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South Africa has become the go-to destination for TV and movie shoots. Aside from the British series, Wild at Heart, and the Canadian mini-series, Human Cargo, being shot here, we have Michael Bay’s Black Sails being filmed as well as Sea-Air-Fire Three and, confirmed this week, Dominion. A few months back most of season three of M-Net’s British military drama, Strike Back, was shot here. Debashine Thangevelo caught up with actors Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton get the lowdown on what’s coming up in the action-packed series…
PHILIP WINCHESTER: SGT MICHAEL STONEBRIDGE
THIS 32-year-old actor has bagged a few notable projects like The Patriot, The Telephone, Crusoe, a TV series called Alice, the mini-series Warehouse 13 and Fringe.
But somehow he has managed to remain below the stardom radar – until now.
He joined the Strike Back series, which is based on Chris Ryan’s novel of the same name, after the exit of series protagonist Richard Armitage (John Porter), who left because of other commitments.
Cast as Sergeant Michael Stonebridge, a tough but troubled Special Forces counterterrorism operative, Winchester underwent military training and had to bulk up for the physically demanding role.
Reflecting on the show’s popularity, he says: “One of the reasons I enjoy the show and we get the response we get is because it’s kind of like an Eighties show – when actors were doing the stunts and it wasn’t CGI (computer-generated imagery).
“And I think the fact that we started filming in South Africa, there were fewer restrictions on what we could and couldn’t do. And so we started very early on doing all the stunts for real and very quickly.”
To lend authenticity to his character, Winchester drew on his father, a friend who was in The Parachute Regiment and the military trainer they had while shooting here.
As for how his character has grown, the actor reflects: “I think what makes characters interesting for an audience is their flaws.
“For me, what made Stonebridge interesting was that when I read the scripts for the first season there was this portrayal of him as the perfect soldier, having a wonderful marriage and wanting children. 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 Stonebridge is broken. Something is flawed in his life and he was covering it up. So he became really interesting to play.”
One of the great things about working on this show is that, as an actor, he is allowed input on the storylines.
He admits, “We sometimes have influence on where the characters go, how they get there, all that kind of stuff, and if something doesn’t work on set, we fix it.”
As for one of his most taxing moment on set, he reveals: “This season was particularly challenging because when we were doing some scenes at a river (in South Africa), I got really sick. I caught some kind of stomach bug that lasts four months and four or five episodes. And that meant I couldn’t put on the weight I normally do. And it was bizarre because something happens in episode three or four that causes Stonebridge’s health to deteriorate.”
“I’m not a method actor, but I do kind of like to go there, so maybe my subconscious was going there,” he laughs.
SULLIVAN STAPLETON: SGT DAMIEN SCOTT
WITH a slew of big screen (Gangster Squad, The Hunter, Darkness Falls) and TV parts (Sea Patrol, McLeod’s Daughters), this 36-year-old is in his element in most acting roles.
Signed up to play the lead in Warner Bros’s 300: Rise of an Empire, expected to release in March, Stapleton relishes his role as Sergeant Damien Scott.
Strike Back 3, which was also shot in Budapest, centres on Section 20 being brought in to South Africa to regain possession of four nuclear triggers which have fallen into the hands of English billionaire megalomaniac Conrad Knox (Charles Dance). His goal is to liberate “Africa”.
On how his character has transformed over the series, Stapleton says: “Scott was kind of the angry one at the start, but as the series progressed things have changed and Stonebridge goes through some stuff and it’s kind of a swop over. It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to play the changes in these guys. The dynamic between those two characters is very true to life. Mates are mates and sometimes you can p**s one off and vice versa. But they look after each other and help each other get through these missions.”
Interestingly, the two characters have also become the cornerstone of the show.
He explains: “I think there are different aspects to the two soldiers who work well together. Stonebridge is very by the book – even when he starts to lose it, he’s still a proper soldier. Scott is different, he’s a little more unconventional, and that comes across in the way we do things. We’re both stronger at different things in real life and I guess that’s reflected in our characters.”
With this season very stunt-driven, he sheds light on a notable scene.
“There are some terrorists on a train in Germany and we have to track them down. We get picked up in a chopper – that’s a great stunt – and we jump off on to the train. Then we have a fight on the train, I get thrown off. Meanwhile, Stonebridge is fighting another guy. A motorbike rides down the track in front of the train and we steal a truck and drive that in front of the train. It took four days to film that sequence and we had two units with action going on inside the carriage, too. We were running in between the two units. It was kind of crazy, but great fun, too.”
Having broken his knee in season two, Stapleton admits he was more cautious this time around. But not to the extent that it kept him from doing his own stunts.
He says: “I don’t want to be the guy who sits and watches the stunt team do all of his stunts for him.”
The actor says his favourite this season was the one episode shot in a Russian prison and the train scene.
“We had Peter Guinness in the show, who is a great actor, and the director let us actually talk at a human speed and didn’t worry about how long these scenes were taking. It was nice to just sit and talk and we had a great moment between Scott and Stonebridge where Scott is telling him he could die unless he got the right medicine. And Peter plays this guy who’s been in jail so long he is scared about going home. It was kind of nice to be able to humanise Scott a little bit more. I fought back tears as we showed that these guys do have hearts and they are not unrealistic tough-guy characters.”
As someone with a foot in both camps, he says Strike Back is like a collection of little movies – he is “looking forward to more acting within the action”.
By the way, season four is already on the cards. And if you enjoy those cliff-hanger moments in the action genre, Strike Back delivers on that front while unearthing truly poignant moments when the “tough guys” reveal their personal vulnerabilities.
• Strike Back airs on M-Net (DStv Channel 101) tomorrow at 9.30pm.