I was so excited for the opportunity to interview Alin Sumarwata, current star of Cinemax’s Strike Back. As Gracie Novin, Alin has been a fan favorite from day 1 and was so gracious to share her precious time with us before heading off to begin shooting season 7!
First off, coming off of Neighbours in Australia, what drew you to Strike Back and to the character of Novin in particular?
I was blown away by the velocity and rugged authenticity of the combat sequences. Needless to say, Scott and Stonebridge are next level powerhouse duo.With this landscape of the show in mind, when my agents emailed the audition request for the character of Gracie Novin, it felt like everything went to a stand still. A soldier with a background serving in the Special Operations Engineer Regiment; A bonafide gear head who can take machinery apart, reassemble it, blow it up then fix it again is as bad-ass as it can get in my books.It was also a rare and golden opportunity to represent exceptional Australian female operators who only in very recent times have been granted front-line combat positions – Hell to the Yes Sir! or…Yes Ma’am!
Strike Back is such a physically demanding role, how do you prepare for that, and how do you keep that level of intensity going through the months of shooting?
As part of the recall auditions in London, we were required to undertake a boot camp day in Sussex. One of the activities was fire and movement drill where we were in a staggered line formation, leap frogging in forward offensive across the sloping field. We then had to retreat, fall on the ground, roll, jump up, shoot, retreat and repeat until we reached safety. By the time we finished my heart was beating so fast it was about to pop out of my throat.
It was the most physically demanding thing (apart from labour!) I had ever done. It was the relentless maneuvers, with the weight and handling of the rifle, which by the way I slammed my chin on the first time I went prone! Didn’t make that mistake again. I soon understood why soldiers do so many press-ups and pull-ups! I couldn’t imagine how much more my heart rate could take with the added adrenaline of an actual threat. So it became really apparent how much more work I had to put in for this role.
After that day my focus changed from weight loss to strength gain, core power and agility. During my second pregnancy I suffered severe sciatic nerve pain which made it excruciating to simply walk. The least painful way to move was ironically commando crawls on the ground where my arms did most the dragging.
After giving birth I was 20 kilos above my normal weight. I was in this comfort zone with my babies and my eating habits which at the time I wasn’t too fussed about. When this role came up the first thing I knew I had to say bye to was my 2am pantry feasts of shortbread cookies. I was still breastfeeding at the time and constantly ravenous. I took up cross fit, metabolic training, barre, pilates and returned to my old love, Kickboxing. A diet high in clean protein, dark greens and healthy fats and oils abated my sugar cravings and supported the intensive work out regime. A month before the shoot we trained intensely as a team in Jordan. It was a daily ritual from 7am: Weights and HIT training, Brazilian Jiu jiutsu and Rock climbing. We would then drive out to KASOTC to be trained in tactical weapons handling, live ammo targets, CQB drills into the night.
Once shooting started I would use idle moments on set whether waiting for scenes at unit base or transport, practicing weapons handling and weights training. The biggest challenge once shooting commenced was to maintain muscle mass with protein intake. Often the last thing you want is a chunk of chicken breast right before an action sequence. It was really easy to lose rhythm for appetite on set and skip necessary meal intakes.
We’ve seen you taking on bigger stunts each episode, what was the most exciting stunt for you to do? What would you like the ability to do next season?
My favourite stunt I have done so far never made it on the show. It’s a J turn in a vehicle. Warren and I had the opportunity to learn this as part of our training at KASOTC in Jordan. It was such an exhilarating feeling.
I really wanted to J turn the car out of the container yard at the beginning of Episode 5 but the grounds had been wet down and the safety team did not allow it in the short time frame we had to shoot that getaway scene. I will always welcome more driving and motor bike action sequences.
You seem very comfortable in an action role. You exude a casualness to your physicality that just screams Strike Back, what helped you find that within yourself? Are you that self-contained and confident in your day-to-day life?
Novin grew up in a small outback country town with a motto “Fight it, F&$@ it or drink it”. Laid back and casual is in her DNA. So that aspect of Novin’s background definitely colours my choice for her swagger. Although She’s cool and casual she’s also armoured with a sharpened fighting instinct ready to pounce and slay at a drop of a hat. I’m generally a bit more uptight and would most likely just run helter skelter for nearest safety!
We’ve just seen episode 5 and that incredible fight scene! You used weapon after weapon, driving those guys in some really seamless action, it was beautiful to watch. What was it like filming that crazy fight scene in the mansion?
I had a few hours to learn and rehearse that sequence the day before we shot it. I felt quite overwhelmed.
Paul Shapcott, our stunt coordinator advised me to relax and let it all just sink in when I got home that night. The next day Eli Rajeva, my amazing stunt trainer and stunt double performed the wide shot first up. It was seriously kick ass and everyone was buzzing. The plan was for me to come in and do the close up shots. Before they moved on, MJ Bassett said I should have a go at the wide shot. I looked over at Eli in silent panic, she chimed out “Yes of course you should, you can do it!” As I geared up for the take, Paul took me aside and gently said “take a deep breath, play the fight in your mind then just focus.” I told him I couldn’t seem to focus my head is spinning and I think I need some carbs. So I gobbled down a boiled potato from catering.
We went for the take. I ended the sequence splat on the floor not really knowing what just happened. Suddenly MJ Basset busts out of the vault room where the monitors were set up, hands in the air in absolute jubilee running down that corridor to give me a big hug while everyone was clapping and cheering. I didn’t know what the excitement was about at the time to be honest. I was keen to continue with other camera set ups and perfect the scene with close up shots.
And that’s exactly what we did. A good dose of all round bruises and scrapes, one stunt performer’s busted forehead and a number of broken prop pieces later they ended up going with the first one take shot we did at the beginning of the day.
A huge love bomb shout out to the entire stunt team, Steve “gladiator” Murray on steady camera, and that humble little potato for making that one shot happen.
Novin has some of the best lines in the show, she’s just so effortlessly snarky and hilarious. Are you able to improvise at all with the banter between the team? Who is the most like that behind the scenes?
Yes I thank our writer Jack Lothian for that and I’m also grateful he’s so generous and open to my improvs and suggestions.
I get to have a lot of fun with Novin’s lines and sprinkle some aussie flavour in them, so it can vary from “whoops, did I really say that “ and a chuffed feeling when they stay in the final edit. Warren Brown will often have great banter lines on offer. Don’t tell him I said that.
Novin showed some real vulnerability with Jensen in preparing for her undercover mission, seeming to need to be reassured that what they do it actually worth the cost. Is this something we’re going to see more of, and can you tell us what brings up these doubts for Novin?
She entered the Army as an escape from an abusive past but what made her stay was a sense of purpose she found through service and mission. Despite the casual demeanor she is cloaked in, death and destruction does weigh heavy for Novin.
I would imagine if you are in a world, under pressure with persistent imminent threats and surrounded with constant killing, there has to be points in time where you question it all to gain some kind of perspective again in order to realign your motivation moving forward.
Long time Strike Back fans are especially excited about the return of Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton for the last 2 episodes this season. Can you tell us a little about working with them?
Absolute, inside out back to front upside down blast. Besides being insanely badass slick operators they have such a generously warm, fun energy.
Right before the take when we come down the colosseum stairs in the final episode, Phil and Sully started reminiscing and teasing each other about how much they missed working on the show. They have beautifully seamless banter chemistry on and off screen. I also remember the way the crew embraced them when they arrived. It truly was an emotional and magical reunion, a return of the prodigal sons you could say, it literally made me teary to see how much they were missed and loved.
Also it was wonderful to watch the short hand workings between those boys and MJ Bassett when we were blocking out scenes. I was also floored when Sully said to me how about we swap places that way you get more kills on camera when we come down the stairs. I mean, what a champ! That’s a weird thing to be thankful for but this is Strike Back after all. In short, neither of those boys are dickheads in any way, but boy it’s fun calling them that as Novin.
I found it fascinating that you have not one, but two Bachelor’s degrees! Did you have plans other than acting when you were in school?
Thanks to the encouragement of my English teacher in junior High school I auditioned and gained a scholarship at the Australian Theatre for Young People.
This fueled my passion for performance and I later changed schools and completed my high school certificate at Newtown Performing Arts School. Most of my drama colleagues went on to audition for colleges in the dramatic arts, which when I look back I kind of wish I did too. For some reason I put pressure on myself to take up higher education in a field that would guarantee me stability and good income when I graduated. My parents never put this pressure on me they were and have always been incredibly supportive of my artistic ventures. During my university studies I worked part time as a junior clerk in a law firm and an accounting firm.
It was a great opportunity and I learnt so much in that time but that little voice inside kept crying out and soon after graduating I took a u turn and pursued acting again.
Are you working on any other projects you can tell us about?
NOPE CUZ SEASON 7 JUST GOT ANNOUNCED Y’ALL. 🙂
As you know, Strike Back draws a huge audience that is current and former military, we drew questions from a support group for veterans with PTSD. These veterans are huge Strike Back fans and feel a strong connection to the show because of their experiences. These are the questions that they sent in.
The struggle with PTSD/PTSS was a significant part of both the Stonebridge and Scott characters. Aside from all the action and great stories, it’s a big reason why we connected. We’ve only seen a couple of episodes here, but can see the potential with the new team to deal with that as well. Will that be something you see Novin dealing with?
Novin’s struggle with PTSD isn’t as overt as Wyatt’s story-line in this season. She seems to push things aside and carry on like nothing has happened. Certainly for now it’s the only way she knows how to survive in the red zone. It doesn’t mean the darkness doesn’t exist or threaten to consume her. Certainly from her background she has a high threshold for pain but everyone has their breaking point.
Her relationship with Jensen threatened to surface all her vulnerabilities. That’s why she rejected him. His death will no doubt impact her deeply and will be haunted with the sorrow of that loss.
Did you find the transition back to “normal, everyday” life a challenge after such an intense filming schedule? How intentional were you about adjusting and are there any specific things you employed for that transition that you’d care to share?
Very much so, I arrived back in Australia and hit a pretty low point. I was physically and emotionally burnt out. I was warned by a number of Strike Back alumni about Post traumatic Strike Back Syndrome but still didn’t think it would hit me that hard.
I spent a week away, completely solo to decompress. Something I hadn’t done for years. Sheer exhaustion and jet lag can play funny tricks on you so first on the agenda had to be nothing but rest and relaxation. Having that time by the ocean was the ultimate gift of peace and renewal. Although exhausted from the intensity I found myself addicted to it and felt such a sense of loss and lack of purpose when it was over. I would either get in a very restless state or just not able to move out of bed. Setting a routine (for myself and not just the needs of my children) became a crucial factor for me to climb out of the slump I was in. I found if I was able to train first thing in the morning it would set a positive pace for the rest of the day. I would struggle on the days I didn’t get the opportunity to train in the morning.
I committed myself to journaling pen to paper every day for 2 months. I made the time to paint and started playing the piano and guitar again.
It might be the last thing you feel like doing but especially during those low beats in life I think it’s important to engage in activities you would normally enjoy and commit to doing it regularly, as it draws you into the present. And from that sense of gratitude in the present, I found my grounding and was able to move forward again.
We’re big fans of Gracie Novin! She’s clearly a born leader, even though she doesn’t necessarily have the position by rank. She also clearly is carrying a lot of loss/pain with her and this season only intensifies that. As an actress, how would you like to see this play out for your character?
Thank you so much I really have had the thrill of my career life playing her.
I would like the rawness of her pain to implode. I would like to see her at her most vulnerable state, both physically and psychologically and still have to fight through it. I would love the audience to deeply connect with her pain and her triumphs and for her character to be one of the vehicles that demonstrates the power of the the human spirit and that everything we desire is within us.
From your social media, which we love, it appears you’re continuing to train and stay in fighting shape on what is hopefully a hiatus. Is that true and if so what new interests have you developed as a result of the show?
I was introduced to kickboxing back in University, I stopped entirely when I got pregnant with my first child but this show has reignited that fire. I also discovered the Filipino marital art practice of Escrima stick fighting when we were training for the pool hall fight in Episode 6. I have absolutely fallen in love with them. A lot of the drills with the sticks become a form of active meditation for me. It’s hard to describe … you should try it! I’ve only had a limited time and opportunity on ranges (mostly whilst in LA) but I enjoy the practice of target shooting. I would definitely continue this training as a sport.
How have the many physical/mental demands of filming Strike Back changed how you approach life in general? Any techniques or skills that continue on in your daily life outside of filming?
Be prepared and adaptable, so you can roll with the punches.
I came across this quote for the first time in the context of firearms training, it’s an Ancient Greek quote that really stuck with me “under pressure we don’t don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
I consciously remind myself to let go of things I can’t control and embrace the things I can and those are: discipline, focus and effort.
Thank you again for taking the time to answer all our questions! Is there anything else you’d like your fans to know?
I am so grateful to have the opportunity to kick about in Novin’s boots again in season 7. Thank you for embracing and supporting the new section 20. We want the next season to dig deeper and be an even bigger and thrilling ride for you all.
The season finale of Strike Back airs Friday, April 6th at 10/9c. But don’t worry, Alin will be back for more in season 7!!
You can also hit me up on @nolenag03 anytime to chat about our favorite kick-ass action show!