It’s not until the final moments of the first episode of Netflix’s The Punisher, the new Marvel series starring Jon Bernthal as the eponymous “Punisher,” Frank Castle, that his eventual sidekick, Micro, slides into the frame. Perched in the bunker-slash-office space where he’s been hunkering down ever since faking his death to protect his family, Micro—real name David Lieberman, a former NSA agent—types furiously, sighing with satisfaction as he identifies Castle from some security footage; he leans towards his screen and peers at a grainy figure. “Welcome back, Frank,” he murmurs.
Played with manic exuberance by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, the 40-year-old actor best known as Desi Harperin of Girls, Micro begins to emerge from behind the comfort of his computer screens over the course of The Punisher’s 13-episode first season, which premiered on Friday. Micro and Castle, both purportedly dead men who are, clearly, not dead, share a mission: to expose a conspiracy involving war crimes committed in Afghanistan and a Blackwater-like defense contractor called Anvil. Micro is quite a right-turn from Desi, the “Pacific Northwest knit-a-man” who marries Allison Williams’s Marnie Michaels in Girls, and a role that found Moss-Bachrach lounging in an array of silk robes, as well as submitting to a grueling series of torture scenes.
The Punisher’s unadulterated violence is part of the titular character’s mythology: “It’s impossible to divorce The Punisher from guns; they are his costume, his origin story, his superpower,” described one recent review. The show’s brutality—not only does Castle take down his enemies, but he smashes them to a pulp, daring you not to look away as the blood spatters the camera—has polarized audiences. Originally slated to premiere at New York Comic-Con, Marvel and Netflix cancelled The Punisher’s planned appearance in the wake of the shooting in Las Vegas, in which a gunman, Steven Paddock, opened fire on a crowd gathered for a music festival and killed 58. Then, two weeks before the series’ scheduled Netflix premiere, a terror attack—during which a man drove a truck down a densely trafficked bike path, killing eight and injuring 11—struck New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. These events, occurring within just a few weeks of each other, have only lent even more urgency to ongoing conversations about gun control and terrorism in the United States; it was into this context that The Punisher emerged when it premiered last week.
Over the phone just more than a week ahead of the premiere, I caught up with Moss-Bachrach to talk about all this and more: That is, what it means to reinvent The Punisher as an Afghanistan War parable, and how the show’s violence is in dialogue with real-life events—and why, just shy of a year out from the Girls finale, Moss-Bachrach is still game to talk about all things Desi.
How did the part came to you?
I’ve always been into comic books, and when they sent me the script for The Punisher I got kind of excited and made a tape for them, and they were kind of into it. I was in Croatia at the time, so I had to fly back to L.A. and audition, so I met with a couple people and went back and found out a couple days later. Isn’t that an exciting story?
What were you doing in Croatia?
I was on a beach, on a little island. It was last summer.
Just vacation? Vacation’s everything.
Was this already lined up before Girls ended? It’s quite a 180 from that part.
Yeah, they kind of dovetailed. I remember the Girls wrap party was happening one night and The Punisher kickoff party was two blocks away. They didn’t quite overlap but they just kissed briefly.
So you were dodging between the parties for the night?
Yeah. I never had to play Desi and Micro—they never crossed over. That was a good way to get one of them out of my system; they’re very different.
There’s a scene in the fourth episode when you say, about the guitar in your bunker, “I bought this at a pawn shop, thought it might pass the time.” And then, you add, “Turns out, I suck at guitar.” It felt like a bit of an inside joke given that your last role was as a musician. Was that intended as a nod?
No, I think originally, actually… [Laughs] That scene was written for Jon to play some guitar, and Jon said, “I don’t know how to play guitar,” so I jumped in. That might be a mislead, when I say I can’t play guitar, but it’s not a nod to Girls or anything like that.
You said you were into comic books. Were you familiar with the original Punisher? Did you go back to it to prepare for the part?
My comic book stuff was never down-the-middle, mainstream. I was more into Earth Quest and untraditional ones. I definitely knew about The Punisher and I had read Punishers over the years, but I was never a huge aficionado. Also, my comic book stuff was always, like, I’d go to a flea market and just go to the nickel bin. So my comic books were sort of economically motivated, you know what I mean? [Laughs] There were, like, financial constraints. So anything that was a nickel—and I don’t think The Punisher was ever in those boxes. Those were more precious collectibles. But for the show, before we started working, I definitely went back through. Marvel was kind enough to give me this amazing pass so I could read any comic in their database, which was a dream. I could just go through on my computer and pull up any comic that they’d scanned. I could spend weeks doing that.
So over the course of the first half-season, Micro is sort of gradually drawn downwards. There’s a moment when Sarah, his wife, says, pretty early on, that he’s always been reluctant to get his hands dirty, but he does begin to do so. So how does that trajectory continues to evolve?
It does continue. It’s an interesting thing, modern warfare, and the degrees to which how removed people can be in an office somewhere in Virginia controlling drones that are halfway around the world. We’re going to continue to see how that plays out on people’s psyches. But he’s forced to sort of leave the safety of his monitor and his office and he gets a bit shaken up.
That actually leads into something else I wanted to talk to you about. What does it mean to you to reinvent The Punisher as a post-9/11, war in Afghanistan story?
Our whole world, our whole culture is very much pre- and post-9/11, so it’s in everything, it’s in the common consciousness and even down to everyday interactions, 16 years later. But the sort of core theme of The Punisher is, he’s a soldier who comes back and has some PTSD—he comes back to a world he maybe doesn’t really know; he doesn’t know how to be in society the way he was before. I don’t think that’s specifically related to post-9/11 or before 9/11. Now, we have more nomenclature and we recognize this stuff as PTSD, whereas after Vietnam, I don’t know how much people were treated or that was diagnosed. That’s, I think, just a symptom of being in war and leaving war and coming back to civilian life and those struggles. I think that’s probably true of any war anywhere; that character has been in many different wars. There’s a series of Punishers when he’s coming back from World War II—the character is very timeless and classic, in a way.
The Comic-Con premiere was canceled because of the Las Vegas shooting, and now, it’s going to be coming out just two weeks after another attack, on New York. Does that affect the tenor of the show for you, given its violence? How does that affect how you see the role that the show plays?
Well, it’s not a political show. It is very much a work of fiction. What can I say? I was glad those Comic-Con events were canceled. I thought that was a smart move on the part of Marvel and Netflix. It’s difficult, you know. I’ll be honest. It’s difficult. It’s a very violent show, and we’re obviously a nation that’s struggling with gun violence. I’m not sure. It’s something I’m still thinking about, still trying to wrap my head around.
Has there been anything that’s helped you wrap your head around it? How do you process it?
No. [Laughs] If you have any suggestions, let me know. I’ve read all the scripts and everything and I know what we shot but I don’t know how it looks. I don’t know how explicit it is. To me, it’s not a show that glorifies violence. Frank Castle is a very complicated guy who’s really, really struggling. He’s having a really hard time reconciling his actions and his beliefs and his sense of right and wrong, and he’s definitely a man who, it seems to me, is in a bit of a moral freefall who’s trying to grab at things to sort of anchor him, and that’s a bit where Micro and Castle meet. He becomes involved, to a certain extent, with my family and my quest to get back to them, and I think he jumps into my struggle as a way of taking his attention off himself and just as a way to sort of delay any kind of introspection.
I want to go back to Micro more specifically—what was the most challenging scene for you to shoot?
In Episode 3, when it almost entirely takes place in Micro’s basement and there’s a lot of sort of torture-y things going on with water getting thrown on me, getting punched, being zip tied, those are physically very demanding. We shot that over a week, and that was a very hard week for me, physically. But then I suppose the most difficult stuff is also in these scenes where it’s just Micro, alone, looking at the video feed of what’s happening at his house, and seeing his wife struggle with the kids or acting out and not being able to do anything. I’m a father, and so that feeling of being powerless and removed is just so horrible and lonely and sad. That was the hardest stuff in terms of where it left me.
How did you balance playing this character both before, in flashbacks, and after his supposed death, in his contemporary?
Right. I think we mostly did it with combing my hair versus not combing my hair, was how we handled that one.
You also get to lounge in a lot of great robes.
Yeah, I’m glad you noticed that. We have a great costume designer who’s really open to collaboration. I’m always interested in people that are living in hiding or sort of an outcast or sort of gathering things or in some kind of transitory life. I think people always want to look good, so I thought the robes were nice, a little bit of a luxury that he can allow himself—a certain kind of deposed elegance or something.
And what has been most striking about the fan response so far? It’s been under relative lock and key—have you heard from people?
It’s been quiet. I haven’t been to any Comic-Cons or anything. I know that people are really excited, and that’s cool, I’m psyched for that. But to me honest, it’s a little bit scary because the fans are so devoted that I really do hope that we kind of honor them and honor the legacy of The Punisher, you know. So I feel it just in terms of a responsibility and a burden that I hope we met, you know? But I don’t know—I walk down the street and people come up to me and they still want to talk about Girls, not to talk about The Punisher.
Are you game to talk about Girls? Do you want to move on?
I love talking about Girls. [Laughs]
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