King of the Castle: Ray Stevenson - The Newest Punisher

Ray Stevenson Talks Punisher

Ray Stevenson, who becomes the third actor to play Marvel’s vigilante anti-hero with the release December 5th of Punisher: War Zone, says the thing he admires the most about his character is his honesty.

“He chose a path that there was no redemption for, there was no light at the end of the tunnel,” says Stevenson, who is best known for his role on the HBO series “Rome.” “He’s honest enough to say he’s not there to protect the innocent or save the weak. He made his choices, and also there was a price to pay for that and I like the fact that his commitment had an honesty to it.”

Stevenson came to play Frank Castle in a roundabout way; first meeting with Marvel about playing the role in “The Incredible Hulk” that eventually went to Tim Roth. “I had met with (“Hulk” director) Louis Leterrier and (Marvel Studios President) Kevin Feige at the Marvel offices,” he says. “It was a great meeting. I had a great time, I walked out of there and said, that was good, really great people.”

While the casting for that film went in a different direction after star Ed Norton signed on, Feige kept Stevenson in mind and brought him up to director Lexi Alexander in early talks about casting for Punisher. Unfamiliar with Stevenson’s work, Alexander went home to watch “Rome” and decided right away he was right for the role. “I stopped in the middle of it, and I sent an email out to all of you guys said, ‘If I’m not getting him as the Punisher, I’m not doing the film.’”

Alexander had to sell the project especially hard to reach Stevenson directly after his agent passed on the project twice. She finally was able to get the actor on the phone and sold the film to him hard. “She called me up and she said: ‘Now, Ray, you are Frank Castle. You are going to be Frank Castle. You’re going to do this movie. If you have any doubt about doing this movie, I will put your doubts to rest,’” Stevenson says. “Who’s going to argue with that?”

Training began almost immediately, with Stevenson not just getting in shape for two and a half months of night shoots and stunts, but also learning to use the guns in the Punisher’s arsenal the way a real soldier would.

“It wasn’t about having the biggest gun, it was about having the right gun and knowing how to use it,” says Stevenson. “The thing about Frank is he’s not a superhero. He hasn’t got superpowers or anything, he’s got his training and his discipline and his weapon handling and he doesn’t have magic guns with magic magazines that never run out, so we wanted to show those quick magazine change and we really worked at that.”

Stevenson says reading the Punisher comic books, especially writer Garth Ennis’ work on the MAX series, was an eye-opening experience. “As a source material for actor, you’ve not only got the written words, you’ve also got some of the most incredible drawings and illustrations,” he says. “The writing in these comic books is phenomenal, and such a previously kind of untapped source (of material).”

He also says that it’s no surprise that comics have become such an important part of the popular culture and inspired so many films. “The fans, they got it, they knew. That’s why they’ve invested years and years buying the books, they keep going back, and that’s a big investment over a period of time. They really have ownership on it,” he says.

“The only person who learned more about the Punisher, who was more obsessive than me, was Ray Stevenson,” says Alexander. “In the end, he was telling me, ‘Oh, no this, is in issue 77.’

However, Stevenson says he did not look at the two previous Punisher movies, 1989’s direct-to-video version starring Dolph Lundgren or the 2004 Thomas Jane movie. “It was made clear that we were starting grass roots,” he says. “There wasn’t any need actually to go in there and see those films. From my point of view, if I was going to play a role on stage, I wouldn’t necessarily go watch another actor play that role, that’s been directed by somebody else and acting with other cast members.”

Stevenson, who was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in northeast England, says acting enchanted him at an early age but making a career of it seemed remote. “I didn’t tell anybody I wanted to be an actor. I knew from a very early age but it just didn’t seem possible,” he says. “So I kept it hidden for a long time until I finally admitted to myself you’ve got to do something about this.”

War Zone is the first film to feature a part for Linus “Microchip” Lieberman, who supplies the Punisher with weapons and gear, played by Wayne Knight of “Seinfeld” fame.

Knight says he looked at the comics and found so many variations on the character that he had to come up with his own take on Microchip. “I didn’t know which Microchip we were talking about. Are we talking about the one who uses the heroin trade to supply his weaponry, or are we talking about the father of Louis?” he says. “I saw [Microchip] as being kind of the supply sergeant for Frank’s one man army.”

Microchip is also the Punisher’s only friend, and helps connect him to the real world and inject a bit of humor into the movie. “Microchip is kind of like the grave digger in ‘Hamlet,’” he says. “You need to have leavening in order to feel the impact of the violence and the drama that’s happening.”

Another character from the comics who makes his first movie appearance is the villain Jigsaw, played by Dominic West of “300” and HBO’s acclaimed series “The Wire.” Alexander says Jigsaw was a difficult character to get right, especially with the look of the makeup for his torn up face.

“We did a screen test, we sent the screen test back to Marvel, and they had great feedback,” she says. “This is where you really have to be collaborative, because I literally would have gone with the first thing we had."

In early reviews, West’s performance has been divisive, with some viewers loving his take on the character and others finding it over-the-top. But Alexander is quick to defend the performance, which she says falls on her.

“He went with my direction,” she says. “It wasn’t him going over the top, I directed him to be over the top and that’s what I saw for it and to me it works great.”


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