Strike Back: Inside The Mind of Jamie Bamber’s Colonel Coltrane

Jamie Bamber joins the cast of Strike Back and fills us in on his damaged new character.

Section 20 is back once again for Strike Back: Revolution, which can only mean more gunfights, car chases, one-liners and needless property destruction. It’s a formula that’s worked well throughout the show’s run, so there’s no reason to stop now.

This season (billed as Strike Back season 6 in the U.S. and season 7 in the U.K.), which is now airing on Cinemax, opens with Mac (Warren Brown), Wyatt (Daniel MacPherson) and Gracie (Alin Sumarwata) being reactivated to chase down a stolen nuclear warhead. This season will also dig a little deeper into the personal lives of the team. Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica) joins the cast this year, playing Section 20’s new commanding officer Alexander Coltrane. It’s a role previously played by the likes of Andrew Lincoln, Rhona Mitra and Robson Green, though experience has shown it’s not always a part that’s very long-lived either.

We spoke to Mr. Bamber about his character Coltrane, what it was like to jump into the Strike Back team, and the training process for the role.

DEN OF GEEK: What can you tell us about your character, Colonel Alexander Coltrane?

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Jamie Bamber: Coltrane comes from a family of soldiers, the military elite, officer class, public school, Welsh Guards. He could have expected a prestigious career that lead to the very top but, early on, he decided to go into the special forces, a move which inherently surrenders any privilege he may have had. Officers’ ranks mean nothing in the special forces: no saluting, no uniform, no way of identifying who is in charge, every soldier has completed the same selection, is expected to carry the same load.

He may have the rank of Colonel but it has been earned as a soldier. The other important fact that Jack Lothian, our writer-showrunner, gifted me- Coltrane is damaged goods. He lost a number of young men in the Helmand on a mission of his own conception that went badly wrong and feels personally responsible for those deaths. He has questioned his own judgement, his right to lead, and his own right to life. As this season begins he has come out of semi-retirement, numbed by the bottle and by routine training jobs in far corners of the British Commonwealth. Section 20 represent his chance at “a measure of salvation,” which is ironically the title of the Battlestar Galactica episode also directed by Bill Eagles in 2006. 

When I first read the role I was given an A4 character description that included the following about Col. Alexander Coltrane- “What if James Bond became “M”?” That was all I needed…

Is Coltrane the kind of commanding officer who sits behind monitors or does he get his hands dirty in the field?

When I accepted the role all I had was the first script, which is very much Coltrane with the earpiece, in a bunker, directing from afar. And I was absolutely fine with that. I knew that were he ever to venture into the fray he would be able to handle himself but wasn’t sure how often that would happen. Turns out it happened a lot, especially towards the latter half of the season, for which I am so grateful because to do Strike Back without getting your fight on is, well; it’s not really doing Strike Back. As actors we want to be part of “The Company,” which, elegantly, is a term both theatrical and military. I wouldn’t have been part of “The Company” without getting tactical with some hand to hand mortal combat, and hearing the tinkle of shell casings.

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Is Coltrane by the book or is he flexible with the team’s frequent tendency to go rogue?

Coltrane is more than capable of taking initiative in the field. He does not call it “going rogue” however; that would be far too melodramatic. He prefers “off book,” again a theatrical term, and he would say acting without direct authorisation is sometimes a necessity when operating covertly. What he will not tolerate is that same initiative being extended to those in his command.

My watchword for Coltrane is “control,” almost an anagram. He is only ever comfortable when he feels he has it. He does not trust 20. He does not like their record of ill discipline. And they have certainly not yet earned the right to their own initiative. He does trust their skills as soldiers however. As soldiers he expects them to obey his command. Whenever they do not do so they risk sparking the detonator that can set Coltrane off because he is in a fight to retain control – over them, himself, his career, his past.

How is Coltrane’s relationship with Mac, Wyatt, and Gracie?

Initially it is one of respectful distrust. Profound respect for their abilities but a deep distrust of what they have become: egotistical, ill-disciplined and disrespectful. But he knows he will have to earn theirs too. He is aware what the army thinks of him. So it cuts both ways. A measure of salvation.

Were you aware or had you seen Strike Back before signing on this season?

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I was very aware of Strike Back but had never really watched an episode of the series. I had a meeting way back in 2009/10 with Andy Harries about potentially doing the show and they had sent me the Richard Armitage / Andy Lincoln TV movie which I think I did watch. But I was moving back to LA at the time after doing Law & Order: UK, and I remember not pursuing it because I wanted to do an LA-based show. I had also done an SAS show in the recent past. Since then I have had friends and colleagues who worked on Strike Back as directors and actors. So I heard the stories! And it seemed like a mad house; it had a reputation in my mind’s eye for chaos. I have to say that when I got to Malaysia I found very little chaos but a pretty extraordinary team, capable of producing jaw dropping set pieces with scraps of time in a very ambitious schedule. I was impressed.

It was only after I got there that I actually watched three episodes of season six. I was blown away by Warren, Dan and Alin. I gawped at the action sequences and at their proficiency with the tactical stuff and their characterizations. It was very exciting to be part of their chemistry. Benchmark set.

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How have you found joining the show’s ensemble?

I am so proud of the ensemble. As I said I admired it from watching season six and then had to live up to their very high standards, particularly their attention to detail in getting the tactical stuff, the weapon skills, absolutely right. They were quite passive aggressive about it, bemoaning the production for not giving “us” the time and training, always within our hearing. I say “us” – they meant me, Yasemin, and Alec. But they were right. They were just letting us know how seriously they take it, and that we should too if we want to belong.

I remember Edward James Olmos doing the same thing at the beginning of Battlestar; this could be goofy science fiction but not as long as he was going to be involved. The first sight of an alien with three eyes and he would be walking; until then this shit is deadly serious. But Section 20 were also very welcoming on a personal level and we spent six months together on the other side of the world. I count them all as dear friends and they have my respect and love. Strike Back is a trial by fire, the bonds are forged in the flames of physical toil and interdependence; they are strong.

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Did you have to go through any intensive training for the part?

I didn’t do any training at all before arriving in Malaysia. I keep fit always and felt the C.O job would not require that much extra from me. I had done soldier stuff before after all. That perception shifted when I was told they had a personal trainer for me and would be feeding me four protein rich meals a day. I never managed to eat all four. But I did make the most of the PT. And I got into the best shape since my Apollo days. As for weapons and tactical stuff — after the Alin/Warren/Dan guilt trip we made the most of whatever time we had and fired countless training rounds with Paul Biddiss, our man mountain, ex-Para, gun guru. I can’t say I ever reached his highest bench mark (“airborne”) but I got a couple of respectful nods along the way. 

Did your experience with a previous Chris Ryan originated series – Ultimate Force – help you get into the right mindset for Strike Back: Revolution?

I had worked with Chris Ryan. Even acted a few scenes with him; ever wondered how to put fear into the heart of a special forces warrior? Say ‘rolling’ and ‘action’ and point a camera his way. But to be serious, there is always something useful when playing these roles from just having spent time with the real deal. So yes, every gig teaches you something and chats with Chris normalized some of what it takes to serve in something like section 20. And it needs to be normal. It is to them. But my Ultimate Force to Strike Back journey is one of green Captain to hardened Colonel over 15 years. I was more conscious, when playing Coltrane, of the wonderful Miles Anderson, who had himself a military background, and played our Ultimate Force C.O.

Section 20 will be working closely with Yasemin Allen’s Russian operative Katrina Zarkov this season. How does that dynamic affect the team?

It lies at the very heart of everything. We have an FSB officer sharing her intel and privy to ours. It is an ad hoc relationship of wilful trust and mutually assured destruction. It is always there, in every scene, and could spell disaster at any time. It represents Coltrane taking the greatest risks, going out on a limb, doing whatever it takes to get the task done. His strength and weakness all at once. As for the team it clearly has the potential to divide them, or unite them in common enmity, at any moment. Cracks will appear but how do those cracks align? Jack Lothian knows what he’s up to — her presence brings tremendous dramatic potential. With as little as a look.

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The commanding officer of Section 20 isn’t a role that typically comes with the longest lifespan. Does that create any nerves when it comes to reading the latest script?

I went into this with my eyes open. If I use what Jack has given me than hopefully that will be later rather than sooner. But I am under no illusions. It’s not whether but when… and maybe who… and how…

Strike Back: Revolution airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.