Black Sails Season 3: Ray Stevenson Talks Blackbeard & The Pirate’s Life

We chat with Ray Stevenson about playing Blackbeard in Black Sails, his character's relationship with Charles Vane, and the legacy of Rome.

Ray Stevenson gets his big entrance in Black Sails season 3 early on. During the very first scene, three men unwisely have come to confront the veteran actor’s character due to false promises he apparently made their sister. It’s a grand debut that requires Stevenson to do little more than place down his quill and stand at his full stature of six feet and four inches. If the implicit menace might appear operatic, it is only befitting the larger than life character he is embodying…

Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, has set sail for the Starz series based on Nassau. Heaven help the rest of the swarthy souls residing there.

It also likely helps Teach’s onscreen implications that Stevenson is no stranger to premium cable drama enthusiasts. As one of the two lead actors on an HBO fan favorite series, Rome, Stevenson’s visage of physical intimidation is well known to any who have already watched that older epic, which was created by Bruno Heller. Additionally, the Northern Ireland-born actor has also appeared quite memorably in Dexter and is also known to genre fans for his work in the Thor films, as well as Punisher: War Zone.

But with Black Sails, Stevenson is now returning to a premium cable niche that he helped carve in Rome, as well as to a new television universe overseen by creators Robert Levine and Jonathan E. Steinberg. Indeed, Black Sails charts a meticulous course between historic and literary fiction, and between fan expectations of high seas adventures with pirates and the gritty subversions of those very tropes.

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And no real life pirate has had more fiction and fantasy spun around him than Blackbeard, the pirate captain that was the scourge of the colonies from Virginia to the Caribbean, and whose own legend is just as romanticized as Black Sails’ original Treasure Island inspiration.

Thus we talked about all of that and more with Stevenson, including the rather unique relationship this version of Blackbeard will have with Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) in the new season. Stevenson also gives us some hints about whether we might see Blackbeard’s most celebrated iconography—and a glimpse at what the original ending of Rome might have looked like if the series had lasted another three or four years.

Did you first discover the pirates genre while growing up?

Ray Stevenson: I did. I have a distant memory of being in a very early school, and they had three books, which caught my attention. They were The Blue Pirate, The Green Pirate, and The Red Pirate. I don’t know why this memory came back, but each went on their various escapades. I can’t for the life of me remember the exact details of the books now, but I remember that I couldn’t wait to get to the next one. And of course what kid doesn’t want to play with swords and imagine they’re on a ship burying treasure, and all that stuff?

How much of that stuff does work into Black Sails? Because it does seem like the ethos of the show is to get away from buried treasure, even if it is somewhat inspired by Treasure Island.

Well, Treasure Island takes place some 10 or 15 years after, but I think what captures the imagination is that sense of a man going out and bucking the system really; the system that would basically subjugate you and keep you down if you weren’t born in the right sphere of life.

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Once you’re a peasant, you’re always a peasant. You’re never going to elevate your life. But there, you could actually go and forge your own career, your own identity, your own wealth, your own position on your own prowess.

What the big surprise was is finding out how egalitarian the whole system was. Much more so than the supposed civilized West with their press gangs and their onboard cruelty, whereas in those days a pirate captain was elected by the crew. And he could be de-elected if he didn’t get them enough money or if he was not a good seaman, they would de-elect him. So that was a big surprise.

Obviously you want to go back and see the whole show, but with a character like Blackbeard how much actual historical research did you want to explore?

Well thankfully research was plentiful as well. Research as such, I mean historical books are written by victors and written by essentially sensationalists as well. So, you have to take all these things with a pinch of salt and get the sort of broad span. And [Blackbeard] is supposed to be the most notorious and the most bloodthirsty, and the most this and the most that.

It’s like looking at the Wild West novels as well and how they sensationalized and glorified the stories to tickle the fancies of those back home as much as anything.

But people did build their own legends, and it was very important in that time. I mean a man’s status was everything in those days. There was not that many people in the world. And so, if one lost station in life and lost status, it was a damning thing. So to build a legend, to build your own legacy, was paramount.

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Also, Blackbeard is so ubiquitous in popular culture. For better or worse, he was in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. How do you feel your interpretation, and what this show is doing with him, differs from what we’ve seen in recent films and television?

I would say very much. I mean you also have Crossbones, the TV show fictionalization. You also have the ’52 [Blackbeard, the Pirate] film as well, which gave rise to all the gaudy sort of accents of every sort of pirate out there. But the whole Blackbeard legend, as such, compared to [Pirates of the Caribbean], over there you have a complete fanciful take, and here we try to keep as much of that authenticity as possible.

Obviously, within the telling of the tale, you’ve got a man who is basically—it’s like unleashing the Kraken. It’s in the way he walks. And he’s been away for so long, I liken it to the fact that if Keith Richards walks into a bar, there’d be a group of guys somewhere going, “I used to be in a band.” And it’s like when Blackbeard walks into the tavern or whatever, those guys go, “Yeah, I used to be a pirate.”

He has that sort of charisma. And he did. He used it to effect, this is well documented as well. Hence, his whole costume, his whole persona, is to give that effect so that other ships would just capitulate. Just give up without a fight. They’d just go, “There’s no way we’re fighting that, because of the legend.”

The popular story is that he’d put fuses in his beard.

Yeah, but they were called matches in those days, funnily enough. It was the stiffened cord they’d use to light the cannons with and to put a cloud of smoke around his face. I’m sure, like all things, there would be some semblance of truth in that.

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Do you think we’ll see that on the show?

[Smiles] I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see. I mean, because also I think with this show they’re very careful to keep away from any area that may be a bit cod-y, to excuse the pun, but it may be a bit cod pirate-y. And we wanted to keep away from that and focus much more on who these people were and their interaction with everybody.

Why do you think Edward Teach is going to Nassau and what do you think his relationship is to the already existing characters on the show?

Well, he was one of the original co-writers of what was called the Pirates Charter. And he went off to have a kind of civilian life for about eight or nine years, and went through about eight or nine wives in search of a son. It’s a bit Henry VIII-ish in a sense. I mean, he was in Virginia, he was landed gentry, he was doing well, he had money—

And was pardoned.

—And pardoned! But he was just deeply unsatisfied, I think he could see himself again falling and succumbing to that society he had left behind, and still with no heir apparent. No son. And coming back to Nassau was, I think, he missed the smell of the pitch, the pine and the wood, and the ropes and salt.

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What do you think his relationship with the character Charles Vane is like?

Well Charles Vane is one of the principal reasons he does come back. Having been completely unsuccessful in fathering a son, the closest thing he has to it is this sailor, this pirate captain, who he was effectively a mentor to. And part of that is to come back and see if there is any future relationship there. If there is any legacy there that he could in fact pass on.

I did see the first episode, and one of the things I enjoyed about it was you have this wonderful introduction where three men come to defend their sister’s honor.

Big mistake wasn’t it? Oops. [Laughs]

Could you say what it’s like as an actor to have a scene like this? Because it’s just a pitch perfect introduction to your character.

It is and it’s, like everything, about temperance. You know dramatically the power of the scene that has been written for you. So, you just have to not break the egg with a sledgehammer and sort of sit underneath it, do you know what I mean? Because the impact is all there.

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And in fairness, the impact is also in the reaction of others around you. You can’t demand status, you have to have that sort of status given. So, everybody played it beautifully, and it was super well directed. So, it was about, you know it’s the first ever reveal of Blackbeard and how it’s been revealed. And then there is in fact in the scene itself, the danger, that element of shock, horror, and realization on the other characters’ faces that it’s like, “Job done.”

I also appreciate the implied Blackbeard lore there, because I’m from North Carolina originally, and my father was with Cultural Resources when the found the Queen Anne’s Revenge in the ‘90s.

Oh wow. They found some strange things on that ship as well, didn’t they?

They keep bringing up cannons, it seems like.

Yeah, but also medical equipment for the healthcare of the onboard crew. [Laughs]

With Black Sails, you have this big historical epic, and we have a lot of historical epics and fantasy epics on TV right now. Do you feel a kinship with Black Sails because of Rome? I feel like Rome was the first one to do this premium cable spectacle.

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I think what they do here, one thing that Starz and Chris Albrecht maintains, is the production values; they put their money onscreen, and you definitely see it here. It’s one of the principal reasons why I agreed and got involved. I saw some of the episodes, I read the first script but then I saw the making of. You see the investment made, not just financially, but the investment made by everybody working on this show from the costume department to the fabricators, the builders, the camera crews, and you realize the production values are through the roof. And who doesn’t want to get involved in that?

And it was similar to my going around the Rome set and seeing there’s no acting required here. We’re on the biggest standing set in the world. It’s five and half acres of ROME, and I am riding a horse up the Aventine Hill on set. Hundreds of people are around, and sheep and dogs and cats, and whatever else. Goats. So, the smell is like [wow]!

And here again, you’re on a full-size galleon and you’re in these amazing rooms and locations, and everything is on point. So basically, these characters—you’re not playing a historical character. They’re not historical characters, they’re contemporary. So that’s the power of it.

I know that Bruno Heller said if Rome had continued, he would have seen Pullo and Vorenus go to Galilee.

That would have been sublime!

How do you think Pullo’s story could have ended further down the road?

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Bruno [Heller] once did outline a story that he was going to start the whole series with: an 88-year-old Pullo going down to the riverside by Vorenus’ tomb, or sarcophagus, pouring wine on it, taking a sword out while sitting there on the banks, looking at the glistening river, and committing suicide.

And as he has his face hit the sand on the banks, a fish jumped out of the water, and the silver light on the fish caught the sword, which brought us right into that first battle with Lucius Vorenus and [Titus Pullo] where he breaks ranks. And why? The reason was that the only person on the planet who [knows] the Emperor Augustus to be human, who was Octavian, is Pullo. And Pullo’s the only one who has that memory of him or that life. And basically, [Augustus] asks him to. Nobody else could kill him.

But at that stage, Octavian is obviously in his paranoid imperial sort of thing, and Pullo is the last tie to that time when he was a boy. It’s genius.

I still hope we see it one day.

I’m sorry it’s a bit of a reveal, but it’s like—but they didn’t want to shoot it because they didn’t want to give the ultimate, ultimate, ultimate end away. But it was a genius way of going. I mean Bruno’s mind is just—well Bruno Heller, he’s brilliant.

Thank you so much for doing this.

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Thank you, pleasure.