Out to Sea with Toby Stephens
Now entering its third season, the Starz series Black Sails has made a name—and an army of fans—thanks to its visually stunning portrayal of 18th-century pirates in the West Indies. And there’s perhaps no pirate more compelling than James Flint, a captain played by the dashing Toby Stephens. Here, the actor—who also appears in this month’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi—talks about his windy road to the series, his mixed emotions about filming in Cape Town and what the new season has in store for pirate Flint.
You’re going into the third season of playing the pirate-ship captain James Flint. Has the role changed since you first signed on?
Enormously! What’s great about playing a part in this kind of show is that you get to go on such long character journeys. The way the characters develop, they have these very complex parts that are structured right from the get-go and they just keep growing. The journey that Flint has gone on is very satisfying for me to play, and although it makes all kinds of demands on me physically, it’s great. I mean it certainly beats being in a procedural where you’re basically the same person all the time, just in different scenarios.
Was that what you were expecting when you came to the series?
Before I came to the series, I was filming a little independent film in Wales—it was one of those things here I was literally in every scene. So, my agent rang me up and said, ‘I just read this great script and there’s a part in it that you are perfect for and can you put yourself on tape for it?’ I was just like, ‘forget it, there is no way I’m going to have time to do this.’ But she pestered me until finally I said, ‘OK, I will read the script.’And I read it one evening when I got back from filming, and I just though, this character is fantastic. So, I put myself on tape.
Did you feel like you nailed it right from the start?
In the past, I’ve had some torturous experiences with screen testing and getting very close to various projects. So, I am always dubious when I start a new process. But they rang up and said, ‘We love his tape, we want to screen test him.’ I was like, it’ll never happen. It’ll never happen. But I screen tested and literally about two days later they offered me the role. I couldn’t quite believe this has been such a smooth process. And I just felt form the moment I was given the part that I was incredibly lucky; I thought this was going be a fantastic thing, and I’ve loved it.
Fantastic in a number of ways, probably. You guys film in Cape Town, where there are huge ships built for you. That’s got to be better than a sound stage somewhere.
We are in Cape Town six months out of the year, which is great—but it’s also a pain because I live in London and I have a family. I’ve got a wife and kids and all of that stuff. It’s a massive imposition on my life, but it’s also fantastic because I get to avoid winter and I get to work in this beautiful place.
What’s in store for Flint this season?
Well, the new series really picks up with Flint having lost the person that is closest to him. There’s an opportunity at the end of the second season for him to make peace with himself and with England and go back to England. With the death of Mrs. Barlow, who is the person who is the closest to him and the one who persuaded him to make peace with England, the door on that shuts. At the beginning of the season, he doesn’t really have a direction or a purpose, he is just lashing out at everything. And then somewhere during the season, he finds a purpose and a direction to go in—he has an enemy to attack, and when that happens, weirdly he becomes more of a human being.
That sounds exciting. Never a dull day on your set, huh?
Well, I’m certainly never bored of actually playing the character. It’s all the in between stuff that’s boring.
Outside of Black Sails, you’re in the new Michael Bay film, 13 Hours, which is about soldiers in Benghazi. It’s quite a different project.
Well, the draw for me was Michael Bay, who made a direct offer; I didn’t have to read for it. I thought it was an absolutely fantastic story and liked the fact that it was actually based on real events and also the character that I was playing was a real person. I just thought, I kind of have to do this. I was very flattered to be asked to do it.
So, what’s next for you?
I did a BBC adaption of an Agatha Christie story called And Then There Were None, which has just been screened very successfully in the UK. I think A&E is screening it in a few weeks time. It was a really classy adaption, it’s a stand alone kind of drama and it’s very creepy. Then I’ve got another six months of doing Black Sails, and at the moment, I can’t really see beyond that.
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