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An adrenaline-crazed cast looks back as Strike Back detonates its last season

“The goal of Strike Back was to make movies for television. So if a movie is two hours long, we’ve made 20 action movies over the last four years.”

Strike Back has officially been struck down. Cinemax’s pulse-pounding, blood-splattering, subwoofer-shaking international action thriller is hanging up its weapons on its own terms when the scripted series comes to a gripping end this October. The kick-ass lads and lasses of the covert British anti-terrorist organization known as Section 20 spent Season 3 — out now from HBO/Cinemax on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats — chasing evil down in Colombia, Beirut, Budapest, Russia, and Germany. The endgame arc of Season 4, which premiered last Friday, finds S-20 opening fire in Thailand before heading back to Budapest, and the stakes have never been higher.

Amidst all the bloodshed, Strike Back has also centered on the relationship between its two lead covert operatives, stoic British fighting machine Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) and rebellious American Delta Force renegade Damien Scott (Sullivan “Sully” Stapleton). Winchester can’t (well, won’t) exactly tell us how it all ends for our two heroes, but he can reveal this: “It was always going to end up with those two guys,” he says. “We had to get Scott and Stonebridge to a place where they were so raw and so unable to do anything outside of their own abilities. They had to be broken down to their wits and literally just the clothes on their backs. That’s where we leave these guys in the final two episodes: Scott and Stonebridge and nature versus everything we can throw at them.”

Strike Back is made for watching on a big television.

Winchester says he’s satisfied with how the series finishes. “Personally, as the guy playing Michael Stonebridge, I’m happy that we got to a place where the audience will be satisfied with the journey,” he admits. “Obviously, everyone has their own opinions as to what should happen to these guys — they’re elite operators at the top of their game, just before sliding out of it. We had the discussion: ‘Do we kill them? Do we have a freak accident? Do we have a not-so-freak accident?’ You guys are just going to have to watch to see what we chose to do.”

And watch we will, from the edge of our seats. Winchester got on the horn with Digital Trends while taking a break from shooting his new NBC fall thriller series The Player to discuss reaching Strike Back’s finish line, how all that action actually affected him neurologically, and adjusting dialogue expectations from pay cable to network TV. Read on by following the traditional Strike Back countdown — 3, 2, 1… go!

Digital Trends: First, I have to ask — you’re all in one piece? You’re OK?

Philip Winchester: Yeah. Just barely, yeah. (laughs)

I’ve only seen the first four episodes of Season 4, so I do have to worry.

I think when we reached that point in the season, [director and co-executive producer] Michael Bassett and the other producers said, “Ahh, fuck it — let’s just throw everything at these guys. Let’s just do that.” (chuckles)

Without spoiling anything about what’s coming in Episode 2 [which airs tonight], I think I can ask you this: It was you and Sully who were actually scaling the outside of that really, really tall building in Thailand, right?

Yes. I think the building was 23 or 24 stories, something like that. We shot that scene on the 19th floor, and that is Sully and I hanging off the side of the building. I’m not a huge fan of heights, and that was probably one of the scarier things we had to do.

Strike Back
Liam Daniel/Cinemax

I think when stuff explodes or I’m riding a bike or we’re crashing stuff, that’s fine by me. But it’s the heights that I’m not a huge fan of. That got a little bit tedious for me.

You know, it’s hard to watch Strike Back one episode at a time. I like binge-rewatching them in blocks because I always find something I didn’t see the first time.

One of the beautiful things about Strike Back was all the subtleties that would come out on repeat views where you’d get the relational stuff, or the little clues or the Easter eggs left for the audience. And Sully and I realized pretty early on the intense nature of our fans. I mean, I’ve bumped into people on the road who have cracked open their iPads, saying, “Look at this! There’s me playing you with my shirt off, and I have the exact same rig that you wore in Episode 9 on the train! It’s the exact rig!” To see that kind of commitment and fandom — we really wanted to give that back this season, so I’m really excited to hear what people think about it.

What do you think the best way to watch Strike Back is — on a high-end home theater system, via MAX GO, on an iPad…?

I think Strike Back is made for watching on a big television in your home plugged into a surround sound system. That way, you get the full cinematic experience that we intended it to be. We put so much emphasis on the way Strike Back looks. The kind of team effort that’s built up around it is made for a big viewing experience.

Mike Spragg, our DP [Director of Photography], is wonderful; he’s so good. When you watch the show, it’s not just Sully and I doing it or our stunt guys doing it — it’s also our camera guys hanging off the tall buildings with us or in the seat in the helicopter next to the explosions.

The goal of Strike Back was to make movies for television. We made 10 episodes a year. So if a movie is two hours long, we’ve made 20 action movies over the last four years. That’s pretty cool.

It is cool, and it’s also cool that you still have all of your limbs intact — especially after Season 3, when you had that naked firefight near the incinerator or when you were infected by the chemical warhead. That was something you and Michael Bassett had talked about, since he wanted to slow Stonebridge down a little bit.

That’s exactly right. He had always wanted to take away the machine-like nature of Stonebridge. He lost his wife, he lost his friendship with John Porter [a Section 20 officer played by Richard Armitage who was killed by Pakistani terrorist Latif in the first episode of Season 1] — that’s just the nature of being an elite operator. The way that it happened, and Stonebridge dealing with his PTSD — deciding it was going to be all work, all the time — we wanted to chip away at that and show some of his humanity.

What’s nice is, while we didn’t quite get there in the third season, we did in the fourth season, due to the fact that we had time. That’s my favorite thing about TV and working for great channels like Cinemax and HBO — you have time to explore these characters. You can’t do that in a two-hour movie. It was awesome having four years living with Stonebridge and figuring out where he needed to go and what he needed to come to.

There’s one thing he says near the beginning of Season 4 — “I don’t give a fuck what happens to me” — and you wonder if he’s going to be able to get past that mentality. Does any of that affect you personally, mentally, or physically?

I damn near parked that boat 2 centimeters from our cameraman Steve Murray’s lens, and he did not move.

Absolutely. It’s funny. It affected us in real life. Sully and I would always discuss this stuff, the nature of the show. Basically, these endorphins we were living on — we were getting all these endocrine dumps. I actually went to a neurologist to talk about what we were putting ourselves through on Strike Back, because we were putting ourselves in these fake situations, but we were pretending they were real, as the actor. So you were creating neurological pathways that were saying, “I’m in the middle of a fight.” “I need to get out of the way or I’m going to die.” “It’s going to kill me.” “This helicopter’s going to crash.” Because, as an actor, you’re experiencing so much testosterone and adrenaline dumping, we had to figure out how to get rid of it. At the end of the day, you’d be exhausted, but you had to go to the gym to get it out of your system. It just chews away at you.

That’s a heavy load to carry, both physiologically and psychologically. Was it just working out at the gym, or did you also have another outlet?

I hit the gym a lot, but my wife and I just had a little girl, so that’s taking up all my time now (laughs) — that’s been a big one.

When the first season wrapped, after I got home from spending four weeks in South Africa, my wife looked at me one day and she said, “It’s nice to have you home, Philip.” And I was like, “What are you talking about, babe?” And she said, “You haven’t been ‘Philip’ since you started shooting Strike Back. You’ve been so intense — checking everything out wherever you go, looking over your shoulder when we go to a restaurant.”

It was all that training we had to imbibe. On Strike Back, we had to live that in order for it to be true — how to shoot a gun, change a mag, be real in a situation. Otherwise, it’s just bullshit. And we’ve seen that on TV, where it’s obvious it’s fake.

We can throw as many bombs and bullets at these guys as money can pay for, but if we don’t care about them, none of that matters. The relationship, which was always the backbone of what we were trying to get across, is that they would die for each other, and nobody else. This is what it breaks down to. It’s them, or nothing else.

That’s telling. It’s like when [SPOILER ALERT!] in Episode 3, you’re trapped in that hollowed-out boat on the beach and you yell, “Fuck you, Damien!” to no one in particular.

That’s right! I’m getting shot at by the Yakuzas, I’m running out of ammo — basically I’m so pissed off that he’s not there that I have to yell at him. I’m so confronted with the fact that I’m alone and my “back” is gone, you know what I mean?

Oh yeah. Like you said, the relationship between Michael and Damien is key. Even something as simple as him calling you Mikey. I have very few friends who call me Mikey; you only let certain people give you that nickname. You have a different bond with that person, so I understand that relationship personally. There are probably very few people you, as Stonebridge, would allow to call him Mikey.

That’s right. A lot of that stuff came out of the banter of, “It’s another morning, it’s another 5:30 start, we have no idea how stuff is going to unfold.” It’s another day where, you know, it’s a lot of life imitating art and art imitating life, where I’ll walk into the room and he’ll go (affects Sully accent), “Yeah, Mikey, you’re a dick!” And I go, “Yeah, you’re a fuckhead, let’s do this!” (chuckles)

I think guys can relate to that relationship — yeah, these guys are tight. Especially given what they’re facing out there, they’re in it for each other.

Absolutely! And I love that you brought that up, Mike, because that was the accidental stuff that happened on the show because of the family and the relationships, and because of those elements, all that stuff bled into the work. They became real guys, and real characters. Robson [Green] became a real leader, and Milauna and Shellie [Milauna Jemai Jackson and Michelle Lukes] were one with us — everyone was real because of these relationships.

The way things keep ramping up in each episode of Season 4, you feel the peril and think, “Could this be the end?” The way the show has always been written, you don’t even know if anybody’s getting out of any scene.

They became real guys, and real characters.

I know! That’s right. There were just ’80s action-style moments this year where you’d go, “Man, I haven’t see that since some Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, or an old Bruce Willis movie!” That’s what we wanted to do, and I think this year really grabbed that by the balls. We were pretty serious about that.

We can’t even catch our breath. We’re right there in the action with you, like when you jump on that truck and break that guy’s arm —

(laughs) Well, hey! We were so fortunate we had a team of camera guys and a DP who said, “Yeah, we’ll put our asses on the line.” There’s a shot where I drive a rig right on the beach, where I damn near parked that boat 2 centimeters from our cameraman Steve Murray’s lens, and he did not move. I came in on that beach really hot, and he did not move. I was so proud of him. It’s in the show — it’s such a neat little shot.

Now that you’re going to be on The Player on NBC this fall, how hard is it going to be to not be able to say “fuck” on regular TV? (both laugh) I hate to say that’s normal for you, but I guess you have to dial back what you say a bit.

I got warned so much when we were shooting the pilot. Bharat [Nalluri, the director] was like, “Philip, you cannot say that!” I was like, “Sorry, sorry!” We’d get into a firefight or I’d be riding a motorbike down an abandoned hallway at 70 miles an hour and he’d go, “Did you say fuck”? “Uh, yeah, I probably did.” (both laugh again)

Strike Back

Liam Daniel/Cinemax

Finally, could you encapsulate the legacy of Strike Back and tell me what it’s meant to you these past four or five years?

Man. I’ve been thinking about this, because like I said earlier, it was so all-encompassing. It has hit me everywhere on a personal and professional level.

Relationally, Strike Back was a family of people who were in it because we loved it. We wouldn’t be in it for any other reason. You had to love it. It was such a difficult concept and such a difficult show because of the pace, and the reality, and the locations, so if you didn’t love it, you were going to suffer.

The family vibe on Strike Back means I have friends for the rest of my life. And that’s something that doesn’t come around all the time, you know? I want, and I hope, I get to experience that again. I know I’m going to be searching for that for the rest of my career. It was powerful. I don’t want to do shows where that doesn’t happen. It’s too much fun when it does.

Strike Back airs Fridays at 10 p.m. EST on Cinemax.