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Exclusive Interview: Strike Back cast dishes on everything

Daniel MacPherson, Warren Brown
MacPherson and Brown start out rocky in the premiere episode. Pic credit: Cinemax

Cinemax is back in the action-drama business as a new season and new cast dazzles in Strike Back: Retribution.  It is the sixth series and second revamp in total based on the eponymous novel by former Special Air Service (SAS) soldier Chris Ryan.

The previous Cinemax iteration that ended in 2015 starred Berlin Station’s Richard Armitage and The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln.

The result of the reboot is a tight, non-stop action yarn made with cinematic production and a cracking new cast who have sweat equity in their respective roles.

There’s a team of four badass soldiers in the field, lead by Luther star, actor Warren Brown as Sgt. Thomas “Mac” McAllister, a warrior who has a major ax to grind with terrorist Omair Idrisi (Don Hany), whose botched handover and subsequent escape during a prison transfer initiate the story.

McAllister is given an ultimatum as he faces court-martial for popping a higher up, pair with Australian actor Daniel MacPherson (Samuel Wyatt, an American soldier who dips into the margins)…or else.

Much like their Strike Back predecessors Scott and Stonebridge, the two have a frosty first impression that slowly warms up as they rely on each other in life and death moments.

The women kick ass as well. Roxanne McKee is cast as Captain Natalie Reynolds, a military family legacy who leads, and Alin Sumarwata as the mechanically adroit Lance Corporal Gracie Novin, a weapons expert who takes the piss out of all of them.

We spoke to the core cast this week about their grueling workload delivering the high-octane performances and learned that they have a very important fan watching…

Monsters and Critics: I’m exhausted just from the action-packed non-stop premiere. Let’s just begin with the script. When you read this, were you like, “Is every episode going to be like this?”

Alin Sumarwata: Yeah. I mean it is relentless and we were promised that it was going to be one of the most difficult, physically demanding jobs. So, I guess we did expect it. It never stopped. It really never stopped. They were true to their promise.

M&C: Most series it takes a few episodes to get in but you guys were really formed as a unit and the whole, the exposition was fast and furious. I mean, Warren wow…your character is like an elite athlete

Warren Brown: I think because we went to Jordan before we started to shoot it and we were training for a month as well solid before we actually started shooting. And our training regime was pretty brutal. We were in the gym at…

Alin Sumarwata: From 6:00 AM in the morning doing all kinds of hit training and then rock climbing and Jujitsu

Warren Brown: …Jujitsu and then training with the special forces in the afternoon learning to fire weapons and [learn] maneuvers. We were all pretty tired when we started the job, nevermind when we finished it. After six months you definitely feel like you’re a bit rung out.

Roxanne McKee: And everyone really wanted to sort of put the most into it physically as well. Like, it was definitely a cast who wanted to be doing Brazilian jujitsu…We also did that in between rock climbing, hit training, and weaponry.

M&C: You’re obviously not eating anything on the Craft service table. You’re staying shredded like lettuce is what you’re-

Warren Brown: We were training a lot.

Alin Sumarwata: We were training a lot. Actually, eating was the biggest task for me personally on the job because we had to eat a lot of protein to keep up the muscle mass and… so no we were eating. We just couldn’t eat crackers and donuts.

Daniel MacPherson: Yeah, I mean it was massive and it doesn’t let up in terms of the entire series, you know. It’s non-stop from literally the start of the first episode to the finale ten episodes later. But, talking about exhaustion, I’ve said this to Roxanne, we were training so hard to get in shape for the series and work as a team and the tactics and the weapons handling and all the character work. I have never started a job as exhausted as I did when we start that prep.

Roxanne McKee: It’s actually strange. We didn’t feel as tired filming it as we did when we were doing all the training leading up to it, because we would do a hit training in the morning, and then we would do some rock climbing and then we would go and do weapons training in the evening. We were doing physical activity for the most part of every single day.

And in between, our rest time was just eating as much protein as possible. So, it was exhausting from the get-go, and then when we got to set we were like, “Wow, we can chill out a bit now.” And somebody else is telling us what to say, so that helped. So, it was all good.

M&C: It’s not like you guys weren’t in bad shape before you started this. I mean, Daniel, what, you were like an Iron Man champ.

Daniel MacPherson: It certainly helped. It helped about seven months into it when we were all, you know, really, really exhausted, but no, absolutely, you’ve got a pretty fit, physical cast from the outset anyway. And that, to be fair, was part of the audition process, too.

We did a bunch of callbacks and whatnot, but part of the audition process was sending everybody out with a military advisor in the English countryside for a day with weapons and making us run up hills and crawl through creeks and muddy stuff …

We knew what we were getting into from the very beginning, but I don’t think anyone realized just how intense it was going to be.

M&C: Absolutely. Well, Daniel is quite naked…

Warren Brown: A lot. A lot.

Alin Sumarwata: He did pick the short straw, may I say.

M&C: I was wondering if Warren, we were going to see more you or if Daniel will be the revealing one.

Warren Brown: Are you talking about my ass or my face?

M&C: Well, more than just your face let’s say…

Warren Brown: Yeah.

Alin Sumarwata: You’re going to see all of us.

Warren Brown: You’re going to get to know all of us intimately.

Alin Sumarwata: Like it or not.

M&C: Warren, you look as if you doubled your body mass since when you were on Luther, when you were Ripley. Is that true or not?

Warren Brown: I was always ripped. I just had my clothes on in Luther. No. The training was insane for this. As I was saying we were training for, I think we all started training individually when we got the job then when we got to Jordan we were training four times a day.

Then the job itself, we’re eating and we have bloody weights and a gym on set. Every night, myself and Dan would go off to the gym after not matter what you’ve done that day we would be in the gym…

Alin Sumarwata: On top of that we were learning sequences of stunts as well and everything is just physical.

Roxanne McKee: When I was doing my phone conversation with the director initially, he asked me if I was physically fit, and I think they’d asked for people who were physically fit to audition for the show anyway. It was definitely a prerequisite …

Daniel MacPherson: Everyone knew what kind of show we were getting into, yeah.

M&C: Interestingly, Alin, I believe your husband Don Hany plays the arch villain, Omair Idrisi, with a great deal of humanity.

Alin Sumarwata: Yes. He does and I was just going to toot his horn a bit because I was going to say I think he did a brilliant job of bringing that role to life and giving it humanity, as you say.  And being hot at it at the same time.

M&C: Who is that nefarious English woman who is his lover?

Alin Sumarwata: Katherine Kelly.

Warren Brown: She’s amazing.

Alin Sumarwata: She’s a badass. She is a kick-ass badass, amazing girl on and off screen.

M&C: So the premiere, we really don’t know who she is or what her motives at Miranda or the reasoning is for her seemingly traitorous acts. Of course, on the other end, it’s Trevor Eve who plays the diabolical Mr. Ives.

Alin Sumarwata: Yes and he is pure deliciousness. He’s one of my favorite villains. Yes. He is wonderful.

Warren Brown: All will be revealed April. You stay tuned.

M&C: That’s the problem with interviews like this. There’s a lot you really can’t get into the weeds because then it spoils it for the people that watch it week to week.

Alin Sumarwata: Yeah.

M&C: The art decoration and the production design of this are off the hook in recreating the war zone area. These were not sets. These look like real-

Alin Sumarwata: No.

Warren Brown: I think, we got the chance to travel to Jordan to train and that’s where we started to shoot and then we went to Budapest and the bulk of the shoot was Budapest. Then we went to Croatia so you’ve already got…where we kicked off in Jordan, this vast epic landscape that you’re playing in.

We also had an amazing design team so that these areas that you go to.

Alin Sumarwata: You come in one building in Jordan and then you come out in Budapest. I had to do a lot of matching up. A lot of gunfights that you see in the first… yeah. We were gunning in the caves.

Some of the exteriors of it were in Jordan and then when we’re busting out of the caves we’re suddenly in Budapest. It was kind of like, yeah, they did an amazing job to obviously, match up the locations and scenarios.

Jordan itself, that desert by the Dead Sea there, was truly, biblically epic.

M&C: Wow, you guys were in Jordan, and then you were in Budapest and the continuity is just seamless…

Roxanne McKee: I think that comes down to storylining. So that’s right in the initial stages and then, obviously, the directors and the producers go and see the different countries that they plan on storylining, and they have to figure out whether the country that is good for, Libya is also the country in the storyline. So, a lot of countries that people film in double up as other places.

Daniel MacPherson: I can actually go one further and say that the reason we ended up in Jordan was that the king of Jordan was a fan of “Strike Back” previous …

M&C: No way.

Daniel MacPherson: Yeah, so he knew the show, and his son is the head of the Jordanian film commission. And, so he said, “If you guys want to come and shoot “Strike Back” I’ve got this $400 million special forces training center.”

So, they took us out there. That’s where we trained. We trained with the Jordanian Special Forces. Then we shot all way round to the Dead Sea and all through the Jordan Valley and out in the deserts.

Jordan actually doubled as Libya. It doubled as Syria. It doubled for a couple [of countries]. And, you’re right, there are some scenes where we walk in a door in Jordan and walk out the other side in Budapest, and you wouldn’t know the difference. Yes, kudos to the art department.

M&C: Kudos to you, Daniel, for your American accent. It’s seamless.

Daniel MacPherson: Thank you very much. I was having a conversation this morning that…we were shooting in Eastern Europe with a Hungarian crew with a lot of English crew surrounded by Australian and English cast, and I’m an Aussie trying to do an American accent. That was actually the toughest part. I was much more at home doing the action and the weaponry than trying to stay American for seven months with no one to talk to.

M&C: Roxanne, talk about your character…

Roxanne Mckee: Natalie Reynolds is the captain, so she’s going to have a different relationship at the beginning …
With everyone, in fact, because she isn’t sure about the rest of the team, and they’re not sure about her, and they’re not sure about each other, but she feels freer to openly express her opinion because she’s been employed as the captain of this ragtag team. So, she really respects Gracie, she actually respects all of the soldiers. She believes that they’re fantastic soldiers and that … She has a conversation with Wyatt and she has a conversation with Mac whereby she thanks them with “I do think you’re fantastic soldiers.”

But, on a personal level, she’s unsure of how equipped they are to deal with the ramifications of responsibility and, but they feel the same way about her and rightly so. They feel like she is a stickler for following orders, and that’s not necessarily the right thing. There’s a big learning curve for all of them.

Then, as the show progresses, certainly you see Gracie and Reynolds coming together more because they respect each other as women. But the whole team come together more as the show progresses. That’s valuable to watch. I also think it very truthful, and I think if we’d all jumped into the show from the beginning, all being bosom buddies, no one would believe that. These are four alpha people who …

Daniel MacPherson: Are forced together. None of them want to be there. None of them really want to be there together.

Roxanne Mckee: Yeah, they are forced together and they’re very independent. They’re each very individually skilled, and they have different sets of skills. When you combine those skills, I think you have this fantastically equipped team. I think they only begin to realize that probably during the season. Then they realize they’ve only got each other, and they quite like each other.

M&C:  The quality of the production is cinematic. Daniel, with Warren Brown’s character. You guys are a modern day band of brothers. The gallows humor, snark. You create this new unit Section 20.

Daniel MacPherson: Oh, definitely so. The Wyatt-McAllister relationship was probably the most familiar part of the show. It is familiar. It’s not dissimilar to Scott and Stonebridge and so I think the season starts there and I think it is also the most familiar for the writers to write for and definitely the chemistry and the character development for a team of four develop over the course of the series. And the chemistry between Novin and Reynolds definitely does match Wyatt and McAllister as the series goes on, for sure.

Roxanne McKee: And Dan’s right, you know. It’s something that had to be written. You have this show that already has a huge following and it’s a cult show, and we needed to give the audience, the fans who were already there what they wanted. They want to see this, these two buddies together, sort of saving the world. Now as it happens, there are a couple more buddies, and that’s the way it is. So, it had to be that way.

Trevor Eve
Eve plays Mr. Ives, a nefarious shadow villain. Pic credit: Cinemax

M&C: Omair [Don Hany] and he gives a really kind of textured nuanced vibe. He’s the big bad, but is he really? And maybe we think it might be the English Mr. Ives, played by the brilliant Trevor Eve. Is he really the big bad, more so than Omair?

Roxanne McKee: We adored him [Trevor Eve]. It’s more like he’s really the big bad terrorist.

Daniel MacPherson: There’s actually a few more that are gonna come to light as the series goes on. I have to certainly agree that Don is wonderful, and knowing Don so well from Australia over the course of twenty years, it was a gift to have him in the series.

I will say that the caliber of guest artists that we get to come in and play these characters, and particularly the villains, are so good. The reason is that they are so well written, and they get to have so much fun, and you can see someone like Trevor Eve play Morgan Ives just gets out there and just has a ball with that kind of characters. That’s why we keep drawing such a high caliber of guest actor, I think. They really do light up the series, they really do.

Roxanne McKee: They absolutely do. And Trevor was just so valuable for us because, you know, we were really pushing him around. You know, we were rough with him physically, because you have to be …

Daniel MacPherson: I had a gun at his head for two days.

Roxanne McKee: And he was so game for everything. He’s fantastic. We all really loved him. I think he was definitely a favorite, although having said that, you know, you then have all the Maggie Altra, who was also fantastic and …

Daniel MacPherson: Aye, you’ll get into those when you get some more episodes. We go from the Middle East back to Eastern Europe and the whole different web of bad men and women.

M&C: And if this goes to the second season, did they give you an idea of when you’d commence again for the shooting for the production?

Daniel MacPherson: They haven’t, but needless to say, we would all love another chance to go back and do some more…And pick up where we left off. When you talk about those relationships, you talk about that chemistry on screen between a team, I feel like it, in this first series of this new Section 20, that chemistry is something we discovered on screen as the series went on, and it’s a great jump.

It would be a great jumping off point for another series, so hopefully, the people here at Cinemax are listening.

Roxanne McKee: I think we’ve screwed the chemistry in now. I could have said that in a more eloquent way, but, hey, you know it strikes that, so let’s make it messy. And I think it would be really nice, yeah, to explore that more. I think the characters have developed individually but also as a unit, and it would be interesting to see more of that and carry on.

Alin Sumarwata: I think that’s what I love most about it. They investigate into that more and more throughout this season. It’s just not your kind of stereotypical token, villain, terrorist yarn.

M&C: Well, Warren you’re going to be all over TV here in the USA soon, not just in Strike Back but you’re coming to Ovation I believe.

Warren Brown: Yes. X Company is out in a couple of weeks as well. Yeah. Good Times. X Company is about a place I knew very little about until I did the job, a place called Camp X that was built in Canada.

Essentially it’s the first every spy training school. Some of the alumni, Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl are rumored to have attended there. We’re this team of spies from all over the world, England, America, Canada sent behind enemy lines to try and help the allies win the second world war. We shot that in Budapest also so I was there for three years.

We actually found we were shooting the third and final one, I was going back to England a few times for the process of Strike Back so I actually knew I was going to come back to Budapest but then the following year, but Budapest is a great city and I spent a lot of time there. I’ve got very fond memories.

M&C: Where is home for you Warren?

Warren Brown: I’m from Manchester but I live in London. Yeah. London’s home.

M&C: What about you, Alin?

Alin Sumarwata: I’m Melbourne based but we’ve traveled a lot over the last couple of years. We actually spent about a year in L.A. before I had this job. Then this job took us, the whole family, I’ve got two little girls. For Strike Back, we went all around Jordan, Budapest, Croatia, London and now back to Melbourne and now I’m here again.

It’s [Strike Back] just going to get bigger and better. You just hang tight.

Strike Back: Retribution airs Friday at 10 PM on Cinemax

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April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment... read more
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