Fans never want to see their favorite characters die. [Spoilers ahead!] Michelle Lukes, however, relished the chance to play a good death scene in “Strike Back.”
The British actress asked producers that her character, Sgt. Julia Richmond, take a fatal bullet midway through the final season of the series about the members of British special operations team called Section 20.
Richmond, whom Lukes has played in all four of the show’s Cinemax seasons, was killed by North Korean agent Li-Na (Michelle Yeoh) and unceremoniously dumped on a road in the most recent episode.
“Love it. I love it,” Lukes said during a recent phone interview. “To get a chance to do something like that with a great actress is just a dream.”
In the episode, Richmond is captured as Section 20 tries to prevent a deal between the North Koreans and the Japanese Yakuza mafia in southern Thailand, but not before she takes down several Yakuza. Li-Na kills Richmond after failing to get her to turn on her Section 20 team members.
“Do you have anything to live for? Anyone?” Li-Na asks Richmond.
“Yes, I do,” Richmond says, as Sgt. Damian Scott (Sullivan Stapleton), races to save his girlfriend.
“I always knew I would die like this,” Richmond says, “in a place like this. I just never knew who would pull the trigger.”
After the emotional episode aired in Great Britain, Lukes saw online comments from fans unhappy that her character appeared to give up. But the actress feels Richmond was heroic. She might have survived had she betrayed Section 20, yet she refused.
“I think that’s great for the character because I feel like Julia was the heart of Section 20,” Lukes said. “She has kind of kept everyone together and she had a very sort of human element to her, so to have a death that was a bit more thoughtful was a good way to go.”
Lukes, who now lives in Los Angeles, talked more about filming the emotional scene (several times), working in Thailand for the first time and how she feels about the show coming to an end.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation, and above, watch a video sendoff from Cinemax at the top of the story.
Cinemax airs new “Strike Back” episodes at 9 p.m Fridays.
It’s not surprising Richmond was killed off, because we’ve had so many major players die over the years. Still, I held out hope that she would escape.
[Laughs.] Not this time.
Not this time. But hey, way to go out. Getting killed by Michelle Yeoh, huh?
I know! Well, I just figured it was the final season and from an actor’s point of view I feel like it’s better to go out midseason and to have a great exit than to fizzle out at the end with everyone else. Do you know what I mean? It just felt like the more appealing option for me as an actress than to kind of walk off at the end.
Were you happy with Richmond’s exit? Did you feel it was the best thing for the character?
I’m happy. It was like saying goodbye to a really old friend. But I definitely feel like it was a good way to go.
It gave me more to do and I welcomed the challenge. I’ve never had to do anything like that before and they actually gave me probably the best scene of the entire series.
A lot of the drama in “Strike Back” is in the action. Scenes written with great attempts at emotional drama come along very rarely because of the nature of the show, which is great. It’s part of the appeal.
There was some criticism from fans of the show who felt like, “Why did Julia go like that? She’s better than that. She just gave up.” Or they said, “She’s a badass, she wouldn’t have died like that.”
I see it from a completely different perspective. I feel like she went out rather heroically. She could have saved her life by giving up Section 20, but she didn’t in spite of everything that she had to lose. I feel like it was a really fitting way for Julia to go out.
There’s not much you can do when there’s a gun to your side.
I feel like before she was captured she put up a good fight. … She did all right.
How was it on set when you were filming your last bit?
We had to film it several times, which was quite frustrating. The first time we filmed it I imagined it would be the only time we filmed it, so it was quite an emotional day for me. I felt a lot of pressure to do it right. So it was just hard from that perspective.
Filming is such a long process—to try and maintain that level of intensity and to repeat it and to repeat it every time in a way that’s believable and engaging. It’s tough. It was a really exhausting day and I just tried to stay focused. I tried to give her the best that was possible.
So we filmed it and I was pretty happy with the way it went. A week later I got a knock on my trailer door it’s Julian [Holmes], our director. He was like, “Yeah, about your death scene. … We’re going to have to do that again.” He said the camera was really wobbly on the mount outside the car. We couldn’t even use it.
I was like, “You have to be fucking kidding me.”
I literally saved it all for that day. We went back, did it again and they changed the camera mount to a different camera so we filmed it, but it just wasn’t working. Every time we turned a corner the camera would swing off the car and it would lose me and so we had to film it a third time. By that point I was just done. … It was a very challenging sequence to get right. The whole thing was very strange and emotional.
I’ll have to go back and watch and see if I can detect any anger in your performance.
I know! Especially the last time, I was just like, “Arghhhh!” But it was great. I’m just so grateful for the chance to get to actually like exercise my acting muscles. Just call it challenging but really rewarding. So yeah, positive things.
What has being on the show meant for you personally as well as professionally?
Oh my goodness. It’s such a good question. Professionally it’s just given me so many opportunities in terms of exposure, in terms of sort of learning my craft.
It’s very rare as an actor that you get the luxury of filming something A, in a big chunk of time. You were filming over six months, seven months—even if you weren’t shooting every day. So you get to learn and you get to practice what you learn in a way that stays with you over time.
Sometimes you come on and you shoot two scenes and then you may not work again for another four months. So it’s just always two steps forward and three steps back. The luxury of being a series regular is that you get to practice your craft every day and I think that’s just such a gift.
Also, to follow a character’s journey for so long [was great]. It’s an amazing opportunity and I feel like she developed in such an incredible way from Series 1 where really she was an almost mute office girl to dying such a heroic death four and a half years later as a major player.
It’s been great to work with a production team, a creative team to discover and develop Julia. Again, you don’t often get that chance. So I feel like professionally I was very lucky.
And personally—oh gosh, it was just such a roller coaster of a ride. I feel like I learned a lot about myself, which is kind of a bit ambiguous, but when you’re filming away from home, away from family or it’s a sort of very high-pressure environment … There are just so many factors that throw up obstacles that you have to learn to negotiate professionally and personally and after four and a half years of that I feel like I learned a lot of valuable lessons.
I also feel like I met some amazing friends. Some of my best friends who will be my best friends for life I met on “Strike Back.” They’re like my family now. So if nothing else I’m just really thankful to have met them.
So it’s been a big, big chapter of my life. It was incredibly strange to leave that behind. There’s a big door that closed and yeah, definitely some adjusting was needed after I left.
Last time we talked, we discussed how much Julia had changed from the first season to the second. Did you help to develop her? Did you offer suggestions along the way?
Absolutely. I’m kind of concerned a little bit because I feel like we had so much input into our characters that I’ve really got used to being hands on in terms of script, in terms of wardrobe, in terms of staging. We [the actors] really were there at the forefront of everything sort of making big decisions along with our creative team. I’m worried I’ll go to my next role and just assume that it’s always like that. Someone will tell me to shut up and do what you’re told.
I hope not!
We were involved in every aspect of our character’s development and it was great. Sometimes you don’t always get your own way and then sometimes you have to argue and they see that you’re right. It was very much a collaborative experience on “Strike Back.”
I think also the [creative team] and you feel each other out and they see how you work. They see what your strengths are and hopefully I think they sort of tailor the future storylines and scripts to help that.
Tell me about Thailand. Did you like it?
Oh, I absolutely loved it. I think that the show was great. It’s often such a different landscape. We got so used to … Cape Town and Johannesburg and we got used to seeing Budapest.
Now to have Asia as a setting gave the show a whole different energy, which is a great, great thing. I think cinematically it looks amazing.
But the Thailand experience to me was great. … The Thai people were just really lovely. They call it the land of the smiles and it really is. We were very much taken care of and yeah, I would go back again in a heartbeat.
When they said you’ve got to come back and do a month of reshoots I was happy. I was very happy to finish my journey in Thailand.
It doesn’t sound like you had boot camp to get ready this season.
I only did boot camp once in the four and a half years, so not for me. … There was definitely training but there was no boot camp as such. …
I see comments online saying, “Oh yeah, the girls should have paid more attention in training. They don’t look like this.” There’s not a lot of time for training and we work hard to try and be as authentic as possible. And yes, it’s television. Yes, we are actors and we can only do so much.
I think if they knew how hard we work with what we’re given they wouldn’t say that.
One of the things I’ve always loved about the show is how authentic everything looks, so I’m not sure where that is coming from.
We have an amazing military advisor, Paul [Hornsby]. He really is sort of responsible for the authenticity. He goes above and beyond his job requirements to make the show look as good as it does. He’s available 24 hours. He’s tireless. He’s very patient. He’s meticulous.
I feel like I need to rehearse, I need to know exactly what I’m doing and he’s always been very thorough and very happy to do that with me. So I feel like the show owes a lot to him and I stand by that. We couldn’t have done the show without him.
Another thing that we talked about in our last interview was the flirtation between Richmond and Scott. How they have this sort of a will they or won’t they thing going and I asked you, “So will they?” And you said, “Well, you never know.” Now we know.
Yes, never say no. Yeah, they finally did. … I felt like it wasn’t written in a way that was entirely believable. It was very out of the blue. There was a will-they, won’t-they thing for a little bit, but [when it happened] it came at the very last minute at the end of last season. So although I wasn’t unhappy with it, I wished that it had been better developed.
But ultimately I wasn’t unhappy with the decision. Would they have? I think it’s not out of the realm of possibility for two characters working so intimately with each other to get together.
She’s always had his number, which I loved. This season she made him care about somebody beyond getting laid. They had a nice, if short, relationship.
I would agree with that and, you know, Julia is very different to all the other women that Scott has encountered in the past. I remember doing an interview once and the journalist’s first question was, “How did it feel to be the plain Jane of the show?”
In a lot of ways that’s true. Julia is not one of the glamorous guest stars who comes on and woos Scott. She’s one of the boys and I think that has a lot to do with why she was the one ultimately to change him. She was different and he recognized that in her.
That plain Jane thing is a bunch of crap. Julia’s always been hot.
Bless you. I’m happy with plain Jane. You can’t win them all, Curt.
Just because she’s smart doesn’t mean she’s unattractive.
Exactly. I think a lot of people were quite surprised when at the end of Season 3 they had their love scene. It was like, “Oh, maybe not so plain Jane.”
I loved the scene early this season when Richmond, Scott and Stonebridge are in the car before you went into the bar to follow Max [Beasley’s] character. And you call them “wankers.” It was very fun and natural and comfortable. I realize you, Sully and Philip were acting, but it felt to me like the three of you also felt that affection.
I would definitely say that’s true—for sure. I remember the script didn’t say, “You guys are wankers.” It said something else. That’s a perfect example where I was like, “Well, I don’t think she would say that.”
I think what was written was quite American. I just said to the director how about if I do this. He was like, “All right but do it once the other way as well.” They actually kept in wankers, which I liked.
But yeah, Phil, Sully and I are actually the only characters who have been in it since the beginning. We were in it together from Day 1, just the three of us. So we go back a long way. We’ve been through a lot, the three of us. There’s a lot of affection there.
There’s also a lot of sort of frustration at times. We’re just like a dysfunctional family at this stage of the game, but I’m glad that you can see the relationship there because, you know, our relationship on set every day in a sense sort of mirrors their lives as a military team.
So the camaraderie, the hard work, the team playing. It’s the same thing, but different professions.
Back in the day you said that you weren’t recognized very much for “Strike Back” when you were just walking around. Has that changed?
I still think I look probably as myself very different than my character does. But certainly there’s a lot more negotiating the public than there used to be.
I was just recently on a flight back from Michigan and the guy sitting next to me on the plane kept looking [at me]. He was [staring] at me and I was like, “OK, I’m not making eye contact.”
Two hours into the flight I had to get up and go to the toilet and he just turned and said, “You just died on ‘Strike Back.’” I said, “Yes, and how have you seen the show because it’s not been released yet over here?”
He was totally busted. I said, “You have illegally downloaded, haven’t you?” Then he was ferociously trying to back peddle. I said, “Dude, it’s totally fine and yes I have just died on ‘Strike Back.’”
He told me he was a big fan. So that was heartwarming and lovely.
The fans have just been amazing. The support over the years has been great. I realized recently especially as the series is coming to the end and also the series is out in the UK now and particularly since Julia’s death, I feel quite overwhelmed by how much of an impact Julia has made on the viewers.
I always think of it as a boys’ show and we are supporting and because of that we always are very much in their shadow. It was quite lovely to know that actually that’s not the case and people have this genuine affection for Richmond and for the other characters, too.
A real relationship they have with them. And we’re not just supporting characters. We’re characters that mean a lot to the people that have been watching the show intensively. So I would say thank you to everyone. It’s so lovely.
Related: ‘Strike Back’ goes out on top
Do you have any favorite Julia moments?
Oh my God, the Rolodex through my head is spinning out of control.
OK, avenging Major Sinclair’s death has got to be up there for me. I think it was one of those defining moments where we got to see Julia in a very different light. That was just pure vengeance. And it was challenging and fun to shoot. It was emotional. It was great for the character.
I would say that the sequence leading up to the death scene and the death was also for me a defining moment in a very similar way. It was again something different for me. It was fun to shoot and a heroic, epic end.
What else? I can’t think under pressure! The stunts we did this year on a boat were like, “Oh, I might die today.” That was pretty fun.
I would say those are the two that stick out in my head for sure. But I’ll think of loads more when I put the phone down.
I had avenging Sinclair’s death, too. That’s one of mine.
It’s been an epic ride and one that I will treasure for sure. It’s weird. I think it’s one of those jobs that you’ll hold as a benchmark. I’ll always think of it very fondly.
So what’s up next?
Oh, I don’t know. Who knows? I just finished doing the Halo 5 game, which was very fun. Nothing that I’ve ever done before. I did motion capture and voiced one of the new characters for Halo 5. … I’ve got a couple of projects in the pipeline but nothing that I want to jinx by taking about it.
But there are a lot of things I want to do. Whether I get the opportunity to do them time will tell. I’m excited to sort of try something new now and see if I can do.
After playing a character that you know so well, it’s really time for me in all areas of my life to sort of step out of the comfort zone. “Strike Back” was such a wonderful bubble and it gives you the resources, the security. But, you know, that meal ticket’s up now so it’s back to the real world. I just want to push myself as far as I can and stretch myself and try new things.