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EXCLUSIVE TV Goodness Q&A: Black Sails’ Mark Ryan [INTERVIEW + “III.” Preview] 

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Warning: Spoilers Ahead

We’re all familiar with Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Treasure Island, a tale of pirates and their quest for gold. Black Sails is a prequel to that story. This tale about a group of men (and women) who broke away from British rule to do things differently. TV Goodness spoke exclusively to series star Mark Ryan about his character, what we can look forward to this season on the show and how these pirates set up the world’s first real democracy. 

Photo Credit: Starz
Photo Credit: Starz

TV GOODNESS: Tell me about your character Gates. How did you hear about this project and what made you want to do it?

Mark Ryan: “The project came about because my manager Sandy Oroumieh called me. She was looking through some of the casting stuff and she noticed that Michael Bay was doing a show with Starz about pirates. There was this character in it called Gates, which she thought I was absolutely right for. [She thought] I should contact Michael’s office, since [I’d done four] films now with Michael. I actually called Ian Bryce, who is the Transformers producer and works with Paramount. He’s an absolute top man in the profession, a very nice person and a very cool man. I said to Ian, ‘Do me a favor. I don’t wanna call and trouble Michael directly. What do you know about this Black Sails show?’ He said, ‘I’m not involved but the people are right next door to me. I’ll go and knock on the door and I’ll find out and I’ll call you back in fifteen minutes.’

True to his word, as I have to say Platinum Dunes and Michael’s people are, he called me back in fifteen minutes and said, ‘Call Andrew Form. He’s expecting your call and he’ll talk to you about it.’ So I called and Andrew said, ‘Michael speaks very highly of you’ and he said, ‘You’re absolutely right for the part. We will open this door.’ And they did and I went to meet the people at Starz and then Rachel and I had a sit down with Jon Steinberg and we discussed the character and the levels of the character, the aspects of the character.

Because as you’ve seen from the first two episodes, its a multi-faceted character. He’s one of the few characters that gets to play a whole range of emotions and yet still has to be a figure of authority on the boat. Jon asked me about that and I said, ‘Being a non-commissioned officer in the British army myself, I understand that blue-collar role, that middle management role between the men serving and the officers and how that functions. And to get men to follow you into dangerous situations they have to trust you and they have to respect you,’ and that was how it came about. We talked about that. He went, ‘You got it. You understand this character.’ I said, ‘I understand this man very well indeed.’ And so that’s how I ended up spending five months in Cape Town, South Africa. With pirates, no less.”

TV GOODNESS: How was it filming on location? It looks beautiful.

Mark: “Fantastic I have to say. I spent some time in Africa in the mid-70s and it was a very different place. So, I was very curious to see – particularly after the whole fall of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s situation – what it was like. I have to say I was absolutely delighted, both by the cosmopolitan nature of Cape Town – it’s forward-looking attitude, it’s ease, its international grasp of a whole bunch of issues. I was just bowled over by the place. The people were fantastic. The studios were amazing. I fell in love with the place. What can I tell you? I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again to you. You can leave Africa, but somehow Africa never quite leaves you. There’s a bit of it that stays in you. I don’t know why. It’s got something to do with the primal energy there and the contact with nature, but it’s an amazing mystical and life-changing place.”

TV GOODNESS: Your relationship with Captain Flint is so interesting. Tell me about that dynamic and a little bit more about Gates’ place amongst the crew and how important his role is.

Mark: “I think it’s like in any show or play – I’ve done lots of plays – where you have a relationship with somebody on stage or on screen where you are so dependent on what the other person does you literally have to put your performance in their hands and have that almost polaric relationship, bouncing back of energy and dialogue and right from the very beginning. I had never met Toby [Stephens] before. A close friend of mine and somebody I worked with many years gone by – Bob Anderson, the swordmaster – I worked on a film with him called First Knight. I was his assistant on that film.

He was at Pinewood Studio shooting and there’s a big sword fight in that and Bob was choreographing that sword fight and I went to have lunch with him there. I was actually on the set and in the lunch tent for quite some time, but never actually got to meet Toby. We had mutual friends, we knew people who had worked in the theater together. It was one of those things. He actually confessed later on – though he won’t thank me for saying it – he grew up watching Robin of Sherwood so he was a Robin of Sherwood fan but we actually never met on that occasion.

But we went out to dinner I think the first or second night after the read-through in Cape Town and we confessed all of our sins and all of our stories and all of our relationships – everything that we’d sort of learned from being in this mad profession and we just got on like a house on fire. The secret to it was humor. We had the same kind of mad deferential sense of humor about the profession and about the business and about how we approached it and literally it started right from the first thing in the morning we got in to the end of shooting. Sometimes that was four or five o’clock in the morning, but we laughed virtually continually throughout the day.

And I think that carried on to the set and it made the set easier in difficult situations when we were being hosed down with freezing cold water at four o’clock in the morning. I used to laugh about that. When I ended up coming on the boat they’d go, ‘Good morning!’ and I’d go, ‘You bunch of scurvy knaves,’ and I’d give them all that kind of stuff. So they ended up calling me Mr. Gates and I got, ‘Mr. Gates! Welcome on the boat Mr. Gates!’ We just had a ball and it eases up the tension on the set. It makes the work easier and you have a laugh and that was really the basis of our relationship and the fact that we both – coming from a theatrical tradition – we would go away and rehearse our scenes. He’d either come up to my place or I’d go to him and we would run our dialogue so we knew where we were gonna go, where the avenues were, what we could do with it, what we couldn’t do with it and which way we could pull it.

Some of the bigger scenes you’ll see later on. There was one scene between us, which was getting on nine minutes long. It’s one of the biggest dialogue scenes in the show and it’s full of tension and it’s full of backwards and forwards arguing about situations that we got ourselves into and another scene which is about six or seven minutes long and in the middle of it I have a monologue about the pirate’s spiritual relationship to the ocean, which is one of the most beautiful things that they wrote. It’s a beautiful speech about how a pirate, a seaman, how he guards the ocean. Absolutely beautiful. ”

TV GOODNESS: It sounds like that was one of your favorite scenes. Was there anything else you really enjoyed?

Mark: “There’s a scene coming up in this episode, the third episode, which is a negotiation scene between myself and Rackham and Flint and Eleanor and Captain Vane. I wish we’d had more chance to do more of those types of ensemble scenes because they were great fun to do. Toby Schmitz, he’s really funny, he’s a really good deliverer of dialogue and subtlety. We do a couple of scenes in this next episode – Toby and I – that I really enjoyed and those ensemble scenes are fantastic because we all got to play off each other in a different way and it was just great fun and a real pleasure to work at that level with these guys. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the season.”

TV GOODNESS: What’s coming up for Gates and what you’re excited for the audience to see.

Mark: “I think as you can see, Gates’ role is sometimes to go Flint – even if he doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, although he does understand the big picture his attitude is much more altruistic I suppose. I guess he’s much more open to whatever happens. He just wants to keep all this underlings attached and be able to retire in good grace and sometimes, I think Flint takes risks which are necessary. And at the end of [tonight] – and I don’t think I’m giving anything away by this- you’ll see that he ends up becoming a captain.

And he really doesn’t want that job. He doesn’t want to be a captain. He ends up getting that role and it’s something he really wasn’t looking for. He’s not ambitious in that way and yet because of the circumstances he knows it’s the best thing. It has to happen. It’s the best thing that can happen. And so it’s a very, very interesting turn of the dynamics. It brings some tension, but he is always the voice of reason with Flint and going, ‘Wait a minute. Just think about this before we do this.’ He has men lives here, which is what the Quartermaster and the role of that middle management in a military operation. It’s their job. People are gonna die because of this. We better make sure we got it right.”

TV GOODNESS: Anything else exciting coming up?

Mark: “I think the show is a game changer and I mean this. Some of the critics and I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing the critics, but it’s difficult to please everybody. I’ll just say that First Knight was destroyed by the critics. It became a classic. King Arthur was destroyed by the critics. It became a classic. Revenge of the Fallen was destroyed by the critics. It was one of the most successful Transformers films ever made. So I’m kind of open to critics. It’s just one opinion. But I think what they kind of leapt on, some of them, is it’s not immediately on about ships knocking the crap out of each other on oceans and swinging about with swords. No, it’s not. In an eight-hour arc of a show of this complexity you have to explain these people: what motivated them, what the environment was really like, what the political and social structures were.

And you have to explain that early on in the first two or three episodes so that people know what the world, what the framework of this world is. And so I think that people watched the first couple and criticized – not even watched the first one – and criticized for various reasons. I sometimes wonder if any of the guys that criticize the show have actually ever worked on a big production and actually experienced what it takes to put these things together, whether they’d be as, I don’t know, spiteful and as thoughtless in some of the things they say. The amounts of work and research that goes into trying to make a show like this successful. And the proof is in the pudding. I think it broke six million people have now apparently watched the first episode and it retained most of its immediate viewing figures about 2.5, 2.6 million on last Saturday so somebody’s watching it and liking it and that is the vote that counts.”

TV GOODNESS: I don’t know what I was expecting when I started watching the show, but I’m enjoying all the details, the dynamics between Captain Flint and Captain Vane and I feel like I’m learning something.

Mark: “I think you have to put it in historical context, the sense of betrayal that these people felt. The Royal families, in particular the English – the Tudors – originally they’d given these people permission – letters of marque – to go around privateering and knocking off these ships willy nilly when they wanted because it suited their political ends at the time ’cause we were at war with either the Spanish or the French of the Dutch or all of them at one time, I think put together. And so it was expedient for them to do that.

Once peace treaties were signed and by everybody, suddenly these guys were outlawed and so the sense of betrayal that this traditional forward thinking monarchistic rule had decided to eradicate them, they rebelled against that and decided they were gonna build their own democratic society. It was one of the very first real democracies. Even on the boats, where it was developed. So you have to put it in the context of historical change that that meant. At the time that was literally a revolutionary idea and it wasn’t long before the American Revolution and the French Revolution. There was a massive uprising against rule by the Royal houses. It changed everything. Its grounding, its beginning was in the revolution of the pirates if you like.”

TV GOODNESS: I’m enjoying the show. What else do you have going on?

Mark: “My biography, which is co-written by best-selling author John Matthews will be released mid-March. It’s called Hold Fast. It’s about some of my mad adventures as an ex-soldier, as I was still serving when I came here, and as a licensed private investigator here in California. It has a lot of stuff to do with show business and film sets and the people that I’ve worked with. It’s not a kiss and tell, it’s just reflections on this 35 year career that I’ve had in this mad business and the last 17 years in LA, which stands for lunatic asylum. It comes out through Mythwood books.”

Edited for space and content

“III.” Synopsis, From Starz:

Flint and Gates seek a partner to hunt the Urca d’Lima. Silver helps Billy with a morale problem. Vane impresses Eleanor by being reasonable. Gates gets a promotion.

Black Sails airs Saturdays at 9/8c on Starz.

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