By Curt Wagner, @ShowPatrol
9:06 PM CDT, October 12, 2012
Michelle Lukes didn't get much time out of the crib during the first season of "Strike Back." Thankfully that changed this year.
As Season 2 of the action drama comes to a close Friday, we'll see Lukes' Sgt. Julia Richmond in action again as Section 20 launches an assault in the mean streets of Johannesburg, South Africa. The season finale airs at 9 p.m. CT Oct. 12 on Cinemax.
Richmond proved she's more than a desk jockey in the season premiere with her total Bond girl moment as she and Sgt. Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) swam ashore in Mogadishu, Somalia, on a dangerous mission to rescue Damian Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) and Major Rachel Dalton (Rhona Mitra). In a later episode, she accompanied Stonebridge and Scott to Niger to hunt down a terrorist in possession of nuclear triggers.
"Last year I was desperate to get involved and the boys were just having such a blast. I was, too, in my sort of very reserved and reliable way," she said over the phone from her home in London where she was preparing her specialty, lasagna. "But I just was dying to get down and dirty with them, and fortunately I've been given that chance this year."
She also had the opportunity to explore more of her character's emotional side. After the shocking death of Major Oliver Sinclair (Rashan Stone) in Episode 17, the usually measured and focused Richmond totally lost her cool and shot the South African minister responsible for the capture of several Section 20 agents.
Lukes believes Sinclair's death was "absolutely life-changing for all of them, but I would say particularly for Julia because ... her reaction is so extreme and so emotional and so far removed from the Julia that we know, the sort of sensible, grown-up Julia." The scenes also were difficult to film, she said.
"It was tough, tough, tough, tough, tough to film personally. But as an actor it was really challenging and really rewarding," she said. "It was challenging for me because actually having done the show for a couple of years and the nature of my role in the show, I haven't really had ... to explore the emotional side of this character. So it was new territory for me and pretty scary."
"Strike Back" is the most high-profile international exposure for the actress, who starred in the British TV series "Doctors" and has theater credits at the Royal National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company and Salisbury Playhouse. She is a 2007 graduate of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where she began her studies after being plucked from her dance studies at the age of 17 to star as Demeter in a production of "Cats" in Hamburg, Germany.
For now, Lukes is hanging out in London but eager to get started on Season 3 of the series, if she returns. (Although we know the show will be back, there's been no official word on which cast members will return.) Lukes will no doubt miss Stone (watch the video eulogy below), who she said was probably the biggest jokester on a set where there is a lot of a lot of joking and teasing.
"Don't believe the Oliver Sinclair facade because he is cheeky. He's very cheeky. But he's brilliant. He's a great, great company member, an awesome guy," Lukes said. "It's brilliant because out of everyone he's probably the most unlike his character. We're terrible when we're together. Mercifully for the producers we had a lot of time apart this year which was tough for us. We made up for it in our own time. But probably we are probably the biggest goofballs."
"It's a good group of people. It's a lovely place to work, if lovely is the right word," she said, laughing. "It's a lovely place to go to work and stab people."
Lukes and I talked a whole lot more about her military training for the show, how crew members sometimes don't recognize her out of character, and her past work, which includes teaching Rosario Dawson how to dance for the film "Alexander." (The Q&A section of this story is hella long, but sometimes the conversations are so fun I just feel the need to share it all, or most of it.)
People love kick-ass women, and Julia Richmond has been this season.
What I love about her is that she is kick ass in the field but I still feel there’s a real humanity, a real warmth about Julia, too. I hope that people feel that or see that or get that. It’s something that I know that I want to pursue. It’s not just black and white with these people. I don’t want her to be just a kick-ass woman, you know? They’re a dime a dozen especially in TV land. And I kind of want more quality, more substance.
And she secretly goes against the bosses sometimes
I know. How brilliant is that? I like that. I really like that. I’m not sure we saw that last year, but I definitely think that we see a different side to her. She has some tough judgment calls and she’s not just a do-it-and-shut-up type, which perhaps she may have been perceived as before. She’s got balls and she’s smart and she takes risks. She puts her money where her mouth is. And I like that she challenges the bosses. I like that she’s confident enough to make her own decisions regardless of the results.
I like that she stands up for what she believes and then she sees it through. I think that’s a really admirable quality. Yes.
How has the reaction been this season?
I’ve had loads of support. I’ve got to say I’ve loads of support this season from fans writing in and just saying how much they’re enjoying seeing this new side to her. So yes, I’m excited that people are enjoying it and I know that I’ve loved it too. It’s been brilliant.
I loved when you jumped off the apartment building onto the car.
I know! How cool is that? They’ve just showed that episode here in the UK and all my friends are like, “Oh my God!” They couldn’t believe it. It’s such a big change from the Julia that we all got to know last year. That, I have to say, was one of my personal highlights. It was just such a brilliant day and I think I really surprised some people. I’ve never really been asked to do anything like that.
I think they probably thought, “Oh, you know, Shelly. She’s so lovely and nice and I’m sure you’re not going to want to do it.” And I was just like, “Let me at it! Let me at it!” They pretty much let me do the thing myself, which was very, very silly of them, but brilliant for me. So yes, it was a really good day and I loved it. It was great.
Did you actually jump on a car top or was there like a soft landing thing and then they made it look like a car?
Oh no, now I’m giving away some of the tricks. I jumped over the building, which was a big deal can I say? But there was a crash mat and various sort of burly men to break my fall. It wasn’t quite as cool in reality as it looks on the screen, but it still took a bit of guts to do it, I’d like to think. [Laughs.]
I’d say jumping over the side of the building is cool no matter what you’re landing on.
Thank you. [Laughs.]
Because it didn’t look like it was just a few feet. It looked fairly high up.
Yes I know. It wasn’t even the first floor. It was the second floor.
So there you go. And then you looked just downright Bond girly in the scene with Philip coming out of the water. (See the photo here.)
Oh, thank you. That’s really nice. Somebody asked me recently whether I had a problem playing the “plain Jane” of the show. I was like, “Oh no!” But gosh, when I read that initially I thought, “This is so like weirdly out of character for her.” Last year we didn’t really see past the surface. We know Julia to be reliable, to be sensible and smart. I don’t know, obedient and all of these very good things. And then to suddenly to be seen in a bikini just felt so racy. But yes, that was an incentive to keep training, if nothing else.
Right. Well I kind of felt like, “OK, now everybody sees what Scott sees,” because he’s always flirting with her. Now everybody knows why he’s always flirting with her.
[Laughs.] I know! It’s a bit of a will they or won’t they scenario. Everyone loves a bit of will they/won’t they, don’t they? [Laughs.]
I think so. So will they?
[Laughs.] They’ve got a lovely relationship. I think they’ve got a lovely relationship and will they? Never say never. That’s all I’m going to say. I kind of feel like that one of the things that makes their relationship so special, I just feel that he perhaps has a certain respect for her that maybe he doesn’t have for most other women. I don’t know if that reads, if that comes across, but there’s definitely an affinity there, which goes past the whole, you know, sex thing.
I think that’s a lovely thing for them to have. I think that actually she doesn’t sort of jump when he clicks his fingers is also a really fun element to their relationship.
I think she can handle him really well.
Totally. Absolutely. He’s totally met his match with her, and I think they both actually quite enjoy that.
She doesn’t get flustered or pissed. She just sort of gives it back, you know?
Yes, absolutely. I think that’s a great thing about her is that probably out of everyone, she’s possibly the most consistent, and sort of the most grown-up and confident member of 20. I think when everyone else is losing their heads, you can always sort of go to Julia and always get a sort of calm and considered perspective which is useful I think. Also, having said that she’s an animal in the field. [Laughs.]
Right, which she’s totally proving this year. I was wondering as Julia did you have to do a lot of learning about the technical side of the computers and satellites and all that stuff?
Yes, totally. Well in terms of our prep for the show, I did exactly the same training as the boys. There wasn’t so much focus on sort of the nerdy side. Most of our training was defense techniques, combat strategy, reconnaissance, weapons training. That was sort of the bulk of our prep. Absolutely I did everything that the boys did. Yes. I sort of had to and I kind of really wanted to as well. Yes.
But did you have to do extra for the nerdy side?
No. You know, I’m giving my tricks away. No. It’s just all acting.
That’s called acting, Curt.
[Laughs.] Yes, that’s acting Curt. [Laughs.] No, shamefully no. It’s a lot of sort of considered looks and furrowed brows and typing on the computer. I can’t actually type—probably shouldn’t put that in the interview. [Laughs.] A lot of focus is on sort of the tactical side, which is really important not just for us as actors to walk onto set and have that informed performance. But I know that we all kind of feel a certain responsibility to the men and the women who do this job for real, because most of the time, because of the nature of the work, they don’t get any recognition for what they do.
It’s such an insanely difficult, challenging job physically and emotionally. I know that we all feel that we want to do as much as we can to honor that, do you know what I mean? I would hate to be responsible for contributing to any glamorizing of it or trivializing it. And so the training was a really, really important thing for us to do and do it properly. Do you know what I mean?
I’m always amazed that when you guys do one of the missions or clear a room, there’s this consistency to your moves.
Well, I’m so glad you said that. Yes, because we do work really hard to try at every opportunity to do that. For the boys, they’ve doing this for two years now and so I guess for them it’s second nature. But for me I’m still very aware that if I don’t know something then I’ll ask, because I don’t want to guess and get it wrong.
And the boys are very brilliant. They were always there to support and to help me whenever I needed it. And the military adviser that we had was just absolute legend. He probably got so sick of me going, “Oh do I do it like this? Is this right? Is that right?” But, you know, that’s boring, but I feel it’s essential to doing it all properly.
When you initially did the boot camp before the season began, did you think, “Hey, look at me. I’m in pretty decent shape?”
Oh no, I was in horrible shape. [Laughs.] It was awful. It was absolutely awful. I couldn’t have been much worse. I sort of knew that it was coming and, you know, before I flew out I started doing a little bit of yoga two or three times a week thinking, “I’ll be fine.” Sort of the in the back of my head [I was] going, “No it won’t be. No it won’t be fine.” The reality is just, I mean, it’s just ludicrous. [Laughs.]
I sort of had a very basic understanding of the military because my dad was a military man. But to sort of put yourself through it, I mean, I really was just like, “Wow.” I have a newfound respect for these people. It’s just crazy what they put themselves through.
But having said that, after three-and-half, four weeks of training I felt amazing. I was in the best shape that I think I’ve ever, ever been in. I was actually like a machine. Unfortunately you can’t sort of sustain it when you’re shooting schedule starts, but I just felt brilliant, physically and just mentally sharper. I was just cut and no fat. I could eat burgers if I wanted and it didn’t matter. It was a pretty quick and dramatic transformation.
I was watching a few episodes of last season recently because I was cutting a show reel together, and I barely recognized myself from the last series. The change was really dramatic. I was like, “Who’s that fat Asian girl in Section 20? Oh it’s me.” [Laughs.]
Well, it’s weird because people kept commenting on it and, “Wow look at you. You look so different and this and that and blah, blah, blah. And you’ve really done this. Well done.” And I sort of was like, “Oh, I just sort of feel like the same person.” But now in hindsight looking back at last year I go, “Oh wow. Yes. Now I really see it.” And I’m kind of proud of that. Yes.
Well this season you really do look tough.
Hey! I’m really not in real life because that’s all acting as well Curt. [Laughs.]
Did you talk to women in the military during your research for this?
No I didn’t. it was all boys. I wish that I’d had access to a female perspective. I don’t know if it would be dramatically different. But it would be useful and probably something that I would want to do, God willing, if I get the opportunity to go back and continue to develop Julia. It’s absolutely something that I’d want to do.
I was also reading a book recently on post-traumatic stress disorder and it’s such an interesting book. I kind of wish that I’d read it before I’d done the season. It’s sort of brilliantly describing the psyche of men and women in combat. They’ve got this sort of brilliant ability to separate emotions from actions. They constantly have to put aside feelings of fear and doubt and I guess friendship sometimes, just to follow an order to put it through.
It sounds so simple but it’s something I never really considered. I know it’s certainly something that I couldn’t do for real. I’d probably get shot while I was scratching my head and weighing out the pros and cons.
So that’s another level of research that I would definitely want to engage in if we were to go again—that and also women in the military.
You’ve really explored PTSD this season with Stonebridge's story.
Absolutely. I think it’s a really interesting development for Phil’s character and yes, a new angle for the show as well. I think a great thing about the show particularly this season, it’s more than just a show about blowing shit up. Do you know what I mean? it’s more complicated than good guys and bad guys. I think we’re really trying to explore why people do the things that they do and why they make the decisions that they make.
That sort of personal conflict or inner conflict is a brilliant place to discover drama and I’m hoping that that’s the route that we’ll go. Phil’s character sets a perfect example of how that’s evolving. Julia as well ... has some tough judgment calls to make ... Also with Scott as well I think, with the Mossad agent. And so for him as well you’re seeing it’s not just black and white. It’s a gray area and I think that that’s the difference between a shoot-’em-up action show and real drama. Hopefully we’re sort of bridging the gap.
You and Tim Pigott-Smith [who guest-starred as Patrick Burton in the season premiere] both trained at the Bristol Old Vic. Did that come up?
Ohhh, Tim Pigott-Smith, I love that man! We didn’t actually talk about that. We talked about possibly everything else but that didn’t come up. And most of the stuff we talked about was absolute nonsense, because let me tell you, and I don’t care who knows it, that man is naughty. He is just absolutely naughty, but I kind of love that. He’s such a consummate professional, but just an absolute menace on set.
Because he’s so brilliant, he can literally just be messing around like seconds before "action" and turn it on and give an award-winning performance. Whereas I’m not as experienced as him so I need just a few moments to sort my head out before we go. He made that tricky sometimes, but he’s just brilliant.
It’s been fantastic to have such brilliant and accomplished guest actors come on. It just raises the bar and just makes our job harder, OK? [Laughs.] But just so rewarding too, to work with people like Tim and Charles [Dance] is pretty phenomenal.
What got you into acting?
Originally I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I trained at the Royal Ballet in London. And when I was very young they told me that I wouldn’t ever be a ballet dancer and I should broaden my horizons, which obviously is heartbreaking when you’re 15 and someone’s told you “no.”
I sort of wasted a few years trying to prove them wrong and then realized, “No, actually they were right,” and started doing other things. I learned other disciplines in dance, which I found I was gifted at. And I found acting, which was also something that I found I had a flair for. It was completely underdeveloped but it was something that really gave me joy, probably if I’m really honest unlike anything I’d experienced before.
At a very young age I won a lead role in a musical [“Cats” in Hamburg]. And when you were that young and someone offered you loads of money and a fabulous part you go, “OK, well, I’ll do that then,” without actually really giving it that much thought. And so I went off to sing and dance for a while. It was a difficult decision. ... But very soon after I realized actually that it’s kind of what I really wanted to do. And even though things were going brilliantly in my other career I felt that if I didn’t give [acting school] a go, I’d probably always regret it. And so I gave up a fantastic job and became a student again and went to Bristol.
Were you 17 then, 17 or 18?
Yes, so that was kind of why I headed off in that direction without sort of really giving it much thought. I was like, "Oh OK, I’ll go and do this then." But I’m kind of happy where I’m at now and I’m loving what I’m doing. Like every actor I’m sort of greedy and want more. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to flourish and continue to work and hopefully get better and do good work and more work.
I don’t know. It’s a scary job this. This profession is, when it’s bad it’s bad but when it’s good it’s just awesome. This job [“Strike Back”] is a perfect example. The last two years have been absolutely sensational. Spending six months of the year in Cape Town with amazing people, doing a job that I love, getting to do things I’d never normally get to do and getting paid for it. It’s just so good. If I’m ever feeling a bit sorry for myself or I’m worried about the future, I have to remind myself of those moments. I think that it’s easy to forget and we shouldn’t. It’s a great, great job.
And also, I have absolutely no other skills so I kind of have to stick with it. I can’t do anything else. [Laughs.] So I’d be sloshing brew, I think, if I decided one day to give it up.
You are from London?
Well, really my dad was in the army and so we moved around all the time. So I’ve had a real gypsy lifestyle and kind of not really from anywhere. I went to boarding school very young. I went to boarding school at 8. My mom’s Chinese. She’s from Singapore.
You’re back in London and what have you been up to?
I’m back in London. I’m actually really enjoying it. ... When I came back it was just really lovely and I caught up with friends and family. I went to see theater, which I love and which sort of wasn’t really available to me in the last six or seven months. I actually go to favorite restaurants and just do all of those things that I’d forgotten about or I forgot I loved. And it’s been awesome being back but ... I’m getting itchy feet now. I want to do stuff.
I haven’t actually been seen for any theater. It’s a bit tricky just in terms of logistics. A long-term commitment now is tricky just in terms of my commitment to “Strike Back.” ... If I can squeeze something else in obviously I’ll jump at the chance. But it has to be the right project.
Do you find yourself being recognized on the street?
No. Do you know what? No one ever recognizes me, not from “Strike Back.” It’s really weird. The number of times I’ve been sat with Sully or Rashan and people come up and they go, “Oh my God. I love your show. I’ve seen the box set like 25 times.” And then go to me, “Hey, so what do you do?”
It’s so strange. It’s really so frustrating not because I want to be recognized, but it’s because people that say they’ve seen the show and know it don’t even recognize me. And it’s like, “Wow, my performance must’ve been epic for them not to even recognize me.” And the boys whisper and they go, “No, it’s because you look so glam in real life no one would ever know it was you.” And I’m like, “Yes, yes.”
Are you wearing a green T-shirt when you go out with those guys?
No, I don’t wear green anymore even though I love green. [Laughs.] It’s brilliant. Do you know what? I’d like to think I’m one of the boys, but I am sort of quite a girly girl in the sense that I like my clothes. When I’m not working I like to paint my nails and zhuzh around in heels. But we go to cast and crew events, to parties and the crew wouldn’t talk to me for ages. It was really weird. I realized it’s because they didn’t know who I was. [Laughs.] It was amazing and then like half an hour would go past and they’d go, “Oh my God. Shelly it’s you.” And I’d be like, “Hello.” I don’t know. Maybe I look very different in real life or maybe I’m just rubbish. [Laughs.]
I don’t think it’s the rubbish part.
Oh bless you. I have to say I’ve had lots of lovely letters of encouragement from people that watch our show. It’s been really nice because I was a bit sort of nervous about how I was going to be received this season. “Are they going to hate me being in the field? Are they going to think I’m rubbish?” All those usual paranoid actor things. And for the most part everyone’s been so brilliantly supportive.
"Alexander" was your first movie gig?
Yes, yes, I believe it was. It was my first movie experience, let's say that. I don't think it really qualifies as a role, but it is currently my first movie experience. I did more behind-the-scenes than I did on-camera for that because there's a lot of dance and movement in the film and I looked after that side. I rehearsed with Rosario [Dawson], helped her get her dancing up to scratch, and rehearsed the girls. Being in the film was almost like a little sort of just postscript to the other work I did.
But it was a phenomenal experience. If you want a big movie experience in terms of production, you couldn't really get bigger than that at that time. It was just insane. I just remember going down onto the set the first time.
I had to go down and see Oliver [Stone] because he had to OK my costume, blah, blah, blah. We were filming the Atlas Mountains and I remember just coming around the corner and my jaw dropping open because nestled in the mountains is this most incredible sort of vision, I don't know, there were hundreds and hundreds of supporting artists. There was a cage with a panther in it. There were dancing girls.
It was just absolutely bonkers. It was just so vibrant and exciting. I thought—well I didn't think anything at the time, I was too overwhelmed. But I knew I wanted a piece of that. That's quite good times. I thought, “I could get used to this.” Yeah, so it was a great sort of baptism into the movie world.
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