Asked by Anonymous
Interview with Black Sails’ Stars Toby Stephens and Hannah NewCan you tell us a little bit about your characters on this new show?Hannah New: Well, I play Eleanor Guthrie who is what they would have called “the fence.” Basically, she takes some pirate goods and sells them back to merchant ships. For that reason, she’s kind of the main economic and political power on the island, and the pirates have to vie for her favor most of the time. So in that way, she’s a very determined young woman, who’s a very astute businesswoman. It’s an incredible role to play. With regards to history, it’s amazing a character like that would have existed, but maybe wouldn’t have made it into the history books.Toby Stephens: I play Captain Flint, who’s the captain of The Walrus. When we meet him in the first episode, he’s historically been the biggest earner on the island; he has the most fearsome reputation; he’s got the best crew, but he’s on a fallow period where he hasn’t been making so much money, and his crew is becoming discontent. There is a character who wants to become captain instead of him. He believes he’s better and that he could do better, and they want to get rid of Flint. At the time, these crews were democratic. You voted a captain onto the ship. The only time the captain had absolute control was during battle. So, there’s this sense that Flint, this terrifying figure, is on the edge at the beginning of the series, and the crew could get rid of him, and he’s trying to cling onto power.For Toby: Given your background in theatre and stage, do you find that informs you or did you find any similarities between how a stage actor commands an audience and how a pirate captain commands his crew?Stephens: Well, I think having a theatre background always helps, because it’s just part of my palate, as it were. But in terms of somebody who needs to—We’re on an epic canvas here. They’re not small characters. They’re real human beings, but they’re big personalities and they have to hold sway over these crews. So there is a certain theatrical element to what they are. But there’s a reverse side of that where they’re real human beings. These are real people; they’re textured. So, there’s a real theatricality to him, but at the same time he’s a very enigmatic character. We don’t really know what’s driving him, what the engine is. And that’s revealed slowly throughout the series, especially in the second series, which we’re about to film. Why he is what he is and what’s driving him.A lot of theatre actors I’ve spoken to over the years, they might have a sort of backstory in their head, just so they know how to play a character. In television would you do the same thing for Flint until something came up in the script and then adjust it?Stephens: Well, I think that part of the fun of doing these long-running TV shows, hopefully long-running TV shows, is you don’t know where it’s going. But the creators generally give you enough information about them to inform a coherent character that is nuanced and is real, and you have to work with that material. But like real life, we all change. Things are thrown at us; events happen that kick us into some other part of our life. Other parts of us are reflected or whatever. So, I think I’m starting off from this basis. I don’t know where he is going to go. I’m looking forward to finding out, and I’m all for changing as it goes along, and it being something that is elastic instead of stuck.New: I think for me, I had to make some choices early on about her backstory in order to have that [fermenting] her decisions…As the season goes on you find more and more details. Subtle things about your story have to change, and they become richer, and you become more informed as you go into every single scene. As much as you can prep for a role, one of the most amazing things about being on an episode of TV, and being on a series like this, it’s kind of like living. A character can change and evolve, and you don’t know where they’re going to go. You don’t know how far they will have to go, and how ruthless they’ll have to become in order to survive. So, it’s an incredible experience to learn those journeys and learn with the character.You mentioned that you had to create the background some yourself for the character, and you would like to think that she could exist in history. Were there any historical influences that you researched for this role?New: Yeah, there were. I mean they weren’t relating necessarily to the Caribbean. I looked at characters like Granuaile O’Malley who was an Irish pirate and an aristocrat, and kind of adapted a few of those historical figures in order to understand. But I think my research had to get a lot wider, and kind of had to be a lot more centered on the context of being in the Caribbean. One of the most interesting things I learned is that it’s kind of like a war situation. There are long periods of time where crews are off hunting treasure. In that way, the society, the population of the island, is predominantly female. So, the jobs that need to be done on the island, the way in which the island has to be run economically for example, still have to happen. The people she has to trade with in order to provide food and resources for when the pirates come back into town [that] still has to happen. So, the fact that we’re presenting a female character who would have done that and didn’t make it into the history books is amazing.
To hear her coolly yet emphatically describe preparing for a performance, or simply declare that acting is “everything: work and play and meat and drink”, is to hear something special: a moving testament to the power of the theatre. (Review, Times of London)
Judi Dench & Toby Stephens in The Royal Family