‘Black Sails’ – Ray Stevenson Interview on Playing Blackbeard

Ray Stevenson as Blackbeard in Black Sails
Ray Stevenson as Blackbeard in ‘Black Sails’ season three (Photo © 2016 Starz Entertainment, LLC)

When season three of Starz’ riveting pirate drama Black Sails kicks off on January 23, 2016, audiences will be introduced to a new key character played by Ray Stevenson (Rome, Thor). Stevenson joins the critically acclaimed action series playing one of the most famous – and ruthless – pirates in history: Blackbeard. Blackbeard arrives in Nassau to deal with unfinished business and his presence will affect Captain Vane (Zach McGowan), Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), and all of their associates.

With the third season just about to debut, I had the opportunity to speak with Stevenson about taking on the part of Blackbeard, the history of pirates, his costume, and joining the cast of Black Sails in season three.

Ray Stevenson Black Sails Interview:

How did your idea of who Blackbeard was prior to taking on the role match up with what we see of Blackbeard on Black Sails?

Ray Stevenson: “I tried to be careful. Obviously you can’t help but have a preconceived notion of the old sort of, ‘Why are pirates funny? They just arrr,’ and all that sort of stuff. You try and initially fight against that and before too long you end up immersed in what is your information and research of evidence. It quickly dispels all that. But, yeah, the first gremlin on my shoulder was like, ‘Don’t fall into that obvious trap.’ But, also, don’t dismiss something completely offhand. A lot of these things were born out of truisms or myths or legends or whatever like that. I didn’t want to dismiss anything, but also didn’t want to just arbitrarily sort of accept that preconceived notion as well. It’s been a fun journey! It’s been great.”

Was there any one thing in particular you learned in preparing to play Blackbeard that you wanted to incorporate into the character?

Ray Stevenson: “There are technical things when you put together a competent series like this, especially a series that’s going to play on global platforms. I think, to be honest with you, the character Edward Teach hails from a place in England called Bristol. I studied at Bristol and the Bristolian accent is a very thick, West Country accent. Unfortunately, that’s being adopted as the parody of the caricature accent for your standard cartoon pirate character. So, really it was a collective decision not to go there and make him have what would have been his West Country accent for fear of it not being understood or not being accepted because of its association with the years and decades of pirate caricatures. That’s one of the things that I hope the Blackbeard Society don’t think is an error. It’s actually to make it much more accessible to a far broader audience and avoid all the potential pitfalls involved in going down that route.”

There’s an actual Blackbeard Society?

Ray Stevenson: “There are so many of them, darling. Google it: Blackbeard Society. You’re going to be shocked!”

Did you do much googling yourself?

Ray Stevenson: “I did the New York Comic-Con and seriously there were people turning up with this Blackbeard flag tattooed on their arm.”

What do you think it is that makes people still so continuously fascinated with the world of pirates?

Ray Stevenson: “It was such a brief, when you look at it, such a brief spell in history. It was a violent time but the world was in a very violent place. At that time people were basically burdened with the fact that you were what you were born. When your father was born, when your grandfather was born… You were not able to necessarily elevate yourself in society at all. You were what you were born, basically, but yet the pirates went out there and said, ‘No, I’m my own man.’

The Navy was press-ganging people, basically kidnapping and enslaving people into press-ganging them into service. Some of them they just broke free and said, ‘You know what? I have every right and I have the ability here to be who I will make myself.’ It was a very American principle, actually. ‘Don’t judge me from my parents. I am who I am able to make myself. You judge me by who I am, not by my great-great-great-great grandfather’s title when he basically stole land from somebody else.’ And also they set up a society which was egalitarian in its time. It was a violent time in the world. All the great nations who were at war – Spain, France, Portugal, England, etc. – what were they doing in South America? Why were their ships laden with such treasure? Everybody blames the pirates. Who where the real pirates? That’s still is going on today. Why did we go to these Middle East countries? For the oil? It wasn’t for gold anymore but black gold, shall we say. So, you know what? Who were the real pirates?

Yet these people lasted for 20 years, 25 years and that’s all. As soon as there was peace signed, obviously Blackbeard realized it as well. As soon as peace was signed between the nations because it was becoming too expensive for them, that was the end of the pirates. They were never going to set up their own state nation in Nassau, in the Bahamas. They wouldn’t be allowed to because the biggest gang was going to take over again.”

I didn’t realize it was such a short period of history.

Ray Stevenson: “I know, isn’t it amazing? I mean, don’t forget there were splinter pirates all over the globe. They found treasures in the Mauritius Islands. They found crusader treasures and Spanish gold in the Mauritius Islands where pirates did operate. But this was their pinnacle, their focus point, and sort of center of the wheel. Piracy still exists today in Somalia. But this was when people started to write about them, when they became the stuff of myths and legends.”

Zach McGowan and Ray Stevenson in Black Sails
Zach McGowan as Captain Charles Vane and Ray Stevenson as Blackbeard in ‘Black Sails’ (Photo © 2016 Starz Entertainment, LLC)

The production design on Black Sails is so gorgeous and the costumes are fantastic. Were you allowed to have any input into how Blackbeard actually looked?

Ray Stevenson: “I didn’t have to. When I was first approached about the series, obviously about the character, I was sent a few episodes which was great but I was also sent – and this was the deciding factor – I was sent the ‘Making Of’ which they’d done. This documentary about the making of Black Sails it blew me away. These people are so on top of their game. You just put yourself in their hands and you’re just so thankful. The costume of Blackbeard is just amazing. It’s amazing to get such a structured and such a period piece and yet it’s not wearing you; you the actor, you the character are wearing it. These guys are just phenomenal. The Making of Black Sails was what was the pivotal thing that made me say, ‘Yeah, I want to be involved in this, hands down.'”

When you put the costume on did it immediately affect how you carried yourself?

Ray Stevenson: “Yeah. The trousers were too small and they had to be adjusted. [Laughing] But it does. Of course it does because it’s like you’re putting on almost like a bulletproof suit of armor. Also the frock coat which is very gentry in those days. It’s not mentioned in the series but people in those days, in the late 1700s early 1800s, you wore your wealth on your sleeve, literally. They would sow gem stones and gold threads and all of this sort of stuff onto their garments and basically wear their wealth.

The frock coat itself being a long, deep-pocketed sort of thing, if you raised your arm higher than 45 degrees, the whole coat goes out of line. All the dancers and performers and the way they would express themselves in public, it was like the males were bending on one knee, the low arm, it’s all about status, mannerism, and wealth. The poor people wore baggie shirts and bare feet and ran around really uncomfortable, but everything else was about it was a heightened period of mannerism. You look at the plays by Molière and the dancers in the period and the theatre of the period. Even though it’s not alluded to in Black Sails per se, this was the world in which they lived. This was the state of art, this was the advanced society. You go along with that and why people aspired to wear this costume and put themselves forward is, ‘I earned the right to be this now. You can’t tell me that I am not a gentleman.’ Yet, every member of society would say, ‘You’re not a gentlemen. You weren’t born a gentleman.’ I’d say, ‘I’ll kill you. There’s one less gentleman to worry about.'”

Was Blackbeard an interesting character for you to tackle as far as doing action scenes, because you’ve done action many times before? Was this a lot different?

Ray Stevenson: “I mean the weaponry of the day is very particular. Not too dissimilar to the stuff on The Three Musketeers that I used. This is ship-to-ship fighting and it’s much more of short, close at hand, close corridors sort of action. Blackbeard went out and would wear an awful lot of fully loaded pistols and use them. But, yeah, you get into it. When you get down to it, you’re wielding pieces of metal around. It’s a lot of fun. No worries.”

This is such an established cast and you’re joining this group after a couple seasons. Were they really welcoming? Is this a group that was a lot of fun just to hang around with?

Ray Stevenson: “They were great. They really were. I’m sure that having such an impactful character join their ranks, I’m sure they were rightly concerned. Is this going to work? How is this going to impact the series that they’ve invested so much into? They couldn’t have been more welcoming. I’ve just been blessed with working with tremendous people. They’ve been great.”