Black Sails’s Ray Stevenson on Playing Blackbeard

When Starz’s Emmy-winning series “Black Sails” returns for its third season, the usual inhabitants of Nassau are set to be joined by the iconic pirate Black Beard. Black Beard (real name Edward Teach) cut an striking figure on the seas of the 17th and 18th century, often relying on theatrically in his attacks to further intimidate his enemies. Many of his flourishes were the basis for the way piracy was portrayed in pop culture thereafter. At 6’4″, Irish actor Ray Stevenson (HBO’s “Rome”, Punisher: War Zone, the Thor films) can certainly fill the shoes of that scary scallywag on screen while being completely affable and a joy to chat with when he sat down with me at this year’s New York Comic Con.

Lauren Damon: I’m a huge Marvel nerd, so of course I’ve seen you as Volstagg [In the Thor movies]–
Ray Stevenson:You saw a lot of me! [laughs]
So I was wondering going from that to Black Beard, have you nailed down the ‘beard acting’ between these characters?

Stevenson: Well you know it’s more about beard preparation. That you just sort of you know like abandon hope as you go into the makeup room. Just like say ‘alright…‘ Yeah ’cause it was about the same time. Cause again, that magnificent Volstagg beard was like this one, was individual pieces. And it’s almost like strand by strand it’s laid on. But the horrible thing is that you’re up at four in the morning, and you get in there about half past four or something and it’s still dark. And it’s just your body’s screaming that nobody should be up at this time. You should be going home. And you lie down and the first thing they do–you’re obviously clean-shaved–so you’re shaved. And then they slap glue on your face. They basically paint your whole face with tacky tacky glue and it just…never feels good. You never get used to that. And then it’s this sticky sticky stabby process.

But I am–I wasn’t freaked out by it. I was kind of used to it. Yeah so as far as ‘beard acting’ is concerned, yeah. The only thing I did this time was that it was my mustache. Which was fine when you’re shooting and then when you’re not shooting, walking around with this massive sort of handlebar mustache which I’ll never do again [laughs] because it was neither one nor the other. It wasn’t me, it wasn’t the character. So it was fine when we were shooting. So this time they’ll have to provide that as well. I tried it.

Playing one of the most notorious pirates of all time, what steps did you take to make it unique and what steps did you take to research so you’re true to the character?

Stevenson: There’s a lot of research available, a lot of material on the character itself. Which is a double-edged sword as well because like all these things, history is a thing that is written by the victors…It’s like the American cowboys, that whole civilization of ‘the Wild West’ and all this that was sent back east to titillate over and get excited about and stuff like this. So there’s a lot of that going on at that period. They were writing about you know, “Ye Olde Pirates” and cutthroats and all this. So in amongst that, there’s a thread that you can glean.

And obviously there was some serious historians trying to put this stuff together. There comes a point where, with everything, you have to push all that sort of general knowledge aside sort of thing and concentrate on the script. Because ultimately you’re playing the script. And what you could bring to it was there was–and what’s beautifully portrayed I think in the series–is it’s much more about the man. The myth and the legend has already been established. So he’s coming in as ‘Blackbeard’…This is not about him establishing his legend.

He’s…it’s like if you have Keith Richards walk in a bar, and there’s guys there and they go like ‘He used to play the guitar…’ You know what I mean? It’s like he walks in and there’s guy in the tavern going [hushed voice] ‘He used to be a pirate, you know what I mean?‘ It’s just, he has that effect. He has that charisma. You wouldn’t actually lock eyes with him. He just carries that with him. And carries from, not out of bluster I think, because that’s it. He’s earned it.

And so you’ve got a guy who’s–you’re trying to play somebody who has got that presence and that charisma. It’s like unleashing a kraken, he just turns up. If he looks at you, you sort of…it puts you straight on edge. You go ‘well, why is he lookin’ at me? Am I glad he’s looking at me? Or am I not?’ I mean…so a lot of it is done in subtleties and in the writing. And then when he engages with the likes of Rackham and Vane and what have you, he knows what he’s bringing with him as well. And also he’s got quite a bit to say.

So the research and all this is great to a point, but obviously you have to avoid the fact that he was from Bristol. And so that heavy Bristolian accent unfortunately is the big cod accent that most people they think about when they think ‘pirates’. That sort of you know ‘ARRR‘ and all this sort of stuff. Whereas the Bristolian accent is wonderful and rich, BUT it would lend itself towards you know perhaps that sort of assumption of you know, getting a little too cod piratey. But that’s not what it was about. But it was the essence of the man from Bristol, who was actually a tremendous strategist and seaman and captain. And knew all about the power of display. And that’s why he would dress the way he did. He was 6’3″-6’4″. In the 1720s, that man was a colossus, he was a giant. So he basically knew about the theatre of putting that effect on so that the other ships they were after would just hopefully capitulate. Because there was no loss of life and they’d get all the booty and everybody’s happy, there’s no bloodshed, he didn’t lose any crew members living off the legend. And maintaining his prowess. It’s a strange thing to try to make that balance but ultimately you’re playing you know, you’re serving the piece. You’re playing the drama itself.

Between this and “Rome”, Thor and other roles, you have all this weapons training. At this point do you have a preference? Do you feel more comfortable with one or…

Stevenson: [Laughs] The one’s that win! No, because they all–it’s amazing working with the weapons guys. Like on Punisher[:War zone] we worked with the Marines and also with some Force Recon guys and they were just…I mean I wanted to make sure we didn’t have those, you know the old Hollywood guns that never ran out of bullets. So I mean–and GI Joe as well–there were mag reloads and all sorts of stuff. You want to do it enough times so that it becomes automatic. Because sometimes, like with Punisher especially, a lot of the people that watch it, maybe they’re going to be the army guys. Who are training and training and training and they’re going to see something like, even your hand position on your weapon, the use of the weapons, the reload, and they’re gonna say ‘Do you know what, that’s we’ve been doing…‘…So they’re not thinking like ‘Ehh he knows nothing.‘ That sort of authenticity.

The weapons training obviously with things like [The Three] Musketeers, thigh-killing training. Because it’s a certain type of sword fighting. Which anybody who goes to the gym I think they dread, ‘And now, lunges!’ Well that’s what it all is. But it’s lunges with intent. I think when you’re working with weaponry, I work harder than when I ever work at a gym. Because it’s fun. And you’re basically working on a choreographed dance as well. So you’re doing all this extra work. At the end of the day, you’re just shaking like jelly. I never– I’m never at the gym like that. But because you’re rendering your hand and you’re learning these set pieces and moves…I mean ultimately the person is the weapon. That’s what you learn throughout all the weapons training, no matter what period it is, the real weapon is the person behind it. And you know, if you get that right, then how you handle the weapons is just second-nature.

How is the dynamic between Blackbeard and the other alpha male characters–Vane and Flint–but also if you go deeper than that with some of the other characters?

Stevenson: Well he does because coming back to Nassau, after such a protracted period away, he’s got his own reasons for coming back in. I think it’s a lot to do with the lack of a son and an heir apparent. Even after eight marriages, eight wives, there’s no son. And the closest thing he has to any of that would be this pirate captain who he mentored, which is Charles Vane. And to see if there is–is there anything left? Is there any relationship? Because in this period in history–because there were nothing like the numbers of people we have on the planet now and a man’s standing and his status and his legend that he leaves behind was the most important thing. If you lost status in life, pffft! That was it. You may as well throw yourself off the top of your rock. So to see if there was any spark of something that you know, could be reignited.

But what happens when he arrives back in Nassau, he sees that–and this is what he says to Rackham and Vane–he looks around and he says ‘I see what you’ve done, you’ve basically done the worst thing ever, you’ve made it prosperous You’ve turned them soft, there’s no pirates around’ Because they’ve all got their money…He basically comes back and holds them right up and says ‘What?!’ And of course, because it’s him, this sets in motion a sort of–it’s a real dressing down. And we’ll see the dynamic as to whether or not–because this is very much a kind of father-son relationship, or you know heir apparent with Vane, and how that plays out. And that’s what I love about…couched in all this world of ships and the huge set pieces and the galleys and a the fights and the battles, and all this sort of stuff, there is this real human condition of father-son, mentor, founding member, one of the original drafters of the pirate charter and walking living sort of legend. That people sort of stop their breath, the last thing they expect to see is this guy walking into a tavern or walking down one of the streets. He has that effect which he’ll use to great effect. And if challenged, he’ll meet it out swiftly…

And then the relationship with Flint is dealt with very well. Like they’re kept at a kind of distance initially because we’re establishing other things and Flint’s away…And then there is a coming together, ultimately, of course, right? And that’s all I can tell you about that. We’ll see!

How about some of the female characters?
Stevenson: How about some of the females? Aren’t they great! How about those girls? [laughing]
I mean, you know, look, he’s from a different era and he has his own, he has a long standing sort of thing with one woman who you get to meet. And where he’s off the island of Nassau and he’s actually on some spit of land or some island somewhere…it’s probably only on his maps where he goes with his crew. Where he–he basically sees these islands as launchpads not as new states or new societies. Next thing you know, he says these pirates will be farming, they’ll be setting up law-courts, they’ll be setting up judicial…and then where are you? He basically lives by example and shames people around him and with the Guthries, he’s got no love lost with the Guthries.

Black Sails season three premieres on Starz Saturday January 23rd at 9pm.