It didn't take long for Chicago native Milauna Jemai Jackson to grab the attention of "Strike Back" fans.
"Don't try that charm shit on me," Kim Martinez, Jackson's character, snapped at womanizing soldier Sgt. Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) in the Season 3 premiere. He'd just told her she's "even lovelier in the flesh."
Now the hard-hitting DEA agent has joined up with Scott and his partner, Sgt. Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester), and the crack counterterrorist unit Section 20 in its mission to stop an international baddie with ties to a Colombian drug lord. She's quickly established that she isn't taking crap from anyone—not even a lothario like Scott.
"It's a reflection of who I am," Jackson told me in July during San Diego Comic-Con International. "I can honestly detect BS when I see it."
Jackson credits her single mother with instilling that BS meter. Raised on the South Side, Jackson split time living with her mother and her grandparents in order to attend a safe school. She was acting from an early age in church programs and community theater before enrolling in the performing arts program at Marie Curie Metropolitan High School, where she was influenced by another strong female role model.
"Every day working with Miss Lillian Monkus, may she rest in peace ... she honed my craft in a realistic way because it prepared me for this industry," Jackson said, adding that Monkus taught how important it was to take acting seriously.
Jackson attended a few colleges before landing at UIC, where she started doing commercials and industrial films. She moved to L.A. in 2002 and on her orientation day at UCLA she found out she'd landed a role on an HBO pilot "and that was the last part of my academic year."
Her first credited role came two years later in an episode of "Cold Case." Since then she has appeared in several TV shows, the 2010 film "Blood Done Sign My Name" and was a series regular in "Squad 85," a 2012 comedy that aired on Youtube's YOMYOMF channel.
When Jackson booked her "Strike Back" audition, she hadn't seen the show but was intrigued. So she checked out some of the action in online clips.
"I was like, ‘There's no way I'm going to get this! There's no way. This is so not my strength,'" she said. "You never realize what your strengths are until you get pushed to limits. And that's the beauty of ‘Strike Back'—it pushed me to limits.
"And I'm now aware of anything being possible. I possess it; I just have to be afforded the opportunity to present it."
Just a few weeks after her audition, Jackson was in Johannesburg, South Africa, being put through her paces by the show's "hard core" military adviser, Paul Hornsby. The former Special Forces soldier trains cast members in hand-to-hand combat, weapons work and other military techniques to make the action as realistic as possible. He told Jackson, "You can do this and look authentic, if you follow my advice," she said, adding with laugh. "There were times I didn't want to, but I had to."
Despite the extreme trials of filming in 100-degree weather in the South African wilderness, Jackson's glad she did, because she loves her character.
"I just felt like she was such an amazing woman that I wanted to know her," she said. "As [actors] we're always talking about characters that enrich our lives in some way, that are multi-dimensional and they fulfill us. It's rare you get that when you're not an A-list celebrity or a B-list celebrity, or a celebrity that is known as doing great character work."
Jackson happily reports that show veterans Winchester and Stapleton gave her their seal of approval.
"Usually I don't toot my own horn," she said. "But the guys have given me freedom and they've said that I've done it. So I'm just repeating what they've said. These aren't my words; these are their words. According to them I'm kicking some major ass."
Jackson and I talked more about the role and the show. You can watch our interview in the videos below, or read the QA after the videos. (It's the same stuff.) After the interview clips, check out Jackson in action in a Cinemax clip. If you can't see the videos below, try my Youtube Channel by clicking here.
New episodes of "Strike Back" air at 9 p.m. CT Fridays and repeat througout the week on Cinemax.
Did you take to the character of Kim Martinez immediately?
I did in terms of what her strengths were. I just felt like she was such an amazing woman that I wanted to know her. ... So when I read it I absolutely felt like this was something I wanted to do. I just didn't know if I was equipped; I had to do training in hand-to-hand combat. I had to do military training. I had to do weapons training. I had to learn military jargon. I had to become proficient in a lot of areas.