In a lot of ways Toby Stephens is living the dream for boys ages 5 to 50 on a daily basis while filming the Starz series Black Sails. He dresses as a pirate and gets to play with swords along the coast of South Africa. Luckily for the show, his performance as Captain James Flint, the crestfallen commander on the hunt for Spanish treasure, is far from a game to the London-based actor. The show’s high drama quotient, intense battle scenes, and quick dialogue follow the current cable series trend of upping the stakes.
“It’s a pretty grueling schedule,” says Stephens, on location in Cape Town. On top of the demanding production schedule, the filming conditions during winter are far from ideal, and the water is, in his words, “Beyond cold.” Fortunately, Stephens comes from good acting stock, his mother being the incomparable Dame Maggie Smith of Downton Abbey, and his efforts, along those of the talent of showrunners Robert Levine and Jonathan Steinberg, result in glorious sea bound tale that will no doubt shiver your timbers. Difficult as it is, Stephens was happy to explain why it’s a pirate life for him.
How are you enjoying South Africa?
This is my third year here. It’s a pretty good place to be working; there are certainly worse places in the world to be filming for seven months out of the year.
Do you get to actually swim off the coast of Cape Town for this show?
Partly the filming is in a tank and part of it is in the actual sea. The unfortunate part is not far from Cape Town in Antarctica. Where we are, it’s the Atlantic side, and it’s just freezing. So you get in there, and the joke is that we’ve got to pretend it’s like the Caribbean; the Bahamas. I think it’s about nine degrees.
I’m sure you’re like, “Let’s get these scenes in done.”
Yes, I ask the director to please get me out of there as quickly as possible.
Were you a big fan of pirate movies when you were growing up? Or was it a world that you had to orient yourself to after you got the Black Sails gig?
I watched Captain Blood, some of those Errol Flynn movies. But it wasn’t something I ever saw myself doing to be honest with you. It had intrigued me slightly for a while, but then I moved on to Star Wars. It’s been a bit of a discovery for me. The way we’re doing it is so different from the generic pirate form. Just reading what piracy was about in those days and the kind of life they lead and the kind of things that they did, and my God, this is much more interesting than any of the fictive narrative that I’d read as a child. It’s much more daring, it’s much more incredible. We’re trying to do it slightly more in a real historic narrative rather than in some sort of fantasy version of piracy.
Was there any particular pirate that you read about that you decided to base your character on?
I saw him more as a kind of a figure from a Western. So because there was always a more Western cowboy feeling more than the classic guy singing, “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.” When I was basing my character I was thinking more of Clint Eastwood.
There’s a bit of swordplay in there, did you go through training for that?
I’ve done quite a lot actually back at drama school. When you’re kids doing a Shakespeare play at school there is a lot of flailing around on stage with these swords and it looks pathetic. I always strived to help the drama by making the scenes as vibrant and as real as they possibly can be. The combat in Black Sails is quite different because it’s so close quarters. It was all about the cutlass back then. You might shoot the gun once, then throw it at someone, then you move on to your cutlass. The fight scenes are very visceral, hand-to-hand, and there’s a lot of grappling. There’s not much fancy sword-work going on. Which I quite like. It’s not romantic, stylized fights, its just knuckles, desperate, and pretty nasty.
Now that Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is coming out, why don’t we interlink the two? What if Captain Flint gave a nod as he passed by Captain Sparrow?
[Laughs.] I think I’d be totally out of place in something like Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s such a separate feel to it.
You’ve got the wardrobe and everything, though. That could be something, who knows? Talking about the next season, what are you excited about? The storylines, where Captain Flint is going, he’s trying to get his ship?
Through the first season Captain Flint was surrounded by a lot of mystery, but that’s what’s great about season 2; it answers all these questions. It takes the audience back to when Flint was younger, and so you see what has formed him, and what is driving him. It’s really fun to get going. It’s balls-to-the-wall kind of action but also has this very kind of interesting personal development. With all of the characters in it, you begin to follow and understand who they are.
Your mother, Maggie Smith, is a brilliant actor. Do you ever talk shop with her?
Obviously I watch everything she does, she always eventually watches everything that I do. We really enjoy all of that. But it’s quite fun because at home we’re quite good at separating what we do as a job from our family life. You know what I mean? When you’re with them, it’s family. You want to just be family. You don’t start talking shop.
She’s a force to be reckoned with on the show, are you ever shocked by how brash she is on Downton Abbey?
She’s basically like that in real life, so it doesn’t shock me at all. [Laughs.] I grew up with it.
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