Exclusive Interview: Ray Stevenson on PUNISHER: WAR ZONE

     December 4, 2008

Written by Cal Kemp

“Punisher: War Zone” hits theaters this Friday and brings along a fantastic level of violence, straight out of Marvel’s unrated MAX line. While I have to admit that I had my doubts when Lionsgate announced (the then-unknown to me) Ray Stevenson would be wearing the big white skull, the guy knocks Frank Castle out of the park, creating an on-screen persona every bit as faithful to the comic as fans could hope.

I have a feeling that Stevenson is about to go through a pretty rapid rise in starpower with rumors swirling about a big-screen continuation of his HBO series “Rome” and his just-announced casting in the Hughes Brothers’ sci-fi epic “Book of Eli”.

Ray — who obviously got pretty into Garth Ennis’ run on the title — was pretty excited at the prospect of future “Punisher” outings and has more than a fair share of ideas to shape out a decent sized franchise. Check them out below and check out his work on-screen this weekend in theaters everywhere.

Were you, going in, a fan of the comic?

Ray Stevenson: I wasn’t aware of it to be real honest with you. I came to it when it was first broached to me. In all fairness, when I first read it, I thought, “This is just extremely violent. What the hell is this?” But very quickly Garth Ennis’ writing sucked me right in. I thought, “My god, he doesn’t shy away!” It does raise moral issues and psychological issues and he doesn’t pull away from it. He will throw it in there and commit to it. It was his writing that then brought me in. In fact, the extreme violence — if you water it down and try and make it a bit less — you wouldn’t get the same stakes as far as the moral issues and the price that’s paid. You need that extreme violence as the foil to Frank’s dark, bleak existence. There’s a price to be paid. You don’t want to be Frank. It’s strange to have the sort of lead or hero of a film that you don’t actually want to be. That’s what intrigued me. And I said to them, “I don’t want people walking out of the theater wanting to be Frank Castle.” I said, “We’ve gotta get it in the script. The price that’s paid.” He’s in such a dark place. He may have made his peace with that, but there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no redemption for Frank. That’s deeply intriguing.

Did you look specifically at Garth Ennis’ writing or did you go back further?

Ray: I concentrated on the whole MAX series, but I went right back. Because even from the early days — the blue spandex — there are threads. He went through a lot of morphs and changes. The war diaries and the Vietnam and all that. Again, there are threads that are leading up to it. Almost like the DNA. We knew we were trying to put out there the MAX series. That was the look we committed to. Not to dilute it with other things, but, as I say, his DNA was ever-present. So yeah, I did all the research for that. I read about as much material as I could get my hands on.

Did you find yourself watching the two previous attempts at bringing Frank to the screen?

Ray: I only watched one of them afterwards because there was a bit of hoo-hah and I thought, “I better watch it in case I’m asked about it.” Because I didn’t want to be the guy who says, “No, I never watched it.” I did! And, having finished the film, I asked myself, “Well, what is going on here?” It was set in Florida. It’s a different version. We made the commitment to have Frank as a nighttime predator; a vigilante in the streets of New York. He doesn’t have a souped-up car. That’s a choice we made. Also, I don’t think that script served the cast or the fans that well. I left the movie knowing more and caring more about John Travolta’s character and his relationship with his wife and his sons and his best friends. How his life had been sort of decimated. But I didn’t really leave knowing that much about Frank or caring that much about Frank. That comes down to script. Tom Jane is a great actor but you can’t play it if it’s not there. But it had its outing. It wasn’t a bad film. It was a good film but they committed to something other than what we committed to. It’s as simple as that. And who’s to say what’s right or wrong? This one might work now but further down the road you might say, “Enough of this.” We want him a bit more superhero-ey. You know what I mean? Who knows? There are a lot of stories — a lot of threads — on which we can draw and there’s some fantastic stuff. I love the Slavers. The uncompromising attitude there. There’s also getting Frank out of the states. When he goes to Afghanistan. “Man of Stone” and what have you. His relationship with the SES guy. More importantly, the girl. The ex-wife of the double agent. What a female character that is! Again, it’s just uncompromising. It’s just so in-your-face. And it’s not like she’s not feminine. She’s all-woman. There are great characters that could be played out. Widowmaker as well. The wives of all the men that Frank has put down. There are ways to go. A lot of stories we can draw on.

In the comics, the Punisher exists in the Marvel Universe; That’s a place that is beginning to develop on the big screen. Would you want to have a part in that larger, filmic version?

Ray: Well, people have said, “What about the possibility of characters crossing over or doubling up?” But, in all fairness, Frank’s in a rare place. He is R-rated. Do you drop the Punisher from R-rated to PG or do you up Iron Man to R? It’s kind of a lose/lose situation.

Have you read “The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe”?

Ray: No, I haven’t.

It’s actually by Garth Ennis. It’s a parallel universe where the Punisher hunts down and kills all of Marvel’s superheroes.

Ray: No way! I was actually asked a question where they said “Iron Man. The Hulk. Batman. You. Locked in a room. Only one of you is coming out. Who’s going to win?” and I said, “Well, I’ll have to write to their mothers and apologize for killing them. They said, “Aw, come on,” and I said, “Well, look at the characters.” They don’t kill people. If Frank’s in that room and they’re on Frank’s list — which is another important point. Otherwise he just wouldn’t be bothered with it — But if they’ve transgressed and they’ve become criminals, he’ll kill ’em. That’s what Frank does. These other guys, they don’t kill people. People may die by accident, but they don’t kill people. Who do you think is going to walk out of the room?

There’s two big bits of news outside of Punisher for you this week. The first, what’s going on with the “Rome” movie?

Well, Kevin McKidd was at the screening last night as was Bruno Heller. We’ve always been in touch with each other. There’s always been a sort of smoke-and-mirrors rumor around for a while because everyone was committed to the project and loved it and always knew that there was more there that could come out. Now it’s becoming a little bit more than a rumor. I think there’s something going towards developing maybe a script. We’ll see. We’ll take it step by step.

Would you want to see it go to theaters or be an HBO telemovie?

I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s a question for them. I’m just a little excited by the prospect. Because it would be great to go and revisit those characters. All those open-toed sandals (laughs). Oh, my word. I’ve got such an affectionate spot for Pullo. He’s an old cur. You’ve just got to love him.

Well, the other bit of news; You’ve just been cast in “Book of Eli”. What can you say about that?

Ray: I’m very excited. It’s starting in February. Shooting down in New Mexico opposite Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis and Gary Oldman. Alan and Albert Hughes directing. It’s a big sort of post-apocalyptic world. Outside of that — which has just been confirmed — it’s just going to get more exciting. Now we’ve got to go to work. I can’t tell you anything more about it because, literally, I think the script’s evolving and changing. So we’ll see. It’ll be great fun.

What’s a dream project for you?

Ray: In a weird way — even though they never make good movies — there’s a Shakespeare play I’ve always been intrigued by: “Coriolanus”. It’s potentially one of the most potent and revealing scripts. I love the play. I’d love to do that as a movie one day. But who knows? Dream projects will be to just keep working with great people? It’s as simple as that. It sounds flip, but it’s not. I am living the dream. May I never wake up.

When you say, “working with great people” is that always acting or would you like to be on the other side of the camera?

Ray: Well, absolutely. The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given was, “Be in the business you’re in.” Don’t just be a satellite around it and expect it to come to you. Be in the business you’re in. If that means you can position yourself to a point where you can garner enough support financially or otherwise, you can actually enable a story to be made. A script you believe in. If you can actually have it created because of your involvement, that’s a wonderful position to be in. You can enable certain stories to come out that may otherwise never see the light of day. I thought, who knows? I’m open to it.

Getting back to Punisher; The film has nonstop violence. Was that ever an issue that something could be too much or do you think it’s up to viewer to avoid a film if that displeases them?

Ray: No, I never thought there was too much. I even thought there were places we could go that were even more. Where Frank actually tortures people. He’s worse than the bad guys. He will actually burn somebody to get information and then kill them. There’s a point in one of the books where he says that he shot the guy in the mouth and he says, “I would have liked to have stood there for the 20 minutes it would have taken for him to bleed out, but I had people coming and I finished him off.” There’s a side to Frank where he’s just dishing out death. But that’s the foil for the counterbalance which is the dark side. He’s in a place with no redemption. No way out. No light at the end of his tunnel. He’s made his peace with that and I think that if you watered the violence down, it wouldn’t be the same foil for the moral issues that are raised or the psychological effects. The price that’s paid. It wouldn’t be the same if the violence was watered down. The fact that he’s extremely violent does raise these extreme questions. If you watered the violence down, you might say, “Hey, we can justify vigilantes.” We don’t see the blood and they just kill the bad guy. Come on. It’s a comic book as well. Go with it.

You mentioned that it’s important that the audience not want to be him. In playing the character, what did you do — outside of the storyline — to emphasize that?

Ray: It was about revealing the truth of where Frank is. He’s neither looking for will receive redemption. He’s never going to be the hero of the piece. He doesn’t set himself up to be. He doesn’t set himself up to be the protector of the weak or defender of the innocent. He’s the punisher of the corrupt and he’ll just keep killing the enemy until he can’t do it anymore.

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