****Major spoilers are discussed in this interview****
On the fourth and final season of the Starz drama series Black Sails, Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) and the pirates were caught off guard by Woodes Rogers’ (Luke Roberts) deal with the Spanish, which put a stop to the forward momentum of the pirates taking back Nassau. Although not all hope is lost yet, there have been two more major character casualties that are sure to have a ripple effect for the remainder of the season.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Hannah New talked about the demise of Eleanor Guthrie, her final undoing, when she found out what her character’s fate would be, Eleanor’s biggest regrets, the importance of the dynamic between Eleanor and Madi (Zethu Dlomo), the experience of shooting her final fight scene and the last moments for her character, coming full circle with Captain Flint, and what she’d like to have from the set.
Collider: I’m simultaneously very bummed to be talking to you about the final season of Black Sails and the end of Eleanor, and very excited to see where and how it all ends. Once you found out that you were shooting what would be the show’s last season, did you want to relish in every moment that you could?
HANNAH NEW: Oh, absolutely, yeah! What was really exciting was that the scenes we were getting to do were so meaty, with all of the backstory stuff that’s come out, and people who haven’t been in contact with each other for a few seasons are finally getting to speak again and voice things that have happened, over all this time. It was really exciting! We all knew and felt that our characters were getting what they were due and getting the time to really flesh out a lot of the interesting backstories and character development that we’d worked so hard on for two years. It was incredibly satisfying. We definitely relished every moment. And for me, I relished every moment, being on that show and marveling at it, knowing that it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever be on a set as beautiful and as amazing as that, ever again, ‘cause it was just phenomenal. It was a very humbling and beautiful experience.
This show has undoubtedly pushed the limits of what a TV show can do, and it’s been a massive undertaking, for four seasons. Looking back on it, what are you most proud of having been able to accomplish with this show?
NEW: There’s so much that we’ve been able to do. Personally, for me, with Eleanor, it’s not really about the scale of stuff, but it’s more about the complexity of who she is. The writers gave a female character to me that was so controversial, in so many ways. She’s not a simple character. There’s no banal dichotomy of good vs. evil in this show. You end up having character where you don’t always agree with what they do, but they do it for a particular reason and you have to just fight for that motive. For me, that’s been the most satisfying thing to play.
The audience didn’t always like her, and that’s been incredible for me. It’s been an incredibly formative experience. I had just left drama school, when I first started on the show. To me, there was so much to learn. The skill set from the people around me was just amazing, so I knew I had so much that I could draw from. There are so many layers to the arc of Eleanor’s story, in particular. Now that they’ve given her, her death, we can see that. I think about, how would I feel if Eleanor hadn’t died and her story wasn’t necessarily complete at the end of these four seasons, and I think I would feel very differently. At the end of the day, there were so many beautiful things that we worked on, in her backstory, that weren’t necessarily voiced in the script, but that are symbolically there, in the way in which she dies.
One very significant element is that she died in a Spanish raid, and her mother died in a previous Spanish raid. On the island, we have the burned out church, which you can sometimes see in the big wide shots, and that church is a very symbolic thing for Eleanor because it burned down in the raid that killed her mother. For me, I’ve been playing this throughout the whole four seasons, trying to make this place a civilized, functioning society because her mother died as a consequence of the fort not being shored up. There are little clues, throughout the seasons, as to what happened. The fact that Eleanor then died in a similar way as her mother did is a beautiful full-circle metaphor for how this island defeats everyone, in so many ways. It was very exciting to play that.
When and how were you told about the conclusion of Eleanor’s journey?
NEW: The writers were super considerate and amazing, so I knew from the beginning of the season, which was a great way to start the season because I knew that the writers were giving me these amazing scenes, where there are moments of reconciliation, moments where relationships could be revisited, and moments where memories from her childhood become very significant in the way she thinks about herself and what she wants. I knew I was going to get all of these juicy tidbits and great scenes, before her demise. I was really, really excited to have that opportunity. Quite often, if shows end and characters are still alive, there are still many unanswered questions that leave that character with perhaps not such a complete arc. The amazing thing is that we can evaluate Eleanor as a character, as a whole, because we know her journey and we know her end.
In some ways, I’m excited to hear about the fans’ reaction and the post-mortem of who Eleanor was and what drove her. It’s incredibly moving and also a huge honor to play something in that complete sense. Her death isn’t just a plot device. Her death is significant because it’s the death of all sorts of visions for the island and of the Pirate Republic. She had to let go of that, when she was brought back to the island to bring civilization there from the powers that be at Whitehall, which was what she was always fighting against. She’s a chameleon and she was reborn, in a way. That rebirth of coming back to the island in a completely different capacity meant that she struggled with trying to achieve her end. Although her motives essentially seemed the same, of wanting the island to be a stable, functioning society where pirates would then become merchants, the main thing that she saw taken away from her mother and from her, as a child, was stability and safety.
What brings that into focus is when she, herself, realizes that she’s going to become a mother. That was just so significant. It’s like when you have those memories, as a child, that are absolutely pure visions, and you can bring that image up in your mind, at a significant moment. As a child, you don’t know why it’s significant that somebody is saying something. For Eleanor, it’s that her mother said, “This place is too cruel for little girls.” For me, her entire life, she’s been going, “I’m going to show you that this place isn’t too cruel for little girls. I’m going to be the girl that runs this place, and it’s not going to be cruel. I’m going to make it a functioning society.” That’s what drove her, for so many years. And then, suddenly, she’s confronted with providing safety for her own child, and it completely changes the game for her. That’s the point where she gives up fighting for the island. She’s prepared to swap the island for the cash, so that she can go and live a peaceful life. She’s striving for this peace and happiness that she suddenly realizes doesn’t exist in Nassau, and it won’t exist in Nassau, so she’s prepared to give that up for something bigger than herself, which is her own child. I think it’s an incredibly human way to portray her. I’m hoping there’s moments where the audience will see that, however erroneous her previous motives were, they were always driven by a humane need for security. It’s a very innate drive that I think we can all appreciate.
If Eleanor could have had a moment to reflect before her death, about everything that she went through, what do you think her biggest regret or regrets would be?
NEW: I think her biggest regrets would be that she’s constantly sublimated her own feelings for this bigger vision of the island and she’s done some disgusting things. On her death bed, I definitely know that she regrets the role that she played in the death of Charles Vane. She has this ability to be pragmatic about what she has to do to survive and override those emotions, but in her moment of death, herself, I think it brings to the forefront how incredibly scared she is. The only moment of peace that she is given is that one lie from Flint, that Woodes Rogers didn’t come with the Spanish. That is the only moment of peace she’s given, in this whole show, just seconds before she dies. She doesn’t have a chance to really reflect on what she did to Vane, and what she was doing to herself, in that moment. I think she killed part of herself, in that act. Perhaps, in a way, that’s what killed her ability to achieve her end. She went to a place that was so brutal and extreme that she wasn’t leading in a way that was humane. She was using the same tactics as the pirates, and that clouds everything that she was fighting for. It definitely clouds her, as a character, and the way people see her. The beauty of the writing is that she is this complex character and she does have an ability to reflect, but the minute she has that opportunity, it’s taken away from her. It’s incredibly painful, in so many ways.
Why was it so important to her, to make sure that Flint knew that she tried to save Madi?
NEW: Because she’s had this moment, just before their attack in the house, and I think what it really comes down to is that she’s reflecting and thinking about her childhood, in a completely different prism. She’s looking through a different vision of what her past was because of the fact that she’s pregnant. She’s looking at her own childhood, the things that happened to her, the people that did support her, and the things that maybe she took for granted because she was so traumatized and in so much pain. I think it’s her opportunity, in a way, to apologize, although she doesn’t apologize implicitly. I think she sees a common trait in Madi, that they are leaders and that they fight for what they believe in. Despite the very painful things that Madi might say to her, she sees Madi as a barer of truth and she ultimately respects that, however painful it is to hear and however painful it is to acknowledge that she received love, but only to a certain extent. She didn’t receive the real love of a mother, and I think that’s what she sees Madi trying to tell her. When she says, “Of course it affected me, and it was terrible to think that you were dead all of these years,” it was just another trauma in a long list of traumas that Eleanor was dealing with.
It was important for her to say that to Madi because she was the voice of reason for these pirates. She could see, in Madi, an ability to bring them down from any sense of hubris, when anger surges in the pirates. And watching it and seeing how she plays it, she plays it with such strength and integrity. She has all of those things that Eleanor wishes that she had. It was this moment of passing the baton to Madi, saying that she gets it. She’s got the integrity and the vision and the ability to be hard with the pirates and let them know what’s what. It’s a really beautiful moment, at the end of that scene. When we were filming it, I was like, “How implicit do you want it to be, that she’s going towards Madi and trying to wake her?” And they said, “We’re going to try to play it quite ambiguously, at the beginning.” Watching it, you can only hear one very raspy, “Madi . . .,” so you’re not really clear whether she’s asking Madi to save her, or whether she’s trying to save Madi. So, when she’s outside, I think she knows that Madi is going to die inside the house. Lying there, listening to the Barlow house burn and watching it burn, in her dying moments, was so symbolic. It’s the one place that was a sanctuary for so many characters in the show. For Flint to watch the Barlow house burn, when it was his one place of peace and was a place that had such memories of Miranda, and then to have Eleanor dying in his arms and give that moment of peace to her, is very poignant and beautiful. I hope that it resonates for the audience, too.
What was it like to shoot that whole final sequence, from the conversation between Eleanor and Madi, to the fight with the Spanish soldier, to her last moments with Captain Flint, to Woodes Rogers discovering her dead body, before she ever gave birth to their child?
NEW: It was over a long period of time because to burn the Barlow house, we had to do that towards the end of the season. We had to wait a long time, before the Barlow house could actually be burned. So, the experience of shooting the fight scene was so incredibly overwhelming – and I know it sounds a bit weird to say this – but I enjoyed it so much. Because it was so symbolic of what she did, day in and day out on the island, and that she grappled and used everything that’s within her grasp to try to survive, that’s what she does in that scene. When I got the script, I phoned Steve Boyum, who’s one of our directors and executive producers, and who’s just the most lovely main and brilliant director. He has such an incredibly ability to combine scenes that have incredibly complex stunt stuff with incredibly emotional drama. He also shot the scene where I go and confront Vane in the cell, just before his death. Both of those scenes had a huge amount of physicality, but then huge portions of dialogue. So, he broke the scene down in ways that enabled me to play it physically, but also emotionally. When I phoned him, I was like, “Oh, my god, there’s eight different weapons!” I’ve been on Jon [Steinberg], Rob [Levine] and Dan [Shotz] for three years, to try to get some really kick-ass stuff, and then they put it all in one scene. I was like, “Steve, I’ve only got this two-hour window, because of our shooting schedule, to learn this.” And he was like, “I believe in you, kid! You’ll be great!” So, I just felt very safe and very supported.
And then, when the day came, obviously, our stunt crew is incredible and the way we worked out the whole fight scene felt like it flowed really well. We got into shooting it, and I’d rehearsed in the corset, but not done up quite as tight as we were going to shoot the real thing because it bruises you when you fight in a corset. There was one point where I was being choked out on the table, before I grabbed the oil lamp and smashed it on his head, and because of the corset, I couldn’t breathe into my lower ribs, so all my breath came up into my chest. The pressure on my chest meant that I couldn’t breathe, at all, and I nearly passed out. Suddenly, the reality of being confronted with that kind of physical violence, the reality of fighting for your life, and the fear, just welled up in me. It was an explosion of tears and snot, and it just all came out. Physically, it took me to that place. So, I had to have a little break, but then we carried on. I think the final product is just so incredibly visceral and the camera work is incredible. I was amazed when I finally saw it. It felt like a daze when I was in it, in so many ways, because you just go through the motions. In between takes, you have to try to let it go because it can be exhausting. I had some family members visit set that day, and they saw me covered in blood. I was joking around and being a goofball, and they were like, “Yeah, we’re not going to stay to watch this.” I realized that it does have that really visceral affect on people who love you. But, it was an amazing experience. It’s actually my first on-screen death, and I feel so incredibly honored that it was done in such an incredible way. Obviously, those last moments with Toby [Stephens] and filming the actual moment where she lets go in his arms, was incredibly poignant for me. I lost it on set, a couple of times, and I’m welling up now, just talking about it. I just feel so blessed that I could do that.
Did you take anything from the set, or did you just want to leave it all behind?
NEW: When you walk around those sets, you want to take everything. There were definitely some very, very pretty things in Max’s room that I would have loved to have had. But, I didn’t actually take anything. I think a few people managed to wrangle a few things, by asking the right department. They were actually still shooting a lot. These episodes were so complex that they were picking up all sorts of little details, so I couldn’t actually take anything, at the time. I always joke with Jessica [Parker Kennedy] that we should have taken Eleanor’s chair and had a ritualistic bonfire. One of the things I would have loved, and I’m on a mission to find it, is a set of keys that Eleanor wore in Seasons 1 and 2. It was a symbol of the fact that she controlled Nassau. In my mind, I always had this vision of her as this Maggie Thatcher being that doesn’t really sleep. At night, her routine would be to lock herself in, so those keys, in so many ways, are so symbolic. Let’s see if I can track them down.
Black Sails airs on Sunday nights on Starz.