Exclusive Black Sails (Starz) Interview: Mark Ryan Discusses Pirates, Why the Series Represents A New Era for Dramas and More

Starz’s pirate drama, Black Sails leaves port tonight at 9pm ET/PT, and TV Equals was lucky enough to chat with one of the series’ stars Mark Ryan before the premiere. Ryan is an accomplished stage and screen performer, writer and sword master who has appeared onscreen in numerous projects including the British cult classic Robin of Sherwood, and voiced Bumblebee and Jetfire in Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise.

Now Ryan has taken on the role of Gates in Black Sails, a seasoned pirate and quartermaster for Captain Flint (Toby Stephens). Ryan discussed his passion for the project, the history of pirates, why he may soon have the most famous back of the head in Hollywood and much more during our interview. Read on to find out what makes Gates’ tick and why Black Sails is can’t miss television.

Why Black Sails Represents a New Age of Cable Dramas

Refreshingly, Ryan identifies as a television fan first. Having grown up watching shows such as Star Trek and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., he understands the importance of giving viewers characters they can relate to and stories they feel compelled to follow. He spoke eloquently about how cable and premium series have helped the quality of television as a whole progress, noting that, “it really has gotten into a competition of who can come up with the best stuff.” However, Ryan feels Black Sails represents another step in the evolution of how we view series.

“I’ve seen it projected on the big screen at the premiere and both the New York and San Diego Comic-Con, and I can tell you, on the big screen it looks like you’re watching a 200 million dollar movie, the difference is this is a 200 million dollar movie where you can follow the arc of the show, you can follow the weave of the characters and the complexities of the relationships of the characters over an arc of eight-hours and that is what audiences want,” Ryan said.

He described the series as “another quantum leap in how cable television can bring you the eight-hour film experience.” Production wise, Black Sails has all of the quality of a big screen movie, but as Ryan pointed out, the story is ongoing in a way that allows the audience to invest deeply in the histories and intricacies of the character’s lives and their journey.

On Gates’ Role On the Ship and in the Series

Gates is an older pirate, one who has been at sea for nearly 50 years and survived. He acts as quartermaster for Captain Flint (Stephens), and Ryan explained Gates’ role is to act as a buffer of sorts between Flint and his crew, with his primary role being focused on keeping the crew on his Captain’s side. On a more intimate level, Gates and his relationship with Flint provides the series with a grounded friendship to root for and relate to.

“It’s mutual respect, it’s a friendship, it’s camaraderie born out of being in battle together and being comrades in arms, seeing men die and surviving together,” Ryan explained. “So I respect Flint, not just as a leader of men, but as a seaman, as a captain of men in battle and that’s very important.”

Ryan revealed that he and Stephens realized how integral their characters’ friendship would be to the story as a whole during the first table read. As a result, the actors spent an evening talking about their “lives, failures, successes and loves.” The end result can be seen onscreen where the duo’s chemistry allows for a humorous, lived in friendship that is in many ways the series’ center.

As for Gates himself, Ryan sums him best: “Gates is a blue collar guy and his ability is that, whether you want to call it manipulation or coming from a place of humanity, he can talk to all of these different groups and somehow get them to come along for the ride, not by bullying them, not by threatening them, not by ordering them, but by making them see the humanity in his situation and their situation, by using humor as the key to getting into their psyche. That’s a very important part of the character, and it’s absolutely an indispensable element of any show like this.”

Keep an Eye on the Back of Gates’ Head

The producers of Black Sails allowed Ryan to add many of his own flourishes to Gates including using a bit of his Northern Yorkshire accent and natural mannerisms. Perhaps his most important contribution though, comes in the form of a tattoo he suggested for Gates’ head. The “iconic seeing eye” is a nod to the Knights Templar and other secret societies reaching all the way back to Tudor times. They were among the first groups to get into the pirating game and who controlled many of the seafaring routes early on.

Originally, Ryan suggested the symbol be placed on the top of Gates’ head, but the producers decided it could be better used as a cinematic tool on the back of his head. As the season progresses, Gates’ tattoo will be used to enter into scenes and follow through scenes. “You’ll be seeing that as a motif that you watch in later episodes of the show you’ll see that the back of my head is one of the most filmed back of the heads in modern television,” Ryan joked.

On a more serious notes, he hopes viewers will feel inspired to dig deeper into the history of the symbol and its connection not only to secret societies, but also to the origins of pirates.

Real Pirates Were Democratic

Ryan stressed that Black Sails is a more authentic pirate tale than we may be accustomed to seeing. This becomes apparent in the pilot, when we see that pirates were very democratic. The Captain does not have absolute power and is in fact, voted in. “Historically, a lot of pirates came from naval ships and on a Royal Navy ship the Captain’s role was absolute,” Ryan explained. “Once the pirates broke away from that traditional power struggle it was very democratic. The pirates sailed under a captain because he was democratically elected and the same goes for the quartermaster.”

The Moments Ryan Can’t Wait for You To See

When asked to pick a scene he can’t wait for the viewers to see, Ryan enthusiastically offered up several, speaking to how much he enjoys the role and the series as a whole. One of his favorite aspects is the ability to deliver monologues and long scenes of dialogue that aren’t often seen on television (at least not since Deadwood). He spoke about one scene in particular where he was given “a real chance to explain the history of Gates and the relationship he has with the men who have been at sea, and why they respect and like him so much.”

He also spoke about the negotiation scenes, one of which is coming up in episode three, that allows most of the cast to all gather together and act off of one another.

If He Could Guest Star on Any Other Show…

At first, Ryan jokingly answered The Daily Show (come on, Jon Stewart, you can make that happen), but ultimately he cited many great shows including Hannibal (Ryan trained Mads Mikkelsen in swordplay for the film King Arthur) and Game of Thrones, but he ultimately settled on the upcoming Starz program Outlander. “Someone make me an offer and I’ll find the time,” Ryan said, once again demonstrating his strong love for genre television and passion for taking on interesting roles in whatever form they may come in.

Catch the Black Sailsseries premiere and meet Mr. Gates, tonight, Saturday, January 25th at 9pm on Starz.

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