Ben Barnes was blessed with a career that has seen him give life to a world of characters. Never one to be typecast his ever-changing roles have helped him maturate and inform his craft, with acting choices frequently contradicting his past performances. A lot of this is attributed to time studying at the National Youth Music Theater, a key function in shaping an illustrious career in the theater world performing in lead roles on the West End. It was in his 20s that his foray into the film world began with high profile roles in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, playing the titular character in a classic coming of age story rebranded for the fantasy world.
Though his fantastical roles have captivated in his early career, lately the London born actor has taken to performing in darker roles which test his craft as an actor and question our fragility as beings. His turn as a gun slinging bad boy of the west coming to terms with the notion of being a robot in WestWorld helped question the internal dialogue with oneself when wondering “what is human?” Most recently his villainous role as Billy Russo in The Punisher has brought into question the trauma that comes with a life serving for the military. We spoke with the actor on mental health, challenging his acting range and the intensive research he takes on to best embody his roles.
BOSS jacket, turtleneck, and pants.
I wanted to focus on your character in “The Punisher.” I think it was very important to discuss this journey through mental health and your depiction of it?
My first thought of call for this stuff is usually actually my folks because my Dad is a psychotherapist so he’s obviously been dealing with patients with mental health issues for about fifty years and my mum is actually a sexual relationships type of therapist. The character Billy has Krista as his veterans worker, a type of therapist, that is assigned to him when he is in the hospital so they were my first sort of call to try and make sure that the back and forth and the dialogue between Billy and Krista, which is a huge portion of the seasons of both myself and Floriana [Lima], who plays Krista. We wanted to make sure that that felt like something natural and it was also very important to the show, the show-runners and Jon Bernthal. He’s very keen to make any relationship with the veteran community an authentic one in the show.
Obviously it’s a comic book show, but it is definitely a character that has been taken up by a lot of institutions including various armed forces and police forces and things like that. I think that kind of emblem of justice or vigilante justice has somehow become the main sort of masculinity, I’ve seen that everywhere. It was kind of obviously important to make sure that the art therapy that Billy’s been through in terms of conceptualizing and wearing a mask in order to be able to really talk about issues at his core and how people see him, how he sees himself, and I think that that was the whole, real journey of that character that both seasons actually goes into. Someone who’s very narcissistic, vain and greedy and sees himself in this extremely powerful alpha way, almost like an immortal kind of figure, untouchable.
How do you see his transition from the first to second season?
In the second season, he sort of comes to understand who he is in the most obvious way, when he looks himself in the mirror he sees the physical scarring, but underneath that is somebody who can’t remember what got him here. Except for the trauma he had as a child and he has this chance to sort of turn over a new leaf but he doesn’t feel like he can talk about it because nobody sees him how he sees himself because he doesn’t know how he sees himself. He’s got no reflection as it were at the beginning of the second season and I think that it’s almost like he’s screaming inside of his body and no one can really hear it, including him, because he can’t understand. I thought that was all kind of really interesting stuff to throw into the melting pot.
With all the makeup and everything, what was that whole process in production like? Was that something that took a long time?
I mean, I think we started it actually with the big fight at the end of the first season between myself and Jon on a carousel. And it’s quite specific, the way that Billy’s face sort of hits various mirrors and porcelain ponies. I think that what they tried to do in the show a little bit is show the history of each star so, you know, Jason’s character, Curtis, gets sliced once on his face in the first season, and therefore he has this scar all the way through the second season on his cheek. Jon just kind of carries wounds over from specific moments and I think that they wanted to be able to account for each of the scars on his face, being able to see this specific moment. There’s a hole in my right cheek where a bullet ricochets and hits me and I stick it out in the first season so that’s more of a hole shape prosthetic and then, obviously you have some of the left side has a jaggedy-looking scar that we nicknamed “John Travolta” because it looked like him on the cover of, Saturday Night Fever pointing one arm on the air. We have nicknames for all the scars by the end, so that in case one came off halfway through filming we’d be like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to replace Tyler Durden, we’ve got to replace John Travolta at lunch time because it’s looking a bit worse to wear.’ Interestingly, they never came off when I was doing fight scenes, they only came off during love-making scenes.
I want to continue on to speak about love-making - your new role in BBC’s “Gold Digger.” I wanted to talk about your storyline and what is it like being the younger man to an older woman. Is it a concept that you feel like is antiquated now that we have this type of feminist experience where women are doing for themselves
Well, I think that all of these things should be something - all of these -isms should be something that are entirely antiquated by this point, but we have a society which when you take one step forward, will be pushed back two steps in the other direction by the powers that be. I think that it is always worth telling a story that you feel is underrepresented and certainly for me,We’re living in an age where all of these -isms should be something that are entirely antiquated and play into the way that we tell stories, but they do and obviously, I’m not pretending to be any kind of social justice warrior for taking on a role such as this one. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, but at the same time I think that any stories which put a 60-year-old female character at their center and talk about their journey and tells a story from that perspective is something which is less than usual. I think that is something in itself which should peak our interest to address the balance and I think it’s interesting to toy with stereotypes of femme fatale characters and sort if these younger women and older male dynamics which have been played out in so many films over the years, almost without us batting an eye. We also see this fifty-five, sixty-year-old movie stars and these twenty-something-year-olds actresses opposite them and don’t even question it and I also think it’s interesting to have that be something that this story is about on some level, but it also turns the lens very much on the person watching it.
Do you feel there is a responsibility in the way we watch media?
The responsibility for judgement is very much with the audience which is what I found so compelling about this type of storytelling is that it’s like, 'we present you with this story and this set of circumstances and these people’s emotive reactions or opinions on that and then it almost takes you on an adventure. If you’re judging this, why are you judging it? And I think that’s a really interesting, challenging way to make T.V. and that’s what excites me about it.
That brings me on to my other question, which is about maturing in the industry and your career progressing, do you feel that its very hard to change the cultural impressions of you knowing people know your work before and how you grow into it?
Yeah, interesting. I think that you know as a very very young actor I was always unbelievably excited by seeing actors kind of smash any preconceived notices that I had about what kind of performance they were going to give. Actors you kind of come across a completely different way from a way you imagined them and I think that for the first sort of decade of my career I was consistently quite playing earnest characters, kind of coming of age stories and my friends would joke that I played boy with sword or graduated to boy with gun or boy with magical gemstone or whatever but it was essential about defeating the monster and winning the girl.
I'm a child of the 80s and those adventure stories are deeply embedded in me but at the same time it's nice to kind of in my early to mid 30s start to be able to cross that impression a little bit and to take on, and to draw out my selfish side, my sadistic side, my tough side my kind of cocky side my funny side. All these other kind of elements which are everybody but if you have told me at age 21 that I was going to be playing a Marvel villain opposite Jon Bernthal, literally fighting in hand to hand combat and playing this kind of sadistic killer types with mental health problems and ex marines and things like that I'd probably wouldn't believe you. I always thought I'd sort of be this you know english bubbly more Hugh Grant type characters (faint laugh) and obviously there's still time for that. I always want to subvert something I'd just done by doing something completely opposite. That’s was excites me about this job and being afforded those kind of opportunities and switch and change how you come across and how you think.
Yeah but the bad guys are always hotter and you're at the stage now so that’s great lol (laughs) Do you feel that maturation comes a complexity that your characters do take on this more dynamic arenas of being right?
Yeah I taught a few acting master classes when I was back in London. I never really done anything like that before, the idea of sitting to think and write down the knowledge you've accumulated over the years. This is stuff that we kind of take for granted and use on a daily basis on set but just kind of really thinking about some of the things someone could help me with. Just thinking about like always the seeing the cracks of the other side of the character even if the character is sweet and light, being able to see the cracks of the selfish in them, or the cracks of the darkness of them. Every character no matter how one dimensional it is is a melting pot of characteristics and is the sum of their entire history and I think that those are just things we learn as people as we get older. We are able to infuse our characters more and round them out more fully the more we live.
Who is the ultimate character you'd want to perform?
I 'm always looking to do whatever I haven't just done. So having played that kind of character in The Punisher and that kind of untrustworthiness of the ego and selfishness of something like Logan in Westworld I think that it would be nice to do something a little more sunnier. I grew with all those 80s rom coms and those Harry Met Sally sort of things and the Richard Curtis types and i always am looking for something really kind of positive to go out into the world like that. But it's so rare to find one that really kind of fresh and funny but something like that is definitely on my bucket list. As soon as I do something like that then I'll want to do something set in a prison, ya know what I mean? Just to kind of have balance.