Cinemax’s high-octane, globe-spanning thriller Strike Back is coming to a close with its final season, and all hell is about to break loose as the top-secret intelligence team known as Section 20 embarks on its most dangerous mission yet. British sergeant Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) and former U.S. Delta Force operative Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) are working to crack a missing-persons case in Bangkok, which unveils a massive terrorist plot that might finally end up bringing them all down. With the action bigger than ever, you’ll want to stay tuned to this final journey to see who makes it to the end.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Philip Winchester talked about how difficult it was to let such a big part of his career go, getting to see the human side of characters in such high stakes situations, adding Michelle Yeoh to the final season, wanting to go out with a bang, and why wrapping the show was bittersweet. He also talked about what attracted him to his new NBC drama series The Player (an action-packed Las Vegas thriller about a former military operative turned security expert who is drawn into a mysterious high-stakes game where he must stop some of the biggest crimes imaginable from playing out), working with Wesley Snipes, and how the action compares.
Collider: Looking back at your time on Strike Back, did things end up anywhere near where you ultimately thought it might turn out?
PHILIP WINCHESTER: I can’t give away the end of the season, but just in the way the things happened to all of the characters, I think there was a way I would have finished it definitely. But I know this was a show that was built on this relationship of Scott and Stonebridge and the team of Section 20, so we had to wrap that up as best as we could. I was really pleased with how the season panned out because it went to different places that we hadn’t explored before, geographically and dramatically. We also had the biggest range of directors that we’ve had, over the years. They all came in and totally worked to their strengths, and the season is stronger and better paced because of that. So, from a dramatic point of view, if we were going to have to finish Strike Back at some point, this was the best place to do it with the best group of people to do it with. I don’t think we ever jumped the shark, which is good. It’s sad because it’s such a huge part of my career and it’s such a huge part of who I am now, as an actor. You don’t really want it to go away. It was so much fun. But, I hope that we can take all of the good bits and learn from them. Actually, you probably learn more from the bad bits than the good bits. You can learn from the bad bits, and then you can take the good bits and hopefully try to produce them in a different way. That’s what it’s all about. Hopefully, I can work with the same people and try to recreate some of the really good moments, like the action, the pacing and the drama, and slot it in where it’s needed, in all of these other shows.
Scott and Stonebridge have to do things that are almost superhuman. Is it fun for Stonebridge to see Scott risk his life doing all of these crazy things, and then have no idea how to deal with or relate to his son?
WINCHESTER: It was nice to see that. We were so fortunate to have smart people around us who said, “What if these soldiers were dealing with these very human things?” That’s where the show became popular and digestible to people. One of the things that we really tried to do with these guys was make them not superhuman. We would take a bullet and bleed and be fallible. That’s where they became interesting. Then, the stakes were really high.
What was it like to add Michelle Yeoh into the mix?
WINCHESTER: Working with her was like having these little micro acting lessons, every day. I just watched her give these performances where her subtlety was so small. She would do something so subtle and so minute, and it was so beautiful to watch. And then, she would come on board with us to do some of the action and say, “How do you guys do all of this action, all the time?” It was fun to be able to trade with each other, talk to each other and teach each other. She’s incredible. She’s just such a gifted actress and such a beautiful person, on and off camera, that it was one of those real joys. That doesn’t always happen. She was just amazing and so much fun to work with.
Did you guys intentionally want to make this last season a mission that was bigger and more difficult to survive than ever before?
WINCHESTER: I think there certainly was an element of, “This is the last season, so let’s go out with a bang. Let’s do something we’ve never done before and go to places we’ve never seen.” Part of the tapestry of Strike Back was the landscape that we shot in, which became other character in the show. Whether it was shooting in Afghanistan or Mozambique, or any of these other places, even if we didn’t go to them for real, our wonderful DPs and directors made them a character on the show by bringing them out of the background and having them smell and breathe and live their own life amongst the team. So, this season, we went to Thailand, where we had never been, and Budapest. We wanted to make it a different landscape and shoot different parts of Budapest that we’d never been to before. Not only for the show but for the audience who stuck it out for four years, we had to give something back. Without going over the top, I think that it does what it needs to do.
Even with all of the crazy action going on, on this show, there’s always also been great character development. What can we expect from Stonebridge’s personal journey, in this last season?
WINCHESTER: Stonebridge is the guy who shied away from helping Scott out personally, or doing things that maybe exposed his inner life, so it was nice, this year, to be given the opportunity to shine the light a little bit more on the inside of Stonebridge and who he is. He has nothing to lose anymore. He’s lost his wife, we lose relationships and we lose people in the Section, and he’s tired of that. The question that’s being asked from Scott and Stonebridge is, “How much longer are we going to stay in the Section? How much longer are we going to operate in the grey?” For him, he’s like, “You know what? I’m done with this.” That stuff starts to come out. The lid comes off of Stonebridge a little bit more and he becomes a little bit more outspoken, and that was fun to explore, as an actor.
What should fans brace themselves for, with this final season? When all is said and done, will viewers feel satisfied with where the characters are left, or will it be bittersweet?
WINCHESTER: For me, personally, it was bittersweet. I think finales are always so hit or miss because they’re so personal. When you do a finale, it’s always up to the person watching it. You’ve invested all this time and you’ve invested all of these years of your life, and you know what’s perfect for you, as an individual, but the show may or may not tick those boxes. For me, it was bittersweet, purely on a professional level. I didn’t want to not be able to jump out of a helicopter again. I didn’t want to not be able to shoot guns and jump off of dams. I don’t want to not be able to hang out with my best friend and look at him, at the end of the day, and say, “I cannot believe we did that. I cannot believe that that happened to us.” I don’t know if, in my career, I’ll ever be ever to create the energy, the danger and the odd couple element that was just the day-to-day existence of Strike Back, but I know, sure as shit, that I’m gonna try because it was amazing. Being a guy and being an actor, it ticked every single box. The Player came awfully close, just in the fact that we have the support from our production and we have an amazing cast. If anything is going to come close, get near it or go over it, it’s going to be The Player because we have all the stuff in place to make that happen. So, it was amazing. It was a great way to end it, but everyone will have to make up their own mind, as to whether or not they’re on the same boat.
How much fun are you having on The Player?
WINCHESTER: It’s fun. And we’re really fortunate, with John Rogers, John Fox and John Davis. We have really smart people involved in this. I think we’ve covered our corners. John Rogers said to me, “Look, man, I know what happens in the first episode, and every episode up to 100.” We had people to lean on while we were shooting, which was really cool.
And if you’re going to trade your partner-in-crime on Strike Back in for a new one, Wesley Snipes isn’t a bad replacement.
WINCHESTER: It’s pretty cool. I couldn’t believe it. As we continue to film, I think it will sink in that I’m working with Wesley Snipes. I grew up watching him in the ‘90s, just kick ass and be all of these different great characters, from White Men Can’t Jump and To Wong Foo and Passenger 57. He’s just a great actor.
What was it about The Player that made you want to sign on and jump right back in to another TV series, especially for another one with such big action?
WINCHESTER: I really enjoy doing the action stuff, but you have to be careful about who you say yes to with the action stuff ‘cause some people want to do it but don’t know how, and then it just becomes incredibly frustrating. What happened over the years on Strike Back was that we learned how to do it and we learned how to make it look as realistic as possible, shoot it as quick as possible, and be as safe as possible. All of those things are really important when you’re doing action. John Rogers was a huge Strike Back fan, and he just sat me down and we had a talk about it. He told me what he wanted the show to be, and everything that he told me was that it would be fun action and really high-brow drama. He knew everything that he wanted to get out of it, so we weren’t shooting from the hip. He knew exactly what he wanted the show to be. As an actor coming on board, that’s really enticing. There was no guesswork. He was able to say, “This is who the character is.” I had him to lean on when I was shooting the pilot, and I had him to return to when different character things were happening. He can tell me what things are and where we’re going, and that just helps you, along the way.
How is this character different from your Strike Back character?
WINCHESTER: Stonebridge was very much a machine. Work got in the way of his social life and his personal life. Everything was about soldiering, and everything was about right and wrong. Even though they operated in the grey area, he believed there was always a reason for it. Alex was the top of his FBI class at Quantico. He goes out and does things by the book, and then he realizes, “I don’t need to do things by the book. There’s an easier way.” So, he breaks rank and starts becoming, in a way, more of the Scott character who can step across the lines easier. Alex is also much more of a guy’s guy. He’s a beer drinker in a cosmopolitan town. And he enjoys his job and the people he works with. He’s not going to not have fun, if it presents itself to him, whereas Stonebridge would have definitely backed off and said, “No, I’ve gotta work tomorrow.” He’s American. I don’t have to do the British accent. There are a lot of qualities in Alex that weren’t there with Stonebridge, but that are really fun to explore. It’s a little bit more natural. Stonebridge was a little bit more of a character that I had to find. With Alex, we are definitely finding him, but the stuff that’s coming out is more John McClane than James Bond. He’s just a guy who, through tenacity and just being a bulldog, will win the fight, rather than having an amazing skill set.
How does the action compare?
WINCHESTER: I think that there will be comparisons. I’m involved in it. Michael Bassett is involved with it. John Rogers is doing stuff. We’re going to do is make it as big and as bad-ass as we possibly can, and we’re going to push the envelope for network television. That’s my goal. That’s Michael Bassett’s goal. And I think John Rogers and NBC are on board for that. We have eight days to shoot a bad-ass action show, and also find these great dramatic beats that make the action count, or otherwise it would become boring. I’d like to hope that part of the reason they brought me on board is because they know that they can shoot me up close doing that stuff, and because I want to bring back ‘80s action to television and film. I want to bring back the type of action where we don’t cut, where the guy is doing it, and it’s not green screen, but it’s actually us. So, as much of that as we can do, that excites me. That’s a goal of mine, in doing this. As long as the production will let us and as long as the insurance will sign off on it, we can do it.
I’m not taking any credit away from our stunt guys. There were stunts on Strike Back, and definitely on The Player, where they were like, “Philip, you’re not doing this.” I have an incredible stunt crew behind me that stepped in and made me look like a bad-ass. It was stuff that not only I couldn’t do for insurance reasons, but I couldn’t physically do. We had amazing bike stunts and big falls, and I can’t do that stuff. I’m not the right guy for that. But the thing that we did on Strike Back, which I thought was pretty genius, was that we made sort of dangerous stuff look really dangerous. That was the magic of how we filmed it. Some of the stuff was really not that bad. We just had really smart people around us saying, “You can stand right here, but not there.” All the stuff we did on Strike Back was very thought out, and that’s going to be the case with The Player. It will be really thought out, and then it will go back up through the ranks and they’ll say whether I can be involved in it or not. If not, our stunt guys are going to make it look amazing, and I’m going to try not to cry about it.
Strike Back airs on Friday nights on Cinemax.