Interview with Black Sails’ Stars Toby Stephens and Hannah New

We chat at New York Comic Con with stars Toby Stephens and Hannah New about grounding their new pirate show, Black Sails, into a reality away from peg legs and skeleton pirates. We also discuss some of the historical influences on the show.

In case you missed it, Starz has been ramping up the roll out for January’s epic looking Black Sails ever since dropping that really impressive trailer back in May. That may be why they have even already ordered a second season while treating New York Comic Con attendees to another great trailer Friday. Set in 1715, it is the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean. However, these are decidedly not of the Disney variety. Indeed, as the story centers around New Providence Island—an essential frontier abandoned by the British Empire years prior to the series—the waters are ruled by pirate captains and those brave, entrepreneurial souls who could sense an opportunity. Further, it is also a prequel of sorts to Treasure Island, the legendary Robert Louis Stevenson novel, in which the fabled Captain Flint shall play a central role. And it was Captain Flint himself, or rather his acting alter-ego Toby Stephens, who I was able to interview along with co-star Hannah New at New York Comic Con yesterday morning. Stephens is a highly acclaimed English actor who has predominantly made his name on the West End stage in many a lead role that includes Noel Coward Private Lives, Danton’s Death, A Doll’s House, Betrayal and Hamlet (Also Fun Fact: He’s the son of Dame Maggie Smith!). Of course, genre fans will likely know him best as Pierce Brosnan’s face-melding North Korean adversary in Die Another Day. Conversely, New is an emerging talent in the performing arts, having only received her Master’s in Acting with Distinction from the London University’s Central School of Speech and Drama in December 2011 after studying English and Spanish as an undergraduate. She also was cast as the lead in Spanish language miniseries El Tiempo Entre Costuras while pursuing her Master’s, and has since shot a part in next year’s Maleficent starring Angelina Jolie.  Can you tell us a little bit about your characters on this new show? Hannah New: Well, I play Eleanor Guthrie who is what they would have called “the fence.” Basically, she takes some pirate goods and sells them back to merchant ships. For that reason, she’s kind of the main economic and political power on the island, and the pirates have to vie for her favor most of the time. So in that way, she’s a very determined young woman, who’s a very astute businesswoman. It’s an incredible role to play. With regards to history, it’s amazing a character like that would have existed, but maybe wouldn’t have made it into the history books. Toby Stephens: I play Captain Flint, who’s the captain of The Walrus. When we meet him in the first episode, he’s historically been the biggest earner on the island; he has the most fearsome reputation; he’s got the best crew, but he’s on a fallow period where he hasn’t been making so much money, and his crew is becoming discontent. There is a character who wants to become captain instead of him. He believes he’s better and that he could do better, and they want to get rid of Flint. At the time, these crews were democratic. You voted a captain onto the ship. The only time the captain had absolute control was during battle. So, there’s this sense that Flint, this terrifying figure, is on the edge at the beginning of the series, and the crew could get rid of him, and he’s trying to cling onto power. For Toby: Given your background in theatre and stage, do you find that informs you or did you find any similarities between how a stage actor commands an audience and how a pirate captain commands his crew? Stephens: Well, I think having a theatre background always helps, because it’s just part of my palate, as it were. But in terms of somebody who needs to—We’re on an epic canvas here. They’re not small characters. They’re real human beings, but they’re big personalities and they have to hold sway over these crews. So there is a certain theatrical element to what they are. But there’s a reverse side of that where they’re real human beings. These are real people; they’re textured. So, there’s a real theatricality to him, but at the same time he’s a very enigmatic character. We don’t really know what’s driving him, what the engine is. And that’s revealed slowly throughout the series, especially in the second series, which we’re about to film. Why he is what he is and what’s driving him. A lot of theatre actors I’ve spoken to over the years, they might have a sort of backstory in their head, just so they know how to play a character. In television would you do the same thing for Flint until something came up in the script and then adjust it? Stephens: Well, I think that part of the fun of doing these long-running TV shows, hopefully long-running TV shows, is you don’t know where it’s going. But the creators generally give you enough information about them to inform a coherent character that is nuanced and is real, and you have to work with that material. But like real life, we all change. Things are thrown at us; events happen that kick us into some other part of our life. Other parts of us are reflected or whatever. So, I think I’m starting off from this basis. I don’t know where he is going to go. I’m looking forward to finding out, and I’m all for changing as it goes along, and it being something that is elastic instead of stuck. New: I think for me, I had to make some choices early on about her backstory in order to have that [fermenting] her decisions…As the season goes on you find more and more details. Subtle things about your story have to change, and they become richer, and you become more informed as you go into every single scene. As much as you can prep for a role, one of the most amazing things about being on an episode of TV, and being on a series like this, it’s kind of like living. A character can change and evolve, and you don’t know where they’re going to go. You don’t know how far they will have to go, and how ruthless they’ll have to become in order to survive. So, it’s an incredible experience to learn those journeys and learn with the character. You mentioned that you had to create the background some yourself for the character, and you would like to think that she could exist in history. Were there any historical influences that you researched for this role? New: Yeah, there were. I mean they weren’t relating necessarily to the Caribbean. I looked at characters like Granuaile O’Malley who was an Irish pirate and an aristocrat, and kind of adapted a few of those historical figures in order to understand. But I think my research had to get a lot wider, and kind of had to be a lot more centered on the context of being in the Caribbean. One of the most interesting things I learned is that it’s kind of like a war situation. There are long periods of time where crews are off hunting treasure. In that way, the society, the population of the island, is predominantly female. So, the jobs that need to be done on the island, the way in which the island has to be run economically for example, still have to happen. The people she has to trade with in order to provide food and resources for when the pirates come back into town [that] still has to happen. So, the fact that we’re presenting a female character who would have done that and didn’t make it into the history books is amazing. There was talk at the panel last night that there were no parrots or peg legs going on in the series. How are you guys defining this so that people know it won’t all be “arrrrghs” and skeleton pirates running around? Stephens: I think that’s part of the fun of this and what’s exciting about this series. Because we are taking something that is such a cliché written story and world and we’re creating something that is real. And it’s in a historical context that is real. So, it’s such a fascinating period. You have slavery, you have America as a colony. On the horizon, the American War of Independence is coming; the French Revolution; the Age of Enlightenment. This is all happening at the same time. Rather than just these mythological worlds where pirates exist on their own—it just so happens that they’re walking around in 18th century costumes—it’s just a totally fantastic world. Whereas this has a place in time. There’s a pragmatic sense that these guys are there to earn a living, and it’s a really a dangerous world in which they exist. It’s not glamorized. They have to think about what they’re going to do. They’re always living on the edge of survival. And they’re doing this because they have to survive. It creates a totally different world. I think the people who come to this expecting the mythologial world, what they’re going to get is so much more entertaining and so much more interesting. New: The more research I did, I just realized how rich all of those storylines are. And talking to Jon [E. Steinberg, Black Sails creator] and being like “I found this out. Is that going to be working into the story at some point?” And I think Jon being the mastermind of trying to condense all of these different historical factors into a story that is intelligible and gritty and gripping, is an incredible feat. I think as we go on and read more and more scripts, we suddenly realize it’s a massive job to get all these storylines together and to weave this world.  Stephens: What I loved about what Jon said the other day as well is that this really is like an office situation. These guys go to work, and they work on the ship, and they all have relationships that are totally political relationships that totally reflect a modern society and modern environments we work in, which gives it a real sort of irony and at times and a sense of lightness. They’re all kind of rubbing along together, and some of them don’t get on and some of them don’t like the other person, and it really gives you a sense that these are real people in a real situation, as opposed to some fantastical world. But is there some sort of line you have to tread where on the one hand you want your character to be relatable, but on the other hand, they’re pirates! Stephens: It’s a fun line to walk, because [when] you make them personable, you go, “Ha, I can relate to this guy! He’s sort of like me!” And then the next minute, you’re punching someone to death and they’re like, “Ahhh, I don’t know what you’re doing now!” This is terrifying, and that’s a really fun line for us to play as actors. But also audience members: They’ll be sucked into this world and they’ll like these characters. They’ll relate to them, and then they’ll do terrible things, which makes it hard for you to [root for them]. You’re constantly having to adjust your point-of-view on these people, but yet we create a world in which they understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. And that gives them a conflict. That’s the great thing about these long-running shows now. We’re in the heyday of TV. We can create these very nuanced and complex stories that don’t patronize audiences, that don’t use the shorthand of film. We can really create complex and adult stories for audiences. New: I think that’s what’s really liberating about playing characters that have so many layers to them. That each layer in some way has to be exposed at some point in order for an audience to really understand this person and to identify with them. All of our characters are vulnerable at points; all of our characters are ruthless; all of our characters are entertaining at points. I think that’s the most incredible opportunity, and we’ve had a lot of fun doing it! Thanks for being here this morning. Stephens: Thank you. New: Thanks very much. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!