We here at When Nerds Attack were lucky enough to be apart of the the interviews with the cast and producers of Starz’s Black Sails, which is premiering Sunday, January 29th, with their fourth and final season. We talked about what is in store for their characters, the ever changing dynamics for their storylines, and what it is like to create a pirate show that is so relevant to our times.
The interviews are listed as such, so skip down to your favorite, or read them all!
- Luke Arnold (John Silver)
- Tom Hopper (Billy Bones)
- Clara Paget (Anne Bonny)
- Jessica Parker Kennedy (Max)
- Hannah New (Eleanor Guthrie)
- Executive Producer Robert Levine
- Executive Producer Jonathan Steinberg
- Executive Producer Dan Shotz
We started out with Luke Arnold (John Silver):
Q: So Long John Silver makes himself liked in early Season two with the morning report. But he also makes a statement when he walks in the bar and causes the scene in Season three. He is obviously pushing for some power himself, but he also doesn’t know that Billy is also, at the same time, pushing him as well. How do you think that is going to work?
Luke: It’s really a big part of Silver’s story at the beginning, because there is a little bit of a time gap between seasons. In that time, Silver started to hear about this nickname that’s been given to him. That Billy’s bequeathed to him–that he didn’t get a say in.
I think it’s a conflicting thing for him in some way; it’s nice to suddenly find yourself pushed to that level of importance in that world. But, for a guy who was always so independent, who did everything on his terms, there is a little bit of like, “Hang on, why does Billy think he can now start deciding my fate, without me having a say in it.” So it’s a bit of a conflicted thing that he’s definitely struggling with at beginning. I’d say it’s very quickly overridden by bigger concerns.
Q: We watched the first season, especially, knowing what happens to Long John Silver; do you approach it like this is Black Sails, separated from Treasure Island, or do you have in the back of your head where Silver ends up in the novel?
Luke: I think I had to. You can only play the script that’s there, and the most fun thing was going as far away we could from the Silver we know from the book. The great thing is to do such a dramatic journey, that when you look back on it you can’t believe it happened that way. I think that’s what we’ve done, where you look at where Silver is in season four, and look back on where he was in the first episode of season one, and hopefully, he’s almost unrecognizable.
Q: Yeah we weren’t even sure if he was going to lose his leg!
Luke: That was the thing for me, when we started this–I felt it was only going to be worth it if I get to lose the leg. Otherwise, what are we doing? You don’t know how long the show is going to go for, either–so I just wanted to hold on until I lost the leg. It’s great that we got to that point, and then have gone further. I think we definitely see more shades of the older Long John in season four.
Q: So about the leg; there is a big movement in pop-culture right now about diversifying in different ways. This includes characters with disabilities. How is it playing a character with a disability, and what are your thoughts on the importance of having somebody like that on the show?
Luke: One of the great things on the show is that I had a double whose name is Ben, and he actually lost the bottom part of his left leg. In most of the iconic shots that you see in the trailers from season three and four–that’s Ben. He was there almost every time I was doing anything physical; there was always a good back and forth between us figuring out what would be the best and safest way to do certain scenes, and what would actually be manageable; he had step in for a lot of those big moments because in some ways they were just impossible for me to do. We also use a lot of visual effects, but when shooting from behind it’s better to throw him into the shot. Just having him there, to have someone who has really lived through this sort of injury helped us deal with the situation honestly.
We didn’t want to avoid how tough it is mentally to go through that. I think in season three, Silver is really struggling to deal with it, and accept it. I think that’s also part of the transition from going from the peg-leg to the crutch. In season three he still wants to be seen as a complete man, and that evolution he goes through to being able to use the crutch is a way for him to accept that he is a different person since the accident–but maybe an even stronger, capable person. Definitely from working with Ben, and hearing him talk about life after the accident–I wanted to do justice to that story.
Next we spoke with Tom Hopper (Billy Bones):
Q: So Billy Bones is one of the few characters that has an ending that was told in Treasure Island. Black Sails for him, in particular, has really been his backstory. In Treasure Island, Billy is terrified of Long John Silver. Where we left him off in Season three, he’s creating the Silver myth. Can you tell us a little bit about Billy’s relationship/dichotomy with John? It’s very different from what he has with Flint, which is much more antagonistic.
Tom: So I think with Silver, you have to go back to season two, when he first realizes that he isn’t really meant to be quartermaster, so he chooses Silver over himself, and says, “You’re the better man for the job.” Then there is all of season three, where he sees Silver smash in Dufrane’s head–if you look at what Billy is doing, he’s always watching him. What I like about Billy, he’s always taking in everything–and what he creates when he has this moment thinking, who’s going to be this pirate king.
I think it’s partly the fact that he wants to draw people away from Flint, because he thinks Silver would do better–and I think he has a personal vendetta against him. He’s never really gotten over everything to do with Gates, and how Flint was shooting men left, right, and center in season three. I think Billy and Silver are friends, for one, but he also feels that Silver is someone that has this persona and that is energy around him. It’s almost like an image of a monstrous character inside your head, but the fact that he is just a guy with one leg–but it’s what he holds inside of him that is so powerful. For Billy, I think it’s just about him knowing that John has something more powerful than what Flint is.
Q: So what draws you to a role? For this role, was it the source material in particular that drew you in?
Tom: For me, I always like to be challenged. If I feel like I’m challenged, then it’s always going to be fun to do. Also, for me, it’s the quality of the project, because I think truth is always really important; no matter if you’re doing fantasy or doing non-fiction, it’s always got to feel like the characters you’re portraying are relatable to the people who are watching the show. If I relate to it, if it jumps off the page for me, I think I can make this character someone people are going to want to follow.
I always say that action and the like come second to the character driven bits of the storyline. You have to buy into the character before anything else.
Q: I think it started off for a lot of viewers as a Treasure Island prequel. Then it became it’s own thing–at what point for you do you think it went from just being a prequel to Black Sails in it’s own right?
Tom: Early on I would say. When we got started on it, it was all about the prequel nature of it, but once we got on the sets in Cape Town, it truly felt like a pirate world, and it was easy to become immersed in it. Once we’d seen season one, and we saw that world realized, and how the relationships started forming between all of the characters, and the stakes that existed, that’s when it truly felt like Black Sails. Early on in season two helped, as well, when we had the whole storyline with Vane and Ned Lowe. I think that was a big turning point–showing how vicious things could be, and raised the stakes for the characters even more.
Q: One of the things I’ve always noticed is that Billy always feels the heart of the show. He has a moral compass that some of the other characters don’t. I think Charles Vane recognized that about Billy– the ability for people to follow him. But let’s be honest: he really has’t had that many good days, and he hasn’t had any sort of romantic attachments/relationships. Are we going to see Billy have one good day this season? [Laughs]
Tom: It’s an interesting point about the relationships with Billy–does he even have any sexual organs, maybe not. I think that he actually has a lot of deep-set issues. With what happened with him, after he was taken from his parents, he is tragic in a lot of ways. What is quite heartbreaking about the whole thing is that he really gives a shit about the men around him. They’re his family. When he sees them get shot for no reason by Flint, that breaks his heart. It destroys him inside. I don’t want to say too much, but that is why it matters so much. He has all of these things that are eating away at him. I find it quite sad to watch; he has all this goodness inside of him, and he’s always trying to do the right thing. Billy has never been selfish, and he believes in always trying to do the right thing for the men around him. He is so loyal to his pirate oath, and I feel like that is just gradually getting broken down.
Next was Clara Paget (Anne Bonny):
Q: I think you are the only real historical figure that we are getting to talk to; how did you come up with this portrayal of Anne Bonny?
Clara: I think I was allowed to have a lot of artistic licence because I was reading so many different things, and there were so many different facts about Anne–including what was in the Book of Pirates, which is probably the most accurate. There was one drawing of her which we could base the costumes on and things like that. That was really fun for me, because it can be intimidating playing a historical character, and you want to be true and you don’t want to let anybody down. Because they are pirates, however, you have this license to play around, I suppose.
Q: What do you feel is more important? The source material or the entertainment, fictional aspect?
Clara: On a personal level, I think the source material is much more fun. There aren’t that many wide variations on Anne. I think–I hope it’s okay to do that. You have to have the fantasy as well, because it is still about Treasure Island, and many other characters.
Q: So many characters in this show use politics to get what they want–like Jack Rackham. Bonny tends to use brawn a lot of the time. How do you feel about being a physical female character?
Clara: Personally, as an actress that was an incredible experience. We did a thing called ‘Pirate Camp’ in the first season, and that was just me on my own with all the boys for a month. About a week into that, I thought it was the most incredible thing experience; my whole body changed–I became like Iggy Pop! I had all these sinew muscles, like Madonna. That was incredible, and really liberating. I was doing modeling for years before this, so I used to have to care about looking beautiful, and now this was just about making sure I looked dirty. I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy, anyways, so this a real dream come true to bring a tough woman to life. I hope it inspires young women to whoever the hell they want to be; we don’t have to be a pretty little girl if we don’t want to be.
Q: Are we going to see more of the backstory in season four?
Clara: Not so much; you might get a little glimpse here and there. I love exploring that side of it–that was one of my favorite scenes to do. For the the past season or so, I think viewers might be thinking, who the hell is that? What is she doing? I was waiting for that script–I wanted to know myself.
Q: Now with Vane gone–one of the main connections between Jack and Anne is gone. How is that going to affect them going forward? Obviously, you can’t give spoilers, but is that going to cause a rift in their relationship?
Clara: I think Anne’s the tough one. She’s the glue holding the boys together. Vane’s death has affected the whole town; I think what it’s done is effectively gotten the pirates to coalesce. Vane insisted it, right? He wanted revolution, and he wanted people to team together. It’s amazing to see because in the first season, everyone was set against one another, but by season four it all comes together, because bloody hell, here come the English. You’ve got to team together otherwise you’re in deep trouble.
Q: There is a great scene where Jack tells her that Charles Vane is a son to Blackbeard, but he’s a brother to us. Then they climb up on the ship. What was that like filming?
Clara: It was incredible. I got a little ill, actually. I was very cold. Towards the end of the season, when it gets into wintertime in South Africa, they were pouring buckets upon buckets onto me. But despite that, no matter what the physical pain, it just gets you more into the character. People kept telling me to calm down because I kept accidentally going method on them every time–I would go nuts. My nickname ended up being ‘knuckles’ because I would knock so hard on doors, getting into character, I’d make my knuckles bloody.
Next was Jessica Parker Kennedy (Max):
Q: Black Sails is a pretty political show; as a woman, as an LGBT character, what is it like playing a character like that? .
Jessica: You know I think that’s what’s really kind of strange and sad is, I think a lot of the things women were fighting for back then, women are still having to fight for, now. What I think is really cool is that the word feminist, which was a negative word for so long, has become a much more positive. There is a really great women’s movement happening right now, and I love being on a show like Black Sails because I feel that there are so many strong female characters on the show. They are allowed to not only be strong, but flawed, as well. I’m really happy to be able to represent that–specifically be you know a tough character on television currently. I hope women can watch it and be inspired by it, and know that even in the 1700s we were dealing with the same stuff, and that there were women who were speaking out, and that there were women to be feared. The show does a good job of showing that women are really strong, and really smart–basically if the world was run by women, it would be a better place! [Laughs.]
Max has really pulled herself up by her bootstraps, and it wasn’t easy for her. There’s that scene where she thought about burning the chair in the whorehouse, where she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be a part of all of this. I think, morally, she’s having a really hard time making promises that she wants to be able to keep, and she can’t. There have been some really hard choices for her. But I feel really lucky to be representing a character like this–all the things I’ve said before, along with being a woman from the gay community. How lucky am I, that get to represent things I think are so important?
Q: I feel like she is always been the middle person between Eleanor and and Anne, personality wise. She’s been living between both of their worlds. I also find her relationship with Anne very interesting. Max calms Anne’s beast, as it were. Is that going to change with the uprising that’s happening?
Jessica: I wish I could tell you all the answers, but I’m not allowed to–spoilers! [Laughs] But yeah, I’ve actually always been confused by that relationship as well as a viewer. Is Max using Anne, does she really love Anne? I think there’s a part of Max that is also confused about what she’s doing. I think there are feelings there, and they are very very real, but how far will she go to protect Anne at the end of the day… I don’t know.
Season four is also a time when all of the characters on the show are really pushed to their limits. The stakes are very high. All I can say is that the scenes with Max and Anne are very dramatic and they are very intense.
Q: Do you feel there’s any kind of pressure to be a sort of role model, given what Max represents?
Jessica: No I don’t let myself feel the pressure because Max isn’t written like this perfect person. I like that some people hate her. I like that people love her. I love that whether she’s good or bad is relative depending on the person that’s watching it. I like that she doesn’t always make the right decision. I like and she’s a little bit bad and that there’s a mothering side to her, as well. She’s a dynamic kind of character. So no I definitely don’t feel the pressure because I just think she’s real, and real people screw up.
Then we had Hannah New (Eleanor Guthrie):
Q: What kind of approach do you take towards the show? How do you prepare for it?
Hannah: With season one we had a month long process where we could learn all of our backstories and really get into having discussions with John and Dan [The showrunners] about how we felt the character should approach being in Nassau, what their family history is like, etc. It was a super collaborative experience! I was very excited about really delving into the history of the island and trying to figure out what key events would have happened to Eleanor in her life. In that process I found what motivates her. We made a decision quite early on about her mother, and decided that she had died in the first Spanish raid on Nassau. So for me, I had a lot of work to do to find these images of things she had seen–the violence and how traumatized she was by that. That just fed into the fact that this island was something she wanted to change. She wanted it to be something more than the place where her mother died, and a place that is full of constant cycles of violence.
When a show has showrunners that are super collaborative, actors absorb everything and feel incredibly lucky.
Q: Eleanor has always had that magnetic attraction to Charles Vane; no matter what happened, and no matter how much she tried to pull back, Charles always wound her back in. Now, Charles is gone for good, partially from her decision. How is that going to affect her, going on?
Hannah: I think for her, at that point in time, she saw how much she needed to cut away from Charles. He was like this bad college boyfriend that she can’t stop from going back to; it’s this magnetism that she knows is going against everything that she wants for her life. She had to make this very harsh decision, because she knew that he was her achilles heel. He is such an anarchist, which goes totally against her vision, and Flint’s, as well. Vane was always going to stand in the way of the new order. I don’t think she realizes how much danger she’s put herself in. She has this moment of hubris like, “no one is going to stand in my way,” even if it’s someone she intensely loves. It’s a super hard decision that she makes, but she’s always having to make decisions like that. She’s always putting the future of the island above her own personal desires. For me, that’s a super interesting thing to play. I think the reaction has been amazing, as well. You love, as an actor, to have people who love to hate you.
Q: Given her character arc as leader, to prisoner, then back to Nassau; now that Eleanor is going into another upheaval, do you feel she reacts to her situation, or one that manipulates the situation to suit her own ends?
Hannah: I think that’s an interesting question. At the beginning of seasons one and two, she definitely was so determined to accept only her vision of Nassau. She makes decisions completely cause huge upheaval–and she doesn’t give a shit. I think after she’s arrested, and after she goes to London, there is this moment of maturity, of almost being reborn, in a way. It gives her a perspective because she’s lived on this island, aware of colonial powers, and aware of London, but she was never there. She was never exposed to it in a way. So that whole process was a complete renaissance for her in so many ways, and she comes back from it as a woman of society, in a way.
She becomes a chameleon, and that’s how she reacts to her situation. But what’s interesting, is that she doesn’t ever lose that ability to manipulate–she just sees a different method now. I love what the writers have done with that, because you see this completely different image of her. Women who do things that men would necessarily be lauded for, are considered ‘unlikable’ characters. I hope I’m trying to change that idea of her, and characters like her in general.
Next we talked to Executive Producer Robert Levine
Q: So were Vane’s last words improvised?
Levine: It was a reference to The Wire, if you’re familiar. It was a little homage built in. We talked a lot about Omar when we were talking about the death of Charles Vane. We felt like that was a benchmark we were trying to hit, in terms of feeling true to the character but also meaningful in the story. Losing him was really tough. We love working with Zack and we love the character; we understand the enthusiasm for Vane because we shared it, 100%. It was what felt right for the story at the time, and our goal is to really make sure that when that happens on our show it has consequences going forward because this person was not only meaningful to our show, but to the characters as well. To Edward Teach, to Jack Rackham, to Anne Bonny, to everyone on the show.
Q: A lot of historical shows struggle with the expansive world they have to create–making the sets look real, making the world look lived in. One of the things I love about Black Sails is everything seems true to what they would have existed at that time. How have you done that and built that world and made it feel authentic? Do you do a lot of research?
Levine: We do a lot of research at the outset and we had consultants that we used. We had a historical consultant who was also a pirate expert, so they could answer all sorts of questions, from how they organized, spoke, to what weapons they used. He’s also former Navy SEAL, so he had a lot of insight into fighting tactics as well. We also had a real sea captain to help us with the sailing aspect. Heading into the later seasons it became really important to us that we start being truthful about how the ships are actually sailed and maneuvered. He became an amazing resource. We also have just a brilliant production team. They are amazing talent that always delivered above and beyond expectations. Same with the costumes. The entire crew in Cape Town was absolutely essential to how well the show came out.
Q: We were actually discussing the theme before. I was curious how do you chose the composer?
Levine: That was not a long search. John Steinberg has worked with Bear McCreary before. We’re all huge fans. I think he was just the first thought when we talked about it, based on sort of the work he’d done with Battlestar Galactica–he knows how to do something that is not going to be what you expect, but feel perfectly suited. It’s a compliment us when people say that they they still watch the credits sequence four years into the show because they love the feel of it.
There is a real hurdy gurdy in there, and when we premiered the show at SDCC he played the actual instrument in front of the crowd– the whole time we were worried it was going to fall apart.
Q: I can’t think of another show that is both a prequel to a very well-known book, but also has historical figures included as well. I was just wondering did that sometimes help you in telling the story because you sort of knew where the end was, or did you find it sometimes hampered you? How did you decide to do that?
Levine: It can be both, for sure. We kind of took the attitude that whether it’s from the book or from history, we’re going to do what’s right for our story first. But at the same time we’re trying to be as true as we can. In some cases there’s stuff that happened in the history that you would be crazy not to try and do. Charles Vane and Edward Teach launching a fire ship, from day one, we knew we’d have to find a way to incorporate that into the show.
Next was Executive Producer Jonathan Steinberg
Q: You discussed in previous interviews that some of these characters are historical, some of these characters come from Treasure Island. Was there a ‘show bible’ of sorts? Did you have an idea of where you wanted the story to go, from beginning to end?
Steinberg: We did to a point. I think, any time you are writing a serialized show like this, you have to build each season as a ten hour movie. If you’re writing something that has 22 episodes, you’re forced to just write, write, write, and you can barely catch up. For us, we wanted to tell a story that we could drop stuff in episode one, that will pay off in episode ten. But for the long game, for the arc of the series, we kind of always had a direction that we are heading in. But it evolved–you fall in love with certain characters, you find different things when you’re finding the historical research– like the fire ship, for example. We would constantly look ahead–but you don’t want to go too far, because then you box yourself in. You want to make sure to protect the process.
For example, Rackham and Bonny, while they were always going to be leads in the show, their footprint was very slim in the first few episodes, but as you all can see, those characters really blossom.
Q: Did you feel you reached your vision of where you wanted the show to go, in the end, by season four?
Steinberg: I think so. I think that was one of the reasons that we wanted to cap the show at four seasons. We felt that we had upped our game every season, and we had never copied ourselves. You get to a point where you realize that you need to leave on a high note. We wanted to tell our complete arc without watering it down for the audience. We wanted to protect that.
Last, we spoke to Executive Producer Dan Shotz
Q: The nature of how people watch TV has changed completely with the advent of Netflix. If you had the choice, would you rather people binge watch Black Sails, or watched it as it’s doled out once a week–because the experience is very different each way.
Shotz: People binge it, and I think that’s cool. I personally wouldn’t want to consume it that way–it’s not a movie, it’s not a novel. It’s not even a TV production in the normal sense of the term. We feel like Black Sails is it’s own entity, that I think has been evolving for a little while now. Sometimes we tell stories like a novel where it’s better to read 100 pages and then put it down, but then sometimes it tells stories like a movie does, where all of your twists and turns and developments are completely integrated from beginning to end. I don’t know the right way to watch it. But I really wanted to engage with that medium, and it’s why we’re incredibly tough on story and you just throw a lot of stuff away and try really hard to be able to look at the ten scripts each season and bind them together and take the numbers off the pages and be able to feel like everything is really clean. It develops but that each one of those chapters is a stanza in that poem that exists on its own. So that was a very long winded way of saying I don’t know how people should consume it [laughs]
Q: Were there any characters or historical figures that you would have liked to included in the show, but didn’t get the chance to?
Shotz: I think Season 4 was an exercise in cleaning those all up. There were a few coming out of season 3 that as we looked in the cupboard to see what was still left there, there were some faces that I would have not felt great about leaving them out of the show. So without spoiling anything the people we wanted to put in the show are in the show now. Some of them are historical, some of them are Treasure Island canon characters and some of them are characters from our canon who are connected to people within the show that we’ve created that have been talked about and played a significant role but have never been in front of the camera. So I think the show started with those three trunks (book, history, and us), and that is what we are ending with–all three of those having their last curtain call.
Q: One of the things my readers really appreciate about the show is the fact that there are a wide range of characters, especially LGBTQ characters. We have Bonnie, Max, and Flint. What was it like, incorporating those storylines? Was it an organic decision?
Shotz: It was not agenda driven. The story, in it’s in its deepest DNA is a story about people who stepped outside the social norms of the place they were born into. I think as part of the exercise of wanting to tell a story of who they are–it’s meaningless unless you understand who they think they are. You can’t tell that story without telling a story about their sexual identity, and their coming to terms with things that would have been very difficult for them to understand or engage with when they were living in London or when they were living in civilized society. But they can in pirate society. Anne Bonnie’s story in season two especially was one of the more gratifying stories we were able to pull off. It’s about a woman realizing she isn’t who she thought she was, and season three is about finding a measure of comfort in that. I think season four for her was about figuring out if it was going to work with the person she thinks it’s going to work with.
We wanted to engage with all of those stories that way. I think at the moment it starts to feel like it’s trying to make a point, it’s just not emotionally true anymore. So hopefully all of those stories are character stories about people that you give a shit about now and that makes them a little bit more interesting to know.