‘Strike Back’ star Philip Winchester: ‘Maybe I’m just stupid enough to enjoy it’

Tomorrow night at 10, Cinemax premieres the final season of “Strike Back,” the rip-roaring buddy action drama about a pair of soldiers working for an elite British special forces unit. In the four seasons of its Cinemax incarnation (one season aired first in England, with an entirely different cast led by Richard Armitage), it's been a pleasure to watch: always smarter, more technically proficient, and just plain better than it ever needed to be.

Now it's coming to an end, with a new season that kicks off in Thailand and features guest stars like Michelle Yeoh Dustin Clare, Adrian Paul and Will Yun Lee running into our returning heroes, straight-laced English soldier Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) and his carousing American partner Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton). I've seen the first four episodes, and while there are a few narrative hiccups – some of them caused because production was disrupted and delayed by a head injury Stapleton suffered – there's the usual mix of banter, bonding and action sequences that put most of TV to shame.

And though this will be the final televised mission for Stonebridge and Scott, the Winchester/Stapleton partnership will continue in a way, as both men are starring in thrillers this fall on NBC: Winchester in “The Player” opposite Wesley Snipes, and Stapleton in “The Blindspot,” opposite Jaimie Alexander.

Earlier this month, I spoke with Winchester about the end of one adventure, the start of another, why the Montana-born actor has spent most of his career playing Englishmen, his title role in the never-aired WB sitcom “Commando Nanny” (created by Mark Burnett!), and a lot more.

Along the way, there are a few mild spoilers, mainly as we discuss the kinds of stunts he does on both shows.

Among the different things Stonebridge does just at the start of the “Strike Back” season, you climb the outside of a building. You parachute off that building.  You jump from a motorcycle onto a moving truck.  At this stage of the series, how much of that is you and how much of that is your stunt man?

Philip Winchester: Parachuting off the building, we had to bring in a couple of base jumpers from the UK. That was a day we weren't even on set, so we couldn't even watch them. We did climb on the outside of the building. That was one of our first days of filming, and I remember cursing (director/producer) Michael Bassett, because I'm not a huge fan of heights. That was the one thing on the show where I was like, “I don't know if I want to do this.” And I watched the show later, and there were moments where it was just shots of Scott and I from the side, and we could have been anywhere. We did the whole scene that way 19 stories off the ground. So thanks a lot, Michael Bassett! (laughs) The motorbike chase, we split it up quite a bit, and there was a second unit to pick up shots. That's one of the only injuries I got all four years, actually. At the very beginning when he steals the bike, I managed to tip it over on one of those corners and nearly ended up in a tree.

Obviously, you”re no stranger to action.  That”s a lot of what your career has been.  But how often in playing this role have you had to ask yourself, “Why am I stupid enough to be doing this?”

Philip Winchester: It's funny. I think it might be the opposite. Maybe I'm just stupid enough to enjoy it. I'm really having a good time. I think you look at actors and you think, “How did they get up here, and what was the path they took?” Through checks and balances and just accidents, I've ended up doing shows with little bits of action in them, and convinced the directors and producers that I could do a bit of that, and then do a lot of that. I worked closely with stuntmen on “Robinson Crusoe” and then “Camelot.” And I did a year with the Royal Shakespeare Company where I had a big sword fight at the end of that with “King Lear.” I played Edmund and we just chipped away at it. On “Strike Back,” it was a total accident. It was me and Sully saying, “Let's give it a personal look, let's get involved, let's get us in the shot,” and we just got closer and closer to the action until basically the setup of the day was “How are we going to keep the guys in the shot? How are we not going to have to remove them for stunt doubles?”

Your injury was still not as bad as the one Sully suffered, and I know a lot of production got moved around as a result of that.  There's a subplot in the early episodes where Scott is away from the rest of Section 20 for a while; am I correct in assuming that was set up specifically so that you guys could keep shooting stuff while he was recovering, or was everything entirely shut down for that period?

Philip Winchester: We did a little bit of both, to be honest with you. We had no idea what the extent of his injury was going to be. We had to keep going in order to prevent a complete shutdown of the show and from insurance pulling the plug. So we just kept going while they assessed Sully and he learned what happened, so we didn't miss a beat. Michael Bassett was the key instrument in saying, “We have to keep going.” You're absolutely right: (that plot) got all shifted around. And If it was ever going to happen – if someone was going to get an injury to that extent – it happened at the best possible time, because Sully was going to go off and do the press for “300,” so he had to be released for for two weeks anyway. We had filled the schedule with a bunch of different things that made it possible for him to leave.

You talked before about how you”re just stupid enough to like this, but was there a part of you that looked at what happened to him and said, “I”m glad we”re just about done with this job before something like that happens to me?”  Or is it just one of the risks of the thing?

Philip Winchester: Yeah I suppose it is one of the risks of the thing.  Every time we would do something big, we always ran checks and balances with our stunt guys.  We always had safety backups.  And you always had the opportunity right before the take to just look at each other and say, “Look, I don”t want to do this” or, “Are you sure about this?”  And with as much bravado and as much testosterone as there got captured on camera on “Strike Back,” we were always checking in with each other and trying to be as safe as possible about it.  But you”re right.  I think possibly the energy and the spice of Thailand really got into everybody. I remember looking at each other going, “Wow, Thailand feels really different.  Thailand feels kind of dangerous and kind of anarchic.”  And then I suppose that got into everybody.  We never got complacent about the stuff that we did.  We never thought that we were above the stunts because that”s when you do start getting hurt.  And then of course accidents do happen and unfortunately Sully got caught up.  But also he”s here.  He”s doing great.  He really killed it the rest of the season once he got back.  And so there really isn”t any sort of proof that that happened except for the time off that we had to take. 

I know that you grew up in Montana but I”m so used to you playing English guys all the time that your real accent always throws me. I'm curious how in your career you wound up playing English far more than American.

Philip Winchester: My mother's English. I grew up taking the piss out of the English. I had a very strong relationship with my mother growing up in Montana. I grew up in a family where we didn't have much, didn't have many means, but I always remember my parents saving up, and we would go to England every year and stay with my grandmother, who had a bed and breakfast in the UK. So the English accent was always in my ear because of my mother. And I would take the piss and joke around and become English for the afternoon. So when I would go to England, I would play around. I would play those games with her. And then when I moved to London when I was 18 to go to drama school, I remember very distinctly having voice classes with the teacher, and she goes, “If you don't master the English accent, you'll never work here.” And so I made the decision in my head to become English for the next three years of drama school. So I just put the accent on, made sure I got it in my bones, made it a part of my person, and made it personal and real. And then that way, I thought, “Even if I don't work in the UK, when I work in the States, I can have an extra arrow in my quiver.” I flip flop pretty easily. I find myself, when I'm having conversations with English people, going straight to an English accent. And they always look at me like, “Are you taking the piss out of me?” It”s just the default I think I go into it.  But it”s just kind of a part of me now.

Has there ever been a point in your career where that”s actually become this weird obstacle where people just have assumed you're English and can't play American?

Philip Winchester: I think it certainly has been a challenge for my agent. I'll walk in for a casting meeting and run a scene, and after the casting director will pull me aside and go, “You know, you have a really great American accent! Well done!” I keep it to myself because it is what it is. In my knowledge I don”t know  if it”s prevented me from getting a job but possibly, you know.

When the chance came up to do this show how is it that you wound up playing the English guy given that you are American and Sully is not?

Philip Winchester: I don't know if it had to do with the accent, or just our character. Sully is Scott, he just is. And I really enjoy finding the little nuances in Stonebridge building the machine that he was. I think it was just something Dan (Percival) saw when he put us in that chemistry test, it was just those two immovable objects dickering it out with each other, and I think it was life imitating art. We definitely bumped heads a bit, but what came out of it was this odd couple, and this great stressful relationship that was Scott and Stonebridge.

Somehow you spent four years together doing the show running around doing crazy stunts.  And now you”re both on the NBC fall schedule at the same time.  How in the world did this happen?

Philip Winchester: It's hilarious, isn't it? I don't know how it happened. I came out here with my wife and my daughter, came to New York for upfronts, and I was outside of the event, and of course Sully came out to give me a big bear hug, and we just laughed, we just got the giggles. We always joked around on “Strike Back,” and said, “What the hell are we going to do after this?” Because not only has “Strike Back” basically made us, it's the biggest thing we've ever done. It certainly taught us the most, and I think we've both had this very stark realization: we are actors and this is all going to end, and what the fuck are we going to do? So ending up both with shows on NBC in the evening, it's a fluke, it's funny, maybe perhaps all the stunts and stuff provided this way in and NBC wanted to take a chance on us. It's going to be fun. I think Sully's show looks fantastic, and I had a chance to go down and sit with John Rogers and talk to him about “The Player,” which was called “End Game” at the time. It looks amazing. It's exciting stuff, man. And the whole network television thing, who knows what's going to happen? But what an amazing opportunity for both of us.

What was it about that script that made you want to do it?

Philip Winchester: So I came back from “Strike Back” December 20, and my wife was heavily pregnant with our daughter.  So Charlie came along on February 4.  Four days later, I got a phone call from my agent and said “Hey look, there”s a script.  We want you to read it and have a look at it and have a think about it.”  And I was fully expecting to be Best Friend Number Four in some lawyer procedural.  And I read this script and I couldn”t believe how good it was.  I couldn”t believe how fun it was and it had this incredible balance of drama and action and poignant moments and great relationships with the characters.  And I thought, “What the heck?  This looks amazing.”  So I had to fly out to Los Angeles four days after my daughter was born to have a meeting with the producers on the show.  I was totally on board and hoping I could do, it but I had to play it cool.  John Rogers basically said to me, “Philip, I know the first scene of this show and I know the last scene of the hundredth episode.”  That”s who you want to be involved with. 

You get to play a fight scene against Wesley Snipes.  Not a lot of guys get to do that.

Philip Winchester: No, that's right. The truth is, I don't know if a lot of guys, if they do it, want to do it again. Because he's a badass. He's the real deal. He's greased lightning. It was a nerve-wracking afternoon, because I grew up watching Snipes. He was the biggest action star of the 90s. He was definitely an action hero of mine growing up when I wanted to get into this stuff. So there were lots of shoulder digs between me and some of the other actors going, “Dude, it's fucking Wesley Snipes over there, man!”

We”ve talked in the past about the ways in which you shoot things on “Strike Back” and how quickly you have to do everything because you”re running around.  Network works differently than that and I”m curious what the experience was like.  You”ve got a couple of different big stunt pieces in this pilot.  You swing through a window, and you're again on a motorbike. How would those compare in terms of the process of doing it to the comparable kind of stunts you did as Stonebridge?

Philip Winchester: Gosh, you know, I think the biggest difference is literally just rehearsal, having a bit of time to set something up.  Having a bit of time to discuss things with your stunt choreographer and things like that.  And like I said, on “Strike Back,” we weren”t idiots about stuff. We didn”t just do it.  If we were on a GS1200, we”d get on a GS and ride around.  We weren”t just throwing ourselves on it.  But it was just having time. I think the biggest difference on this was I definitely was aware that there was producers on set looking at me going, “You know, we said you could do 20 miles an hour on the bike, why is he going 70?” or “We said he could do this, why is he doing that?”  And it”s because I”m wise to what they wanted.  But I think there were definitely boundaries that were set up on the NBC show that I hadn”t had on “Strike Back.”  And I had to respect those and learn what those things were and learn that there was a point where I was going to get taken out and a stunt guy was going to get thrown in.  And I had to be okay with that.  So I think more than anything for me was just tapping my ego and saying, “You know, I can do this guys.”  And they were like, “It”s not that we don”t think you can.  It”s you”re not allowed to.  Insurance isn”t going to let you do it.”  So I think what”s going to be fun over the course of the next 13 episodes is pushing the boundary and really learning with NBC what we can do and what we want to do.  I think it was really exciting. 

Michael Bassett”s going to come on board to do some of the first episodes for “The Player.”  I got him on board for that. What he”s great at is pushing those boundaries.  And he knows what I can do and he knows what I don”t like to do – which he did but he really wants me to do.  He”ll probably get me crawling around on the outside of a building, knowing Michael.  But when you can prove that to the unified front – to the producer and to the insurance company – I think we”ll have a stronger argument for saying, “Yeah, can we please do a high building entrance?  Can we please hang off the side of a building.  Or can we crash a car with him in it?  Let”s do those things because he can and he likes it.”  So we”ll see if we can chip away with that stuff.

One of the things you did in between one of the “Strike Back” seasons was a few episodes on “24: Live Another Day.”I know a job is a job and you do what the people tell you to do, but was there any point when you were in that gig where you just wanted to lean over and tell a producer, “You know, if you give me a gun I can shoot someone and I”m very convincing at it”? 

Philip Winchester: (laughs) I'm sorry you saw that in my face. There were definitely moments where I was going, “Shit, man, I'm Captain Exposition here.” I was hugely grateful to be part of the “24” phenomenon and what it is. But I was a little frustrated to know that I was just going to be basically a talking head. I had a lot of fun working with the actors in it, but I definitely did have a part of me going, “Damn it, man, why can't I be one of the guys running around with a gun?”

The public at large has never seen either version of the “Commando Nanny” pilot, but I've seen the one with you in the lead role. You got injured after they filmed it, then they reshot it with Owain Yeoman, and then the whole thing got scuttled altogether. What do you remember of that experience?

Philip Winchester: I remember it vividly.  I remember it like it was yesterday, because it was my ticket Los Angeles.  So I remember doing an audition in London in the Knight”s Bridge, getting a phone call a week later saying, “They”re going to fly you out to Los Angeles. They”re going to put you up at the Sheraton Universal.  You”re going to screen test with Gerald McRaney and all these people.”  And so I screen tested and they booked it right away.  I thought, “Man, this pilot stuff is a piece of cake.  This is great.” We shot the pilot.  I had a guy that I knew from the UK, I ended up working with him and we became best friends.  We”re still best friends to this day.  The “Commando Nanny” thing as a whole was just a huge blessing because I have relationships today from it.  And it was a blessing that it didn”t work out too.  I actually injured myself the night before the table read.  We were in full production.  The show had gotten picked up.  Mark Burnett was walking us through what he wanted it to be and I went out one night completely sober, I jumped over a wall to get to the grocery store and broke both my heels!

It was the strangest situation.  I called my show runner the next morning and said, “I broke my heels.  They sent me to the doctor.  They stuck a cast on me.”  I think within 12 hours I had a box of cookies and a half gallon of milk that was sent to me via Mark Burnett and a card that says, “Better Luck Next Time, Kid.”  So I knew my days on “Commando Nanny” were numbered.  And I think the real blessing was that that sucker never saw the light of day and that I was not officially “Commando Nanny.”  So I”m grateful for those broken heels.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com