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Tom Jane: An unlikely comic book hero

The character actor stars as ‘The Punisher’ opposite John Travolta.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thomas Jane may seem an obscure choice to play the latest Marvel Comics hero to reach the screen, particularly when his flamboyant adversary is none other than John Travolta.

But a lunchtime chat with Jane reveals him as something of a kindred spirit to Frank Castle, the gruff vigilante hero of “The Punisher.” Puffing on a Marlboro, Jane projects a detached, outlaw attitude, unconcerned with the niceties of Hollywood, the nagging of critics and comic book fans or the prospect of winning awards for his work.

Created in the 1970s, the Punisher — who turns into judge, jury and executioner after his family is wiped out by criminals — is a product of a paranoid, mistrustful time, and Jane models himself after the antiheroes of the era: Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson.

Jane’s path to action stardom was a bumpy one. He is perhaps most admired for his slyly complex portrayal of Mickey Mantle in the HBO film “61,” while he honed his action chops in “Deep Blue Sea” and “Dreamcatcher.”

Raised in the Washington suburbs, Jane dropped out of high school at 16 to study acting, and was quickly cast in a Bollywood film as an American teen who falls in love with an Indian girl. He turned 17 in India, and when he returned, he moved to Los Angeles, where he was homeless for a time before getting roles in commercials, plays and eventually movies.

Jane has been married to Patricia Arquette since 2002, and they have a 13-month-old daughter, Harlow.

AP: When you came to Hollywood and were homeless, did you think about giving up?

Jane: Yeah. There’s always a time when you lay in your bed at night, or you’re in the grass at night, or on your little bench at night, and you wonder what you’re doing out there. But I saw a lot of guys who were more talented than me who gave it up. I guess they didn’t have the tenacity that I had.

AP: At what point, or after what movie, did you know you’d have a career?

Jane: “Boogie Nights.” I thought after that, I might have a shot at making a career of being a character actor, and I was really happy with that for a while. Then I got some lucky breaks and the parts kept getting bigger. Basically, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. So I took roles just to learn my craft, and I did that for a couple of years — just trying to figure out what I was doing and getting better at my job.

AP: I saw you quoted as saying that when you gained confidence as a performer, you “stopped acting.”

Jane: Yeah. I admire actors where you just don’t see the work. Guys who don’t get nominated for Academy Awards. The work is just seamless and there’s an artlessness to it, where, when you’re watching it, you think, “I could do that.”

AP: Is it unfair that that sort of artlessness is not recognized with awards?

Jane: No, I don’t think it’s unfair at all. I think awards recognize what they’re supposed to recognize. And they exist for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the artfulness of an achievement. They serve an entirely different purpose.

AP: Do you still hope to win something someday?

Jane: It’s not what interests me. I’m not interested. I’m sure that I would be appreciative of being honored in some way, but it certainly wouldn’t be for my art and craft. It’s a little bit like a popularity contest in school. It just doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but it’s nice, you know, when people smile and clap.

AP: What attracted to you about “The Punisher”?

Jane: Marvel had come to me about a couple other things. I like what they do and I watch their movies, but I didn’t see myself as playing a superhero at all, in any case, way, shape or form. But Marvel, they explained to me that this wasn’t a comic book superhero, it was a real guy who didn’t have super powers, who dealt with real-world problems, and he had to rely on his God-given talents and skills to achieve what he needed to do. That was really appealing to me.

AP: Did it appeal to you as a family man?

Jane: With a new family, I can certainly relate to what I would like to do, or the feelings that I would have if anybody ever, in any way, harmed the people that I loved. That’s a universal theme, that’s sort of the primordial juice from which we all spring. And that’s why these kinds of films endure. They tap into a part of us that we’ve had to repress, you know? It’s not looked kindly on by the eyes of the law, if you go out and take the law into your own hands, and yet it’s certainly something that we’ve all entertained.

AP: Doing a comic book movie, do you feel pressure to satisfy the fans?

Jane: I feel pressure to satisfy the original material. Fans will always have their own personal interpretation of who that is and what that represents to them personally. I can’t take into consideration everybody’s opinion about who this guy is. I don’t want everybody’s opinion. Trying to please people is not the way to make art or anything else. I feel very protective of the source material, very protective of the impetus that originally sparked the idea to create this kind of a character. Staying true to that, and staying true to the tone of the piece, and staying true to what’s unique and exciting about Frank Castle, is way more important than trying to please a bunch of people that I’m never going to fully understand.