In “Black Sails,” returning for its second season on Starz at 8 p.m. Saturday, British actor Toby Stephens plays pirate captain James Flint — a mysterious, complex character from what is frequently termed “the Golden Age of Piracy” in the early to mid-1700s in the Caribbean.
When Stephens phoned recently from Cape Town, South Africa (where the series is filmed), I told him he looked very comfortable in the role of a pirate leader.
The actor admitted, “It certainly wasn’t something I ever thought I would play,” though Stephens clearly has played numerous period roles including a number of Shakespearean characters, Rochester in a “Masterpiece Theatre” version of “Jane Eyre” and Prince John, also on television, in “Robin Hood.”
Yet the actor does enjoy playing Flint. “It’s a lot of fun to do. It’s a part that was so well-written and conceived. It’s a joy.”
While there have been a number of popular pirate movies and TV shows over the years, Stephens said he likes how “Black Sails” is more firmly anchored in real history. “This is not the typical pirate project, which, frankly, has become quite hackneyed.
“While our writers haven’t exactly re-invented the genre, I do think they’ve rediscovered what it really was like back in those times — what those people were all about. They’ve gone into history and really did their research to find the stories of the real pirates from the early 18th Century.”
For Stephens, learning about pirates including Anne Bonny, Jack Rackham and Charles Vane, who are characters in “Black Sails,” has been intriguing. “I find the real history of it all is far more interesting and extraordinary than any of the fictional accounts that I’ve seen for sure.”
As is the case in any fictional storyline “but especially in something like this where pirates can be shown as cut-out, cardboard characters — swashbuckling guys jumping from ship to ship — the producers and writers have crafted characters who have been made into real, believable human beings,” he said.
“Flint, for example, is not just a baddie. He’s not just an evil person. He’s conflicted and complex. He’s morally flawed, but then aren’t we all?”
Already renewed for a third season even before the second season launches, “Black Sails” will showcase some interesting twists and turns, Stephens said, without revealing too much.
“Just let me say, the audience will come to understand why Flint is the way he is and a lot of his back story will be revealed this season …sSomething like the unpeeling of an onion.”
Starring in a series set at that particular historical period is something Stephens loves. “It was a fascinating time. You obviously had the British colonization of America, and the American war for independence was just over the hill. You’ve got the French Revolution about to happen. You had these big empires — these colonial powers like Britain and Spain going at it in the Americas.
“There was slavery going on as well and we, in ‘Black Sails,’ are in the crucible of where all that slave trade was going on in the Bahamas. The sugar trade is another factor — and that is in the backdrop of what we’re doing on the show.
“In short, all of this adds to a zeitgeist feel to what piracy was all about. I think it makes for an interesting backdrop for our storylines.”
The actor also noted that a big part of the appeal to audiences is the fact pirates were individuals who lived their lives outside the strict rules of law.
“They were people who wanted their independence to do whatever they damn well pleased. They lived outside the norms of what was considered ‘polite society.’ There was a dangerous, exciting aspect to those characters.”
Considering Stephens’ mother is the Oscar-winning, much acclaimed actress Maggie Smith, I had to ask him if she had yet seen his performance in “Black Sails.”
“She hasn’t quite yet. In England is hasn’t been on [regular] TV. It’s been on things like iTunes, but my mum is not the most tech-savvy person in the world,” Stephens said with a chuckle.
Kind of like the Dowager Countess of Grantham she plays on “Downton Abbey”?
“Yes, very similar,” quipped Stephens. “But I got a DVD for her now, so she’ll be able to sit down and watch it.”