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 Zach McGowan (who plays Captain Vane, a financially successful pirate with a vicious temper) talked about how he came to be a part of Black Sails, what attracted him to this project, how easy it was for him to find this character, how much he enjoys getting to do all of the fights and stunts himself, and what he enjoys most about playing Captain Vane. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
ZACH McGOWAN: No, actually what came about was that, during Season 3 of Shameless, I had a conversation with the people who ran the show, and they were pretty sure that they weren’t going to need me for a couple of the first episodes of Season 4. Weren’t sure meant that my contract was going to have to be renegotiated. I was a free agent, so to speak. So, during that negotiation, my agents had me looking at other projects to see whether or not I could get something, which gives you some power. I saw this project and was like, “Oh, my god, we just have to see whether it would be possible. It’s a pirate show and who doesn’t want to be a pirate?! I certainly want to be a pirate. I am a pirate!” So, we went after it.
Of course, they weren’t reading Americans, at all. One of my agents was friendly with one of the producers on it, in Michael Bay’s office, and was able to get my tape to him. We were able to skirt around the casting process that way. They had be come in and read for them after, and they offered me the part. I took it, so I’m on this show, for now, and really love it. I won’t be appearing in Season 4 of Shameless. I would love to do both of them simultaneously, but that’s like trying to play for the Yankees and the Red Sox, at the same time. We could have made it work, but it’s just the way it is. It’s beyond my pay grade, so to speak. But I’ve been very fortunate to get to work with such amazing people, and to continue to work is just great, as an actor.
What was it about this script and character that made you want to do this show?
McGOWAN: As soon as I read the script, I said to my agent, “We have to get my tape to them somehow. If I put a tape down, can we get it to someone?” They said, “If we like it, we can get it to someone there.” So, I did it. My wife and I sat there and watched the different tapes. I did three of them and gave different flavors, and we chose one. My agent said, “This is awesome!,” and sent it. I think we got called 10 minutes after the tape was sent over. They had been reading a lot of people, and Vane was the last character cast. At the time, I think they were unsure of what Luke [Arnold] was gonna play. He was going to play either Vane or John Silver. But, it was a fun thing, just to be able to work with an English accent, with actors from England, Australia and South Africa. All of my acting friends from America are like, “Fuck you! Fuck you, dude. We don’t get to do that shit. The English people get to come here and do American accents. We don’t get to go over there.” So, I’m just fortunate and happy.
McGOWAN: It was really scary, how easy it was to get into Vane’s shoes, in many ways. That part was just wanting to come out of me. I don’t know what that says about me, but I’m happy to say it. It’s been really fun. He’s an uncompromising guy. It’s fun to play someone who really has no concern with what other people think about anything. That’s refreshing. We spend so much time, as people, trying to be seen in the right light. So, it was very freeing.
Vane is one of the few people who has allies that are actually loyal to him.
McGOWAN: Yeah. Early on, you realize that everyone leads in different ways. Some people think that the people they lead are too stupid to be told the truth, and thus they must be lied to, in order for a greater good to be accomplished. Some people believe in the system that has been set up, where the strongest among us is going to lead us in a fight, otherwise everyone is the same. That’s the doctrine of pirates. In reality, in the history of it, the captains are only really in charge during an engagement. The rest of the time, everyone had got the same vote. It’s been very interesting finding that. Vane is very much the guy who, if there’s a fight, the crew wants him giving the orders. He’s not gonna run away. He’s gonna do it the right way. I think it’s very easy to forget how important that is, if your life is on the line. If there were people coming through here right now, who were gonna kill you, what would you do? You’d probably find the strongest people and put them in the front.
Do you enjoy getting to do all of the stunts and fight sequences?
McGOWAN: It’s been fun to do all the fighting and the stunt work. I’ve been waiting to do that for a long time, in my career. I’m an athlete and a physical person, so it’s been fun to be able to do that. I’m getting the chance to, for the first time, really.
McGOWAN: It’s all very challenging, but it’s also very easy for me, in a way. I know that’s contradictory. I’m the youngest of three brothers, and they basically kicked the shit out of me, most of my life. They toughened me up. My father is a Marine. My brother is a Marine. I almost became a Marine. I’m no stranger to fight training. I used to do jujitsu and boxing, as a kid. I was a running back in football, for my high school and my college. I played ice hockey, as well as did theater. So, there’s always been a physical nature to me. I’m not a violent person, but I’ve had to defend myself in enough experiences in my life that I’m pretty efficient, when I need to be. It’s been really great to use some of those skills that were hard earned. It’s fun to do it. It’s also great to do fights where you don’t actually get punched in the face. That’s fantastic.
Obviously, it’s acting and the fight scenes aren’t real, but has it been difficult to get so physical in fight scenes with a woman?
McGOWAN: I don’t think it’s ever hard to punch someone in the face who’s just punched you in the face. I would say that anyone who thinks they can walk up to someone and punch them in the face without getting punched back is an idiot. At the end of the day, if someone came up here and punched you, trust me, you would fight back. That is just basic survival. Yes, there are people who won’t fight, no matter what. But if someone walks up and punches me in the face, you’re gonna see me punch them right back. I very much believe, and I think Charles Vane also believes, that you treat other like you’re treated. He was also in front of his crew, and you can’t show weakness in front of them. But, I don’t think it’s any harder to do a fight scene with a woman or a man.
Fight scenes are hard, no matter what you do. You’re trying to make it look like you’re hurting someone without hurting them. It doesn’t matter how big and strong the guy is that you’re fighting, or how small and feeble someone is that you’re fighting. You don’t want to hurt them. You’re working with them. In order to do the fight right, they have to trust that you’re not going to try to hurt them, and you have to trust that they’re not going to try to hurt you, or it’s not gonna look like a very good fight sequence. So, that’s been very fun. I got to do all of my own stunts in Season 1, which is a blast.
What do you enjoy most about getting to play Captain Vane?
McGOWAN: His Achilles heel, in general, is that he’s actually a really nice guy. When it comes down to it, he’s got a great mask that he wears around the other lions, so that he can roar and they can back off. But when it comes down to it, I think he never had a childhood, and that stays with him. He is remarkably emotionally weak, while being remarkably physically strong. That’s been an amazing thing to get to play, as an actor, because most of the characters who I’ve loved in the history of film and TV are that. People who feel the pain of the human condition, but who also can dole out the pain of the human fist are awesome. I’m just excited to get to play that.
Black Sails airs on Saturday nights on Starz.