Ray Stevenson, best known for his critically and publicly acclaimed portrayal of the legionary Titus Pollo in the HBO/BBC television series Rome, sat down with PopWrapped to talk about the rich history of Blackbeard and what it was like to enter season three of Black Sails playing one of the most notorious pirates in history.
In season three of Black Sails, Edward Teach aka Blackbeard, returns to the account in to settle some unfinished business. But a great deal has changed in his absence, and to cement his legacy, he will have to challenge Nassau's most powerful... at sea, on land, and at the end of a sword.
Blackbeard is entering into power-hungry, ruthless world carrying his own reputation, and in a way, disrupting the dynamic that Captain Flint has now established for himself as a leader. Stevenson explained that at the beginning of the season, viewers will see that Blackbeard has "spent a period away from [life as a pirate], and you find out that in about eight years, he’s had nine wives… but there is no heir apparent. There is no son. In those days, it was of utmost importance—your social status, your legends, what you left behind—and to not have a son to carry on the name, for him it was like Henry VIII syndrome."
He went on to say that for Blackbeard, "there was something freer and more honest about him when he was on the water. So he comes back to Nassau to basically seek out a person who he mentored many years previous, Charles Banks, and to see if there’s something that can be rekindled. He wants to see if there’s someone who can carry on his legacy, carry on his legend as such."
Studying for a period piece like Black Sails may seem like an intimidating task for some, but it proved to be fun for Stevenson. "I love to immerse myself in the various [morals] of the period," he said. "It’s sort of like, what are the societal structures within what you’re working with, because you were born a certain status and your chances are you will never leave a certain status, unless you’re one of those rare individuals. You’ve got those sort of things going on with period pieces, and what you're bustling and striving against, and day-to-day life is still about playing the drama."
Unlike working on a period piece, he explained that in contemporary pieces, it's more about "finding your place in the world where you can move anywhere…and [trying] to find your life there. There is not anywhere near the sort of restrictions or difficulties; it’s a lot more of an open door now." Stevenson even argued that, if you wanted to, you could even move to Somalia right now if you wanted and potentially become a pirate... but, he doesn't recommend it.
So what is it like to play a historical figure such as Blackbeard who has been portrayed in so many other ways over the past several hundred years?
"It’s a good question because everyone put their own spin on it," he said. "And that’s the thing about history books, they’ve all been written by victors and sensationalists. I liken it to the Wild West books where the people on the East Coast will be getting notes back from the Wild West. There were pamphlets like Billy the Kid, sensationalizing these pride-thirsty bank robbers…some people would be dreaming about going off and being a cowboy or a bandit. So then other people write their histories, and other people write theirs, and that’s what we’re left with when we look at the history…trying to pick between the bones of that and formulate that."
Even though these sensationalized portrayals and descriptions are luring, at the end of the day, "you’ve got to push all that to one side because you are playing the script," he said. "There’s a line in Shakespeare that says, ‘The play’s the thing in which we’ll catch the conscience of the king.’ The king, in my view, is the audience. So, you catch the conscience of them by serving the play. And so with all of that you try and muster an amalgamation of saving points from this and this, but you can’t impose that because it’s not a documentary on Blackbeard, it’s ‘what’s the essence of him’ thrust into this great tale of Black Sails. Hopefully the audience will be thrilled, on the edge of their seats watching Black Sails. It’s a lean-in TV. You want to lean in and just go ‘No, he didn’t! Did he?! Oh, fire!' That’s a great way of looking at it because it’s so rich and all the characters in there are so rich. I think it absorbs all senses when you’re watching and certainly when you’re playing him. It’s just one of those great sort-of epic tales."
Pirates are indeed infamously epic, and while they were (and are still) known for greed, corruption, pillaging and destruction, Stevenson discussed the dilemma he has with referring to pirates as "the bad guys."
In the time of Black Sails, “you've got England at war with France, Spain and Portugal. All four nations are busying raping the South Americas for all the money and gold that they can do," he said.
"Because [these countries] are at war with each other, they’re free pickings...they’re just ripe, all coming through that passage, right through the Bahamas. So BOOM, [pirates will] take them apart and that’s what they do!"
But in Stevenson's view, Blackbeard is more knowledgable and seasoned in his understanding of piracy. "I think he’s one of the few who have the wherewithal to understand and see ultimately that this will come to an end," he said. When the European countries "start realizing how much money they’re all losing, it brings about the end of the war between them because they form alliances, and as soon as that happens, it’s the end of the pirates because if they’re up against formations, they haven’t got a chance."
Which brings about an important question: who is "the bad guy"?
Pirates are taking advantage of European ships "while they’re at war with each other, but they’re raping the South Americas… so who’s really the bad guy?" Stevenson questioned. "I mean you’ve got these western civilizations raping this continent and all they do is pick off them. Does that make [pirates] bad guys?"
Prior to filming Black Sails, Stevenson was obviously well-versed on the legacy of Blackbeard and the history and culture of piracy during the time, but what about attending pirate boot camp (we refrained from calling it booty-camp)?
"I dodged that musket ball," he said. "The only boot camp I went to was trying on boots."
Stevenson rationalized his lack of physical training to Blackbeard's expansive resume and reputation. "I liken him to Keith Richards in a bar," he said. "There’s guys there going ‘Oh, I used to be in a band’. And then [Blackbeard] will walk into a tavern and there are big guys going, ‘I used to be a pirate’. What’s [Blackbeard] going to do? He doesn’t have to prove anything, he just has to turn up."
Physically, Blackbeard is a giant (as is Ray Stevenson), and the character's intimidation factor is off the charts. "Just look at him!" Stevenson said, gesturing to the promotional photos on display. "The costume, the bib... and that’s one of the principal reasons I came on board the series," he said. "I had seen a few episodes, and then obviously when I was approached I saw more and I read one episode because that’s all they had at the time. But they had the Making Of Black Sails and that blew me away! Then you could see the production value. You could see the size of the work, and the scope and the scale and the quality of the work that went into the costumes, the make-up, the ships, interiors, even the props masters. And you go, ‘This is why we get out of bed. This is why we go and do what we do.’ And then the scripts match it by playing out the human condition. They’re an absolute thrill, a rich project to be involved with."
Season three of Black Sails premieres this Saturday, January 23 on Starz at 9/8c. For more information, go to the official Black Sails Facebook Page and follow @BlkSails_Starz on Twitter and Instagram. Join the conversation with #BlackSails and #STARZ.