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When the high-octane action series Strike Back first appeared on the scene in 2010, superheroes didn’t have a stranglehold on the big and small screen. Even Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves had yet to reinvigorate their action careers through Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol and John Wick. In the early 2010s, if you wanted old-school, in-camera action entertainment, Strike Back was the preeminent source for it, especially once Cinemax became a co-producer and launched their second action series, Banshee, alongside it.
Strike Back was led by Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton, and together, they became one of the most underrated action duos in all of Hollywood. According to Winchester, Strike Back’s filming location of South Africa, as well as a few key collaborators including director M.J. Bassett, allowed the series to up the ante compared to most action movies and shows at the time.
“For a while, there was a real sweet spot on Cinemax that had real, in-camera ‘80s action with minimal green screen, if any. There were real explosions and real stunts with blood and stuff hitting the camera,” Winchester tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Having the freedom in South Africa to actually do things really lent itself to creating this action genre where the actors were doing it. Kary Antholis, over at HBO… was the biggest proponent of Strike Back. When the second season of Strike Back rocked up, Kary came over to South Africa to have dinner with us, and we said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to fix some things. It’s just carnage. We’re getting our asses kicked. It’s dirty and dangerous.’ And he looked at us and just smiled this little smile and said, ‘I am not touching this. It is exactly what it needs to be. And the fact that you guys are scared and dirty and all of those things at the same time is exactly why it works.’”
Winchester recently re-teamed with Bassett for the fourth time on a Lionsgate action movie entitled Rogue. Set in Africa, Winchester’s Joey Kasinski is part of a team of mercenaries that’s forced to deal with local rebels and a stray lion after a rescue mission goes terribly awry. Winchester also shared the screen with Megan Fox, who defied any preconceived notions that the cast and crew may have had due to her global level of fame.
“We all walk through life thinking we know people because we spend so much time with them. Television, in particular, is a really personal medium because we allow these people into our living rooms and into our bedrooms through the TV. And so, Megan Fox was no different,” Winchester explains. “We kind of thought, ‘Okay, she’s going to be this and she’s going to be that,’ but she really blew us out of the water because she rocked up ready to play and ready to play hard. Megan Fox carries this movie, and she did a great job.”
In a conversation with THR, Winchester also discusses the likelihood of Strike Back returning in some capacity, as well as the glory days of Cinemax’s action slate.
I was already aware that you’re an American actor, but you were such a convincing Brit on Strike Back that I was still expecting to hear a British voice just now. Do you get this a lot?
(Winchester responds in a British accent.) If you want to do this interview in a British accent, that’s fine with me. (Laughs.) I get it, I do. I actually get it a lot, and I think it’s partly my fault. When I was younger and I came out of drama school, I just stayed British because I was casting in England. So all of the casting directors were like, “Oh, you’re British. You’re British.” And when I came to the States, I was pitched for British things, so I just kept doing the British accent. And then, when I finally did an American show, I remember I walked into a casting one time and the casting director said, “You know, you have such a good American accent.” (Laughs.) I said, “Well actually, I am American. I’ve just put on this British accent for so long that it’s sort of second nature now.”
First things first, your Rogue character had me singing Backstreet Boys this morning, and I’m still figuring out how I feel about this. Was that song stuck in everybody’s head during production?
(Laughs.) Yeah, that’s right. There were moments where we were having a bit of a break, waiting for a camera setup or rehearsing scenes, and it became an earworm. Someone would just start humming it without even knowing it, and before you know it, the whole set was doing it. It became a joke on who could earwig it first and get it around the set the quickest. It didn’t take but a couple hours to get that around set.
Since 2008 or so, you’ve worked with MJ Bassett on four different projects. Did the two of you really hit it off the first time you met?
I think so. For me, anyway. I met MJ in an audition for a film called Lab Rats, which was probably back in 2003 or 2004. Back then, England had this thing where they lost a lot of funding for independent films, and that one, unfortunately, just fell through the cracks. But then, MJ pulled me back over to a film called Solomon Kane and that’s where we first worked together. Then, I spoke with her about coming over to Strike Back, and the rest is history after that. She did such an amazing job on Strike Back and we really solidified our relationship. We decided if we can just keep doing this work in this manner for as long as possible, that it would be great. So we just keep trying to do that and keep trying to find projects to pull each other in on.
When you see MJ’s caller ID on your phone, do you basically start packing a suitcase?
(Laughs.) That’s a good question. It happened again yesterday. We were talking about something else in Africa as soon as we can get there. So yeah, when we talk, there’s always that thing in the back of our mind of, “What can we do? Is there something we can pull off together?” I’ve been trying to get her out here to Montana to do a Western, and she’s always pulling me out to South Africa, Budapest or Thailand. So yeah, there’s always an adventure in the back of our minds when we’re talking.
When an actor and director work together a lot, they tend to develop a shorthand. Can the two of you pretty much read each other’s minds at this point?
There’s definitely moments when you can feel a scene not working, or it takes on a new life and starts to head in a new direction. With MJ, you know you’re going to have permission to take it there. That’s one of my favorite things about MJ and the shorthand we’ve developed over the years; the story always wins. MJ is a great director because she’s not precious about it. So, if somebody comes up with an idea that serves the story and it beats the script, then it wins. Rogue was written by her and her daughter, Izzy (Isabel) Bassett, but if something happened on the fly or something came out of an impromptu scene, then it goes in the movie because it serves the movie. So that’s a real gift to not be so concerned about what you wrote; it’s about making it a better picture. So it’s great to have that with her.
What do you like most about shooting in South Africa?
From an actor’s point of view, it’s the cast and the crew out there. They’re just no bullshit, and they’re hardworking. They come ready to play, but also ready to work hard. When you have people who know their stuff but can hold it loosely because they’re having fun with it, that’s a really great and a really dangerous mix. I think that that really comes across on-camera, especially on stuff that MJ does, which is all in-camera special effects and in-camera stunts. She wants her actors to pull it off themselves, and that’s something that is possible out there. It’s still possible here in the States and other places, but there are more rules, more red tape, more regulations and bullshit you’ve got to wade through. But in South Africa, it’s like, “You want to give that a shot?” and we go, “Yeah, let’s go.” (Laughs.) So there’s a little more freewheeling happening out there and I think that’s what gives the cast and crew more creativity. They’re also able to have more fun with that.
Starting out, was being an action star part of the plan, or were you not thinking that many moves ahead?
(Laughs.) As a young actor, it was a dream. I just enjoyed that stuff growing up. I wasn’t able to watch R-rated movies since I was brought up in a pretty strict Christian household. So I remember going to a friend’s house one night and they had Double Impact, which blew my fucking mind. (Laughs.) I was like, “What is this?! Who is this Jean-Claude Van Damme guy and what is he doing?!” Because it was so “wrong” for me to be there, it really had an impact on me, pardon the pun. Then, I saw Die Hard, all the Lethal Weapon movies and James Bond, and then I thought, “Man, people actually do this.” And so, when I was at drama school, it’s when the penny dropped for me, and I realized I could actually pursue that if I was lucky enough. It’s one of those things when you work in a certain direction and certain things come out of it. So maybe, subconsciously, I put that stuff out there, and I was fortunate enough to be given opportunities to where that stuff came back to me. Robinson Crusoe was the first one. But, staying in drama school in London, it was the stage combat and fight classes that I really jumped into, so perhaps it was always in the back of my mind and I just didn’t know how to voice it. And then, when it started happening, I said to myself, “Huh, this could be a great road.”
Does action work feel like second nature at this point? Do you even need to do weapons training anymore?
I do because it’s constantly changing. I think I have an underlying knack for it because of all the stuff that MJ and I have done together. We have been particular with the military and weapons stuff. But sometimes, you’re given a new instrument that you don’t understand and you have to learn how it works. New tactics are always coming up, so it would be easy for me to fall back into old habits, but I like to keep fresh and to keep new. That’s the hard part about having a character like Stonebridge on Strike Back, for instance, because it’s so ingrained in me now. I have to almost fight it when I do characters that are even remotely similar. So, playing Joey Kasinski in Rogue, he’s a soldier, but he’s not Michael Stonebridge. You have to find those things that set you apart instead of just getting lazy and going back to what you know.
Do your characters ever creep into your real life? For example, when you walk into a restaurant, will you check the corners and look for the exits out of sheer habit?
(Laughs.) Yeah, it’s funny. That stuff definitely became a part of my life on Strike Back and it’s still a part of my life today. It’s subconscious now. When I walk into a restaurant, I’ll always face the door so I know what’s coming in and what’s coming out. I’ll always have a backup plan on how to get out of there or at least have something I can put between me and a potential bad dude. (Laughs.)
You worked with Megan Fox on Rogue, and she’s someone who’s reached such a level of fame that most people have preconceived notions about her. Now that you’ve worked with her, did she defy your expectations in a lot of ways?
She did. And you’re absolutely right. We all walk through life thinking we know people because we spend so much time with them. Television, in particular, is a really personal medium because we allow these people into our living rooms and into our bedrooms through the TV. And so, Megan Fox was no different. We kind of thought, “Okay, she’s going to be this and she’s going to be that,” but she really blew us out of the water because she rocked up ready to play and ready to play hard. And MJ Bassett films are hard. They’re fun because they’re hard, but they’re hard. And if you haven’t switched into that gear before you rock up on an MJ Bassett film, it can really wreck you for a while, but she came ready to play. She had her weapons-handling down, she had her training down and she knew what she wanted to do and how she wanted to define this role. And it comes across that way in the movie. Megan Fox carries this movie, and she did a great job.
What did the filmmakers use as a reference for the lion?
Back in the day, it used to be the mirror ball on the end of a stick. So, thankfully, we didn’t have that. Because we were shooting at night, we had these tiny LED markers that they would drop into the grass or right behind you. We also had a puppeteer named John Eccleston, who used to work for The Jim Henson Company. So we had a head and a front claw that we used for close-ups, and that really helped to integrate some of the size, feeling and weight when we were dealing with the lion face to face. For the bigger, full body stuff, the running, jumping and gunning was all CGI.
Did you like playing a character who, even in dire circumstances, wasn’t afraid to make light of things?
I did. MJ kindly reached out to me about this character and said, “I wrote this character with you in mind. Would you like to do it?” And there was a lot of back-and-forth because I, for some reason, didn’t really pick up on the fact that she wanted me to play Joey. So I finally said, “Oh my gosh, yeah, I would love to.” I enjoyed the levity in Joey because all the other roles I’ve had were so serious, especially coming out of Law & Order: SVU. It was something that wasn’t really in my wheelhouse, but I learned to enjoy it over the years. Dick Wolf kindly gave me an opportunity to do something completely different, but after that ended, I really wanted to jump back into this kind of stuff. So Joey seemed like the perfect vehicle because he’s a little more closer to me and my skin. I understand that sort of gallows humor and I wanted to play someone a little lighter. So MJ and I had a lot of fun bringing him to life.
Is more Strike Back still possible?
I won’t say no because it’s so close to my heart. When I talk with Sully (Sullivan Stapleton), it’s always something that makes us get really nostalgic. It’s like, “Oh man, wouldn’t it be great if we could…? Should we…?” So I hope that it’s not gone forever. Maybe after Covid and maybe after the world opens up a bit, we can release some stuff. At that point, hopefully, there’s a bit more space for people to have fun with stuff that they’re putting on film again. So, fingers crossed. It would be a pretty easy “yes” from me if someone came back and said, “Hey, you want to do this again?”
Those were good days when Strike Back and Banshee were owning the action genre on television. It’s a bummer that Cinemax seems to have moved away from scripted.
It was an interesting move, wasn’t it? I don’t know the politics behind all that, but you’re right. For a while, there was a real sweet spot on Cinemax that had real, in-camera ‘80s action with minimal green screen, if any. There were real explosions and real stunts with blood and stuff hitting the camera. You just love that stuff, right? We had so many years of special effects and CGI that when Strike Back came out back in 2010, people were like, “Oh, these guys are actually in-camera, doing this stuff.” And really, it was an accident from our point of view. Again, having the freedom in South Africa to actually do things really lent itself to creating this action genre where the actors were doing it. And yeah, it was a special time that we might not see again, but boy, we were really lucky to get on board and do it. Kary Antholis, over at HBO, led that ship of scripted stuff at the time, and he was the biggest proponent of Strike Back. It was such a gift that he let us do our thing. When the second season of Strike Back rocked up, Kary came over to South Africa to have dinner with us, and we said, “Dude, you’ve got to fix some things. It’s just carnage. We’re getting our asses kicked. It’s dirty and dangerous.” And he looked at us and just smiled this little smile and said, “I am not touching this. It is exactly what it needs to be. And the fact that you guys are scared and dirty and all of those things at the same time is exactly why it works.” (Laughs.) So it was very good leadership on his part.
Is there a Strike Back group text of some kind?
Not so much a group text, but we definitely have some banter. My eldest daughter calls [Sullivan “Sully” Stapleton] “Uncle Silly,” and she’ll ask about Uncle Silly every once in a while. Then, we’ll send a video and some love his direction, so it’s good.
Rogue is now available on VOD and Digital.
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