WARNING: Spoilers ahead for the entire season of Marvel’s The Punisher. Read at your own risk!
Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) went from the Beaut to the Beast in one gruesome, stomach-churning fight in the season finale of Marvel’s The Punisher.
Cornered by Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) at the carousel where Frank’s family was killed — a plot Billy, who had been Frank’s closest friend in the military, knew about — the suave former special-ops soldier pleads for Frank to kill him, only to be denied an easy way out. Instead, Frank smashes Billy’s face into a mirror, scraping it against shards that slice his face apart, leaving him alive but mangled beyond recognition.
The sequence was so painful to watch that Barnes recalls standing by in fear for his embattled stunt double, who had to take the biggest hit in the sequence by getting tossed against the mirror that would eventually tear Billy’s face to shreds. “I was so distraught I couldn’t even look at the monitors or anything,” the actor remembers. “I was just waiting there with a cup of tea for him, just waiting for him to be done, because I couldn’t bear it.”
Barnes spoke with EW about filming the scene and playing the series’ dashing (until he isn’t) Big Bad, an iconic figure whose code name he’s still not allowed to say.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Between Billy on The Punisher and Logan on Westworld, you’re really taking the reins on playing bad guys. They’re both evil douchebags — can I put it that way?
BEN BARNES: [Laughs] Um, I don’t know if I’m going to let you put it that way.
Well, my question is, what drew you to playing such morally corrupt characters back-to-back?
I think the characters do have some things in common in that they’re both driven by ego and power, on some level. Logan doesn’t believe he’s a douchebag, he believes he has to take advantage of all the flavors and colors and smells life has to offer, and he believes that the loudest alpha is king. I think there are others in positions of power on this planet today who believe the same thing. And so, “douchebag,” you can level that at Logan, but “evil” is a difficult one.
I think in the case of Billy Russo, he’s suffered as much loss and tragedy as Frank has on some level. They’ve both been to war, they’ve seen the same things. They just dealt with it in different ways. To some extent I think that’s because Billy has had a different kind of upbringing. He’s essentially this street kid who grew up in foster care and grew up feeling very unloved, abandoned and abused by his parents, and he doesn’t understand how love works. So the only thing he ends up loving is himself, and self-preservation becomes the only thing in his entire world. Narcissism is a really dangerous quality, and it can be read by other people as evil. So, I mean, I’ll allow “douchebag” for Logan, and in the end, I think some of Billy’s actions are evil, but I don’t think you can ascribe both adjectives to both characters.
All right, I’ll be more fair to both of them.
No, I’m just teasing! I’m just saying that’s how I separate it.
Let’s talk about Billy’s relationship with Frank: How torn was he, really, to have played a part in ruining Frank’s life?
I haven’t seen the whole show, so I don’t know what makes it in, but I think that Billy very much feels that he was a part of Frank’s family on some level. He was fun Uncle Billy! So I don’t think he begrudges Frank that. I made a decision very early on, while we were shooting the first episode, that Billy had an admiration for Frank and a love for Frank, and that maybe he was the only person on the planet Billy genuinely cares about. He just doesn’t care about him as much as he cares about himself.
What about with Madani (Amber Rose Revah)? Was there ever genuine love there?
I think the dynamic was, “In another time, another place, you might be somebody who could challenge and interest me, but in this scenario you’re just going to be the mouse to my cat.” I think they’re both using each other, but I think Madani is absolutely torn. She’s a good person, she’s one of the moral compasses of the show, and from my point of view, Billy succeeds in getting Madani to genuinely care about him. But I don’t think it’s possible for anyone like Billy to have a healthy romantic relationship because he’ll always put himself first. He doesn’t understand what it means to make that kind of sacrifice.
They end up having such a twisted relationship. Immediately after he kills Stein (Michael Nathanson), he picks Madani up and gives her a bath to, what, comfort her? To make a sick power move?
I think when somebody is so internal like that and needs power, there becomes this kind of voyeuristic element to how you watch other people. For Billy, he thinks that he’s looking at the world from the inside out, and so he knows by this point she’s his pawn to be used, and he really knows, absolutely, that this was the moment to show he’s not going to lose a moment’s sleep over it. He’s gonna be able to eat a hearty breakfast the next morning. I think it was just showing that even in a moment that should be the most tender, the most caring and loving, his mind is elsewhere. [He’s thinking] like, “I’m probably going to have to kill her too, aren’t I?” He’s thinking of how expendable everybody is.
I tried to play the same thing in the episode where I have Frank tied up and I’m washing his face. It’s kind of similar, you know? He’s washing his face, he’s cleaning him up, he should be sympathizing, but he’s thinking, “I could choke him right now. I have that power.” I think he really gets off on that power, that genuine lust for power.
And then he gets his face sliced up. His appearance is kind of the source of so much of his ego, the fact that he’s good-looking. Now, I know you haven’t seen the scene itself —
I remember it! I was definitely there. [Laughs]
Well, what do you remember about preparing for that? You get beaten up pretty badly.
Jon is so dedicated to this character, he does these 14, 15-hour days and then goes and trains very hard in the gym to learn the fight sequences and have his body look a certain way, and it’s very difficult not to feel like it’s your duty to try and keep up, which you can’t, by the way. I can’t, anyway. [Laughs] And so I would just literally spend hours and hours and hours in a dojo we set up in a warehouse in Brooklyn with the stunt guy going over this stuff, because I didn’t have the same level of training. You want to be able to move a bit more like these special-forces guys, so when people are watching it, there’s no question you have that type of training. So I spent a longer time with my stunt double [than Jon did].
And what was filming that sequence like?
You know, when Jon’s in that skull vest and full makeup and bearing down on you, there’s a real violence in his eyes that you can’t prepare for. And we were filming all night in the middle of the freezing cold in winter, so it was quite exhilarating, to be honest. But the way the face is destroyed, there was no way of filming that without becoming very uncomfortable, because there’s a man grabbing your head by the back of your hair and slamming it into a mirror repeatedly.
For the actual scraping, we had this plastic mask that would fit on half of my face, and I remember Jon saying, “Just shout ‘stop’ really clearly if it’s really hurting you,” because we only had three or four mirrors we could break, so we couldn’t test it. So he did the shot, and then just this blood-curdling scream emitted from me, because, you know, Jon Bernthal’s thick boxer hand was grabbing the back of my head. Afterward, he was like, “Bro, how you expected me to know the difference between that and your face really getting destroyed, I don’t know.” [Laughs] He was just clearly a bit rattled by it.
And you know, when I was younger, I thought I would be heir to sort of Hugh Grant’s territory. [Laughs] I didn’t think I’d be going hand-to-hand with Jon Bernthal. This job leads you into really interesting territories, where you’re researching special forces and reading books about the ego and dysmorphic narcissism. So yeah … filming it was really tough but quite rewarding, I think. [Laughs]
I’m curious: This show is obviously about Frank, but in a way it’s also an origin story of Billy as a villain. Did you see it that way at all?
Yeah, I absolutely see what you’re saying. You see Billy become the word that I’m still not allowed to say, apparently —
Wait, you’re not allowed to say “Jigsaw“?
[Laughs] No, I pride myself on never having said the word yet outside of doing a puzzle at home. I respect Marvel’s wishes to the letter.
Okay, well I’m saying it.
You can say it. I can’t. But actually, what was very funny is there’s a scene at the end when my face is in bandages, and there’s an actor who came in who, when he auditioned to play one of the cops, got these dummy sides with the fake line, “If this guy wakes up he’s gonna wish that he hadn’t because he’s gonna have a face like a pizza.” When he got on set, instead of saying, “He’s gonna have a face like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said, “He’s gonna have a face like a pizza,” and I picked that up under all the bandages and said, “What?!” [Laughs] He didn’t realize that that wasn’t the real line.
Anyway, it’s interesting, you know, I always make parallels to the Joker character in Batman, where he’s the antagonist that can’t be killed. There’s no question that Frank has the desire to kill Billy and that he’s never had trouble killing anybody before, but there’s this combination of having felt so deeply for him and knowing there’s something in Billy that is maybe good at his core. Jon played it in this very interesting way. Billy seems finished, but in Billy’s mind, it’s just the beginning. I don’t know the beginning of what …. There was a lot of talk in the finale about, when he wakes up, who will he be, what will he remember? That’s something I’m definitely very interested in finding out. When a character who represents narcissism has the way they see themselves taken away, he’s going to have to take a very long look at himself, and I’m intrigued to see what comes of that.
I’ve asked everyone this, but what were your thoughts on the show’s use of gun violence? After all, the premiere of this was pushed back due to real-life events, and your character makes some interesting observations in episode 10 about using guns while protecting a politician character who’s against guns.
I think you do have to be extremely careful about what you put out into the public consciousness. You know, I grew up in a country with no guns, but still have the same films and television, and there’s gun violence throughout them. They were in cowboy movies and movies about soldiers, because guns are for cowboys and soldiers …. Tragedies like the ones in Vegas and Texas have made me think about it more. It’s very difficult for me to see it any other way than if you take away guns you’ll have an end to gun violence, more or less. I think the main takeaway is that it’s got to be at a level that’s done in a thoughtful way, and if your show is in some ways about violence, then you have to show violence, but I think it’s the dialogue around the violence and intentions between the characters that really tell you what that violence means.
Marvel’s The Punisher is currently streaming on Netflix.