You don’t know pirates. You think know pirates after all those hours watching Johnny Depp slurring and scampering around the Caribbean in guyliner. But that’s only because you haven’t seen Starz’ Black Sails yet. The new Treasure Island prequel debuting Jan. 25 is more like a Deadwood with palm trees — more grounded and gritty, yet still delivers steady heaps of swashbuckling. Below showrunner Jonathan Steinberg (Jericho, Human Target) and star Toby Stephens (who plays pirate Captain Flint) take our questions (and if you haven’t watched the Black Sails opening credits, do that immediately).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you end up creating a pirate drama?
JONATHAN STEINBERG: I try to keep an eye on what people aren’t doing. This is not really a story about pirates so much as an adventure with pirates. Very quickly you realize why nobody has done it before — it’s a world that doesn’t exist any more. If you try to shoot it in the Bahamas, there’s nothing there now that shows this world. So if you could find a network that was willing to do a big canvas premium cable show, it would be a window into a world nobody has seen. Treasure Island felt like the perfect entry vehicle because everybody knows it and it gives you some familiarity. And then I think we felt we were attracted to Long John Silver as our entry point. In Silver’s story, there’s this huge presence that hovers over all of it without ever being portrayed in any detail and that’s Captain Flint — the book almost reads like a sequel. Capt. Flint has a huge life and an effect on everybody who came into his orbit and afterward everybody is chasing his legacy and treasure.
What do most people misunderstand about pirates?
Steinberg: In some respects, they’re politicians, gangster bosses, union men. That’s the pirate I wanted to understand, not somebody who could just twist his mustache and be more violent then the next guy. Ultimately I think that what the show is about is the politics of this world. The Wire is required viewing in our writers room; this a story about how to manage people and no matter what industry you’re in it has the same challenges in it. This is about how to manage pirates. It’s got lots of action and a huge canvas, epic scope but at same time we’re getting at the historical details of this world. The goal for us when building the show was to embrace some of the tropes and make them mean something different. Like the quest for the big score is something everybody is familiar with but here it’s not about the money. In this case, the money means different things to each of them.
How did producer Michael Bay contribute?
Steinberg: We got really lucky with Michael. He was instrumental in building the look of the show and building the team. He made sure at every turn there were no corners cut. His name is on the show and he does take that seriously. At the same time he’s been extremely respectful of the story we wanted to tell. I don’t know there’s a lot of other people who could build it to look this way and let us tell the story we wanted to tell.
Were there certain cliches you were trying to avoid?
Steinberg: Yes. There’s no parrots — that was easy. It’s not interesting to see a guy walking around with a peg leg. But it is interesting to see a guy lose his leg in the course of the story and how that happens and the consequences of that. Visually I think we’re trying to create a world that doesn’t feel like a cliche. They’re not in this for an adventure every day, they wake up and go to work to survive. If viewers come to it expecting Jack Sparrow, that’s absolutely not what you’re going to get.
Toby, you sort of get to have it both ways: You’re the pirate captain and are still the somewhat moral hero.
TOBY STEPHENS: You’re not quite sure if he’s good or bad. You like him, but he does things you find challenging some times.
How would you describe your character?
Stephens: He’s a survivor. They’re at the edge of the world, really, and they’re surviving the best way they can. He’s got a very cool analytical mind and he’s planning way in advance. Most of these pirates live day by day, but Flint has a bigger plan. He’s going to try and liberate these pirates and give them a safe place to be where they can defend themselves against the Spanish and British without fear of being kicked out. But the way he does it isn’t necessarily the right way. He’s got this burning purpose to free the pirates yet he will stop at nothing to achieve it.
How did you prepare for the part?
Stephens: We did a lot of physical training because they wanted us to look like we worked on ships. We didn’t want to look like ridiculous pumped-up people but we wanted to look we’re used to hauling ropes. We did fight training for the fight scenes, and sailed ships to know which sails do what. We got an understanding on how these pirate crews worked. What’s surprising is they’re a democracy. A lot of these people had been pressed onto service on naval ships. Now they voted on everything.