When an actor describes the physical and mental demands of making a TV show as a “kick in the face,” it typically refers to the long hours and relentlessly frantic shooting schedule. But for Philip Winchester, one of the two stars of Cinemax’s adrenalized action-thriller Strike Back, the description can feel quite literal. He and Sullivan Stapleton play special-intelligence agents tasked with tracking down bad dudes with weapons of mass destruction. The actors pride themselves on doing mostly all of their own stunts, and since they film primarily in South Africa and Hungary, safety restrictions can sometimes feel more like, well… mere suggestions. “I got blown up,” says Winchester, with an impish grin. “But I didn’t get injured. Second degree burns on the back of my neck, took a big chunk of my hair out.”
Explosions are a big part of Strike Back, which airs its second season finale tonight with the good guys’ top-secret Section 20 desperate to keep a vengeful billionaire (Charles Dance) from setting off a nuke. The real challenge is that fans expect the show to continue to top itself, and after two seasons, there are only so many boom-boom options remaining. “We were joking around when we were looking at the scripts, like, ‘Can we actually detonate a thermonuclear weapon on a television show?’” says Winchester. “Do you think they’d let us could blow up half of Johannesburg?”
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In its two seasons on Cinemax, Strike Back has had to fight to win its audience — the network reportedly reaches about 17 million homes, a fraction of its big sister HBO — but fans of shows like 24 have warmed to the fast-paced, shoot-first sensibility of the show. (A Cinemax spokesperson says viewership is up 16 percent this year.) “There’s nothing else quite like it on television,” says Winchester. “It’s not Homeland, but it’s more savvy than I think we like to admit. If people do watch it, I’m very grateful. And if they don’t, I just encourage them to.”
This season, Winchester’s Stonebridge, a polished, by-the-book British soldier, has seen his world turn upside down after his wife was murdered. This follows his mistress getting blown up in season 1, and Winchester laughs at the notion that playing his character’s main squeeze is now the television equivalent of being the drummer for Spinal Tap. “It’s the kiss of death, isn’t it. We do joke about it on set. I don’t think for his sanity’s sake we can lose another relationship that close to him, but I still think it would be good for Stonebridge to have someone who can be a bit of confidante to him.”
Yes, there will be a next year. Cinemax recently newed the show for a third season, and Winchester already has some clues about what’s next. Season 1 was about missing chemical weapons and season 2 was about loose nukes. Season 3? “[Next year's lead director] Michael Bassett is really interested in the socioeconomic impact of the Afghan poppy fields, how that influences the troops, how that influences governments [in their handling of] the drug war, slash people-trafficking war, slash everything else that is supported by drugs, like terrorism,” says Winchester. “I think that might be a direction we take it.”
Winchester is perfectly happy to keep fighting the good fight, even though shooting the series can sometimes feel nearly as wild-wild-west as the show itself. Though Johannesburg has become his second home during the last two and a half years, there remain certain occupational hazards to making Strike Back that he could do without. Winchester says that the production had to employ armed guards to protect the cast when they filmed in one notorious neighborhood. “That was the first time on the show where I was like, ‘We are absolutely visitors here,’” he says. ” It was the first time where we were shooting and we had guys with AKs guarding us because sh-t could just kick off at any time. It was brutal. When you’re running down alleyways and you’re knee deep in trash, you just wonder, ‘Am I stepping on a body?’ It gives a real texture to the show.”
Real texture? Yes, real texture can be a kick in the face sometimes.
Strike Back airs Friday at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.