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Philip Winchester has already sized me up and it’s only taken him a few seconds. The quiet calculations behind his green eyes tell me he’s already studied his surroundings – which include me. These observations have told him I’m not a threat, how many exits there are and the licence plates of the two cars that drove past as he entered the building.
He walks in with a measured energy, an easy-going efficiency that discreetly reveals a snapshot of his fitness. Even if his grace of movement, his gun-barrel straight posture and his stealthy powers of observation weren’t enough to confirm his military skills, his handshake gives it away. After gingerly retrieving my hand from his metallic grip, I try to hide the fact that my fingers don’t work anymore – unfortunately, it’s my writing hand. While I coax some life back into it for the interview, I do some observing of my own.
Winchester isn’t a tall man or one burdened by unnecessary bulk (like many infantry grunts); he’s crafted like a typical Special Forces soldier – light, average height, but packed with both explosive power and stamina. They’re stripped down until they’re nothing but muscle, sinew and bone – more of a medic’s scalpel than a cleaver. These soldiers run half-marathons with half their body weight on their back, and that’s before they even engage the enemy. Winchester may not be a Special Forces soldier in real life, but he’s trained his mind and body so he performs like one.
As part of his preparation for his role as Sgt. Michael Stonebridge in Strike Back, he spent countless hours with experts from the British Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS), Delta Force and even our own local Special Forces. He’s jumped out of planes, undergone extensive weapons training, joined real-life army patrols and night operations, done room clearance training with M4 rifles and shot live ammo in “killhouses” (just like the infamous Hogan’s Alley that the FBI use), and worked closely with the military men so he could do all his own stunt work while remaining true to the flinty-eyed, stone-cold killers who taught him how to become a Special Forces soldier. However, you could argue that Winchester has trained for this role his whole life. Born into a farming family in the small town of Belgrade, Montana in the US, Winchester spent his youth outdoors lifting hay and driving tractors all day long. “I’ve always taken care of myself,” he says. “I hung out with athletes, baseball players, football players and I did the loner sports like skiing and golf, but it was always the acting that kept me going.”
Winchester’s father took part in community theatre, so he grew up backstage with his dad as his mother worked nights in a nursing home. “The actors taught me how to sword fight, read Shakespeare and how to use your voice,” says Winchester. At the same time, he was using all his free time to train and do weights, even during study time at school. “Along with my friends, I started lifting weights,” explains Winchester. “I used milk gallon jugs for arm curls, drilled a pull-up bar into my room, and trained hard to emulate the guys I saw on magazine covers.”
This hard work ethic has paid off in both physical results and with his acting career. “I was lucky to get a part in a film when I was 14 years old near my hometown. Dean Semler directed it and he took me under his wing. He’s just been given a lifetime achievement award – he’s an amazing director and cinematographer,” says Winchester. “He showed me that I could do this, and he said: ‘You’ve got to put your head down and work your nuts off.’”
The milk bottle training and the pull-ups paid off too. “All this work never showed until one summer where suddenly the testosterone flowed and I grew into my body,” says Winchester. “I went from being a gangly, scrawny teenager until I hit 16, where I grew 15cm in just one summer. Ever since then I’ve enjoyed the training – it’s a release, and a great way of beating a crap day at work.”
Winchester moved to London to study drama and found that it was a very laddish culture filled with drinking and partying and no emphasis on training or being healthy. “I remember my drama teachers teasing me about my weight training, and they said it would ruin my movement capabilities,” says Winchester. One of the drama teacher’s even wrote a note saying: “Bruce Lee has muscles for a reason, why does Philip?” Winchester couldn’t understand why they were so angry that he looked after himself physically – he already knew he wanted to do action movies.
“I told them that I loved the stage and Shakespeare, but I thought that action movies suited me and it’s where I could do well,” says Winchester. “I was brought up on Die Hard and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and I felt no shame in saying that’s what I wanted to do.” While most of the drama teachers opposed Winchester’s way of thinking initially, some of them finally got on board and started supporting him. “It was all an important part of my career – it was good being around people who weren’t afraid of saying who they were,” says Winchester.
The benefit for us is that he’s honed his craft, and his body, into the perfect action movie blueprint and you can harness his secrets to turn your own physique into a lethal weapon.
– Arthur Jones