Jack Reacher is a mountain of a man. A former U.S. Army Military Police major with extensive investigative and combat experience who now lives — to use his word — as a “hobo.” He is a drifter, traveling from town to town across the United States, occasionally finding himself in trouble, occasionally seeking it out — as.was the case in Season 2 of the Amazon Prime series “Reacher,” a smash hit for the streamer based on the on the Jack Reacher book series by Lee Child.
If you’ve seen the show or read the books or seen any previous adaptation of the “Jack Reacher” universe — and just going by sheer odds, you probably have — you already know all of that. Now, Amazon has renewed “Reacher” for Season 3. It will be an adaptation of “Persuader,” the seventh book in the series. And returning with its titular star Alan Ritchson is Maria Sten
Sten plays Frances Neagley, Reacher’s colleague, a retired U.S. Army master sergeant, his confidante and in many ways equal.
“It’s a way to keep Reacher grounded,” says Sten of Neagley’s role. “He has one relationship that continues on. He is a wanderer, but I do think it is a smart thing to ground him a little bit, in that there is some continuation.”
Sten is this week’s guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” and in some ways she’s just as fascinating as Reacher — with the added benefit of not being a fictional character. Sten was born in Copenhagen to Danish and Congolese parents. She’s a writer, filmmaker, dancer, gymnast, kick-boxing horseback-riding beauty pageant winner who lives here in Brooklyn.
“I want to do it all,” she says in our wide-ranging interview. “I have zero chill.”
Here, she discusses “Reacher,” what we know about Season 3, her own background, representation in Hollywood and … revenge stories.
The following is a transcript of our conversation, which airs as an episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” edited for clarity. Listen in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
After seeing you kick ass and kill people and beat people up and be a super-spy-intelligence-private-investigator, you clean up nice.
Well, thank you so much. Just as part of my M.O., going undercover, it’s my thing. No one can recognize me in my real life if I’m dolled up because they only see me as Neagley without any makeup on, in combat boots, but it’s great.
Is that true? I bet you get recognized walking around Clinton Hill or wherever you are. That’s got to be changing now.
The airport definitely. I don’t know why the airport is always the place where people will find you, because generally I just don’t wear a lot of makeup. I’m like Neagley. I don’t wear a lot of makeup in my day to day, but when I’m on red carpets and when I’m doing press and editorials and I’m dolled up, no one can recognize me, but I don’t mind that at all. That’s great.
Maybe it’s airports because Lee Child is classic airplane reading.
I think it’s only been a matter of days that we found out that “Reacher” has been renewed for Season 3. Congratulations.
Thank you. Thank you very much. There’s been chat of it for a while, but they like to keep things under wraps for everyone.
I read that you heard that it was re-upped for Season 2 by reading about it in Hollywood Reporter. Is that right? You heard it through the trades?
My friend will send it to me, my executive friend or writer friend. “Congratulations!” And I’m like, “On what?” It came so quickly also, so it was quite a surprise, and then of course we waited a long time before the show actually came out, but you just never know how you’re going to get the information that pertains to you.
At least it’s good news. You haven’t already started shooting Season 3, have you?
We sure have, and that’s all I can tell you. Don’t ask me dangerous, secretive questions.
Well, I know a couple of things just because they’ve been reported on, so you can confirm or deny. You’re filming a little bit in Toronto, is that right?
That is correct.
It’s the seventh Reacher novel, “Persuader,” which was set in New England.
That is also correct.
Okay. Well, hopefully you get to make some fun of Boston for New York.
Yeah, I’ll bring my Yankees cap up there. How about that?
For people who aren’t familiar with “Reacher,” every novel is its own self-contained story. Obviously, the characters cross over. Your character, Frances Neagley, she doesn’t really feature in the “Persuader” novel, but it sounds like you’re being written into it more than was originally the plot?
Neagley is not in the book. What we’re doing with the show I cannot speak on, but it also is par for the course, Neagley is not in “The Killing Floor” either, the first book [which Season 1 is based on], and they found a way to introduce her because she’s such a fan favorite from the books. She’s in, I think, five of the books. It’s a way to keep Reacher grounded. He has one relationship that continues on. He is a wanderer, but I do think it is a smart thing to ground him a little bit, in that there is some continuation, but who knows? I mean, they may mix it up, you just never know.
She makes him a little more relatable. I don’t know if it caters to — or at least opens it up to — a broader audience. Not that Reacher doesn’t have his female fans, but having a kick-ass counterpart to Reacher who happens to be female or female presenting doesn’t hurt, I would imagine?
Let’s face it. We all have to go in there and save our fellas at the end. That’s usually how it is.
There’s a quote in one of the Reacher books, it’s Reacher’s perspective. This is a quote. He describes Neagley as “the best soldier he had ever worked with, his best friend, possibly in a guarded way, if friendship was permission to leave things unsaid.”
I love that description. I’ve read that a lot of times.
You were featured a lot more in Season 2, really as something more of a co-lead. It was more of an ensemble than the first season. I wonder if that was deliberate to sort of broaden the scope a little bit. I don’t know how much insight into the showrunning and creation process you’ve had.
For me, I think it was a very smart decision on the creative part, only because “Bad Luck and Trouble” [which Season 2 is based on] also is a fan favorite book, but mostly because it broadens out the world of the Reacher universe so much. We get so much more of Reacher’s backstory. We get the 110th [MP Special Investigations Unit], we get where all this essentially started, and I think it’s just a really smart way to, again, ground the character in a world, in relationships and things that matter to him. Now when he then goes on to all these adventures, you have context for who he is and how he came to be that way.
For me it was great because “Bad Luck and Trouble” is the Neagley book: For a change, I’m the one who called him and not the other way around, so of course I was super thrilled when I heard that they were going to be using “Bad Luck and Trouble” for Season 2 — Which again, was also not told to me. I’m going to get him in trouble, but it was actually Alan [Ritchson] who low-key told me on a text, “You cannot tell anybody that I told you this.” I was like, “What do you mean? Our secret is safe.” He was the one that told me, and then it dropped on Deadline, so that’s how it goes.
That’s Alan Ritchson who plays Reacher, absolute giant mountain of a man. What’s it like being in the same room with him, at least for the first time? I mean, he’s just huge.
He is. I’m 5’11”, and I think Alan is, I don’t know. I think he talks about how tall he is, but —
He’s not wearing platform shoes.
No, he is not. I see what you did there. For me, he is not that tall because I’m tall. I think for a lot of people, they look at him and he’s almost as wide as he is tall, which is what makes him look so big. He’s like all muscle, but I think other than that, we’re almost, I wouldn’t say eye to eye, but he’s got a couple inches on me, which is nice. It works, our dynamic. The Reacher-Neagley dynamic, the way that these characters are described in the book and the way that they very much in a lot of ways seem to be equals in a way. Not that Neagley has to be 6’6″ and 300 pounds. It is nice to have some sort of believability about who these people are and their capabilities as fighters, as investigators, et cetera. But yeah, of course when he walks into a room, it’s like, “Oh! There’s a presence arriving.”
Season 1 was the first Prime series to top the Nielsen charts, according to Deadline. The first three episodes of the second season surpassed the entire first season. I mean, it was a huge hit.
Were you surprised by the success at all?
By the first season, yes. I did not know what I had signed up for. Maybe that was naive of me, but you do projects all the time. Some of them go somewhere, some of them don’t. You catch the ride and you see what happens. Because we knew that the scope was going to be bigger, we knew it was going to be more of the world, more of the backstory —which of course the fans of the books would very much lean into — I wasn’t surprised by the success of Season 2. I was surprised by the scope of the success. I thought it was just going to be another season one, but the numbers and the fan response from season one to season two has just been insane. That’s been interesting to witness. I didn’t think that it could get any bigger than it already was, so that was pretty amazing.
I’ll fully confess, I have not read the Reacher books. It’s not my go-to genre but I saw it on Amazon and it immediately gets you. It’s so fun. It’s funny, self-aware, it winks at you. Almost campy, not quite. How would you describe the tone?
I would describe it like that. It is binge-able. It’s a fun action-packed rollercoaster ride and all you have to do is make a bowl of popcorn and sit down and enjoy. Everybody watches that show all over the world. All the different kinds of people, different age groups, different ethnicities, different cultures. A lot of people might say, like you said, it’s a campy show. Maybe it’s not a super-complex show, but it does what it does so well and so specifically that I think it just makes it accessible to everybody, and that is nice, to have something that everybody can watch, no matter who you are, where you’re from, what you’re voting, et cetera.
It’s funny that you say that it’s accessible to everyone — that everyone can watch it — because it’s been tagged as “Dad TV.” I’m sure you’ve heard this term. It’s been thrown around a lot lately, dad TV. It’s been used to describe shows like “The Boys,” “Yellowstone,” “The Last of Us,” “Reacher.” Have you heard that expression, and what does that make you think?
I learned that expression in relation to “Reacher” Season 2, I did not know what it was before that. I understand what is insinuated, but I think on the surface, sure, but I think at least for me personally, a lot of these shows are not just “Dad TV.” On the surface, sure, there’s a certain demographic that watches these kind of shows because they’re muscular and they’re broody and they have men in them.
They have men in them that middle-aged men want to be.
Yeah, but I mean, you can’t tell me that women didn’t watch “The Last of Us.” I watched the whole thing, and “Yellowstone” for that matter. I understand the tongue-in-cheek phrase, and I understand what that means. I did read somewhere that apparently 52 percent of the audience for “Reacher” is actually female, which I thought was fascinating. It kind of throws a wrench in the “Dad TV” theory.
It’s a cheeky expression for sure. Your character, Neagley, goes a long way to showing what a badass the female characters can be.
Thank you. I try.
Reacher himself becomes more dependent on Neagley and his counterparts, he’s not just a lone wolf. I found this out today as I was poking around. Do you know where the name Reacher came from? How Lee Child settled on that?
Yes, I have heard. He was in a grocery aisle and then because Lee Child is also a very tall man. So he was reaching for something and then his wife said, “There you go, Reacher.” It is exactly what it is, which I feel is so appropriate for Reacher that that’s how the name came to be, because it’s so simple. Don’t overthink it. I think it’s great.
“Don’t overthink it.” That’s a good motto. Your own background is pretty fascinating. You write as well as act, you are a filmmaker. Are you currently writing anything? Do you contribute on the show at all? Do you ever give notes?
No, not as a writer, not on “Reacher.” I give notes from an actor’s perspective if there are things to look at. No, in terms of writing, yes I am currently writing at the moment, working on a pilot, and then I’m working on two features that I’m hopefully looking to finish sometime this year, with time that I will just invent.
You don’t have much going on.
No, I have nothing. I’m just hanging out. I love writing. Well, actually, no, I hate writing, but I love telling stories. As an actor you have so little creative control. You have to sit around waiting for the phone to ring, for someone to tell you when you can work, and I’m just not wired that way. I never have been good at sitting around waiting for people to tell me what to do. Early on, of course, before I had become a working actor, I was going out and getting a lot of good feedback in the rooms, but wasn’t really booking the jobs, and I thought, “Well, okay, I don’t feel like I’m really being seen for everything that I am.” People just didn’t know what to do with me because I’m a Black woman, but I’m not African-American, I’m from Europe, but I’m not white European. There’s a toughness, but she’s also a little bit sweet. They’re just very confused, so I decided to just start writing. I wrote a pilot, this post-apocalyptic alien sci-fi drama a long time ago, and then wrote a Black Western after that. That pivoted me into this other part of the industry. I always loved filmmaking, and so I produced and directed a couple of shorts, simply because, again, creative control and self-expression and finding a way to be creative was always what I came into the business to do.
I generally always operate from a place of finding a void in the landscape and trying to fill it. If I suddenly am thinking about, “Why are there no female villains or why are there no Black Westerns,” or whatever it may be — African stories, indigenous stories — I always am looking to try and fill those spaces because I think it’s interesting and you are contributing something unique, something that is a story that has not yet been told, a perspective that has not yet been explored. For me, that is what keeps me writing, even on days when it’s hard. I take great pleasure in being able to exercise that muscle as well and have a little bit more control.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like now is as good a time as there ever has been for stories that haven’t historically been told. And to have them told by voices that have historically not been heard. I mean, it feels like, maybe not “the floodgates are open,” but maybe there are more opportunities than there have been in the past?
Definitely, I think so. I came into the business right when there was a shift, when we suddenly realized that there was a problem in the industry, that we have a default straight white male perspective in the industry, and how can we diversify that? I mean “diversification” in the true sense of the word. It just so happens that I fit that bill and it was just the right time, and I happened to have written something that people thought was good. So many things have to come together for the right recipe to happen. What is it they say? “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” and I think that’s very much what happened for me.
And then the decision to then keep writing, of course, was also one that I had to make because I became a working actor and was doing two shows back to back, and I was like, “I don’t really have to write.” But I still found myself doing it, and in a way, I’m quite blessed. Now looking back, I thank my stars that I did not come to Hollywood and book something as an actor right away, and I had to go through this struggle and this roundabout way to become a writer first.
I was struggling at the time because I was thinking, “Oh no, I’m going to be this bitter writer who wanted to be an actor, and I’m going to hate all my actors who I’m writing roles for.” I don’t want to be that person. I kept telling my team, “I want to do it all. You got to let me do it all.” I have zero chill.The first job that I booked happened to be the lead in a TV show, and another series, regular TV show back to back, and they were like, “Wait, you were supposed to be writing.”
That was “Swamp Thing,” and before that it was “Channel Zero.”
Just a wild journey, and then after that I took a writing job in the writing room on a show, and then the pandemic happened and all my actor friends were out of work and I was busy writing away. I took another job because we were in the middle of a pandemic and I thought, this is nice, and I can be in Wyoming and ride horses and then go and Zoom into the office and get paid. That’s what I did. 2021 came around and I was feeling very much a deep desire to get back on set again. The pandemic, the worst of it, of course, was clearing up, and that’s when “Reacher” came around, so I just got lucky.
Talk about your background a little bit because you did allude to it. You were born in Copenhagen. I’ve never been to Denmark, I would love to go. Your mom is Danish with some Swedish mixed in, right? Your dad is Congolese.
My grandmother is Swedish and my dad is Congolese.
Growing up, you did horseback riding, gymnastics, you played piano, you won beauty pageants. You are almost a kind of Reacher-esque spy-mercenary in your own way. Where does this all come from?
Oh, that’s a good question. I am sure my mom has asked that question many, many times. My mother is a painter, my sister is a poet and I very much grew up in an artistic household. I did well in school, and my mother definitely wanted me to be a professor of some kind, but I very early on knew that I wanted to be an artist. I moved to New York at 18 to become a dancer, and I was, for many years. That’s how I was able to pay the bills, but it’s a very short-lived career. I think the answer to your question is just that I’m curious. I’m very, very curious about experiences, life experiences, about cultures, about how to make the most of the time that you have. It sounds really cliche, but you just don’t know how much time you’ll have on this earth in this body, so I feel like I should make the most of it, and I try very hard and it’s not great for my sleep, but I do get a lot of experiences, which is incredible.
Sleep is overrated. I don’t know if you get back to Denmark often. I’d love to hear you speak some Danish. I mean, I’ve heard great things: One of the best restaurants in the world is there, Noma, it’s about to close. I don’t know if you’ve ever been. What’s Denmark like?
I haven’t been. I do go home once or twice a year, about, to see my family and it’s so interesting now to go home because of this whole food scene that’s happened in the last, I don’t know, 15 years maybe, which wasn’t really the case when I was growing up. But also when I was young, I was broke. I did not have money to go out to eat, so it’s nice to come back now and be able to actually go to a restaurant and enjoy the food. It’s really interesting to see that Noma and Geranium, being the number two restaurant in the world, has elevated the entire food scene in Copenhagen. You don’t have to go to the two-star Michelin restaurant and pay $700 per person. You can actually go to any restaurant and have an incredible meal, incredible evening out, which I think is really cool. Because of course, when you’re from somewhere looking to leave that place and go somewhere else, you’re just like, ugh, that place is whack. You do everything you can to sort of downplay that thing, that place, even though it is my home and I’m very proud to be Danish for many reasons. I think you definitely look at all the things that you don’t like about the place because you’re leaving it behind. Now, I think coming back there with fresh eyes has been really wonderful in the last couple of years to be able to go back and enjoy it with a new perspective. Also, because I’m an American citizen now.
Thank you. Which was a long journey to become that.
I guess, congrats? I don’t know. Depends on the day.
Well, I was like, in case, should I ever get arrested, it’s nice to know that you can’t be deported. That was really the reason why. And to be able to vote, that was the main reason why I became a U.S. citizen, because I own a house here, my whole life is here, I should vote.
You mentioned Wyoming. I hope you’re registered there because your vote is not going to go very far here.
I am registered in Wyoming. Yeah.
Oh, that’s fantastic. I’m assuming, I don’t know. I’m not going to ask you your politics.
Yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see. I don’t know how far my vote will go in Wyoming either. Also, you want me to speak Danish? Denmark is hyggeligt. The one thing that is so purely Danish, it’s hygge, which is coziness.
Hygge was all the rage, what, five years ago, 10 years ago? I don’t know. There was like a hygge trend.
It’s still all the rage, I don’t don’t know what you’re talking about! Hygge never goes out of style because we’re up in the cold dark north and there’s winter six months out of the year, and you have three hours of sunlight through the day, so you have to be able to find a way to feel hygge when you’re at home. Yeah, we’re really good at that. Coziness, cozy factor. Candles, sweaters. I’m wearing this super thick woolen sweater. It’s just hygge all winter long. Board games, all the stuff.
You land here at 18, you said it was hard at first. I didn’t realize you came as a dancer. What was your New York introduction like?
It was amazing. Of course, when you first get off the boat, so to speak, it’s sort of like, culture shock. There’s an indulgence in the melting pot that is New York City. I lived in Brooklyn even then, in Park Slope, rented a room in a brownstone at the time. I was spoiled in a lot of ways, but I think I was just in awe and I was soaking everything up and taking everything in, that I possibly could. I was also training very hard. I was training to be a dancer, and I was also working on my resume, obviously, because when I first got here, I didn’t have a work permit. You take the odd jobs, nannying, whatever you can do, and then I would go back to Denmark to make money in a very short period of time and save up, and then I would go back to New York and spend the money, until I was able to get a visa and have a work permit.
You want to shout any spots? A typical day in Clinton Hill, wherever you are, where do you like to go? You don’t want to blow up your own spot …
Oh my God, I’m going to put everybody on blast and I’ll see all the people in my local spots. No, I think it’s interesting because I lived here and then I moved to L.A. for 10 years and then I came back a year ago, I think. Well, I’ve always kind of been living in New York, but then I’ve just been primarily on the West Coast, and of course when I was here the first time was a very different experience than now. Very much the same one as when I was young in Denmark and now coming back to Denmark. When I first lived here, I was living off of corner store bagels and tea. Now I’m like, oh, there are restaurants here?
I mean, Clinton Hill, that area has certainly changed a lot. Some complain about the gentrification, which is totally understandable, but it is different than it was 10 years ago.
Yeah, I mean there’s so many good places here. Of course, one of my favorite restaurants is Evelina over in Fort Greene. They just have such a great cacio e pepe, and they have a drink called the Portia. I’ve been trying to make it and I have not yet figured out how to make it, but it’s great. And then there’s Terre, which is in Park Slope, all Italian. I love Italian. Yeah, and they do all natural wines, homemade pastas, and it’s like a tiny little spot and it’s just so cozy. Those are two of my favorite spots, and we just went ice skating in Prospect Park this winter.
Which I love. I will say it’s smaller than I had anticipated. It’s like a ritual for me to ice skate every winter. Generally, I would go to Central Park and I just love now, like, oh, we can just hop over to Prospect Park and do it up there. I love ice skating. I don’t love going to the gym, but I do love being very active.
Yeah, I was going to say between dancing, ice skating, the “Reacher” role is very physical. Is this physicality sort of core to you?
I did gymnastics competitively as a kid. I did competitive horseback riding, show jumping also in my teens, kickboxing and then dance, rock climbing, rollerblading, ice skating. I like hiking, trail running, things like that. I love being in my body, which is also one of the reasons why I love living in New York, because you walk everywhere, versus L.A. where you have to sit in a car in traffic for three hours a day. The landscape is right there at you in New York. The environment, people, the city, everything is right there in your face, which I love about New York.