The Cinemax hit series Strike Back wraps up Season 3 on a definite high note, after its strongest season yet. On the show, counter-terrorism operatives Sgt. Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) and Sgt. Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) team up and risk their lives on a regular basis to track elusive terrorists around the world, often being forced to resort to extraordinary measures to protect the greater good.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Philip Winchester talked about how high they raised the stakes for Season 3, the incredibly cool action sequences they get to do themselves, how he approached playing the character for this past season, when he likes to do to decompress between seasons, how early he starts training, the action sequences he was most proud of this season, how nice it’s been to add the female energy to the show, what’s most surprised him about the journey he’s taken with this character, and whether he’s satisfied with where things are left, if the show doesn’t return. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
PHILIP WINCHESTER: Yeah! I think we’re second only to The Walking Dead, and they’re already dead, so I think we count as the first.
Do you get nervous about your lifespan on the show, or do you feel comfortable that you’ll stick around?
WINCHESTER: Sully and I joke about how, when we get a script, we read the first page and the last page, and then we call each other up and say, “Okay, we’re in it for another couple of episodes.” The producers have been nebulas about whether or not we’re safe, and I think that’s what makes the show strong. We obviously take out main characters, on a pretty regular basis. Sully and I have maybe gotten a little too comfortable, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they do something at the end of this season, or next season, if we get another shot at it. Especially as we get further down the road, it does get a little bit more nerve-wracking.
You guys get to do some awesome, bad-ass action sequences, but you also take a beating and get your fair share of torture. Does it feel like a necessary trade-off that every few really cool action sequences, somebody either has to beat you up or torture you?
WINCHESTER: Absolutely! That’s what makes it fun! Another facet to Strike Back is the fact that these guys are human. They’re not superheroes, or anything like that. Even though we make it out remarkably unscathed from big fire-fights and things like that, we try to give the audience something back and show that these guys are fallible and that they can get their asses kicked just as easily as they can kick other people’s asses. We try to keep that balance.
WINCHESTER: The reason that this show moves so quickly is Michael Bassett. He directed Episodes 7 and 8 last season, and he really did a great job. They asked him back to be our lead director this year, and he also became showrunner and one of the producers on the show. He took Strike Back out of fourth and fifth gear, and slammed it right into sixth gear. So, we started there and we end there, and the middle block of six episodes bounced around a little bit. We do give the audience what they want, which is the action and the drama mixed up.
When you have a great opening sequence, like the one where you guys are on holiday and riding around on motorcycles, do you have a secret wish where you could just have an entire episode with them on vacation somewhere?
WINCHESTER: Yeah, Sully and I joke around about that. We’re like, “Surely, bad guys work on tropical islands.” It would be great. That was such a kick, to start the year off like that. We had no helmets and no gear, and were just riding flat-out on motorbikes, down this open rode in South Africa, and we had a helicopter flying by us. It was an incredible way to start the year. We do drop little hints to our directors and producers that we’d love to do more of that. I want to fight bad guys in a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops.
How have you approached playing this character, this season?
WINCHESTER: Obviously, we’ve seen Stonebridge deal with some huge loss, in the last two seasons. So, I started off this year doing a lot of research into PTSD and how that effects people, in their day-to-day life and their work in the field. Throughout the whole season, we were asking each other, “Are we at the end of our ropes? Have we been the best that we can be? Are we past our sell-by date? Who’s going to take care of us, if we don’t take care of ourselves?” I think that’s a great place to find these guys. They’ve been through so much already that the audience is starting to question the validity of their lives, how long they have to go, and whether they’re mentally capable of this stuff anymore. We really wanted to show that to the audience, this year. Another thing that happened to Stonebridge this year was that he contracted a chemical disease that started to shut him down. That was Michael Bassett’s fault, as well. Michael Bassett said, “You know, you’re really good at running around and jumping off stuff. I need to give you a disability.” I was like, “Thanks a lot!” So, Stonebridge had to not only deal with his emotional crutches and problems, but he also had a physical disability this year that really started to eat away at his capabilities. That was fun to explore, in the middle block of six episodes.
WINCHESTER: When we’re not shooting, I try to step back into the life that I have when I’m auditioning, which is reading script, auditioning, meeting people, having coffee with buddies, doing gardening, mowing the grass, picking up dog shit and that kind of stuff. And then, when we get the word on whether or not we’re going to go again, I slowly start to get back into training. I do it all naturally. I do it with food, and I do it with really hard training and running. I don’t take any chemicals, or anything like that, to try to do it quickly, so it takes a long time for me to get into shape. I start about three months before we go, and then there’s six months of filming, so a better part of my year is taken up by training. The discipline for Strike Back is huge, with the diet and all the stuff we have to do. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it when you see it on the screen. If we get another shot at the show, it really make me want to raise the game, raise the drama, and raise the show to another level again. I think that this year, personally, the show turned a corner and it’s the best Strike Back has ever been. If we do get another shot, we all really want to keep doing that.
Are you just completely exhausted, at the end of a season?
WINCHESTER: Yeah. And this year, it was really brutal. This year, we started in KwaZulu-Natal. All of that stuff with the boat chase and all that jungle stuff was shot in one week in KwaZulu-Natal, which is in South Africa, right below Mozambique, on the east side of South Africa. It’s just stunning. But, there was something in the water and we all got so sick. Doing this show, at the pace the show is done, and not being able to eat, keep fuel in and keep energy in was brutal. And that hung with us for a long time because we didn’t have time to recover. We were really at our wit’s end, as to how to keep fit and keep healthy. So, Stonebridge was a little bit streamlined this year because I really couldn’t keep the weight on, for the first five or six episodes. That was tough. When you get done with it, to get it really out of your system takes a month or two of just chilling out. I think we have our own form of PTSD from the show. When we’re on the show, it’s constantly go, go, go. When we get off the show, I’m bored out of my brains. My wife looks at me and is like, “Philip, just sit still,” but I can’t. So, it is a challenge, but it’s definitely worth it when we hear from the fans. If it’s working there, then it’s worth the sacrifice.
WINCHESTER: Yeah. It’s funny because it was an accident, that first season. We started doing a few of the stunts, and the director and the stunt guys were like, “You guys can do this, if you want.” And then, the camera team and our D.P. got behind us. What accidentally happened was that we started being a part of the stunts, in a big way, and there was no cut. It was all happening around us, and stuff was exploding, stuff was falling and stuff was crashing, and the audience has really come to expect that. This year, we really took it to another level. We just really love doing it. If there’s any opportunity for us to do a stunt, we do it. The only way we don’t is if it’s do to time, or we’re physically unable to be there. The responsibility for doing the stunts is part of Strike Back now. There’s no cut. here’s no turning away from the action. Sully and I are right in the middle of it. It’s our guest stars who come on board for four weeks who I really feel for. We have some young actors who come in and are like, “They’re going to use a stunt double now, right?!” And we’re like, “Actually, no, they’re not. If you want to, you can, but I recommend staying on board ‘cause it’s a lot of fun.” People are really brave. People have really challenged some big fears in their life. There were a few times this year, and more times than any of the other seasons, where I looked at Sully and he look at me, and we knew that, if something went wrong, we weren’t going to walk away from it. If you get it wrong, you don’t get up from it. That was a new challenge this year. That was a different kind of pressure.
Do you get bummed when you can’t do a specific stunt, for whatever reason, or do you feel relieved to skip one?
WINCHESTER: It depends on the time of the season. This year, at the beginning of the season, just because of the sickness and the heat, there were a couple times where they just said, “No, you’re not doing that,” and the only reason it happened was a timing thing. For the most part, we’ll really stand and argue, and Michael Bassett is the type of director who will hear an argument. If the camera can’t be on our face, or if we can’t prove that it’s us, there’s no point in taking the risk. The camera team are the ones who are really taking the risk. We can move out of a situation quickly. It’s just us, physically in the space. But, the camera guys are carrying the gear. We’ve got steadi-cam operators, and we’ve got grips who are holding them up. If something goes wrong, they’re really the ones who are in the line of fire. It’s such a huge team effort to make a stunt work and to make sure that it’s Sully and I, in the frame. We really discuss that stuff, and we argue our corner. If it just isn’t worth it, it goes the way of the stunt guy. But most of the time, we’ll figure it out.
WINCHESTER: There’s three in particular. One was a massive firefight, where we got pinned down and called in a hot attraction, which is basically when air support comes in to pull us out. The helicopter didn’t land, but it hovered about 30 feet above us. They were launching grenades, and stuff was exploding all around it. There was wind, dust and flames everywhere, and they dropped this one little bit of rock climbing rope from the bottom of the helicopter, and Sully and I connected it. And then, the chopper flew away and we were just dangling from the bottom. That was such an amazing experience, and it was just Sully and I. It was an amazing sequence, and it looked really cool. We’re really proud of that. A few minutes later, in that sequence, we jump out of that helicopter, onto a moving train, and we commandeered the train and stopped the train. That was a four-day shoot, and I’m really proud of it. It looks comparable to Skyfall. It’s an incredible sequence. And then, later on in that episode, we get kidnapped. We have to get out of the back of a moving van on a highway, and I jump out of the back of the van onto a car and commandeer the car. We did all of that, moving down a highway with no safety harnesses. I jumped from the back of the van onto the car, and then climbed into the window. That was at about 30 mph to 40 mph, and if you come off, you’re going get run over. That’s always in the back of your mind. There were definitely a handful of times this year where not only was I really proud to be a part of the show, but I was really proud of the team around us that made it possible.
Was it fun to add the female energy this season, and have something of a boys vs. girls dynamic with the team?
WINCHESTER: Yeah, it was really nice. Milauna Jackson, who came on board this year to play Martinez, the DEA informant in the field, did a great job. It was really great to see her and [Michelle Lukes] team up. Michelle had been stuck in the crib, but she’s so capable of doing the stuff that we do. She trains the same as us, and she’s out in the field with us, when we’re doing the weapons training and the gym training, and she really hadn’t had a chance to show it off. This year, with Milauna’s introduction, they saw this nice moment to put the two together and have them go off and do ops together. We’ve got strong guys on the show, but we’ve got equally as kick-ass girls, which is really cool. That’s really good for our audience, as well, because there are special ops gals out there, who are kicking ass and taking names.
WINCHESTER: That’s a good question. Dramatically, I’ve been really surprised with how many curve balls they’ve thrown Stonebridge. It’s been really fun to tackle those and figure out who this guy is now, compared to who he was. I’ve gotten older with the character, as well. It’s been three years during a transitional point in my life, where my wife and I got married, and we bought a house. So, it’s been life imitating art and art imitating life. We come off this show and we’re physically and emotionally exhausted, just like the character is. I put a lot into this character, and I know Sully does, as well. Everybody puts a lot into their characters, and it does take a toll. We’re not around to be with friends, and be with our families. That’s just the name of the game. You’ve gotta roll with the punches and make hay while the sun is shining. If friends are in town, we really make an effort to hang out with them. And it’s been a learning curve to come back and try to rest and relax, but also capitalize on the success of the show.
Television is fickle and it’s fleeting. Television has turned a corner now. We’re in a really amazing era where television is taking huge risks and is almost taking film, face-on. We’re really trying to make movies for TV. Producers and writers are taking risks that they weren’t, in the past. We’ve gotta try to get other work because we don’t know if the show is going to go again, and while we have a bit of heat with the success of the show, we’d like to capitalize on that and do other projects. Stonebridge is very close to my heart, in terms of friends that I’ve had who have come back from Afghanistan and Iraq and who are pretty hurt. He’s an amalgamation of people in my life. It’s hard for me to drop him because we’re so involved with the show, but we’re learning, as we go. We’re three years in now, and there’s still more stuff to do and still more stuff to learn. I think there are plenty of places we can take the show, and plenty of places that we haven’t been with the show. It’s just a matter of whether or not we can still have our own personal lives, and do this show justice.
If for some crazy reason this is it, are you satisfied with where things are left, at the end of this season?
WINCHESTER: For me, personally, we did so much this year that we wanted to do and we worked so hard that I feel satisfied. If for some crazy reason the show doesn’t go again, I feel satisfied with what we did this year. But I think we did leave enough grey area untouched that, if the show needs to go somewhere else, we certainly can. Hopefully, we’ve done stuff this year that the fans hadn’t seen and they’ll want to see more of, and it will open boxes for stuff we haven’t tried before. Personally, I think the show did a great job this year. It was satisfying. We can leave it there. But, I also think there are some other cool places we can go.
Strike Back airs on Cinemax.