list. I’ve always wanted to do a brilliant rom-com, a kind of Richard Curtis-style rom-com, he’s someone who has always been one of my heroes in that regard. But my ambitions and goals are so wide and varied, to be involved in something from its inception in which that’s a show or a film, getting my hands dirty with directing and making decisions is something in which I would be interested, but it’s always sort of one day at a time. When you’re an actor, you want to be someone else all the time. I can’t even decide who I want to be or where I want to push those ambitions. [laughs] I’m excited to try something completely different from what I’ve done before and kind of push myself in that regard.
BT: You have a great Instagram. What do you feel is your obligation to share on social media?
BB: I’ve never particularly felt an obligation to share. I remember being about 25 and one of my first big interviews when Narnia came out, and I remember getting in an argument with a woman who demanded personal information from me. She said that would be my obligation if I felt that I was going to be a film actor, and I argued quite vigorously with her even though it’s not in my personality type to argue with anyone if I can help it. I still feel like it’s up to every individual what they choose to share and not share about their life. If they want to film videos in their homes, tape their morning routines and have their families and loved ones there, fantastic! But if they don’t, they don’t, and I’ve never felt a particular responsibility to share my real life and my real friends and family and kind of daily routines on Instagram. At the same time, there are people around the world supporting you and talking to each other about you, and it’s nice to be able to hear from them, share things with them, and to be able to share a little bit with them about how you make the things that you make, and why you choose the things that you make. It’s my way of thanking people for showing the interest that they have in what I’m doing, and if I connect with even one person then I’m thrilled.
Marvel’s The Punisher seasons one and two are currently streaming on Netflix