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 Toby Stephens talked about how he came to be a part of Black Sails, what attracted him to this project, why he was drawn to the feared Captain Flint, his character’s background, the research he did, and the importance of allies in this world. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
TOBY STEPHENS: I was doing a film in Wales that was a low budget film, and I was in every single scene. My agents rang me up and I had this conversation with her on a lunch break. She said, “I’ve got this script. You’ve gotta read it. It’s a pirate show, and there’s a character you have to play.” I was like, “When am I gonna have time to put myself on tape?” And she said, “You have to read this. It’s unbelievable.” So, I kept put it off, and she kept saying, “You’ve gotta read it!” Eventually, I read it and immediately I went, “I want to do this. I want to play this part.” It was just like nothing I had ever seen before on TV. I was like, “This really is a great opportunity.” That makes it slightly painful, as an actor, because you immediately become attached to a character that you know the odds are you’re not going to get to play. So, I put myself on tape. It was the easiest transit from doing the audition to getting the role that I’ve ever had. It seems the gods were with me, and it worked out. This was just a great opportunity.
What was it about Captain Flint, as a character, that appealed to you?
STEPHENS: I do feel so privileged to get a chance to play a character that goes on such a journey. He’s an incredibly cool, interesting guy to play. He’s charismatic. What’s great is that an audience has to project all kinds of things onto him before they work out what is actually driving him. It’s revealed so gradually and incrementally, what he is and what’s driving him. It’s just a really interesting guy to play and a journey to go on. I’d never get this opportunity in the UK. I just would never get the opportunity to do this, so it’s great. At the end of the pilot episode, he seems to be trying to protect himself and his position, and you’re not quite sure whether he is going to protect it because it seems like the other guy is really tough. And then, at the end of it, you go, “Now I see who this guy is and what he’s capable of doing.” You think you know what he is, but then, as it goes on, you think he’s this uber-violent, ruthless guy. And then, it’s revealed that he’s actually a very complex human being that has this past and this emotional life that you were not expecting.
I think that’s what’s so great about this series. It takes something that you think you know and totally flips it. Generally, in pirate stuff, pirates are a wash. They all where the same kind of clothing, they sound the same, and their motives are the same. They want to rape, pillage, get booty and drink rum. This makes them all into human beings and gives them all a backstory, and they’re all very different. They all have different ways of being a captain. They all have different motives for doing what they’re doing. They’re all very different people. I think that makes it very, very interesting to watch.
STEPHENS: I don’t think I’m really giving anything away in saying that he comes from a Naval background. He’s someone who was originally in the Navy, and that’s what gives him an edge above a lot of the other pirates. He is Naval trained, so he’s very superior, nautically. He also understands the British Navy’s tactics, so he can guess what they’re doing. Britain is always over the horizon as the enemy. They’re the threat that’s constantly there, that’s going to come and squash them. Britain and Spain are the two oppressive forces. And I think that’s really good because it gives it a real context. It’s not a mythological world. It really takes place in a specific time when there was a huge amount going on.
When I was filming the first season, I was reading the episodes as they were coming in, and I thought, “Of course, there was the slave trade at that time.” There is a storylines about slaves in a hole that we discover. You’ve got the French Revolution that’s just happened. You’ve got the American War of Independence that’s going to happen in 50 years. There’s the Age of Enlightenment. There’s this whole story that, as we go along, is fed in, more and more. Without it being boring or just a history lesson, it just gives it a real texture and a feeling of, “Wow, this is a world.” But at the same time, it’s a world with themes that are current now. There are economic themes, moral themes and political themes that are still relevant today, so that it gives us a reason for doing this show. We’re not just doing a pirate show for the sake of doing a pirate show. It actually has resonance with what we’re going through now.
Did you do research into all of the aspects of the story, because they do have historical context, or did you not find that necessary for this?
STEPHENS: The more I did it, the more I went, “Actually, this is really interesting.” The most I read about was how a ship ran. It’s one thing to play a captain, but you have to know what that entails and how you became a captain. Also, his Naval background meant that I needed to know how the Navy ran, at the time. He would have joined when he was probably about 10, and he would have worked his way up. I wanted to know what kind of life that was, just to give a sense of knowing who he is and where he is, in this world. That was important to me, and it was actually interesting. I’m interested in that stuff, anyway.
It seems as though there would have been no way to survive in this world without loyalty. Who are Captain Flint’s loyal allies?
STEPHENS: Mrs. Barlow is his anchor. It’s revealed, as we go on, but there is obviously a bond there and a pact that they have. That’s deeper than any of the stuff that’s going on, on a superficial level of the day-to-day survival. There is a deep-seeded anger, as well, about his past. It’s a revenge anger. He’s deeply angry with Britain and what it’s done to him, in his past. That’s one of the motivating forces. And anger is not always the best motivating force. I think he’s somebody who’s desperate to do the right thing, but his character flaws get in the way. He wants his men to love him and he wants to do the right thing for them, but he goes about it the wrong way.
How will the relationship between Captain Flint and Eleanor Guthrie continue to evolve?
STEPHENS: He’s a pragmatist. He sees that he has to work with this woman, and he sees somebody who wants the same thing. He wants to stand up and have an independent place that’s safe from Britain and safe from Spain, and that can defend itself, but that doesn’t necessarily require them to be pirates, for the rest of their lives. That’s the bond he has with Eleanor. Eleanor wants the same thing. She loves this place. She wants it to work and be a functioning place, and probably also wants it not to rely on piracy. That’s the connection they have. It’s like a father-daughter relationship, but you’re also not quite sure if there’s a romantic thing going on there. It’s an interesting relationship.
Black Sails airs on Saturday nights on Starz.