I initially wasn't going to write up the "Strike Back" panel I moderated at Comic-Con on Friday night, not because it didn't go well, but because it's always difficult to recap a panel where I was on stage and couldn't take notes. I did it with the "Wilfred" panel from the day before, but mainly because there was one quote of David Zuckerman's I wanted to use, and as it happened, the entire panel wound up on YouTube and it became easy to transcribe that section. Though we wound up with a good-sized crowd for "Strike Back," there was nobody recording the whole thing — though everyone whipped out their cameras to record Philip Winchester's Cartman impression (you can hear a better version by clicking the behind-the-scenes video link below) — so I was only working off my memories.
But it was a good panel, and I'm looking forward to the return of the series on August 17 — as I said last year, here was a show that could have just been mindless violence and gratuitous sex scenes and fit the Cinemax brand, and wound up being much better, smarter and cooler than it needed to be — so I wanted to write up a few paraphrased highlights before I headed home.
* We had not only returning stars Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton, and new castmember Rhona Mitra (who does, as I had assumed, look comfortable with a gun in her hand), but director Michael Bassett, who befriended Winchester on the set of "Solomon Kane" and came in to shoot two of the episodes this season. (The new season debuts on Friday, August 17 at 10 p.m. with back-to-back episodes.) Having worked in feature films (he also directed the new "Silent Hill" film, which was also paneled at the Con), Bassett was at first thrown by both the miniscule budget and rapid pace of something like "Strike Back." After a short time, though, he embraced the efficient, controlled nature of it. The actors noted that the South African crew works insane hours, allowing them to make this show on a schedule and budget that would never be possible in America.
* All the actors have gone through intense weapons training and even the special forces equivalent of police ridealongs to best understand their characters. They also do many of their own stunts, and after a while figured out their relative strengths and weaknesses. Stapleton noted that he's better at driving, while Winchester is better at jumping off of things, "So the writers realized pretty quickly to put me behind the wheel and have him jump off of things."
* Because they're doing so much of the work themselves, the actors have occasionally felt like they were genuinely in harm's way. In one stunt for this new season, they got a little too close to an explosion, and Winchester recalled they had what looked like mismatched sunburns for days. Mitra remembered getting a look at them afterwards and asking where their eyelashes went. I asked her whether seeing that made her want to ask the writers to have her character spend more time at home base, and she said, "Absolutely not. It just makes me want to be out there even more. You don't join a show like this so you can be chained to the kitchen sink."
* Winchester is perfectly happy to leave the sex scenes to Stapleton, and the Australian-born Stapleton has had to leave whatever modesty he used to have long behind. He recalled last season's naked fight scene, and how the stunt men playing his opponents didn't seem particularly pleased when they got a look at him in the buff, and how it can be physically uncomfortable to be running and kicking and swinging while everything's just hanging out there. But he did it.
* Stapleton and Winchester obviously get along very well, but I asked them at what point they feel their two characters became friends. Winchester suggested that they're not exactly that, but rather that the two have learned to develop a certain professional trust, while also recognizing that they understand what the other is going through emotionally in a way that few others in their lives (including Stonebridge's wife) do.
Speaking of emotions, there was also an excellent discussion of the psychological toll this work takes on the real operatives who do it, and what all three actors have learned from being around the show's consultants, but I'd be doing that a disservice by trying to paraphrase it. Suffice it to say, like the rest of "Strike Back," there's been real thought and care put into how our duo, and now trio, of heroes are feeling and reacting to all the shootouts, explosions, knife fights (naked or clothed), and other assorted mayhem.
As I said, the show will be back on August 17, with the season's first two episodes airing back-to-back that night, and the rest of the season airing over the following eight weeks. While I was looking for that YouTube clip of Winchester as Cartman, I realized that Cinemax posted the first two episodes of last season for any agnostics to sample. Each season works as a quintet of two-part stories, with each pair functioning as its own low-budget action movie while there are story threads tying everything together. Last year, it was the hunt for a terrorist played by Jimi Mistry; this year, it involves a shady businessman played by Tywin Lannister himself, Charles Dance.