The Punisher: Bringing Billy Russo to Life

Ben Barnes told us about the duality of Billy Russo, and the attempt to bring a balanced approach to violence on The Punisher.

This article contains spoilers for Marvel’s The Punisher on Netflix.

Ben Barnes has spont the last year or so occupying our TV screens as the kind of villain who hits a little too close to home. We’ve all known the kind of overbearing, privileged asshole that he played on Westworld, for example. But his role as Billy Russo on The Punisher takes him to a different, if still slightly familiar place. Billy Russo is a charmer, a handsome devil, and one who can’t be trusted. But Barnes’ Russo charms audiences just as surely as he does the characters he shares the screen with, and he’s a character you can’t help but like, even if you know it’s bound to end badly for everyone involved.

When I spoke with Ben Barnes on the eve of The Punisher‘s Netflix release, he sounded nothing like either of the jerks who he’s spent his time as over the last year or so. And he, like many who have seen The Punisher, is struck by how it tries to approach delicate issues. “Even within 20 minutes of watching the show, there are scenes where you are provided with characters who are engaged in political debate,” Barnes says. “Within the veteran groups they’re discussing their issues, but they’re also, as is the makeup of this country, split in terms of their ideology when it comes to guns and everything. Which is obviously a very hot topic, particularly when being discussed by  ex-members of the military.”

The series has been so careful about public perception of its portrayal of violence that Marvel canceled the preview event it had planned at New York Comic Con in October, days after the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas. It’s an awareness that has filtered into the cast from the sound of it. “I think you do have to be very careful what it is you put out into the public consciousness,” Barnes says. “I don’t think that it’s particularly cut and dried in terms of glorifying violence, certainly in terms of war games, or how violent it is.”

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The Punisher also isn’t shy about the consequences of violence, and that is reflected in its characters in surprising ways. “It’s a show about damaged men with complicated pasts who have suffered from traumas and are struggling to adjust to society again and I think that goes for almost all of the characters,” Barnes says, “Some are running veteran’s groups and trying to help other people. Some have turned to violence. Some are trying to recreate the theater of war scenarios and others are trying to put the shiniest mask they can possibly put on it and pretend that everything’s okay. I think it’s about different people’s reactions to suffering and how we try to address it, and I think that’s an interesting thing to make a show about.”

Those are some heavy, thoughtful answers coming from the guy who plays the vain and arrogant Billy Russo, a character who has a future as the Punisher’s most famous villain. The Billy Russo of the show, a former Special Forces operative like Frank Castle, differs from the lifelong mob hitman of the comics, although it certainly alludes to the idea that Billy had a troubled, criminal upbringing of his own. “I think that one of the more important changes for our show was that he had a history with Frank,” Barnes admits. He did some research into the Special Forces during his preparation for the role, too. “They’ll teach you about their selection process and training and I was sort of sitting on my sofa watching those thinking I definitely would have quit about half way through.”

With the military background in place for Billy, Barnes felt it was important to be “respectful and authentic when it comes to the portrayal of that side of the character and then obviously to break with that when the turn comes for Billy.”  The challenge, of course, was “how to portray that without just seeming like you’re playing ambiguity.” 

While The Punisher hasn’t officially been picked up for a second season yet, Mr. Barnes is ready if it happens. “Obviously I Googled the name Billy Russo the day I got the job and thought what exciting potential is there for that character going forward,” he says, “and I decided there absolutely were all sorts of avenues you could be taken down. Obviously it could come at you at the outside as a bit of a cautionary tale, with his narcissistic side, his history with Frank, and that closeness that they had.”

So what will motivate Billy “Jigsaw” Russo in future seasons? “I think it’s really interesting after having everything that you have made your foundations on in terms of the way that you come across to the world: his looks, the business that he’s built up…that’s all been literally shattered in terms of the way. We’ll literally see it on his face. And so I think that there’s great opportunity to explore what that does to his mind and what it is that he even remembers. I have no idea what kind of parameters they’re going to give me to toy with it but I’ve certainly got lots of ideas about he could be.”

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Hopefully he’ll get his chance.

The Punisher is now available to watch on Netflix.