The Starz drama series Black Sails is set in 1715, when the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean is at its height and the former British colony of New Providence Island is now lawless territory controlled by the most notorious pirate captains in history. As the British Navy returns to these waters and the threat of extinction looms, Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) finds an ally in Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), the daughter of the local smuggling kingpin who is looking to make a name for herself, and together they devise a plan to hunt the ultimate treasure and save their home. From Platinum Dunes, the show also stars Luke Arnold, Zach McGowan, Jessica Parker Kennedy, Tom Hopper, Toby Schmitz, Clara Paget, Mark Ryan and Hakeem Kae-Kazim.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actor Luke Arnold (who plays John Silver) talked about how he came to be a part of Black Sails, what attracted him to this project, why he was excited about getting to tell the origin story of Long John Silver, the research he did, the pirate training they went through, shooting the brothel scene, and why he loves the dynamic between Silver and Captain Flint. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
LUKE ARNOLD: I think there was another show that Starz had in development, that I was in the running for, that didn’t end up happening. So, luckily, I was on their radar when this came along. And then, I did a couple of auditions and got signed to the show before I knew which character I was going to be. They were like, “You’re going to be a pirate, and you’re going to be on the show. We’ll see who else we cast, but you’re in.” I’ve been waiting for this show, my whole short career.
What was the appeal of this particular story for you?
ARNOLD: This whole new rise in historical epic TV has been really good for me. I’ve always kept a few days growth and long hair, and I’m from Australia. I’ve been waiting for this kind of show to come along. Black Sails is the kind of job you dream about, as a kid. When you want to be an actor, you think about playing pirates and fun things like that. And there, there are kitchen sink dramas, and cop shows where you’re getting accused of killing your wife. This is just so much fun, in every way. It’s so challenging, between the language and the physicality, but it’s great.
What did you think once you found out that you would be playing John Silver?
ARNOLD: It was one of the characters, from the beginning, that I knew was going to be quite challenging, and it is. Because it’s so hard to tell where he’s coming from, in everything he does and the way he talks and the way he interacts with people. That’s very different from being someone who gets things done by punching someone in the face. He’s very manipulative, and he’s very intellectual. Keeping that in a character that’s supposed to be quite likeable, there’s a real tightrope there. I have to make sure he never comes across as being too smart for his own good. But, it’s amazing. Long John Silver is one of those famous literary characters. Being the first one to put his origin story on screen is just a gift.
ARNOLD: It’s probably not necessary, in a way. The whole team has done such a great job on the scripts that that’s where I want to go. You get into trouble, as an actor, if you start trying to do too much stuff that isn’t in this version of the story. But I definitely went back, just for my own interests, and just to see how rich you could make the characters. I looked at the other versions of Long John Silver that have come out before because you know they’re going to be in the audiences’ mind. If you can ever play on those moments, it’s nice Easter eggs for the audience. Hopefully, you can see a bit of who Silver is going to become, in this much younger version that I get to play.
Who is this Silver and where does he fit into this world?
ARNOLD: He says what he needs to, to get what he wants and to keep himself alive. You can’t really trust too much of what comes out of his mouth. That said, I think what you do know about him, and he’s very honest about it, is that he is completely self-serving. All he worries about is keeping himself looked after and alive. He’s throw anyone else under the bus to get that done, and he’s open and honest about that. I think he’s surprised when people mistrust him because he thinks he’s very honest about only looking out for himself. It’s really quite fun to play a character like that. The Silver we meet now could turn his back on the whole pirate world, at any point. He wants one quick payday, and then to get the hell out of there. He’s not invested, at all. And then, as he meets these other characters and starts to see what he could gain by teaming up with them, whether he’s going to become someone who is going to look out for other people, in any way, or whether he’s always going to be someone who just worries about himself.
This is really a world where you have to have allies and loyalty to survive. How can someone like Silver even find that?
ARNOLD: He has a very honest way of telling people, “I think we can accomplish something together, so you look after me and I’ll look after you.” But if it ever somehow serves him to do stuff on his own, he’ll take that opportunity and screw the other person over. Even though he would screw anyone else over, he is very honest about that, and it probably makes him more honest than any other character. He manipulates them a bit, but in an honest way. It’s very strange to play someone like that. There are a few characters, through the course of Season 1, that he has to work with, in some way, and that’s really the fun of it. He ticks a lot of people off. He’s not the most liked character, in the beginning. But there’s also something about him where, even though no one likes him, they feel like they can’t kill him, which is an interesting place to be.
Did you have to go through a lot of training, not just physically, but also to learn how pirate crews worked?
ARNOLD: Toby [Stephens] and Mark Ryan really get the brunt of that, dealing with the nautical side of things, like how a ship works, the different parts of it, and how to manage a crew. But we took a three mast ship out and we took some of the modern technology off of it, so that we had to raise the sails by hand and tack them, and all that. It was brutal work. It wasn’t a ship that big, but even the little one we had took a lot of work. We enter into that without going quite as far as Master and Commander, and some of those really historical, quite dense texts and films, but it is part of it. You want this to feel like it’s a real world, and we have to deal with all of the realities of what it takes. It’s really great that this story is entrenched in the realities of the time, in that way.
What do you think Silver would actually like to be doing, if he could do anything he wanted?
ARNOLD: I think Silver wants to be his own man. He has a real problem with authority, which makes him not the best crew member, really. It’s partly because he knows he’s smarter than everyone else, and that makes it really hard for him to be someone who follows orders. And he’s not a fan of work. Really, what he’d like to do is win the lottery. That’s what he’s looking for. That’s why this treasure ship and what it proposes is something that he really wants to go after. He’ll actually risk his life and risk a lot to go after it because it’s what he wants. He wants a big payday that he doesn’t have to work for, and to never have to do any of these mundane jobs again and deal with all these idiots. He had quite a bit of pride and a little bit of an ego, in a way, and most of it is deserved. There’s a lot of dumb pirates, and he’s a smart guy. He feels that he shouldn’t have to work in the jobs that he’s doing.
Will he frequently find himself in trouble with women?
ARNOLD: He’s got bigger plans. You saw him in the brothel, in the first episode, but I would imagine women, for Silver, would come into it later. I don’t think he’d be the kind of guy to sacrifice too much of his life for a woman, at this early stage. Once he’s got his gold in his house and he’s set up, that’s when he’d worry about finding a wife, I think. He probably wouldn’t be the most reliable boyfriend.
How much fun was the brothel scene to shoot?
ARNOLD: That’s what was interesting about the pilot episode. We get introduced to the pirate world through Silver’s eyes. What you want to see, and what the audience is waiting for, is a little bit of that fantasy fulfillment. You want to see that there are some beautiful wrenches in the brothel, everyone’s drinking rum all day, there’s this comradery, and that it’s a world you want to enter in to. And then, by the end of that episode, we see the cost of that and the brutal reality of what it takes to live in this place. I think that scene was important to make it really fun and light. It’s something that would never happen back on English shores. That’s why they risk what they do to live in this world and to be pirates. You can go in a brothel with five women and have a great time. But then, at the end of the day, someone there might beat someone to death. Seeing both of those things, side by side, really set up the world that we’re playing in.
Will the relationship between Silver and Captain Flint continue to evolve?
ARNOLD: Yes, absolutely! That’s my favorite part of the whole show. I love every part of it, but the Flint-Silver relationship is what I find the most interesting. They are the two smartest guys in the room. There are a lot of similarities between them, but they also have different skills. For as annoying as Silver can be for everyone else, he’s really approachable and likeable, which is the opposite of Flint, who is so aloof and so separate from his crew. Even though they’re after the same things and have some similarities, they go about things in a different way. And we know from the book that some of the other pirates said that Silver is the only man that Flint ever feared, and that Silver becomes Flint’s Quarter Master, at some point. So, knowing that that’s on the horizon, how that comes about through Season 1 is really interesting. You start getting a few snippets of it, and in Season 2, which we’re shooting now, that definitely starts to evolve. That’s been the funnest part for me. The whole cast on this show is incredible, but when you get to face off with Toby Stephens in costume, it’s scary and it’s fantastic. One of the greatest acting experiences ever is getting to work with him.
Black Sails airs on Saturday nights on Starz.