The Starz series Black Sails is one of the biggest and most ambitious adventures on TV. While Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) struggles over whether he’s the pirate myth that he’s created or the man who still lies underneath, Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) is having to deal with the return of one of history’s most notorious captains, known as Blackbeard (Ray Stevenson). And with Woodes Rogers’ (Luke Roberts) desire to end piracy for good, Nassau will never be the same again.
While at the TCA Press Tour, co-stars Ray Stevenson and Zach McGowan spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about the easy chemistry between them, playing the subtext, what a family this cast and crew is, why this is a good time for Edward Teach’s return, how Teach’s presence changes Vane’s perspective, the relationship between Vane and Eleanor (Hannah New), and that this show raises its own bar with each season. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: How quickly did the chemistry and comradery between you and Zach McGowan happen?
RAY STEVENSON: A great unsolicited compliment actually came from Zach’s father, who had seen the early episodes, was about that stuff you can’t rehearse. He said, “There’s a synergy between you two guys. You can see why you are the same sort of beings.” Regardless of the writing and the costumes, and all that other stuff, that chemistry either works or it doesn’t. And to hear Zach’s father saying that was just the most wonderful compliment. It was great. You don’t know. You go and you bring your best game to the table, but to hear it from somebody who’s so outside of it all, that felt tremendous.
You’re not just playing the relationship between Teach and Vane in the present, but you’re also bringing all of the history between your characters. How do you approach that?
STEVENSON: You bring a lot of subtext to it. A lot of it is playing what’s not said. The subtext of the scenes is beneath the dialogue. It’s one of those things that, as a viewer, you get because it’s there. They can talk about the price of cheese, but you can get that that’s not what it’s about.
ZACH McGOWAN: I remember when Jon Steinberg was like, “We’ve finally gotten Blackbeard figured out!” And I was like, “Who’s it going to be?” He said, “Ray Stevenson.” And I was like, “I fucking love that dude!” My roommate, when I moved out to L.A., was the biggest Rome fan in the world. I knew we were going to work together a lot, and you never know how that’s going to work out.
Ray, what was it like to join this show in Season 3? Did you find that everybody really embraced you?
STEVENSON: They had established such a homogenized crew, cast and family that it’s daunting stepping into that. You don’t want to upset the apple cart, but the character does. It’s a huge thing for them, as much as myself, and I was just so embraced by everybody. It’s a big, tough, epic piece. Without the support of your fellow crew and cast members, it would be impossible.
McGOWAN: A couple days into it, he was like, “Dude, you guys really work hard on this thing.” I was like, “Yeah, it’s no joke, man.”
STEVENSON: The downtime is tough. You’re so far away. You’re literally on the other side of the world, and your support group is the family around you because they get it. You can get lonely, but you’ve got people around you that you don’t need to have those conversations with. You just have to share their company. That’s what helps you through it.
Zach, Vane went through some shit in Season 2.
McGOWAN: Vane is always getting kicked in the nuts.
Does that fact make this a good time for Edward Teach to be back in his life?
McGOWAN: I think it is. Is it a comfortable time for him to be coming back? No. But is it a good time? Yes. At the end of Season 2, Vane made the choice to put himself out there for something bigger than he is. To even try to save Flint was a big shift in him. I think it’s coming right at the time where he started to wonder, “Who am I? What do I stand for?”
STEVENSON: Blackbeard comes in and he goes, “I have no idea who I am or what I’m doing.” He’s in a no man’s land. They wrote the most amazing story and arc, not just for Vane and everybody around him, but for this journey. They go inside him and wrench him apart, psychologically, as well as physically.
McGOWAN: I joke that Season 3, for Vane, is the contemplating your life season. Different people give him different opinions about how he should do things.
STEVENSON: When so many different voices send you in different directions, you can’t listen to your own.
McGOWAN: Audiences watch actors think, and Vane has a lot to think about in Season 3.
How does Teach returning to Nassau change what Vane wants?
McGOWAN: It changes it a lot.
STEVENSON: He breaks all the false masks away and makes him ask, “What do I really want?” He’s made these altruistic alliances with everybody, but is that him? To question yourself, at that point in your career and life, is a question you normally face when you’re 20.
McGOWAN: It’s one of those things where, when you get what you want, what’s next? What do you do then? Did he want this? It’s an identity crisis. It’s very classic. To have someone like Blackbeard, and for them to make that backstory that he is Vane’s mentor and, in many ways, a father figure, what do you do when your dad comes back? Are you friends? It’s like your dad meets some friend of yours and you’re like, “You got him wrong.” He’s like, “Rackham? This guy?” We’ve built Vane up so much, as this force to be reckoned with, but everyone has someone they answer to and someone whose opinion they respect.
STEVENSON: The value systems have all gone to shit since they’ve gotten decadent and wealthy. Just his mere presence is like the mirror has walked in and they’re like, “I used to be a pirate. Look at me.” It’s that moment when you’re having a great party, and then you’re like, “Why am I having a party on a Tuesday night? I thought I was having a great time, but what am I doing?”
McGOWAN: It’s very much a reality check.
Is Vane and Eleanor’s relationship damaged beyond repair, at this point?
McGOWAN: At the beginning of the season, Vane didn’t know what was happening to her, but he was pretty sure she was being hung in the gallows in London somewhere. The last thing that Vane was expecting was that she would come back. Once you love someone, you always have very strong feelings for them. Do they love each other still? Maybe. Is that even possible at this time? Who knows? It’s one of those things. It’s like all life.
What do you hope that fans get out of watching Season 3?
STEVENSON: There’s a sophistication to the writing that the audience will be excited about. Season 3 has raised the bar so high. It stands as possibly some of the greatest TV out there. I’m so proud to be a part of it and to work with these people. What a piece to have in the lexicon of your body of work.
McGOWAN: It’s a show where you can’t do anything but make it bigger, every year.
STEVENSON: It feeds itself. It’s a growing, living organism that thrives and lives up to its own success and achievements. As the stunts get more courageous, it feeds into that and gives confidence to go bigger next time. They’re doing incredible work, and that facilitates it. And it’s every week.
McGOWAN: People are like, “Can’t you do more than 10 episodes?,” and it’s like, “No!” We could make 12, but two of them are going to be shit. It would be two guys in the tavern, talking for 60 minutes.
STEVENSON: It’s the journey not the destination, and that’s what they give you.
Black Sails airs on Saturday nights on Starz.