‘TV is the hardest job for an actor’
Actor Philip C Winchester, best known for his roles in The Patriot,
The Hi-Line, LD 50 Lethal Dose, CSI: Miami and King Lear, plays Sgt Michael Stonebridge, the tough, troubled Special Forces counter-terrorism operative in the hit TV series Strike Back. He talks about the ordeals of the job, the physical and mental cost of upping the momentum of a series and his time-outs
You’ve appeared in a lot of TV shows including Crusoe. How is Strike Back different for you?
Crusoe was my first venture in television. We were shooting on a shoestring budget in a beautiful part of South Africa and I was kind of under the impression that television was very romantic, that it was a lot of fun. Later I realised that it was the hardest thing I’d ever done because there is no time — there’s no rest, it’s six-day weeks. I’d done some fun theatre, some fun movies but television is hard. And I watch television now with a different eye because people on TV work their tails off regardless of the type of show. Strike Back is brutal on every level. Physically, emotionally, it’s so demanding yet satisfying. So I think that every job that I did gave me an understanding of what was to come next. We did a big stunt with a train that comes towards the end of the season and that was very satisfying. To do a scene with an actor like Peter Guinness, which is all mixed up in this testosterone-fuelled feast, you tell yourself, ‘gosh, we’re on a pretty cool show.’ We really are very fortunate because there aren’t many TV shows that have that kind of spectrum.
Did you base your character, Sgt Michael Stonebridge, on anyone in real life?
He was an amalgamation of two guys. My father is American and my mother is English. I grew up in the States in Montana and shifted to London for about seven years and got into a drama school. I had a friend while I was there, he was in the British military, in the Paras (The Parachute Regiment). A great guy but I would see this switch go in him once in a while and it didn’t matter who was in the room, he would clear it out. I wanted Stonebridge to have that switch. And the other guy that I based him on was our military trainer in South Africa for the first season where we became very good friends. The emotional toughness my character displays on a public level but covering so much pain is borrowed from him. Stonebridge’s back-story is something that Dan Percival (director) came up. We kind of sat down and built this character.
You obviously have to be in great shape for the role. So how did you tackle that physical deterioration in the middle of the season?
Yes, we beef up for the roles. But this season was particularly challenging because when we were doing some scenes on the river in South Africa, I got really sick. I caught some kind of stomach bug that lasted four months. And that meant that I couldn’t put on the weight that I normally put on for Stonebridge. But it was a bizarre coincidence because something happens in episodes three and four that slowly starts to cause Stonebridge to deteriorate. So I kind of had to lose a bit of bulk and because of the bug I was doing that anyway.
How has Stonebridge developed as a character over the three seasons?
What makes a character interesting for an audience is his flaws. For me what made Stonebridge interesting was that when I read the scripts for the first season he was portrayed as the perfect soldier, having a wonderful marriage, being really good at what he did and that was all established by page 20. And by page 60 he was waking up with another woman and I was like ‘wow, I didn’t see that coming...’ So right away you see that Stonebridge is broken. Something is flawed in his life and he was covering it up. That’s why he became really interesting to play. I thought ‘that’s someone I want to dive into.’
You clearly have a great bond with Sullivan. Was that just good casting or did you have to work at it?
Sully and I talk about this. One of the accidents that happened on this show was that they put us together and they said, ‘go and have fun, train and become soldiers.’ And through the training — the running at 6 in the morning in Cape Town, the special cops training — created this brotherhood. I wouldn’t want to do the show without him.
Do they ever surprise you with what they ask you to do on the show or have you done so much now you’re past that?
We are quite used to it (laughs). Sully and I were joking around. We were doing an explosion in a scene and the director was like, ‘get down, get down.’ And we went ‘no, we weren’t close enough.’ And he said, ‘you were supposed to get down, it’s a big explosion.’ And the thing blew up and we kept going towards it. We looked at each other and it was like, ‘that was kind of scary.’
It’s a policy to keep CGI to a minimum but was this the reason to do the stunts in reality?
Yes, and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy the show and also the reason we get such a huge response. It’s like back in the 80s when the actors were doing the stunts. What Bruce Willis did wasn’t CGI, if a car blew up then they really did blow it up. Also, the fact that we started filming in South Africa where there is little restriction on what we could and couldn’t do, we started doing all the stunts for real. We realised very quickly, ‘hey, we could be on to something here. If we keep it real and don’t do any CGI, then that’s a real bonus for our show.’ And that’s what we try to do.
Why is the show so successful?
I like to think the show is successful because we work hard on it. But we are very lucky. It’s not a network show and we can get away with a lot. People have asked us about the violence in the show and yes it is violent but only if it’s necessary. If we were making a story about poets it would be different but we’re not, we’re making a movie about Special Forces operatives. And there are moments for gentleness, there are moments to be tender, and there are moments to walk in a room and kill everybody in it and that’s Strike Back.
What do you do to detox from the show?
First of all I go to London to see my Nan. She is one of the biggest reasons why this is possible. When I went to drama school in London, I lived with her and she took care of me, she is just amazing. When I go home to Montana, I hang out with my wife and we go hiking. We turn our phones off and I tell my agent, ‘unless it’s really important, please just leave us alone for a while.’ And this year, after we’ve had a little break, I want to do a play. I’ll do something totally different where we’re not screaming and hollering and shooting guns (laughs). I think that will be really cathartic.
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