Black Sails hits the high seas on January 23 on Starz, but before the Starz’ epic returns for its third season, we sat down with the cast and showrunners during the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
Let’s start with the captain himself, Toby Stephens. Season two ended with Flint and Vane teaming up to escape hanging. When we see them again, they are raiding Jamaica and taking no prisoners. By the time Flint gets his boat back, things are tense and the crew takes some convincing to sail with Flint again. There’s a lot more in store as season three introduces the real Blackbeard (Ray Stevenson) and more authorities coming after Flint.
Did you feel a little landlocked at the end of season two?
Toby Stephens: I guess whenever I’m on land, I don’t stay that way for very long. It’s one of those things where it becomes, as an actor, working on the ships is hard. It’s a tough day’s work. It’s quite nice every once in a while being on land because that means you don’t have to be on the ships.
Do you ever get used to the boats?
I never really got used to them. It is interesting because we’re always in different scenarios on the boats so it always changes and you end up having to learn more about the boats because you’re having to do something very specific to whatever the new scenario is. So for example in season three, there’s the storm. So you have to know what you’re talking about when you’re trying to fix [the boat]. How do we get out of this situation? How do we get the sails up? You’re learning constantly all these new commands so it’s constantly changing. And you’re in a different environment so one day you’re sailing the ship and it’s fair weather, and then in another one you’re like in the storm and they’re spraying water at you. It’s always a new scenario.
Do you want to drop some nautical lingo on us?
Man the braces. Hoist the topsails. Bring down the topgallants. All of these things, I’m constantly having to learn new ones. They’ve got this great guy, Captain Andy, who is the only person alive I think who can still sail one of these ships. He’s on hand all the time basically to advise them on how to write this stuff. They’ll brainstorm these situations and he’ll sit there and go, “Well, this is what you would do” or “That would never happen. You couldn’t do it. This is how you can get out of that situation.” He’s on hand so I go to him with this stuff and go, “What the hell am I talking about in this line here?” and he’ll translate it for me.
Because I’m immature, I always laugh at the poop deck.
[Laughs] Yeah, the poop deck. That is definitely a term.
When you read Flint’s speech in the first episode, did you think it would be a great one to perform?
What’s great is that opening episode kind of sets everything up for the season. It sort of articulates where he is. It was also, I’d done so many other speeches to the crew that they waned to make this very different. It’s like atonement. It wasn’t one of those ones that I’m kind of geeing everybody up to do something. It’s not where I’m commanding them. It’s just very, very contained. Rather than being one of those Shakespearean numbers, it’s much more about his state of mind than it is about telling them what they have to do. It’s almost for himself and I think that’s what’s cool about that speech. They’re slightly unnerved by the speech actually. They’re not like, “Yeah, let’s all sail into this storm!” They’re all like, “Oh, okay, all right. Is this guy okay in his head?” I think that’s what they’re all asking themselves in the end.
Is he going to push them further before it gets any better?
Yeah, yeah, he does. He’s pushing himself just as much. He’s not asking them to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself so I think that’s the way he’d see it. He’d just say, “Yeah, but this is our only way. This is the only way that we can do this.” It’s that sort of certainty that he has.
How volatile is it the first time you meet Blackbeard?
It’s interesting because it’s like you know it’s not going to go well. Their egos are too big to actually manage to. It’s good though because you want to know how it’s going to fall out and who is going to win out. It doesn’t go too well but it’s not like explosives. It’s much more slow burn, their kind of meeting. What ends up happening is very good.
How long can this uneasy alliance with Vane last?
The journey that they go on is a really fun one. It’s very good because they’re never going to be buddies, but I think what they do is they end up finding they do respect one another. They sort of understand each other’s differences but they find enough common ground to work together. But there are various twists and turns they go on during the season which I won’t give away, but I will say that he is initially drawn back to Teach/Blackbeard. They used to be partners in the past so he’s initially drawn back to him but then I think he realizes that Teach’s way of doing things, which is the old way, the old sort of anarchic pirate kind of way of doing things is not really what he wants anymore. That’s a kind of cool journey for him to go on.
When you open the season running through the streets killing people, was it seamless from the finale of season two?
I think what’s good is that it’s such a different beat, the beginning of season three with the introduction of Teach and then the Jamaica raid where you see these guys much more organized. These guys are a unit. They’re going through Jamaica. They’ve done this many times over in various other parts of the Caribbean. He’s in a different place. He’s much more contained. He’s much more internalized and smoldering. There’s something that is just angry. This contained anger all the way through. Really the story of season three for him is that he has cut himself off. He’s tried to cut his humanity off because he no longer has that person who anchors him like Mrs. Barlow or Hamilton or Gates. So he’s kind of cut himself off from that and it’s really his journey to find another purpose, and through that purpose, his humanity again. It’s kind of cool because you can’t sustain somebody who’s like that all the way through. It’s this torturous journey that he goes on with himself really, trying to resolve himself and find a purpose.
What have you been gratified to learn about Flint through three seasons?
Obviously, in season two I loved all the flashback stuff and I love the revelation about him and Hamilton. I knew from the outset all about that and I just love the journey of that and also the bravery of actually going, “We’re going to do an entire season where we don’t reveal that and an audience is sort of perplexed by this character. But then once you reveal it, it suddenly makes sense.” I think it’s a very brave move. I love doing all of that and then through season three, the journey he goes on again to try and find a way of expressing his humanity that isn’t just about a nihilistic revenge on England. The journey that he goes on to find that is really great I think.
Does any of season three overlap with the history books?
Woodes Rogers is a historic figure who is sent in to clear up piracy. He was quite a famous privateer himself. He’d written a book about his own exploits. He set out to restore British rule to Nassau, but he did it for commercial reasons. He borrowed a lot of money to take a British Naval fleet down there to restore order with the idea that he would take over as governor and get rich on the proceeds from Nassau. So he’s a historic figure and they’re quite true to that story. In sort of very broad terms it is actually quite faithful to the general gist of what happened in the Bahamas. Obviously if you get too bogged down in the history of it, we don’t have enough time.
It’s just fun to know while we’re watching which parts are real.
Woodes Rogers is real. Actually what happens to him in this is actually what happened to him. He got more and more in debt and it’s fun because you think Woodes Rogers is going to be the bad guy. He’s just going to be this English puppet who comes in but actually you end up quite liking him and feeling for his situation. He’s in the sh*t and he’s trying to dig himself out of it. “I’m in hock here and I have to get this treasure because I need to pay back the money” and then the Spanish get involved. It’s really cool.
Were you ever interested in the sea before Black Sails?
Not really, no. It’s probably the best way to come at it really. I was never interested in being a pirate, never interested in the sea particularly. I enjoyed going on boats like fishing and stuff like that, but I was just never really a nautical person. But I think that’s good because it’s not like I’m a kid in a toy shop. I’m an actor who’s doing a job and I think that’s probably the best way to approach this.
The way you talk about it sounds very passionate.
I think I’m passionate about it now in that it’s so much part of this job. It’s so much part of the character. I think Flint, because he was James McGraw and because he was in the Navy and because he was a very talented seaman and continues to be, it’s one of those things where you need to be interested in it and you need to bone up on it just because of the project. But I don’t think I’ll be buying a yacht any time soon.
When you’re shooting cannons in the ship battles, there’s really no way to fake that, is there? Those are cannons going off in your face.
Well, what they do is they have cannons but they’ve got this fuse powder and stuff like that which they let off. It’s pretty intense when they’re doing all that stuff. It’s not really the cannons. They have pressurized air with loads of cork and bits of balsa wood and dust and stuff like that. They’re literally there. Then you’ve got this explosion and it goes [off] right there. I mean, because it’s cork it’s not going to hurt you but it’s still really unpleasant. A lot of the firearms are functioning firearms but obviously we can’t blow a cannon off for real.
Do you have any new physical challenges this year?
They always throw something at me. I don’t know what it will be. The first two episodes of season four are pretty massive. In three, there are loads. Physically it’s killer. The storm sequence was one which was grueling. That was weeks of doing that, piecing it together, because it’s such an elaborate piece of filmmaking. But then also there’s big set pieces throughout the whole thing. What’s great though is it enhances the story and the characters rather than the other way around, which is good.