By Elle Morris
photographer: Alison Dyer
“I could quite easily do the Good Guy thing if it came up but I think they’re kinda dull. I think conflicted characters are much more telling .”
“There’s this kind of great fusion with these long-running, high quality series… you can be so much more sophisticated; it’s like a hybrid between film and a novel.”
If you’re the son of Dame Maggie Smith, how do you go about becoming an actor in your own right? You apparently start in the back of the house as part of the crew.
“My parents rather perversely sent me to all these schools which had no drama at all,” Toby Stephens said with a chuckle… I didn’t really do anything until I left school and I decided that I wanted to go to drama school, so I had to get some experience in theater. So I crewed for a year, just to sort of be around theater and see how it worked. It was really good for me, actually, it was a great experience because a lot of actors don’t really get to see that side of it very often.”
That first experience has since led Toby Stephens to play in a host of theater, TV, and movies — though you’ll find him playing mostly characters with grey morals, if not outright villains. Though it perhaps lends more evidence to the stereotype that Brits play villains, Toby’s okay with playing them.
“I could quite easily do the Good Guy thing if it came up, but I think they’re kinda dull… I think conflicted characters are much more telling because we’re all conflicted. Look at ourselves, we all are conflicted in one way or another and people are complex and they’re never — they’re neither good nor bad. We’re neither Good nor Bad, we’re both at various times.”
His current project certainly shows off a cast of people who fit that description: They’re all pirates.
Society, particularly our modern society, has long had a fascination with pirates — and Toby Stephens, currently playing Captain Flint in the Starz TV show Black Sails, knows it. “I think there is a kind of male fascination with the idea of being self-sufficient. There’s a kind of Robin Hood thing where it’s taking from rich merchants and screwing with trade. Living a hard life, you know — drink, women. Adventuring.”
But consider your most enduring impression of pirates. Do you think of cobbled-together crews of half-starved men, desperate to survive after they’ve escaped ships they were forced onto? Or do you think of striped shirts, parrots and a lot of people with beards going “AAAAAARGH” every 50 seconds?
Think of the most famous depictions of pirates we have: Errol Flynn. Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. Pirates of the Caribbean, The Goonies, The Princess Bride. Despite the long history of piracy, its horrors and even modern day pirates on our news, our mental image of pirates is generally a caricature.
Black Sails is helping to set the record straight.
“It [Black Sails] feels like it’s very much [seen] through an American prism,” Toby said of the show. “So this version is more like a gritty Western than [for example] Pirates of the Caribbean which is a much more romanticized, fantastical version of piracy. This is more about how [piracy] was done, about the economics, about how really it was a horrendous life. It wasn’t one that you would particularly choose for yourself. It was desperate, it was about surviving, really. None of the people in this show actually really wanna be pirates.
“We’re not trying to be sort of history-lesson,” Toby added quickly, “and it isn’t that by any means, but at the same time you don’t want to just be like every other pirate show that’s been on, which… it’s sort of either slightly camp or it’s just a bunch of people speaking in funny accents, with parrots and stuff like that.”
Black Sails is currently airing it’s second series on Starz, but series 3 is already in the works. Toby was on a break for Christmas when I spoke to him. “We did about 5 weeks before Christmas,” he said, “and then we get the Christmas holiday off and yeah. So I’ve got about another couple of days and then I head back down to Cape Town to carry on shooting.”
I figured he meant they were finishing series 2. I was wrong.
“No we’ve done [series 2]. The thing is that the post-production on the series is so extensive because of all the CGI and stuff that literally it takes about a year. So basically when we start filming the series, they start doing the post-work and it takes that long to finish. The last episode of series 2 has only just been really fully rendered.
“It means that Starz really had to put their money where their mouth is and take a gamble on this. Just because [of] the level of production, they had to kind of commit to doing 2 series. Also going for a 3rd one because they haven’t even screened the second one. It’s a massive commitment for them.”
Lately it seems like all TV networks have been making these kinds of commitments – with TV shows like Orange is the New Black, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, and streaming sites like Netflix putting forth shows like House of Cards, the quality of TV shows has never been higher. TV is no longer just where stars go to watch their careers die, but can it keep the level of production at such a height?
“I think the industry goes through revolutions,” Toby started, “It changes, it morphs, it adapts. Inevitably it does, depending on the market, depending on technology, the audience, there’s all kinds of different reasons for it changing. I think at the moment what is happening is: TV is in ascendency, whereas for years movies were sort of the ascendent kind of way of telling stories on screen… There’s this kind of great fusion with these long-running, high quality series. In terms of film, you’ve got 2 hours to tell a story, so you’ve got to be incredibly economic with how you tell the story, so what tends to happen is characters tend to be very formulaic… it’s all kind of like easy handles. Whereas with [TV] you can be so much more sophisticated; it’s more like a hybrid between film and a novel. So you can tell these very long character stories that are very textured and the characters change.”
And if you’re going to have a series run longer than 2 seasons or 10 episodes, you have to have characters who can change.
“You have to follow the stories,” Toby said emphatically, “You have to empathize with [the characters], you wanna hang out with them… You can maybe do [a caricature] for a two-hour movie, but you can’t do it on that long-term basis, because all it does is it distances these characters from the audience, and we want the audience to relate to them.”
And if you’re a woman watching, there are now women characters doing more than just languishing in a corset hoping to be rescued, or wearing very little clothing. There are women with motivation beyond pleasing a man. They have real roles to play as gears in the colonial piracy machine, who are as ruthless and stubborn and cunning — without them, the story might well fall apart.
“[Historically, women] were there for various reasons, but in terms of Eleanor Guthrie,” Toby said of his partner in Nassau, played by Hanna New, “she is somebody who facilitates the economy of the island. I mean the whole economy of [Nassau]… There were also female pirates. Anne Bonny was a real female pirate… Mary Read.
“For [Eleanor] maybe it’s slightly more complicated in that she’s looking for a father figure because her father’s crap. But I think beyond that it’s a functional relationship and both of us share the same vision for Nassau and the future of Nassau. Of how are we going to meet this growing concern and there’s gotta be a life after piracy. We can’t do this forever. And how are we gonna stop England from just coming along and stomping on us. So that’s the kind of coalition, really, of them.
He paused, then added: “Things are constantly shifting, and I think their relationship is an uneasy alliance. She doesn’t entirely trust Flint and Flint doesn’t entirely trust her. And I don’t think they can afford to, either.”
Certainly alliances are constantly shifting as motivations change — but one thing that is constant is the blunt portrayal of violence. If anybody started watching Black Sails with the thought that they were going to get another show that had hopped on the Disney movie bandwagon, they were wrong.
“The fantasy version of piracy has been done. It’s been done to death… if you see Treasure Island as [part of our] story, we’ve seen it from Robert Louis Stevenson’s point of view. [Black Sails] is looking at it from totally the other side. So he did the children’s version, the slightly naive version of it, the yo-ho-ho-and-a-bottle-of-rum version of it, which is total fantasy and fabrication. We’re seeing it from the gritty, pragmatic, this is how it functioned, this is what piracy was really about, historical context.”
That context is not without its blood, and everybody loves to blame TV violence and blood for the ills of our modern world. As a Brit, Toby has a perspective that is farther removed and more neutral.
“I think blaming violence on TV and video games and movies is ridiculous. I think that the fact is that unfortunately, or fortunately, whatever side of the debate you’re on, America is awash with firearms. I think human nature is, you know, we are unpredictable creatures. And if… in a heightened state of anger or whatever — you know, if you’ve got a gun to hand and it’s the wrong situation, some bad things are gonna happen. I don’t think that blame is on, “Oh well there’s a lot of shooting in TV”, ‘cause TV just replicates what’s going on in society. It’s so chicken-and-egg but I think blaming it on TV is a bit dumb.”
Toby believes that people know what’s real and what’s not. Black Sails may not be real, though with the production value behind it you may have to take a moment on first viewing. But if you want a show that takes you through the most believable history you’ll see, this is the one for you.