By Curt Wagner
9:50 AM CDT, October 21, 2011
Philip Winchester and Amanda Mealing recognized the strange coincidence Thursday that they were doing press for their series "Strike Back" on the day Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was killed.
In the Cinemax action drama, they play members of a secret British military special force called Section 20 that just might sneak into a country to bolster an insurgency against an unfriendly government.
"This is the voice of the people," Winchester suggested of the Libya news, "but you wonder if there have been little pockets of Special Forces guiding the tip of that sword until it finally touches the point it needs to."
Obviously the actors can't say for certain that the Libyans got help from outside the country, but in the world of "“Strike Back" it is entirely possible. "[Osama] Bin Laden was taken down while we were filming something very, very similar," Mealing said. "And it was quite chilling … Suddenly you realize, talking to the military guys [who advised the production], that the gap between fantasy and reality just closes that much more. You think, 'These guys have really done it.'"
Mealing stars as Col. Eleanor Grant (Mealing), the iron-willed leader of Section 20 who oversees Winchester’s crack soldier, Sgt. Michael Stonebridge. In the explosive finale—and I mean that both literally and in terms of the drama—Section 20 races to stop their season-long nemesis, a terrorist named Latif (Jimi Mistry), from violently derailing a summit of world leaders in Budapest.
In the explosive season finale—and I mean that both literally and in terms of the drama—the team races to stop their season-long nemesis, a terrorist named Latif (Jimi Mistry), from violently derailing a summit of world leaders in Budapest. The finale (3.5 stars out of 4) airs at 9 p.m. Oct. 21 on Cinemax. (Check out video and photo sneak peeks of the "Strike Back" finale.)
Winchester, Mealing and the other actors trained with real former special forces soldiers for a month before the six-month shoot based in Cape Town, South Africa, began.
“It was brutal,” Winchester said, ticking off training in explosives, evasive driving, live-fire weapons, close-quarter fighting, physical fitness and much more. “But we had an absolute blast.”
Because she was playing the boss, Mealing didn’t have to train as hard as the guys, she said, joking, “My training was getting up in the morning and having a cup of tea.”
But she did manage to get injured. “We were doing a boxing exercise,” she said, and the trainer hit her hard. “So I punched him as hard as I could and I dislocated my shoulder. And that guy did not flinch.”
Kidding aside, both actors say they felt a great responsibility to represent the men and women of these secret ops teams by “getting it right.”
Mealing learned from the women in military command positions with whom she spoke that their role sometimes seems maternal. When a colleague is killed in the line of duty, for instance, the commander acts as a sounding board for her people’s grief, while not being able to openly show emotion herself.
For Winchester, getting it right meant absorbing everything the advisers shared with cast members, so that when they were in character they were “the bones of these guys.” He said that on a few occasions the actors interrupted a scene to tell the director, “This is not how [real special forces] would do this.”
“Our job was to make them look good. We had to know what we were doing,” he said. “We wanted to do it right, so that if they were watching they’d think, ‘Hey, they got it.’”
Working with automatic weapons and explosives was quite a transition for Winchester from his previous job playing sword-wielding Leontes in Starz’s “Camelot.” Although Winchester was challenged by the “medieval boot camp” of “Camelot,” he said the “Strike Back” training was much more intense, and not just physically.
“It was an invaluable look into the psyche of these people and how they deal with these situations.”
Below, Winchester and Mealing talked about filming in South Africa and getting naked for a role. Unfortunately, my recorder garbled the first part of our interview so I don’t have a transcript of that section. The interview picks up with Mealing talking more about the former special forces men and women who advised the production.
Amanda Mealing: The relationship that we ended up having with [the soldier advisers] for over six months enabled them to reveal probably a little bit more than they would to most people. Having that insight to what goes on. Dan Perceivel, who is are executive producer and the director for the first two and the last two episodes, is incredibly knowledgeable about the counter-espionage and intelligence world. The storylines come from him, so he really does know what is going on…
I was reading a book about the SAS (British Special Air Services division) and one the guys said to me, “Go to Page 4 and that’s me.” I said, “What? Are you kidding!” [They say,] “No, that happened and this happened.” You suddenly think, “This really does go on.”
Probably what we’ve shown over the 10 episodes is probably the tip of the iceberg of some of the stuff that is going on and it’s going on daily and these guys are not thanked, they are not acknowledged. Every day there are a Scott and Stonebridge out there somewhere doing that on our behalf and they never get the recognition. They didn’t do it for that. It was a quite humbling thought really.
Yeah because they have to remain secret operatives.
AM: Yeah, that’s it, but the fact that these guys would do it because that’s what is required of them and they don’t expect thanks or recognition or glory. It’s quite astounding that people are putting their lives on the line.
Philip Winchester: That’s the thing about these guys. They are under the radar. They are the definition of that and like Amanda said they don’t do it for the praise. They do it because it needs to get done because if it doesn’t who knows what is going to happen.
All right, so onto something a little lighter. Once again you’re not doing anything to let people know that you’re actually an American.
PW: [Laughs.] Except you. I'm talking to you. This is my real me. Actually I don’t know anymore. It has been so much a part of my life.
When I wrote the "Camelot" inteview people on Twitter were saying, “Oh, he’s American?” (Read "Philip Winchester's 'Camelot': Leontes, Guinness & Va Va Voom")
PW: [Laughs.] How about that?
Amanda, how is his accent?
AM: He has it absolutely perfect, absolutely perfect. I mean it’s funny because he is Stonebridge and he is British. He’s so easily recognizable to me, and then you get Phil who in between takes goes midsentence from Phil to Stonebridge. And then when he’s at home with Megan it’s Phil, so you get the varying degrees. It’s kind of funny.
PW: I do have to remind myself. I think it was a month after we finished in Budapest and went to London for a bit. After London we were back in Montana and we were getting in the car one morning, my wife and I to go to have breakfast or something and she looked at me and said, “Oh hey, Philip, it’s nice to have you back.” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “Well I've been living with Stonebridge for a long time.” The accent, the physicality, all of it just it kind of it really becomes a part of you.
AM: It absorbs. Doesn’t it?
At first I didn’t know if I should be a little offended because it seemed like the way Scott was being portrayed that maybe the writers thought all Americans were womanizers and said “Buddy” all the time. Did you get to say anything Phillip like, “Hey let’s chill out a little bit on that?”
PW: [Laughs.] I just think they thought that Sully’s such an incredible method actor and that they really needed to apply that to his technique. [Laughs.] We laughed about it. There were days I would come on set and Sully would just look at me and be like, “Yeah, doing another sex scene today, mate, and what are you doing?”
I was, “I think I get to go shoot someone and I think I save your ass again.” He was like, “Yeah, typical mate.”
But we constantly bantered about it because he did it so much. He did it so much. I think by the end of it he was just like, “All right, come on, let’s just shoot this thing.”
He did have most of the big sex scenes. Were you jealous, relieved or—?
PW: Relieved, totally relieved. [Laughs.] I was so thankful and I think definitely my wife and I were grateful that I didn’t have to do an awful lot of that. And if I have anything to say about next year I’d love to keep that storyline.
You guys shot mostly in Cape Town. But you did travel all over the place.
PW: Yeah, Delhi was actually Durban, which is just below Mozambique on the eastern coast there and then we went back to Cape Town for four months. We went up to a place called Springbok for a little bit, which is below the border of Namibia and we were there for a couple of weeks and then we packed up everything and we went up to Budapest up in Hungary and we were there for two months, so those were the last four episodes were up in Budapest and that doubled as Russia and Chechnya and all that kind of stuff.
Do you both like that kind of travel, or does it get tedious?
PW: I love it.
AM: I think it’s such a privilege, isn’t it? It is such a privilege to not only visit these incredible places, but having the chance to spend so much time there. You really get under the skin of the place. You really get a good feel for the place and almost become a local. [Laughs.] We all love our food. We all love our restaurants, so if you ever go to Cape Town, give us a call.
PW: [Laughs.] Yes.
AM: We have done Cape Town restaurants. It is the opportunity to stay in a place for a couple of months you really, really do get to see something else as opposed to what you see on a vacation.
PW: And then on an artistic level you’re working with like-minded people and it’s really cool because you’ll bounce to Cape Town to Dublin to Budapest to wherever, your home and your home city of London or LA or New York. The like-minded people, people who are coming together. It never ceases to amaze me how stuff gets made because the challenges that you face on a daily basis, but when this stuff really gets forced into existence, when you make a television show or something you can kind of stand back with all these people and go, “Guys, if one of us wouldn’t have been doing our job this wouldn’t have happened.” So it’s really cool to see it all come together and to know that family that you’ve quickly picked up with really pulled it off together.
And then I heard you guys blew up City Hall in Cape Town.
PW: [Laughs.] Totally, our special effects, whom I won’t name—bless them. The car bomb in Episodes 3 and 4 that diverts Stonebridge so that Kate Marshall can get kidnapped, that sucker went off, man. We were all quite a ways away from it. We thought, “Gosh that was really big. That was really convincing.” We walked up to the City Hall next to it. The door was hanging on its hinges. All the glass windows that were around it, which were God knows how old, were shattered.
It was a bit of a headache for production, but we all kind of thought it was cool.
With you doing all those stunts and everything did you guys have injuries too? Was it a little brutal?
PW: Yeah, you would get in the car at the end of the night and the adrenaline is really running because some of these things you’re really amped up. You kind of have to go there. So you’d get in the car and about half way home you’d realize that that bit of your elbow that you thought you had was no longer there and then another hole in your leg. We were pretty fortunate. I know Sully pulled, I think he pulled a hamstring in one of the fight scenes he was doing. I rolled my ankle pretty bad in Episode 5 and I had to wear a brace for the rest of the show, but we managed to come out relatively unscathed. Amanda had a good one during training though. Didn’t you?
AM: I suffered my art, Curt, suffered for my art. Yes, I was training with one of the special forces guys and I was really, really tired and really didn’t want to be there and he was goading me on going, “Come on, come on, you’re supposed to be Special Forces! You’re Col. Grant! Grrr!”
We were doing a boxing exercise. I would say, for him, he thought it was a nudge. But he punched me really hard, so punched him as hard as I could and I dislocated my shoulder. And that guy did not flinch.
PW: [Laughs.] I love that man. I think that’s great.
AM: And that’s when I went, “Do you know what? I'm going to act Col. Grant. I'll act the military thing. I don’t think I need to get method on this one.”
PW: It’s brutal, isn’t it?
Amanda, I hear you also had a little trouble at a gas station there.
AM: I did. You know what? It’s really unfortunate because every person we came into contact with in South Africa was just adorable, everyone was.
I've traveled the world a couple of times, so I'm very savvy and I think I just let my guard down that day. It was quite a well-rehearsed team and they cornered me in an ATM booth. I knew what was going on and I said to the guy, “You’ve got my card, give it back.” And he was going, “No it’s in the machine, just put your PIN number in.” …
He started to get really nasty and the guys behind started pushing, so I was kind of disorientated and I just had to stand back and let the guys go. But of course as soon as the military guys—
PW: I think we’re all pretty lucky that they weren’t there. [Laughs.]
AM: You know what? They came as soon as they heard they said, “Right, we’re coming around.” One came around with a Glock, put it on the table and went, “All right, we’re going to do some closed quarter combat.” So if you come near me in a nightclub and I don’t like it, bang you’re on the floor before you know it.
COME BACK AFTER THE FINALE! I will have more of the interview after Friday’s season finale. It’s full of spoilers.
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