It didn't take long for Chicago native Milauna Jemai Jackson to grab the attention of "Strike Back" fans.
"Don't try that charm shit on me," Kim Martinez, Jackson's character, snapped at womanizing soldier Sgt. Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) in the Season 3 premiere. He'd just told her she's "even lovelier in the flesh."
Now the hard-hitting DEA agent has joined up with Scott and his partner, Sgt. Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester), and the crack counterterrorist unit Section 20 in its mission to stop an international baddie with ties to a Colombian drug lord. She's quickly established that she isn't taking crap from anyone—not even a lothario like Scott.
"It's a reflection of who I am," Jackson told me in July during San Diego Comic-Con International. "I can honestly detect BS when I see it."
Jackson credits her single mother with instilling that BS meter. Raised on the South Side, Jackson split time living with her mother and her grandparents in order to attend a safe school. She was acting from an early age in church programs and community theater before enrolling in the performing arts program at Marie Curie Metropolitan High School, where she was influenced by another strong female role model.
"Every day working with Miss Lillian Monkus, may she rest in peace ... she honed my craft in a realistic way because it prepared me for this industry," Jackson said, adding that Monkus taught how important it was to take acting seriously.
Jackson attended a few colleges before landing at UIC, where she started doing commercials and industrial films. She moved to L.A. in 2002 and on her orientation day at UCLA she found out she'd landed a role on an HBO pilot "and that was the last part of my academic year."
Her first credited role came two years later in an episode of "Cold Case." Since then she has appeared in several TV shows, the 2010 film "Blood Done Sign My Name" and was a series regular in "Squad 85," a 2012 comedy that aired on Youtube's YOMYOMF channel.
When Jackson booked her "Strike Back" audition, she hadn't seen the show but was intrigued. So she checked out some of the action in online clips.
"I was like, ‘There's no way I'm going to get this! There's no way. This is so not my strength,'" she said. "You never realize what your strengths are until you get pushed to limits. And that's the beauty of ‘Strike Back'—it pushed me to limits.
"And I'm now aware of anything being possible. I possess it; I just have to be afforded the opportunity to present it."
Just a few weeks after her audition, Jackson was in Johannesburg, South Africa, being put through her paces by the show's "hard core" military adviser, Paul Hornsby. The former Special Forces soldier trains cast members in hand-to-hand combat, weapons work and other military techniques to make the action as realistic as possible. He told Jackson, "You can do this and look authentic, if you follow my advice," she said, adding with laugh. "There were times I didn't want to, but I had to."
Despite the extreme trials of filming in 100-degree weather in the South African wilderness, Jackson's glad she did, because she loves her character.
"I just felt like she was such an amazing woman that I wanted to know her," she said. "As [actors] we're always talking about characters that enrich our lives in some way, that are multi-dimensional and they fulfill us. It's rare you get that when you're not an A-list celebrity or a B-list celebrity, or a celebrity that is known as doing great character work."
Jackson happily reports that show veterans Winchester and Stapleton gave her their seal of approval.
"Usually I don't toot my own horn," she said. "But the guys have given me freedom and they've said that I've done it. So I'm just repeating what they've said. These aren't my words; these are their words. According to them I'm kicking some major ass."
Jackson and I talked more about the role and the show. You can watch our interview in the videos below, or read the QA after the videos. (It's the same stuff.) After the interview clips, check out Jackson in action in a Cinemax clip. If you can't see the videos below, try my Youtube Channel by clicking here.
New episodes of "Strike Back" air at 9 p.m. CT Fridays and repeat througout the week on Cinemax.
Did you take to the character of Kim Martinez immediately?
I did in terms of what her strengths were. I just felt like she was such an amazing woman that I wanted to know her. ... So when I read it I absolutely felt like this was something I wanted to do. I just didn't know if I was equipped; I had to do training in hand-to-hand combat. I had to do military training. I had to do weapons training. I had to learn military jargon. I had to become proficient in a lot of areas.
Usually with characters it's just one. Whatever that profession is, you may equip yourself with some knowledge so you can get your mouth around the terms. But with this one I had to kinda learn it all—crash-course training on the job. It was fun though, I'm glad that I was afforded the chance to do it.
I feel on "Strike Back" they pay great attention to detail. And so you sort of do have to come with the attitude that you will learn and do.
You do. And here's the thing, too: There are people that are watching who live this life. So they know if we're BSing. They know, "Oh no, you would never hold the weapon like that. You would never say it like that. What is she doing?" ... We have to have advisers.
We had this great military adviser named Paul Hornsby, who is hard core. He was like, "I was a special agent. I did do these kinds of special ops. And I was part of a team like Section 20. Male or female you can still do this and look authentic if you follow my advice." There were times I didn't want to, but I had to.
Did you find him sometimes busting you, like "Try this Milauna..."?
He didn't say it as nicely. That was more like a suggestion as opposed to an order. And then I have to tell myself I'm not in the military, I am an actor. The camera is going to be on you and it can pick up things that you might not feel good about when you see it on television. I try to strive for excellence. And so I see the growth in the character in a lot of ways but that's great because that's the beauty of television is that the character should be evolving in some kind of way.
Tell me where she goes and what we're going to see her do.
Well, basically there is a lot of action. So you're going to see that, of course, because of the show. But you'll also see me joining forces with other key players, with other team members in Section 20. So I have this great chemistry and dynamic with Michelle Lukes, who plays Julia Richmond. And you'll see a side of her that never has been exposed on camera before in the previous seasons. Really you see a lot more of who she is and how we interact and the camaraderie and the chemistry that we have that just happened naturally. It wasn't forced; it just naturally happened. You'll also see a side of some of the other characters that I kind of bring out in terms of demons they may be battling from some residual effects of the last season.
I love the way they introduce Kim and right away she and Damien are at odds a little bit. She's not going to let him get the best of her.
No. And sometimes as a woman, when you want to be taken seriously you have to let a man know, "I am serious. This is something that I need to be respected for." And only when you kind of present that do they give you respect, unfortunately. And he's one of those men. He sees a pretty face and he automatically assumes he can bed her. And it's like, "No. If I do sleep with someone it's not going to be you." Or maybe, I don't know.
Your director/producer, Michael J. Bassett, tells me Kim sort of becomes a little bit disillusioned later in the season?
Yeah. With their intentions, their motives. It is very different from anything that I've done in the past. Sometimes we, as a team, we make decisions collectively but everyone's not on board as supportive behind the reasoning. And so I do question that. It is a new world for me so it's like I don't really understand the motives behind a lot of the choices. I don't agree with them. And I don't know why I feel like this. But it's revealed in a later episode.
Is it fun to play that kind of doubt?
Absolutely, because that's human. I'm sure that there are tons of people who are in professions where they question authority. And they're doing it but they don't necessarily believe that this is the best choice, but they have to because that's what they've signed up for. It's rare that it's revealed though. It's rare that you see some internal strife or struggle with something that you probably loved when you first started and maybe now you're questioning it because it's veered you to go in a completely different direction than you initially thought.
I love that this show delves into those types of internal conflicts as an action show. It's not just action; there are all these complexities to it.
Absolutely. Listen, you rarely get that unless you're the lead actress, ... then you'll see a lot these nuances and you see the little cracks in the character that make them relatable and not so pristine. But when you have a character that is new [who gets that], then to me that says something about the show. They care about all of the actors that are part of it.
Any Chicago shut-outs? Stuff you miss?
Harold's Chicken! I miss Harold's, I miss Uno's, Gino's East, I miss Garrett's popcorn. [Chicago has] the best, in my opinion and I live in Los Angeles, Mexican food ever. I miss that. The Taste, which was great but it was nothing like the past. I miss my family; Curie High School, which is where I got my roots in the performing arts program. And all of the fans that have seen me in my very first booking of "Cold Case" that have prayed for me and supported me from Day 1. I think they're going to be extremely happy to see me in "Strike Back."
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