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Interview – Toby Stephens talks Black Sails, bro-dudes and the gay pirate uproar

Dominic Corry spoke to Toby Stephens about the new season of Michael Bay’s Black Sails. Warning: Contains major spoilers from seasons 1 and 2.

Black Sails

Michael Bay’s epic pirate series Black Sails doesn’t get as much attention as some period action dramas, but it’s been building an increasingly devoted audience with its filmic scale and intense, often surprising storytelling.

A prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island that mixes historical figures and events into its storytelling (Blackbeard turned up recently, played by a perfectly-cast Ray Stevenson), Black Sails follows the unique journey of Captain Flint (Toby Stephens). A former British Naval Officer drummed out of service for initially ambiguous reasons, he turns to piracy to enact revenge on those who wronged him.

Over the first two seasons of Black Sails, Flint built up a reputation as one of the most ruthless pirates in the Bahamas, but it was mostly that – a reputation. Events at the end of season two pushed him over the edge however, and season three has so far shown Flint to now be an anti-hero who’s much more ‘anti’ than ‘hero’.

The Spinoff got a chance to speak with Stephens recently in Los Angeles about the show (season three is currently underway on Lightbox), and he pegged the accent straight away.

Captain Flint really seems like he’s past the point of no return in season three – is that how you see it?

Yeah, I think it’s an extension of where he was after Charleston. After [his close ally] Miranda Barlow dies, he’s suddenly detached from his past. He’s now becoming the monster that he’d sort of presented to the world that wasn’t truly him.

I think what we saw at the beginning of season three is this implacable, remorseless guy who’s exacting revenge on England. What’s great is that you have these devices of the dreams that we’re let in to, you’re seeing what’s going on behind the façade. Because we see the turmoil going on inside him, you see that inside there’s still a human being. He’s still struggling to find a purpose, a future for himself without Barlow. The journey of season three is him finding a direction that isn’t just about, you know, destroying England.

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Black Sails executive producer Jonathan E. Steinberg said he was surprised by some of the less enlightened reactions to the season two reveal that Flint is gay. Were you surprised by those reactions?

I wasn’t surprised by it. I knew there was gonna be a reaction. You set up a character – I’m getting all these tweets going [affects American bro-dude voice] ‘Man this dude’s so badass!’  and ‘What an amazing guy – he goes around killing people!’ Then suddenly they’re going [bro-dude voice] ‘Whaaaaat! He’s gay! Oh my god!’ because they’ve all been identifying with this guy, which is exactly what you want to happen.

You want people to identify with this guy, and then suddenly go ‘Oh my god!’ The point is that it doesn’t matter, because his sexuality doesn’t define him. That should be true about everyone. What was cool was, you got this reaction, but then by the end of the season, they’d all forgotten about that. I think Jonathan’s being disingenuous when he says he didn’t know that that was gonna happen, because of course, you’ve got all these guys who are identifying with him, and suddenly you’re fucking with them – I think that’s what was so great about it.

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What has this character allowed you to do that you’ve never done before as an actor?

I’ve never had anything that’s as violent as the character, but then I’ve never had something as intimate as kissing another man. When they told me he was gay right at the beginning, before I even signed the contract to do it, I just thought he was such a great character. You’re presenting somebody who is this control freak, but also is this really violent guy who does these terrible things. And at the same time he’s hiding this secret that he’s somebody totally different from that. I thought it was such a tragic thing for somebody to have to pretend to be somebody other than what he is. And then for that person to then become the monster. It’s such a fantastic story, and it demands of me so many different things.

You’re one of many English actors who plays the lead on an American series. Why do you think this trend continues to proliferate?

We’re easier to work for, and we’re cheap. We’re glad for the work. I do honestly believe that. And I think it might be changing, but I think initially it was a lot of American actors had become so spoiled by the studio system or by the way things work over here, it was all about ‘What size is my trailer?’ y’know? A lot of that stuff and they weren’t very well-behaved. This is what I’ve gleaned from people, producers who’ve told me.

And English actors are generally – I’m not saying everyone – are very professional. They turn up, they know their lines, they wanna do a good job, they’re easy to work with and we don’t cost as much because we’re not in the same union. There are economic and practical reasons. I don’t think necessarily we’re better actors. I think Americans are phenomenal, at screen acting certainly. And I think we can learn a huge amount from them. We might be able to teach them a thing or two about stage acting, but we can’t teach them much about film acting.

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What was it like doing the new BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None [which Prime have purchased for NZ broadcast]?  

Well it’s great, it’s a vacation. I love the fact that I get to go and play somebody totally different from Captain Flint. It was such a fun group of people as well. And also what I liked about it was, it took a form, Agatha Christie, which everybody is so familiar with, they think they know it, and it didn’t reinvent it but it certainly put a twist on it. [Reading it], you went ‘Wow this is a really dark piece’ but each of the characters had a reason for why the were the way they were and I liked that about Armstrong [Stephens’ character]. I liked finding the humanity behind somebody who could otherwise just be a caricature.

Is your goal to keep working in both the UK and the US?

I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know where I’m going to be after Black Sails finally ends [season four is currently filming] but I want to just carry on doing different stuff and good work and if that takes me here, then fine. I’ve got a family as well, and one of the things that filming Black Sails has taught me, because we film in Cape Town, is how difficult it is sustaining a family and working on something so far away. Luckily we’ve found a happy medium, my wife and I. But it’s tough, you know? So I wanna be working where I can keep my family together and hopefully be satisfied with what I’m doing.


Click below to catch all three seasons of Black Sails on Lightbox.

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