“Strike Back” director/writer/producer Michael J. Bassett had a novel answer when he was asked if he wanted a “Michelle Yeoh-type” to play the big bad in the Cinemax series’ final season.
“I said, ‘Has anybody asked Michelle Yeoh?’” Bassett told me during a phone interview, adding that the response he received was, “Well, she’s not going to say yes to this, is she?”
She did. Series exec producer Andy Harries had produced a film in which Yeoh starred, so he got in touch with the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” actress, showed her some episodes and the pitch was made, Bassett said.
“She said, ‘This is absolutely great stuff. I’ve never done television. Wouldn’t this be fun?’” Bassett said.
Yeoh is probably the biggest name among all the talented actors who have starred in season-long roles in “Strike Back” over its five seasons (including its first British season).
She leads an impressive list of guest stars in the final season that includes names a lot of viewers may not recognize, but once they see the actors they’ll remember past roles. Will Yun Lee (“The Wolverine,” “Hawaii Five-0”), Max Beesley (“Suits”), “Spartacus” stars Christian Antidormi and Dustin Clare, Leo Gregory (“Green Street Hooligans”), Michael McElhatton (“Game of Thrones”), UFC fighter Michael Bisping, Adrian Paul (“Highlander”), Joseph Gatt (“Banshee”) and Masa Yamaguchi (“The Wolverine”) appear in roles of various sizes this season.
“It’s amazing the people you discover who are fans of ‘Strike Back.’ These are weird people who just like the show,” Bassett said, correcting himself quickly. “Well, they’re not weird people—it’s just weird to realize that they love the show.”
Yeoh plays North Korean spy Li-Na, who went deep under cover years ago and married British diplomat Robin Foster (Tim McInnerny—another one!) to become known as Mei Foster.
Spoilers ahead if you’re not caught up.
Mei fooled not only her husband, but also Section 20 leader Col. Phillip Locke (Robson Green)—at least until the season’s second episode when she killed her hubby. Section 20 agents now are hunting her as she cements a deal with the Japanese Yakuza mafia.
Li-Na is one of the toughest foes Section 20 has ever faced, and that’s exactly the way Bassett wanted it. Yeoh also wanted her character to be more than “a crazy villain,” Bassett said. The writers made sure Li-Na had an emotional arc to play as well as one that drove the season’s story.
“We really dig into the skin of the villain a little bit, which I think is great,” Bassett said. “And she made us do that.”
In upcoming episodes, Li-Na will have “a kind of Bonnie and Clyde story” with another North Korean, Kwon, played by Will Yun Lee, whom Bassett said is “a fantastic martial artist but also a brilliant actor.” (See more of Will Yun Lee in the video above.)
Bassett, as well as series stars Sullivan Stapleton and Philip Winchester, believe Yeoh fit right into the “Strike Back” world.
“Michelle Yeoh came in as a massive film actor and just got down and dirty with us,” Winchester, who plays Section 20 Sgt. Michael Stonebridge, said in a separate interview during San Diego Comic Con. “It was like second nature for her. She jumped right into this. It was amazing.”
Christian Antidormi is another guest star receiving top grades from the show’s regular cast and crew. He plays Finn, the teen son of Stapleton’s character, Sgt. Damien Scott.
Scott only learned at the end of last season that Finn even existed. The two met for the first time in last week’s episode when Finn showed up in Bangkok to find his father.
“It was actually a great relationship to explore,” Stapleton told me during another phone interview. “He’s just a great guy and we got along really well.”
Bassett wanted Finn to be a chip off the old block. In other words, someone who could charm the ladies and survive an ambush minutes after landing in Bangkok.
Check and check.
“It was like finding a kid who could plausibly be the offspring of Sullivan Stapleton,” Bassett said. “I think Christian did a great job. He just didn’t quite know what the hell he stepped into when he got off the plane into Bangkok in the middle of our craziness.”
That craziness includes much more than being chased by Yakuza henchmen in the jungle. (Keep watching.)
Related: Michelle Lukes looks back on ‘Strike Back’
The director also wanted to find actors who could believably outfight or outshoot his stars’ characters, Stonebridge and Scott. Viewers already saw British actor Max Beesley and UFC fighter Michael Bisping as thuggish cousins Ray and Aaron McQueen, respectively. Bisping, as Aaron, knocked the crap out of Scott and Stonebridge while Ray gave them the run-around in the first two episodes of the season.
Viewers briefly meet the mercenaries Faber (Dustin Clare) and Mason (Leo Gregory) in the Aug. 21 fourth episode. They encounter the Section 20 agents on the island hideout of the Yakuza, seemingly to help.
“We introduce them at the beginning of the season and they disappear,” he said. “When they come back toward the end you realize they have a job to do and it’s not a very pleasant one.”
Bassett credits Clare for helping create his character, whom we know little about right now because, well, spoilers people! “Dustin is extraordinary,” Bassett said. “He knew what he was doing.”
Clare, like Yeoh, Antidormi and others, worked with the producers and writers to give their characters extra depth even when they appeared in just one or two episodes. That was the case throughout the show’s run.
Stapleton said the caliber of actors the show has attracted to do smaller roles proved “how special the show was,” adding, “And this was a very good year.”
For Winchester, terrific guest stars were another part of the “not-so-secret formula” of “Strike Back.” The actors, he said, had to hit the ground running because there was never much time to prepare for those roles.
“Our guest stars just killed it,” he said. “They almost take all the pressure off of Sully and I because we can walk around and do our buddy thing and they carry these massive arcs and do these massive things.”
“Strike Back” airs new episodes at 9 p.m. CT Fridays on Cinemax with repeats throughout the week.
Related: Strike Back final season review