Blackbeard is probably the most famous real life pirate, and has been the most fictionalized pirate, as well. Did you do any research for the role?
There was a lot of research available, obviously–a lot of historical information out there–but the big thing about that is to always remember that it’s written by victors and sensationalists, ultimately. It’s one person’s point of view; and thankfully there is so much that you can take it all with a pinch of salt and get some semblance of who the guy was. Eventually you’ve got to push all of that aside, though, because you’re ultimately playing the ‘piece’. It was great having all of that history, even having some sketchy drawings, as well, but you can’t just rely on the historical record.
Did you get to do any sword fighting in preparation for this role?
Oh God yes! You couldn’t stop me! Obviously we did have stunt guys do work as well, but ultimately it comes down to you being able to do the work. Although I did a lot of sword work on The Three Musketeers, this is a different sort of fighting. This is a lot dirtier. This involves pistols, and fighting in soft sand–in Capetown, South Africa, in summertime–with the beard, and the hair. And your legs…they just feel like jelly by the end! One fight we shot over three days, and at the end of the day your legs are just shaking so hard. I’ve never worked this hard in the gym. I don’t like gyms–but the training with this– the training with all these action movies– I work so much harder. When you’re in the midst of filming these fighting scenes you don’t think about it, until the end of the day and your legs simply don’t want to move. I enjoy it so much more, even though the work is that much harder.
How would you describe Blackbeard, what role does he play within the show?
You have to remember that in this society, in this time period, pirates were one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet. Pirate captains were elected by the crew and could be de-elected if they weren’t making the crew enough money, or they weren’t a good sailor, so they had to maintain their merits. The money was cached and divided in proper ways, evenly by rules. These rules are what Blackbeard has always lived by.
At the start of season 3 he’s been away for eight or nine years, and tried, unsuccessfully, to sire a son. He’s been married eight or nine times and has only had daughters. He also misses the ocean. There’s that bit of him that knows he doesn’t belong on dry land. So he sets about returning to Nassau in search of a pirate captain he was mentor to– Charles Vane. So Teach is coming back to see if there is some spark, some semblance of an heir apparent.
He isn’t getting any younger; in those days your place in society, your status, your legend, your legacy, was everything. There weren’t that many people on the planet so if you lost your status it was the worst thing that could happen to you. So he wants someone who can carry on his legend. So that’s why he returns.
But what he finds in Nassau is that Nassau itself is soft. Vane and the whole lot of them have done the worst thing ever–they’ve made it prosperous! Blackbeard looks around and he can’t see any pirates. They are all soft, with loads of money. He sees that the whorehouses are full, the taverns are full and he wonders where is the essence of what he left behind? He also sees that Vane and the others are also starting to build a society that he can see will become the very thing they left behind. Something less than the egalitarian society they created as pirates. He sees history starting to repeat itself. So he takes them to task for this, as it were, and upsets the apple cart.
You’ve played a lot of grey characters with hearts of gold, for example, Titus Pullo…what draws you to these characters? The complexity, or..?
Inevitably, these characters can be seen as violent, dark, one dimensional people, but I always see things in many shades of grey, and that is what I like to bring out. Nobody wakes up in the morning thinking they are going to be a bad guy that day. The worst guys on the planet, the real bad guys, are the ones who set up a higher ideal, a philosophy, and if you go against them, you are going against the entire philosophical construct–and since they are the great servant of the philosophy, they can eradicate you and your whole family. These are the real despots, these are the people who will commit genocides–these are the real bad guys. And even they don’t wake up thinking they are bad. They think they are ultimately the best people.
What’s the quote– “every villain thinks he’s a hero in his own mind–”
–exactly! So what I like is that within these dramas, we can humanize these people. I think what we do– actors, directors, writers, dramatists–anybody who puts these things together, when we are at our best, we hold a mirror up to the human condition. I think that’s what gives people access. Whether it’s vikings in space, Titus Pullo, or Blackbeard, we can see the human condition being played out and it gives us access as an audience. Therefore we can engage no matter what the genre.
I also love playing roles where I’m not necessarily the demographic –that’s an actor’s job. I’m not doing things just for me–part of the thrill of what I do is doing these things and then providing them to the audience. It’s that line from Shakespeare- “The play’s the thing in Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king–” and the king, for me, is the audience. So serve the play, and I think when you get that, the audience gets entertainment…but they also get access to the human condition.
Do you know if your character will be on for more than one season?
They’ve already announced season 4; we start shooting in November; they can’t get rid of me so easily!
Season Three Premiers January 23rd at 9:00 PM ET/PT only on STARZ