Strike Back star Alec Newman talks playing the perfect villain

Alec Newman stars as Pavel Kuragin in Cinemax's Strike Back. Photo Credit: Sophie Mutevalian/Courtesy of Cinemax.
Alec Newman stars as Pavel Kuragin in Cinemax's Strike Back. Photo Credit: Sophie Mutevalian/Courtesy of Cinemax. /

Strike Back revealed all about Pavel Kuragin in its finale, and Alec Newman spoke about how he played the season’s villain – and how he went out.

Every TV series needs an antagonist, and for Strike Back that was Pavel Kuragin. He transformed from the Russian sidekick who was kind of adorable into the unhinged soldier determined to start a new world war.

It was a tremendous performance by Alec Newman, who had to take his character through such a major arc without giving anything about Pavel’s true nature away—and made him someone that audiences both loved, and loved to hate.

With Strike Back Season 6 complete, Alec reflected on the experience of portraying Pavel, how he assessed Pavel’s relationship with Katrina Zarkova (Yasemin Kay Allen), and his character’s fate in the season finale.

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for the Strike Back season finale.

If you missed the Strike Back finale, you can watch it on demand through Cinemax, the MAX GO app, or on Hulu and Amazon Video (subscription required).

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Hidden Remote: What’s the reception you’ve been getting since Pavel was revealed to be Strike Back‘s main villain?

Alec Newman: It’s been very cool and it’s perfectly in line with the experience I had shooting this season. What’s been interesting is because it’s been this kind of slow burn with Pavel, the reaction has obviously come later than the early going.

You’re not really sure who this guy is or whether he fits…and then of course as the story kind of whips up, you realize what Kingfisher actually is, that it’s connected to this man, and obviously the reaction on social media has kicked in a little bit.

What’s interesting in the way the season unfolds is because of the way [showrunner] Jack Lothian writes, I found out bits and pieces of the backstory later on, and fortunately when those bits of backstory were revealed to me as we went through the season, they matched up with pretty much what we’d been doing, which is good. The villains in Strike Back are always complex, they’re always quite well-crafted, but without robbing the show of that kind of Wild West feel it always had.

HR: Did you know that Pavel was the true antagonist, or was that part of the information you got later into the season?

Newman: When I was in the casting process, I was given one sheet of paper with a very rough sketch of who this man was—who he seemed to be and who he actually was, and a little bit of what was going on—but it was very vague. As it turned out, it was very vague because it hadn’t all been written yet.

I knew what he was in the early going and I knew roughly where it was going to end up [but] everything in the middle I didn’t really have a clue about. I obviously knew there was a lot more to him than what features in those early episodes; Jack filled me in a little about his Russian Special Forces background and I knew that I would feature very heavily in the later parts of the season. That was about it.

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Alec Newman stars as Pavel Kuragin in Cinemax’s Strike Back. Photo Credit: Sophie Mutevalian/Courtesy of Cinemax. /

HR: He escalates pretty quickly; in Episode 59 he shoots up an entire nightclub on his own. What were the Strike Back Season 6 highlights for you?

Newman: Just handed two mini machine guns and being told to have at it—and doing numerous takes as well. There was a seven-year-old boy in me, without a doubt, who was enjoying that day and doing everything I could do to not giggle after every take.

I think just to be able to play a character that changes so much over the ten episodes. You rarely get to do that sort of thing, and it was very satisfying as an actor to go from this reasonably geeky sort of awkward guy to the man with a significantly shorter haircut who’s also gone over the edge some distance.

There’s a bit of his brain that’s not firing properly, and he can’t see anything except a very extreme solution to his agenda. But he does have an agenda, and that’s what made it really satisfying.

HR: But then there’s the matter of his relationship with Katrina. How would you characterize it, as Pavel clearly cares about her, yet is also willing to kill her?

Newman: We had to work very hard together to track that relationship because it’s set up immediately, I think my first day of shooting was that love scene with Yasemin, and we’d barely had a chance to say hello. So the relationship is set up immediately and he does have feelings for her, and that, in a way, is not his weakness but his salvation.

There’s a very nice scene that Jack wrote by the payphone, where Pavel is effectively saying goodbye to Katrina, but also goodbye to that humane side of himself. I was really pleased because although it was difficult to keep disciplined and tracking the story between Pavel and Katrina because there’s so much going on, having that scene as a way to bolt down an ending of sorts was really handy and [it was] really well crafted by Jack.

HR: Being the villain also means you have to take the fall. What was your reaction to Pavel’s death scene in the Strike Back season finale, and what was it like to film?

Newman: I was pretty sure looking at the previous seasons of Strike Back that Pavel was going to get his just desserts. But there was a teeny part of me that wondered if he could sneak away and turn up on the other side of Europe, and that’s exceedingly unlikely given what actually happens.

The final scene with Katrina is fun because, in true Strike Back fashion, it mentions all of that backstory in two or three lines. What his name is, what his deal is and the fact she knows all about it—and then bang, it’s all over. I think I was supposed to get shot in the head in an early script version, and I think for technical reasons they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t put a squib on my face, so I was like well, I’m not getting shot in the head, and there were two body shots eventually.

Then they were supposed to shoot my face in a shot which would be part of that huge explosion that happens, and just for reasons of time—I think that was the day I was leaving—I didn’t shoot that. So a little part of me went well, I wonder if there’s any way that Pavel could somehow wiggle out of this. But I think that he’s [made] such a heinous plot, the rules of television and the rules of Strike Back justice mean that’s never going to happen and he’s well and truly a goner.

But it was a lot of fun to try and inhabit for a little while. It was the most fun I’ve had in maybe forever. It’s an absolutely fantastic show to be a part of, and as I say, most days you’re fighting to keep a smile off your face during the take.

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Alec Newman and Yasemin Kay Allen star as Pavel Kuragin and Katrina Zarkova in Cinemax’s Strike Back. Photo Credit: Sophie Mutevalian/Courtesy of Cinemax. /

HR: Speaking of his real name, the show kept audiences guessing about that for a long time. Were you making up your own names for Pavel along the way?

Newman: Yeah, I was. I think the way that Jack went with his name was pretty cool, because it seems run of the mill and that was part of the point about this man. He has something to prove. He’s average and normal, and he wants to stick out…and that insecurity in his backstory holsters the nationalist part of him, fighting for the dominance of the great bear Mother Russia.

[It] makes him very dangerous. Obviously, he’s a trained killer, being a former SFB operative. There is a very vulnerable history to him, which is cool. I think. It made a lot of human sense, so you can see he didn’t have to worry about where it was all coming from.

HR: You were so fantastic on Strike Back, so even though Pavel Kuragin is finished, what would you recommend to people who want to see more of Alec Newman?

Newman: I’m very proud of some of my smaller work. [There’s] an independent film called Greyhawk, where I played a veteran who was blinded in the Afghanistan conflict who loses his guide dog. This whole movie is sort of an allegory of man searches for himself, but he’s trying to find his guide dog on this broken down council estate in London. The little gems like that, which don’t necessarily have as big of an impact as a show like Strike Back, but bring me a lot of pride when I look back at them.

A couple years before Strike Back, I did a thing in Thailand. Paul Spurrier—who wrote and directed a film called The Forest which did very well on Netflix—we made a thing called Eullenia. I play a billionaire serial killer whose name is Marcus Hammond, and it’s another piece of work I’m proud of. It was made on a shoestring budget and it looks amazing. You don’t have the same red tape as you do if you shoot in Britain or the States, in terms of locations. It was shot pretty guerrilla-style, but it looks very smart; it has to be because of the world that the billionaire character lives in. I’ve seen it and I’m very proud of it.

It’s fun to be in these shows that have a huge audience, and the really impressive thing about being in the Strike Back gang just for a short while is, the fanbase is incredible. People really love the show and I don’t think there’s anything quite like it on television. They’re talking about the one shot they did in episode 9; that technically is something if it was done in a movie. there would be articles in The Hollywood Reporter about it. It’s an incredible show, and I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it.

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Strike Back will return for Season 7 at a later date. For more on Strike Back and other Cinemax shows, follow the Cinemax category at Hidden Remote.