Will the third time be a charm for the Punisher? Ray Stevenson certainly hopes so. After two successful seasons playing the inimitable Titus Pullo on HBO's highly acclaimed (and tragically short-lived) historical drama Rome, the UK-based actor was tabbed to portray cop-turned-vigilante Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, in Lionsgate's sequel/reboot Punisher: War Zone.
In many ways, War Zone is a make-or-break moment for a Punisher franchise whose two previous attempts at big-screen adaptations were considered major disappointments. Catch an episode or two of Rome, and you'll understand why Lionsgate pinned its hopes on Stevenson. He's got a knack for playing volatile, morally conflicted characters who nonetheless remain eminently likeable -- even at their darkest, most murderous moments.
Stevenson recently sat down with us for an exclusive interview to discuss Punisher: War Zone, his upcoming project The Book of Eli, and the tantalizing possibility of a Rome movie.
ReelzChannel: This version of the Punisher differs from the others in that it's based on Marvel Comics' Max series. In your first interactions with your director, Lexi Alexander, what did she tell you about the tone she was looking for? What kind of movie did you want to make?
Stevenson: We have literally put, I think, as authentic and honest a portrayal of the Max series on-screen [as possible]. In one sense, it's a little bit larger than life. But it's not going to be like the Bourne films. It's not going to be like Die Hard. It's not like 300 or whatever. It's very, very particular. All of the characters are just slightly larger than life. It's a strange world, but it's a world you've got to commit to. It is a passage from a comic book, even in its extreme violence. Whole heads get blown off -- they don't look like your normal gunshot wounds. There's a tweak up to it, like a tweak of the colors. There's a heightened sense to it. Yeah, it's a strange world to get into, but I'm hoping that when Punisher fans see it, they're going to go, "Oh finally, thank you. You gave us what we were hoping for."
RC: In your opinion, what ultimately drives Frank Castle? He's not really interested in saving or protecting the innocent, but he doesn't come across as truly sadistic either.
Stevenson: No, he's not. But he never sets himself up as a defender of the weak or protector of the innocent. He's a punisher of the corrupt -- that's it. In my early meetings with Lionsgate, as I was getting into it, I hadn't gotten the job yet, but I actually remember saying to them that having read the material, I was intrigued and very much wanted to do it, but I didn't want anyone walking out of the cinema wanting to be the Punisher. And I said that it was very important that we get it right. Because it is extreme violence and you've gotta commit to that extreme violence -- you can't Softsoap it in any way. That becomes the foil for the real moral questions and the real price that gets paid.
The fact is that this character has made his choice; he's on a path of his choosing. He's in such a dark place, he's in a world of pain, and there's no light at the end of his tunnel. There's no redemption for Frank; he's not going to win the day. And he's made his peace with that. That's a tough thing to get your head around. But if you can reveal this through the script and through the playing of it, then you've really got a situation where you don't actually want to be Frank...but you're kind of glad he's there and you can't wait to see what he does next.
RC: You spent a lot of time reading Punisher comics to prepare for this role. In your research, did you identify any storylines that you'd like to pursue in potential sequels?
Stevenson: We always knew right from the get-go that if this works, they believe that there's a franchise possible. There is a whole series to be done, and there are vignettes. He's a constantly evolving character and there are some tremendous villains and stuff like that -- and it's all possible and doable. There's not one story where they say, "If we do this story, then we're gonna have to do that story."
RC: News surfaced a few days ago that Rome's creator, Bruno Heller, is interested in adapting the series for the big screen. Can we expect to see Titus Pullo again in the near future?
Stevenson: There's been a sort of smoke-and-mirrors rumor for a while, but I think it's just become a little bit more than that. There's a commitment to developing a script. But who knows; you know how long these things take. We're on the lap of the gods, as Titus Pullo would say.
RC: You hinted before at the possibility of the Rome movie's storyline involving "a new religion challenging an older religion." Can you elaborate on that?
Stevenson: Well, when you look at it, people say, "Oh, you're going to get into the time of Christ." But nobody knew it was Christ, you know what I mean? The Bible wasn't even written until a hundred years after his passing. And at that time, it wasn't like the year zero, and then we get to the year 34 or whenever. You're still at the height of the Roman Empire. In their society, their system, you've got this emerging religion -- fast-growing, rebellious, upsetting the status quo of your politics and everything, and challenging the basis of your religions and gods or whatever, and there's a power struggle. There's ways of dealing with issues without smashing an egg with a sledgehammer, but these things are recurrent themes throughout the history of mankind.
RC: We saw in the series that Titus Pullo is something of a religious man.
Stevenson: He is, but he's got more faith than religion. He's got faith that there's something over that hill, faith that there's something under that ocean, faith that this is the right place -- the gods have put him here and this is where he's meant to be. As far as the gods are concerned, he'll go and spread bet. He'll say, "Right, okay, what's happening tomorrow? How 'bout a chicken here, a dove there, and two sheep on this one. Or one sheep on this one, actually, and we'll put another sheep on this one." He's like one of those crap gamblers in Vegas who thinks they've got a system. But he's got a much more personal relationship with his beliefs, you know what I mean? 'Cause he deals with them direct.
RC: Let's hope it happens.
Stevenson: Yeah, it could be a lot of fun. I think it will be, actually. Bruno's got a great mind and he really loves all the characters in it.
RC: You just signed on to star alongside Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman in the Hughes Brothers' post-apocalyptic thriller The Book of Eli. Can you talk a little about that project?
Stevenson: I'm excited about it. It's gonna be shooting in New Mexico in February and March. It's a post-nuclear holocaust or nuclear-apocalyptic sort of world. Is it the reemergence or birth of a new society, or is it this tail-end, straggling, last gasp of the old one? And what power do books have? What place do books have when they've been seen to wield such power, with the written word, before?
RC: In your opinion, what separates The Book of Eli from other post-apocalyptic flicks we've seen in recent years?
Stevenson: The world in which it is set is completely uncompromising. It commits to a completely uncompromised view of what actually is entailed in the post-apocalyptic [world]. The most precious commodity is actually water, because virtually all of the water is poison, toxic -- whether it's due to eruptions from the earth or the poisons in the sky. These very basic things are what drives human nature down to almost animalistic qualities. But what still separates us from the animals? They're interesting themes.
Punisher: War Zone opens nationwide this weekend.