Philip Winchester & Amanda Mealing on ‘Strike Back’

Two of the stars from Cinemax's hit action series tell us about working on the show and tease the next season.

Blair Marnellby Blair Marnell

Earlier this summer, "Strike Back" debuted in the U.S. as one of Cinemax's first serious attempts at original programming in years. However, the series was actually the defacto second season of the British network Sky's incarnation of "Strike Back," with an almost entirely new cast, including Philip Winchester as Michael Stonebridge, Sullivan Stapleton as Damien Scott and Amanda Mealing as Colonel Grant, their commanding officer within the elite British military unit, Section 20.

To the surprise of some observers, "Strike Back" has gone on to become one of the best action series on television and a show that is more than just a guilty pleasure on Friday nights. With the season finale set to air tonight (Friday, October 21) on Cinemax, we caught up with Winchester and Mealing for an extended interview about working on "Strike Back," with a few teases about what's happening in the season finale and the follow up season coming next year to Cinemax and Sky.


Crave Online: I'm curious about the training you had to go through for "Strike Back." Amanda, did you take part in that?

Amanda Mealing: I did. (laughs) I did participate. Participate is probably the right word. I really trained, I participated occasionally when I put my tea down. (laughs) You know, I took one for the cause, in some ways, because while we were training I dislocated my shoulder. So I think I did my fair share of it. But I didn't have to do the running around for 12 hours a day, five days a week. So unfortunately, Phil had the bulk of it.

Philip Winchester: Yeah. The training sort of was the shooting. It was kind of the same thing, although it was really cool. We had a month of intensive military training right at the beginning of our filming. So before we actually put anything on film, we went down to Cape Town. Sully [Sullivan Stapleton] and I met up and we met up with four special operative guys who had worked in the SAS and the SBS and the British military in the past.

We met up with them and just got a really concentrated version of military training over a month. Everything from CQB training — which is close quarter battles with live weapons — to literally being so close to an explosion on the other side of of a wall just to get a feeling for what you have to do with your breath, what you have to do with your ears and things.

We did evasive maneuver driving, which is where we trashed a rental car. (laughs) We did hard break turns… and you know, we were really just privileged enough over the course of that month as we started to trust them and they started to trust us a little bit more to joke around with these guys and hear their stories and hear what they had been through, what they had seen and sometimes coping with that on a daily basis. It was a real privilege to not only do the physical things, but to stand back and be very much a part of their lives on a day-to-day basis.

Crave Online: Phillip, you came to this show almost immediately after "Camelot," right?

Philip Winchester: Yeah, that's right. My wife and I finished in Dublin on December 12th (or something like that). We had to hop on a flight over to Vancouver and do a couple of episodes of "Fringe," and then we came back to London for Christmas and then it was straight down for the training in January.

Crave Online: Who were you on "Fringe"? I don't remember you on that show.

Philip Winchester: Frank Stanton, who was Fauxlivia's (or Bolivia's) boyfriend in the alternate universe.

Crave Online: Ah… I didn't recognize you there.

Philip Winchester: Yes, it's the long hair.

Crave Online: What drew you to "Strike Back"?

Philip Winchester: Apart from just being able to have a job as an actor, the rawness of it. I was only given scripts one and two for the audition process and the screen test. I really liked that this was a thinking man action guy. [Stonebridge] wasn't just your typical thuggish guy going out and shooting people and asking questions later. He was quite cerebral and he felt like he had a purpose. And then there was that delicate balance between what he did and what he saw and what he lived through in his work and trying to be a husband and a potential father.

And I really liked that. We don't see people play that out on television much anymore. "Friday Night Lights" does an amazing job of that. The relationship between the husband and wife in that series is superb. I really liked having that element to him. How do you talk about that dark stuff when you don't want to hurt your wife? Or you don't want to put her in harm's way? I liked that element to him and how we deal with new guys coming in. Like when Scott comes on board, how do you deal with this rogue guy who somehow  — even though he doesn't play by the f***ing rules — gets it done. And it drove Stonebridge nuts.


Crave Online: Amanda, what brought you to "Strike Back"?

Amanda Mealing: I'm a huge fan of action movies. I love Bourne, Bond and "Die Hard," so I'm a huge fan of the genre. But really, of all of those things, how many times have you seen a woman in charge? I think that it part answers my question. It was the opportunity to play a female commanding officer. By the scripts and talking to Dan Percival — who is the main creative writer for this series — that the idea of what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it… which is taking all of those things like Bond and "24."

That's the starting base and moving it on. A lot of times in the past, action was just action. You don't get a good script, you don't get a good story. The quality is subsidiary to the action whereas this was about the intelligence, the writing, the action… Every aspect of it was really important. Having the opportunity to play  a female commanding officer is such a rare thing.

Philip Winchester: And to push us around as much as you could. (laughs)

Amanda Mealing: Yeah! And in heels!

Philip Winchester: You know, I think also — I think Amanda would agree and I talked with Sully a bit about about it  — there was a real element of old fashioned action in this. I don't want to say old fashioned, but I don't really know how else to [say] it. It was action that needed to happen in the circumstance. There wasn't a lot of gratuitous [action] and the violence was as real as it could be. It was what would happen. So we really tried to keep true.

To see that written in the script and to train with these guys there was a real kind of responsibility to say "we know how these guys do it now, we've had the training." And we had a military adviser with us on set. "So, let's take this thing into as much of a real place as we can and get it done in a way that shadows or mimics how these guys do it.   

Crave Online: Amanda, I want to ask you about a scene in episode nine in which Col. Grant seemed almost disappointed to see Scott sleeping with another woman. Can you expand upon that?

Philip Winchester: (laughs)

Amanda Mealing: (laughs) I think that's the genius of Tony Saint's writing. Colonel Grant is really closed up. You never really know what's going on or how things impact on her. You never know what she's thinking unless she's disseminating information and then passing on an order. Her personal opinion and her personal attitude towards Scott is particularly ambiguous. I think we wanted to just pose a few more questions that we would answer in episode 10.

Philip Winchester: Also, I think that Col. Grant had a real maternal kind of responsibility for these guys. She very much knows what she's doing when she says "this is your mission and this is what you're going to do." And she knows that it could be the last time she sees these guys, so I think that… I felt like it was kind of a crack, just a possible fissure in her supremely strong personality. It's like, "Wow, I know my boy is a man and I know he's a grown up. But to see it first hand is always a little bit of a thump in the stomach.

Amanda Mealing: Yeah, it's also that she sent [Marianna] to make an assessment. She was given a job to do and the fact that she's gone outside those parameters is something that [Grant] is absolutely against. It's against all things that are supposed to happen.

Philip Winchester: Right.

Amanda Mealing: [Grant is] not happy. She's furious about that. So, you have a couple of things there. What was she doing there? Was she going there to see Scott after hours? And then it's not just another woman in there, it's a woman that she sent to make her psychological appraisal on a military mission. And now [Marianna] is consorting outside of that mission.

Philip Winchester: Gee, and somehow Scott is shagging her. Somehow…

Amanda Mealing: (laughs)

Philip Winchester: We've never seen that before!

Amanda Mealing: How strange! (laughs)

Crave Online: You mean we hadn't seen it in the last 30 seconds.

Philip Winchester: Yeah, that's right! (laughs)

Amanda Mealing: It's like his clothes just fall off! There's a woman! Whoop!

Crave Online: I've been counting and I think that there's only one or two episodes where Scott doesn't drop his pants with a woman.

Amanda Mealing: (laughs)

Philip Winchester: (laughs) I'll bet he was mad about that.

Crave Online: During the hotel siege in the second episode, I half expected Scott to find the time to get naked with the female nuclear scientific. 

Philip Winchester: (laughs) That's right.

Crave Online: Phillip, I think a good deal of "Strike Back's" appeal this season is the chemistry between yourself and Sullivan Stapleton. How did you guys build that rapport?

Philip Winchester: We've been trying to pinpoint when it happened, but I think it really is just one of those things. Sully and I met in London at the end of November and the beginning of December [2010] for a screen test for the show. I guess even then there was something there that Cinemax, Dan Percival, HBO and the guys wanted to pick up on. We were really fortunate that we were offered the roles several weeks later and we really didn't see each other until January when we started the training.

We really were thrown into this military training. And I think kind of a way of surviving it and dealing with it was that we became really close. Because we were really getting our butts handed to us. The military were really whooping up on us in I think a very purposeful and premeditated way. They wanted to see if they could crack us a bit. Sully and I just kind of leaned on each other. I think that kind of just went into the show. And we would banter with each other and give each other s*** and see how far we could push each other. And I think unbeknownst to us, it became the basis of this rapport between these guys.

And really, it wasn't anything that we thought about. It just kind of happened. I think the writers started to pick up on it and we start to see scenes where they're in close quarters. A lot of the times, they'll have big blow outs when they're in a car. Because it's too much for Scott and Stonebridge. They know that they can trust each other in a firefight, but when it's quiet and when they're hanging out doing an observation on someone it's like "I just can't stand to be near you!" (laughs)


Crave Online: The season finale of "Strike Back" is coming up tonight, what can you tell us about that?

Philip Winchester: Dan Percival — who was the writer for most of [the episodes] and the director of one and two — and Tony Saint have really done a brilliant job of tying up a lot of loose ends. But also in that way (which I think audiences need) and as in real life, there's a lot of unanswered questions too. Episode 10 does not stop. It's heat seeking missile and from the word go it just books right towards the end. And it does answer some questions, which I think is good for an audience. But I think it also leaves us going "what on Earth are we going to do next year?" Because there's a lot of things that we need to look at as a group and as individuals… for those of us that survive.

Crave Online: I think you just confirmed that you're going to be in the next season. You said "what on Earth are we going to do next year?"

Philip Winchester: (laughs)

Amanda Mealing: (laughs) Oh… your're on him, Blair. You're on him, aren't you?

Crave Online: Are you coming back, Amanda? And do you have any thoughts on the finale?

Amanda Mealing: Hopefully the season finale is going to be dramatic for the audience. I think you'll get a chance to see Section 20 and the family [within], how it works and why it works and the personalities there a little more in depth. But all of those questions that have been posed throughout the series do get answered, but not in the way that anyone would think. Which is what we do on "Strike Back." We give you what you expect but not in the way you expected. 

Crave Online: When do you start filming the next season?

Amanda Mealing: We are starting training soon. Everybody will be hitting the feedbag again.

Philip Winchester: I don't know the exact dates or what's really going on with that. I know that Cape Town and Johannesburg are what they're talking about in terms of locations, which is great because Cape Town became such a home to all of us. Johannesburg is a whole new kettle of fish. It's a whole new bag of tricks and I've heard amazing things and some really intimidating things, so it kind of depends on what they want to see in the latter episodes of next season.

Crave Online: The last question is for both of you. What were your favorite moments of the current season?

Philip Winchester: All of the action stuff we did was so much fun and so entertaining because it was really flipping dangerous. We were really 20 to 30 feet away from cars exploding, from bomb pods going off as we walked out of doors and things like that. The action element and the trust that happens between you and your stunt crew… and Sully and I… because a lot of times we were helping each other figure things out. I really like the camaraderie that developed between not only Sully and I, but also everyone in Section 20, with Amanda and [Rhashan]… we really did create a family. And I think that is the basis of anything that works.

That's really what's exciting for next season is this family element that happened. But flying in helicopters and shooting big guns also helps too.(laughs)

Amanda Mealing: That too! Colonel Grant didn't get out that often, so when I'm getting out and shouting at some big burly guy to go get a "f***ing helicopter" and put this AK-47 on my lap, that could possibly be the best moment in my life.

Philip Winchester: (laughs)

Amanda Mealing: You do get the opportunity and the privilege to enter a world is so far removed from our normality and meet incredible people and do the most amazing things. But I think that it is the family unit when you're working together for six months… and when you're thousands of miles away from home, that is your family. The camaraderie and the banter and the love and laughter that goes on between [the] Section 20 [actors] is so lovely. Every day working with the guys has been a scream. But don't tell Phil, but actually just flying in the helicopter was the best!

Philip Winchester: (laughs)

Crave Online: Thank you for spending some time with us. And good luck with the next season!

Philip Winchester: Thanks a lot, buddy.

Amanda Mealing: Thank you very much, darling. Take care.