Captain J Flint was a character created by Robert Louis Stevenson, first appearing in a children’s magazine and then in his classic novel, Treasure Island.
In Starz’s new series Black Sails, which takes place twenty years before Treasure Island, Toby Stephens portrays the feared pirate captain, as he and his crew, including a young, fast-talking pirate named John Silver, fight to preserve New Providence Island, the most notorious criminal haven of its day, teeming with pirates, prostitutes, thieves and fortune seekers.
Toby spoke about his new series, which is currently playing on Starz, at the TV Critics tour last week.
Did you grow up interested in pirate stories?
I think initially I read Treasure Island, or it was read to me. That was really my starting point to this kind of story.
Naval battles are part of our history. You grow up knowing about the Battle of Trafalgar and (Admirable Horatio) Nelson.
I guess I knew about piracy, but it was really a mythologized version of piracy.
I didn’t really understand the history of it or the reality of it, which is something that this really brings to the genre.
Although the production was clearly very physically challenging, I hear you and Mark Ryan, who plays Gates in it, had a lot of laughs together. Can you talk about that?
Yeah, Mark and I had a lot of fun. It was nice because we’re a kind of double act in the first series. He’s my sort of secondhand guy.
Because of the subject matter, a lot of the time it’s quite serious stuff, especially Flint. He’s a very enigmatic, serious guy.
So it was great, in between takes, to have a laugh with him. It was serious when it needed to be and fun when it could be.
When you put on your pirate outfit and pick up your sword is there a bit more swagger in your step?
I think what is important to me is that these are clothes that they would wear.
They’re not fancy, they’re not clean, they’re dirty and we smell. It’s a real world.
So it wasn’t like some fetish thing where I wanted to be wearing pirate outfits like Johnny Depp! They’re pirates, but one can identify with them as real people.
That was really important, because if you’re going on a journey with these characters, you don’t want to have that separation with them, like, ‘Oh, they’re from some distant time,’ or, ‘They’re from some mythological world.’
They’re real people in real situations that you can identify with. So, for me, that was important.
You’ve done both drawing-room dramas and this type of action show. When you’re doing a series like this, which is physically tough, do you long to do a drawing-room drama?
Any day of the week I would prefer to be doing the show that I’m doing right now.
Playing this kind of thing, for me, is like going on an exotic vacation. We just don’t do this kind of stuff in the UK. We do a lot of stuff like Downton Abbey, a lot of period drama, a lot of detective stuff. For me, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen that.
I’ve done it. I don’t want to do it for the rest of my life.’ [With this] I go, ‘It’s a fantastic character, phenomenal production values and a fantastic story.’ And that’s what I want to be involved in.
Do you watch your mother, Maggie Smith, in Downton Abbey?
I appreciate Downton Abbey for what it is, but I have to say I don’t regularly tune it. It’s not really the kind of show that I enjoy.
I appreciate what my mum does in it. She’s great in it. But it’s just not what I enjoy watching.