HOLD FAST! Treasure, tattoos, swashbuckling pirates…and a replica 18th century town complete with bawdy houses. Rob Lucas interviews British actor Mark Ryan about his role as pirate Quartermaster Gates in forthcoming pirate TV series BLACK SAILS.
TWENTY YEARS before Long John Silver and Jack Hawkins set sail in search of Captain Flint’s treasure, another adventure was being fought out by Captain Flint and his pirate crew. The TV series BLACK SAILS, set to premiere in January 2014 on Starz, is a new prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island, set on the rolling high seas of 18th century piracy. I was fortunate enough to catch up with British actor, fight choreographer and author Mark Ryan to chat about his role as pirate Gates, Quartermaster of Flint’s ship.
My first memory of Mark Ryan was in the highly successful 1980s TV show Robin of Sherwood, in which he played the two-sword wielding Saracen Nasir. Since then he has worked on films such as First Knight, King Arthur, The Prestige and all four Michael Bay directed Transformers blockbusters.
While I sat in Oxford, England, with a tankard of English ale, via the marvels of 21st century technology (aka. Skype) Mark began to tell me about the show from his home in LA.
MARK: BLACK SAILS, without doubt, is one of the biggest television productions I’ve ever seen mounted. It’s massive. The production values are epic. If you put Michael Bay [Executive Producer] together with Starz you get a production on the scale of this. It’s set in 1715, the golden age of the pirates, twenty years before Captain Flint appears in Treasure Island.
Mark is no stranger to blending historical legend with historical fact, and BLACK SAILS does just that.
MARK: What they’ve done is quite brilliant in a way, because they’ve mingled, as we did in the past with Robin of Sherwood, legend with history. Such as Flint, Treasure Island, John Silver and Billy Bones with real people – real pirates. Like Calico Jack, Anne Bonny and Charles Vane. It’s a classic and popular universe sprinkled with historical figures. That makes it easily accessible to an audience but gives it a grounding in reality. It also gives the writers space to go off in different directions with characters, their facets and their relationships, and explore the psychology of why they were rebelling against the British.
Being a lover myself of tall ships, and especially 18th century ones, just how did they go about recreating the wooden world of an 18th century pirate ship?
MARK: They actually built two full scale ships. I’ve never actually seen anything like this. Or rather one and half ships! We had one full-scale ship complete with rigging, cannons, gun decks, cargo, and captain’s cabin.
We had the same again but only half the ship, so we could shoot in it from deck to deck, and have two ships side by side. Both the boats were set in a special tank, which was 15 foot deep in parts and were locked upon a pivoting gimbal, very similar to how they did Titanic. That way they could roll the ships in the tank, which made it look like they were rocking in the water.
But no pirate world is complete without a town to go and spend your hard earned spoils, drink rum, and seek the distracting company of beautiful women.
MARK: Well, they also built the town of Nassau as it would have been in the 1700s, complete with wave machines and beach, docks, forts, taverns, pirate camps, brothels, storage rooms and so on – everything you can think of. So you literally walk through this town in 360 degrees, and you’re in a complete universe. It was really quite extraordinary.
One view of the trailer and you can see the 18th century world they’ve created. But how was it, working on a moving ship? Not everyone has their sea legs!
MARK: I was OK with the ship moving as I’ve spent some time on Royal Navy warships. I’m also a diver, so I was alright being at sea – I had no problems with the ship rocking. Within the actual stages themselves, when they wanted to have an interior of a ship that looked different, they built interiors of various ships, also on gimbals. So when the gun doors were closed you were literally encased in this wooden world – so some [of the cast and crew] got seasick.
Having been aboard period ships such as HMS Victory and The Neptune, once below deck I can see how it could be very claustrophobic for some people.
MARK: It was claustrophobic in the hold sets because you can’t see a horizon looking out of the ship – you lose your sense of balance and equilibrium, that’s when people get seasick. If your eyes can’t tell you that there is a horizon over there, some people get nauseous and some had to leave the set [during filming].
Though that sounds like it must have brought a certain amount of realism to it! But is the show a riveting good yarn? It certainly sounds like it to me!
MARK: It’s extremely well written, Rob, extremely well researched.
It certainly looks far grittier from the trailer than Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, for example. Closer perhaps to what pirates were really like – more brutal and ruthless?
MARK: Well, it makes you aware that although these ships were large for the time, they were nothing compared to what we have now. The courage and the ability to navigate halfway across the world, in some cases all the way round the world, in a small wooden ship with rudimentary navigational tools and non-existent hygiene, survive everything else including a lack of food and water, disease, let alone getting into battles – it was quite an impressive breed of people who did that! Those who were able to survive and navigate their way through these massive storms – it really does remind you of what an extraordinary feat of engineering, courage and human willpower it was.
But when you put a tough group of people, and especially fighting men living outside the law, all together into a small space, surely you’re asking for trouble? To say the Captain needed some management skills would be something of an understatement. In the Royal Navy of the time, the wooden world of a sea-borne war ship was held together by strict discipline, respect, and an experienced group of officers and crew. But when it came to life as a pirate, how was the hierarchy aboard their ships organised?
MARK: One of the unusual things about this era is that people think it was just a rag-tag collection of rebelling sailors who jumped on these boats and ran amok. But there was a rudimentary version of democracy. People voted in the Bosun, the Quartermaster and the Captain. It was a functioning and consensual hierachy. This is explored a lot in the series. Historically, if the crew was fed up with the Captain they could actually vote him out of power. The same with the Quartermaster.
Only when they were in battle did the Captain have total control of the ship. But only in battle. The rest of the time when they were sailing it was done through the Quartermaster or Bosun. But once in battle the Captain’s word was law and the crew signed up to that. If the Captain was a great tactician who knew how to fight and how to manage a warship during battle, he may not necessarily have been the best person to deal with the crew in other ways. Those middle management jobs of running the crew were delegated to the Quartermaster and Bosun. So in BLACK SAILS these are the rules we abide by.
It’s an interesting comparison to make between the hierarchy of a pirate ship and the Royal Navy of the time. In the latter you had the officer class, from Captain down to Lieutenants then Midshipmen, Bosun, etc. With the pirates you had a tighter hierarchy but also a democratic one. The segregation between the two groups, i.e. officers and crew, doesn’t seem to have been present on a pirate ship. But how does your character Gates hold all that together and earn respect from the Captain and crew?
MARK: Gates’s has spent 50 years at sea. That makes him ancient for the period, but also to survive 50 years at sea as a pirate, you had to have something else going for you! So the reason the character is respected and revered by the crew is because he’s even-handed, fair but cunning. He’s also one of them. That’s why the crew respect him and why he usually gets his way. He’s able to manage the crew in a way that enables him to get them doing what he wants them to without them thinking they’ve been bullied or threatened. He’s a skilled negotiator, able to manage the crew with all their different backgrounds and drives such as languages, religions, and all their petty jealousies. He’s able to manage that claustrophobic and testosterone driven environment and make the crew trust and follow him. That sets him apart.
Gates clearly has the skills to manage a ship full of pirates, but what are his motivations? Do we see him elected in during the show?
MARK: I’m already elected as the Quartermaster of the boat as we start this story. He’s the nexus point between the will of the crew and the Captain. In this case, Gates is very close to Flint as an old friend and supporter. He’s also grooming Billy Bones as his successor and has a father/son relationship with him. So he believes his future is definitely rosier and more stable with Flint as Captain – so he’s supporting Flint for various reasons. One of them, of course, is because he thinks it’s going to be best for him, but also because he’s his close ally and friend. He’s also got to juggle and balance the will of the crew, and when I went to talk with Jon [Steinberg, series creator] originally about this, Jon asked me: ‘OK, how do you feel about this character – what can you tell me about this role?’ I said, having spent some time in the military myself, there’s an old saying which is: ‘it may be the officers that give the orders but it’s the sergeant’s mess who carries them out’. It’s a blue-collar job. You have to be middle management and manage the egos, drives and prejudices of the crew and jolly them along. You can give them an order, but at the end of the day you have to convince them it’s the right thing to do and lead them. Sometimes that means leading them into the jaws of death. So they had to trust you and they had to like you, but you also had to keep discipline.
In between that Gates is dealing with the Captain, who sometimes may not always understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. Gates has faith he’s the best Captain that he’s ever served because he knows how to sail a ship! That’s his role in the story, and on the ship.
Such a relationship between Gates the Quartermaster, Flint the Captain and crew must put lots of pressure on Gates’s character. After all, who would want to manage a crew of pirates and be in the middle of managing them and the Captain at the same time? Does that affect the relationship between your character and Captain Flint played by Toby Stephens?
MARK: We have a very kinetic relationship during the course of the series in the sense that I’m trying to cajole him sometimes to do something, or warn him of something, and he wants to go and do something else. But there’s a lot of humour in there, too. So it’s really a rich and amazing relationship, which we played on during the show
BLACK SAILS has a superb cast and crew. What was it like working with Toby Stephens?
MARK: I have to say, Rob, it’s a very, very, talented cast, one of the most talented ensembles that it’s been my pleasure to work with, and we all got on very, very well. Toby Stephens and I really got on well right from the very first reading. I think we both went ‘OK, we’ve got it, we know where we are’. I think it was because we both had the same sense of humour. Very daft British sense of humour! It was a very natural symbiotic relationship. It was great.
BLACK SAILS certainly sounds like it was as much fun to make as it will be to watch. But there must have been some tough times during filming?
MARK: We had a few sore backs. Also, standing on a rocking ship in a tank at 4 am in the morning being hosed down as the temperature drops and you’re stood there in just a calico shirt and a pair of leather breeches. But that’s when the humour comes in. Toby and I got on so well we were in a shack in the town filming a particularly intense scene. We were waiting to do our stuff, but for some reason we suddenly started giggling at 3 am. It was raining, very cold and a very intense scene. I can’t remember what we were even talking about, but it was something to do with either the Carry On movies or people that we’d known in the business who were funny. We literally laughed for about an hour! Brad [Fuller, Executive Producer] came over, and I nudged Toby saying ‘we’re about to get in trouble now’. He came over and said ‘I’ve been watching you for an hour and you’ve been giggling like schoolgirls! What are you talking about?’ I said ‘you know what, Brad, it would probably take a lot to explain!’ He said ‘I just want to let you know it’s now 4 o’clock, it’s raining, we’re all freezing, tired, everybody wants to go home, and we’re doing this scene. So what we need is more humour, so you have my permission to keep laughing.’ So we did! We literally laughed like fools and had a lot of fun in doing so.
So much so that one of the Starz producers some months later, when I was sat there giggling to myself, came over and said ‘you look like you’re really enjoying this!’ I said ‘I’m having a great time! In the past I’ve been a Merry Man, an honorary Knight of the Round Table, I’ve been Che Guevara, Sky Masterson, and a giant alien robot! Now I’m a pirate! But what’s even dafter about that is you’re actually paying me to be a pirate!
Sounds similar to the life of a ‘Merry Man’ of Sherwood to me – enormous fun to be part of. But instead of being in Sherwood Forest eating venison, you were in Cape Town. How was it filming there?
MARK: It was quite an extraordinary place to visit – Cape Town is an amazing cosmopolitan mixture. The front of my apartment looked out over the marina and the ocean. At the back the French windows looked out over Table Mountain! I took a series of pictures of Table Mountain as I can honestly say its one of those places that has a most extraordinary energy, but also never looks the same twice from one day to the next. Every day it looks extraordinary, and I would just stare at it! It was an incredibly powerful landmark. I’m no longer up for tearing around Bristol like I did with Robin of Sherwood. I enjoyed sitting in my favorite dock-side restaurant looking out at Table Mountain, having a glass of Pinotage, eating wildebeest – yes, I discovered wildebeest – and enjoying Namibian oysters. I was very happy doing that.
Speaking of your time in Robin of Sherwood, is that where your interest in swordfighting and fight choreography stems from?
MARK: I was actually making swords out of wood in the cellar of my family home from a very early age. I guess it was something to do with Michael Moorcock’s Elric series which I picked up randomly from a book store somewhere, read, and I was totally drawn into the world of Elric and the Stormbringer concept, which I thought was absolutely brilliant. So as a young teenager I was totally drawn into the mythos of swordsmanship and the science of the blade. Even in school I made a wooden katana, which obviously was a bokken but I didn’t know what a bokken was then. I also made a big Bowie knife, which alarmed the teachers to some extent but they let me keep it!
So swords have been a part of my life since early childhood, and in between that and after going to stage school I trained with Michael Jay, the Twickenham Samurai. He’s the only non-Japanese that’s been allowed to take part in the ancient Soma festival and was married to a Japanese princess at one time. He also gave me some iaido coaching and I learned a little bit of the Japanese bow. I’d also done some archery previous to that. Nothing’s forgotten, nothing’s ever forgotten. [Quoting the in-plot motto of Robin Hood and his men in Robin of Sherwood] It was all in my quiver as skills I tucked away thinking one day they’re going to be useful.
You also worked with legendary fight choreographer Bob Anderson? Many western martial artists and movie fans would have given their hind teeth to just meet him. After all, among the many actors he’s coached over theyears are Errol Flynn, Sean Connery, Antonio Banderas, and Johnny Depp; and films he’s worked on include Star Wars episodes V and VI, First Knight, The Lord of the Rings, The Three Musketeers and Pirates of the Caribbean – to name just a few.
MARK: I worked with Bob on First Knight. I was asked to do a favour for a friend of my brother’s because he had some action extras who were all ex-military, and were going to be used as what they call ‘action extras’ in some big battle sequences. Richard Howell, who owns a company called Foxtrot that supplies extras and weapons to film and television shows, asked if I knew any of the stunt coordinators as he was a bit concerned about some of stunt guys and wanted someone to bridge that gap. I said ‘yeah, I know Dinny and Greg Powell really well’. When we arrived Dinny Powell said there was someone he wanted me to meet, then took me over to this tall, silver-haired, very elegant stylish older gentleman, and said ‘Bob, this is Mark, this is the guy you’re looking for.’ Bob looked at me and said, ‘I’ve heard you know a bit about swords?’ I went ‘a little bit, yes’. So he literally got two swords and said ‘I’m going to do this, cut cut cut, so you just parry.’ So I did, then he said ‘now do it to me’, so I did. He then said ‘OK, now do this, thrust cut thrust parry’. It took literally five to ten minutes, then he said ‘right, don’t go away, just stay there.’ I looked at Dinny and said ‘what have you got me into?’ Dinny simply said ‘well, that’s Bob Anderson! You’ve just done a sword-fight with Bob Anderson!’
An hour later Bob came over and said ‘get in the car, we’re going to the studio.’ So we literally jumped in the car, got to the studio and were walking across the parking lot at Pinewood when Richard Gere walked past. Bob goes ‘Richard, meet me in about 15-20 minutes, you’re going to work with Mark!’ Literally! I promise you that is how it went down!
I’d love to have crossed swords with Bob Anderson! It certainly sounds like a case of being in the right place at the right time.
MARK: You’ve got to be open to what the universe can bring. Sometimes you can ask it to bring you something and it will bring you chaos. Other times positive things happen because you’re in the right place at the right time, and it’s a confluence of all those different energies, decisions and experiences. I’ve always had the approach to life as to ask the question and take the journey for the journey’s sake, because you never know where it’s going to lead you. Be open to opportunities and when doors open be willing to step through them.
That’s precisely my philosophy, believe in what you want but also be open to what comes along and follow it to see where it leads. I actually have the words ‘Thoughts Become Things’ tattooed around my wrist to constantly remind me of that philosophy.
MARK: [On the character Gates] you’ll see I have a tattoo on the back of my head, as I was very interested in having a mark of some kind. People would ask ‘what is that? Why do you have an All-Seeing Eye in a pyramid on the back of your head and ‘Hold Fast’ on my knuckles?” Hold Fast is an old naval tradition, of course and the eye is a nod to the secret societies which were involved with the royal houses during the period. Not just financing, shipping and navigation though, it’s similar to the relationship between the Templars and the Assassins, as in Robin of Sherwood. It’s just a quiet nod to those mystical societies, and the symbolism of them that plays out through the show as well. So I was allowed to bring little bits of myself to help flesh out the character of Mr. Gates.
Over the years you’ve built up a huge arsenal of skills including the fight choreography. That must enable you to really help other actors when you’re running through a fight scene with them?
MARK: I learned from Bob Anderson that an action or fight sequence is a drama sequence. You need to have drama within the fight. When I was working on King Arthur, Stellan Skarsgård, who is a very, very fine actor, came to me very early on, and said he had a huge fight to do. He said ‘look, I’m in my 50s, I chain smoke, and I’ve never done a fight scene let alone a sword-fight, so give me a clue here’. So I told him ‘a sword fight is a drama scene when the sword blades have the dialogue – it’s an argument in steel. But it’s still a drama scene – so anchor it in that.’ He immediately said ‘I get it!’ The action is secondary to why the fight is taking place. It’s the same in any action sequence and the same in BLACK SAILS. It’s the drama behind it, why it’s happening, why there is rivalry, and why these clashes are coming.
The image of a sword-wielding man or woman swashbuckling their way across the high seas is very much how many see the image of a pirate. But there must be more to it than that, as people seem to relate to them today in various ways. It’s that outlaw ideal, perhaps – living outside the norm. It’s the same as being a member of Robin Hood’s band, a highwayman, or the cowboy outlaw. They all have that same ideal within a world heavily dominated by what the majority consider ‘normal’ or acceptable. Fighting back against oppression or heavily restricted ways of life will always appeal to people.
MARK: I think it’s that historic period. It was just before the American and French Revolutions. We were discovering new worlds, we were discovering new plants, new continents. There was a sense of there being a different type of freedom than traditional ways of governing. Traditional ways were breaking down. Some sections of society clung onto them who knew and understood what they wanted in order to keep control. But at the same time there was this revolutionary fervour. Partly based on the fact that pirates felt betrayed by the English, from privateers to pirates. But also because they were being exposed to new civilisations, new societies, and different ways of life. So they realised it didn’t have to be that way. I think that’s what’s happening today, because if you look at the way the world is at the moment, especially in the US, traditional values have been challenged on a daily basis. Concepts that have been held as universally true by certain parts of society are breaking down – it’s no longer the norm. So some people are clinging onto the old ways, yet the world is moving on at a very, very rapid pace. That’s the link I believe. What’s changing is what was tried, tested and traditional is being challenged and is breaking down. New ideals are evolving in American society and all over the world, but that’s very scary to some people.
From the trailer alone you really can see you’ve all created this immense world, the 18th century world – the pirate world. It comes across immediately. It’s got an accurate feel, but also the swashbuckling, the pirates, ships, beautiful women and stunning landscapes. Yet it’s gritty, and that will set it apart from what’s been done so far.
MARK: It’s great drama! It’s riveting. It’s a strong story with excellent dialogue. The first episode is pretty big, but we go bigger! They begin by being interesting and intense, then get more interesting, intense and epic. It’s not the typical bait and switch production. It’s the drama that drives the characters though – that’s really the glue that holds the show together.
BLACK SAILS, starring Mark Ryan as Gates, Toby Stephens as Captain Flint, Luke Arnold as John Silver, Tom Hopper as Billy Bones, Clara Paget as Anne Bonny, Zach McGowan as Captain Charles Vane, airs on Starz in January 2014. For more information and the full cast and crew click here.
View the Black Sails trailer below.
Described by BBC Radio 4 as ”…a modern-day highwayman …imbued with the spirit of Europe’s opulence and theatricality of the 17th and 18th centuries.” I’m the creator of HUZZAR and live among the dreaming spires of Oxford where I studied British history and now operate my own 18th century inspired fashion label, PIMPERNEL. I’m also working with Adam Ant on our clothing line, BLUEBLACK HUSSAR. Plus I’m an antique arms and militaria consultant, so work with old swords and duelling pistols. I’m inspired by just about anything historical or just damn stylish.