Philip Winchester and Amanda Mealing discuss the final episode of Strike Back Season 1
Cinemax's hit action series Strike Back will bring Season 1 to a close tonight with the highly explosive finale Episode 1.10. In anticipation of this last episode of the year, which promises to tie up some major loose ends, we caught up with two of Strike Back's lead cast, Philip Winchester and Amanda Mealing, who play Sgt. Michael Stonebridge and Col. Eleanor Grant, respectively.
Here is our conversation.
Philip Winchester: It's like something has gone wrong with Section 20 in here. This is highly classified, and important things are happening. We can't get the phone lines connected!
As soon as you say the wrong thing, they are going to rip you right off those phones and haul you out of this room! Now, what can you tell me about tonight's season finale? From what I understand, it's going to be quite explosive...
Philip Winchester: You are absolutely right, buddy! What's so great about these last couple of episodes is that they really manage to tie up the whole story of the past ten shows, with Latif, and some of the emotional journeys we've been going on with Grant, and Stonebridge, and Scott. All of that gets tied up. And in good tv fashion, it leaves a lot of stuff out their for the audience to chew on as well.
Amanda Mealing: Yes. I think it does tie things up. In ten episodes, you get a real sense of this family unit, and how section 20 works. The dynamics between all of them. The questions have occurred with twists all the way through, and they certainly get answered. But not in the way you might think. We don't give you the easy answers, and then we even pose a few more questions. Its lovely. Its done really well. For Strike Back fans, there will be a lot of questions answered and opened. There were so many twists in this story, sometimes I wasn't even sure what I was doing.
Is it ever hard for you to keep up with what your individual characters are doing from episode to episode, and, more importantly, with what these twists are doing? Is it hard as an actor to keep some of these storylines straight?
Philip Winchester: Some days are like that. When we grab a script, we read the first page and the last page, and we ask, "Okay, this is a great show...But are we going to take a bullet?"
Amanda Mealing: That's what I love about the show. Normally, you'd watch a series, and you'd say, "That's my lead actor. He is not going to die. They're never going to surprise us." But with this, we've shaken that up. The John Porter character, in the first episode...He dies. Captain Kate Marshall? She goes. Its what we wanted to do. We want to keep the audience on the edge, so that they never know what is going to happen. When things are predictable, you think, "Oh, I've seen this." And you switch it off. This became a strong element, to keep the audience on their toes, so they never know. Fortunately, I haven't been one of those actors that takes a bullet.
So, the producers are never able to offer you, as actors, job security? Are you always sweating it through each and every episodes?
Philip Winchester: Absolutely. Its funny. It's really a testament to Cinemax and the creative team they have put together here. With the end of this season, I knew what was going to happen. The other day, I saw a screening of episodes 9 and 10. I hadn't seen it put together yet. I'm watching it, and I'm thinking, "I don't know who is going to get it here. Someone is about to get it." I started questioning them. Maybe they did something different in the editing room. Because everyone is walking down a really narrow bridge here. They have done a good job with that, and that element needs to continue on into next season.
For fans that haven't seen the season finale yet, can they expect some shocking deaths? Are we going to see a popular character not survive into Season 2?
Philip Winchester: It's a dangerous job, you know?
Amanda Mealing: As I said on the show last week, "We're in the business of taking risks, Major!" (Laughs) We have Latif, in Section 20. But we had him before, and he got away. That is the whole point, and that is what we've been trying to set up from the beginning. We've seen how other action dramas play out. The resolutions are never going to be the same as that. It will always be up in the air.
Season 2 has already been announced. How important is it for you guys to see that the show leaves some story threads open, especially in terms of developing your characters going into a second year?
Philip Winchester: I think that is hugely important. Hopefully it mimics life in that sense. The most fun you can have with a character is when that character is really towing the line of what we do in real life. Life is unpredictable. Relationships are unpredictable. Our friendships and our work, and all that stuff. To mimic that with our characters makes them more interesting to play. It makes them more interesting to our audience. I don't know about you, Amanda. I'll read the script, and I'll go, "I didn't see that coming. I didn't know that was a part of my character. We can definitely bring that out now." I think that is exciting to play, and hopefully, it is something that comes out of the screen, and the audience goes, "That was an interesting twist." Hopefully the audience can get on board with that.
Amanda Mealing: I think Phil said it well. When we started this series, each of the characters had a very detailed biography. Mine was very personal. And I knew that she was very knowledgeable in the area of counter-terrorism, intelligence, and espionage. Now, she is a military advisor. There was a really detailed backstory on all of these characters. But where do these characters go? How do the effects and the consequences of each episode impact them? That wasn't set in stone. That is something we learned about along the way. At some point, everyone has been suspicious of being a mole, or a spy. Like he said, we get these scripts, and we look at the front page, and then quickly turn to the back page. If your character is still there, you are happy. It just keeps everyone on their toes.
Do those suspicions ever ease over into the real life workings of the set. If someone steals a desert out of the catering truck, do you suddenly think one or the other of you is the mole?
Amanda Mealing: (Laughs) If its food that's disappearing, it must be Phil. He is always eating food. (Laughs) Have you heard about Phil's diet? He has a body like an Adonis, and he constantly eats. All day. I don't know any woman that is more envious than me.
Is it one of those instances where, when he is not in front of the camera, he is just maowing down on a huge plate of beef?
Philip Winchester: It was a little bit like that. My wife, God bless her, was a huge contributor. I felt with Stonebridge...I am not built like that. I had to put a lot of bulk on, and do a lot of physical training for this show. It required me to be taking in between four and five thousand calories a day. I was carrying a feed bag everywhere I went. Everyone knew that the blue bag with the yellow stripes down the side of it was Philip's feed bag. (Laughs) It was full of chicken breasts, and Ostrich steaks. Just meat. And protein powders. It had to go down all the time. The stunt guys and I all had a joke. They would set their clocks for every two hours. Every two hours? We had to feed. We had to take in a certain amount of calories every two hours for the amount of energy that we were spending, so as to not lose weight.
Section 20 has a real family dynamic, as you mentioned. As you head into Season 2, I would imagine that we'd see more tension between the various team members, as we would see with any family as the grow and move forward...
Philip Winchester: For Scott and Stonebridge, which was unpredictable to us, until we started to see it as actors and as friends...In Episodes 1 and 2, Scott and Stonebridge...They don't know each other, they don't trust each other. They don't need to when they are outside of battle. Outside of that, anything is fair game. What happens in Episode 4, when Kate Marshall gets blown up, and the threads that really hold Stonebridge's life together...They start to disappear. Unbeknownst to him, he starts to lean on Scott. He grows to like Scott, and vice versa. Scott starts to pull things out of Stonebridge, and depend on him in ways he didn't think he would. This is the odd couple coming together. I would really like to see this grow. They've earned it with each other. They have earned each other's trust. I would like to see them open up a little bit more, and get into the heart of who they are. Like, their pasts. That is something we haven't jumped into with Scott and Stonebridge. With those two, that can of worms? We were given a little teaser in Episode 9. Scott says, "I'm not the marring kind." And Stonebridge says, "How would you know? You've never tried it." And Scott looks at him and says, "How do you know?" There are these little clues to these guys that keep popping in and out. I would love to dive into that and get to know these guys a little better. Then we go back to Section 20. This place? It's the home. Grant was the mother of that. She had an instinct, and she walked us through all the decisions she was making, and always said why it was happening. I would love to see the flip side of that. I would like to see them at the pub, chatting a little bit. To see them down at the bar, discussing the day. Then you have the flip side, with them being in the street, and being in action. Flipping that switch? Maybe that is something we can bring into next year. Because these guys do lead double lives. They are husbands, and wives, and fathers, and mothers...But they are also absolutely ruthless in their decision to take a life.
When you find a little clue like that in the script...That one of the characters may have been married before, or that they have gone through a particular experience that you weren't privy to before...Does that change your own outlook on the character? Does that ever alter the way you choose to continue playing them?
Philip Winchester: Its just another layer. It's another thing that you think about before you ask questions. With characters, just like in real life, when that gets thrown out there, I don't think it changes anything in the moment. You have to let it sit and filter through. Then, maybe later on, you say, "I couldn't really ask this before, because we were being shot at...Were you really married? Is that something we can talk about?" Just like in real life, you broach the subject. You wait until its comfortable, and then you see if they respond. I thought that was a lovely little plant. And it happened at the most ridiculous time. It happened at a time when they could never talk about it. And then at the end of that scene, he asks, "Were you really married?" And these two guys are getting absolutely shot to bits.
Aside from the feed bag, is there ever a real element of danger on set? We see your faces as you are running through this firestorm, and this hail of bullets. Sometimes it's very obvious that there isn't a stunt guy involved...
Amanda Mealing: They may not be live rounds, but if one of them hits you at the wrong time, in the wrong place, it hurts. We've gotten through these episodes without too may problems. But its serious business when something explodes. It's intense. It's very hot. Obviously, Philip, you should take this, because its your ass that is so often on the line.
Philip Winchester: It's funny, because the most vivid one is the one that Sullivan Stapleton and I went through. That was the one with Captain Kate Marshall. They planned all night with this van blowing up. Obviously, we only had one van. And one dummy to put in the van. We only had ten minutes to do it. It's stacking up. The clock is ticking. We get to the point where we are almost ready to role. Sully and I are only about ten feet away from this truck filled with petrol and diesel. And these explosive devices, which are going to set the van off. Everybody else, including the director, including the AD, is staying about two hundred yards away with a bullhorn, giving us the thumbs up, going, "We're almost ready to blow, guys. Are you okay?" We're looking around, the cameras are inside this Kevlar box covered with fireproof blankets. I look at Sully and say, "Something is really wrong with this picture, pal." He says, "Let's just give it a shot. If they get it wrong, it will only happen once." It's very intense. You do feel the heat. You feel the machines when you are firing the rounds. You feel these explosions in your stomach, it just hits you. But there has to be an element of trust with the SFX department and your stunt guys. God willing, nothing goes astray.
Some of these faces we see you guys pulling when shit gets heavy...I have to image a lot of that isn't acting, that you are really there in that moment...
Philip Winchester: Absolutely. It is a kind of survival. You watch it back, and you go, "Oh, wow! That's what I look like when I'm shooting a gun?"
Do you guys have a favorite moment from the season finale that you're excited for fans to see tonight?
Amanda Mealing: Definitely, all the way through it. From the first episode, for my character, this has been a military, and a personal pursuit. Now that they have Latif back in Section 20, the showdown between the two of them is something I really look forward to.
Philip Winchester: For me, Episode 9 and 10 was a culmination of all the training we were hoping we would get to do in this series. We were flying in our gazelle helicopters. We were putting more rounds in our AK-47s. We shot more guns, blew up more stuff. From that guy perspective in me, every day on set, I was like, "Come on! This is fantastic!" I hope that joy and glee comes across. It was brutal. It kicked our asses. But it was so much fun to shoot. These last two episodes were such a scream.