John Malkovich

The dreaded pirate Blackbeard has a terrible weakness. The outlaw, who reached mythical status robbing and murdering on the high seas almost 300 years ago, suffers from migraines. "I can't say if they are psychological or truly physical," star John Malkovich says about his character's tension headaches. "But they feel very real."

Stress, even for an 18th-century Caribbean corsair, is a bitch. And Crossbones' top marauder has a boatload of it. NBC's new adventure series unfolds several years after the actual Blackbeard (né Edward Teach) succumbed to 20 stab wounds and five bullets while battling the English Navy off the coast of North Carolina in 1718. On the show, the evil seaman faked that bloody death and reinvented himself as the less hirsute leader of a secret pirate island (modeled on the true-life buccaneer bastion New Providence) in the Bahamas. "He's built a country where people don't follow a king or pope or emperor or sultan. Rather than work their entire lives for the man, they could take what was theirs," Malkovich says. "He's very proud of it."

But now, the threat of the imperial government discovering his whereabouts has Blackbeard on edge — as does a Jamaican colonist's invention of the longitude chronometer (a crude form of GPS). Whoever controls the device has the advantage of knowing his position at sea. The gadget could end piracy (if the navies get it) or end navies (if the pirates get it). "It's a doomsday device," says creator and executive producer Neil Cross, "if a nonexplosive one."

Enter British special agent Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle), who's tasked by Blackbeard's archenemy, imperial spymaster William Jagger (Julian Sands), with chaperoning the chronometer and its designer to England while posing as the ship's surgeon (Lowe is also a doctor). When Blackbeard's pirates plunder the galleon looking for the device, Lowe's orders are to destroy it — then get his attackers to take him back to their tropical bunker, where he must assassinate Blackbeard. "The empire's priority is to eradicate this pest," Coyle says, "and Lowe will do it." Luckily for him, it's easy for an M.D. to get near a man with headaches. "They become quite close," Malkovich says. "Lowe, in a way, becomes both his caretaker and his would-be assassin."

Lowe's only distraction: Blackbeard's supply officer, English fugitive Katherine Balfour (Claire Foy), who broke her wheelchair-bound husband (Peter Stebbings) out of the king's jail and escaped to the island. "Katherine doesn't go out by herself and swashbuckle, but she's got massive balls," Foy says. "She's a badass."

Clearly, Crossbones isn't your typical pirates tale. Cross describes the series as an espionage thriller set during the last days of piracy's golden age, with added political intrigue. He warns audiences not to seek much truth in the storytelling; while the producers bought the rights to journalist Colin Woodard's 2007 nonfiction tome, The Republic of Pirates, Cross veered from the story to make it more TV-friendly. "We do a great disservice to history," Cross says. "There's nothing in the show that happened in the real world. It's much more exciting." (In the existing factual accounts of Blackbeard's naval conquests, there's not one instance of him killing a hostage.)

So how did Cross get Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning Malkovich to play Blackbeard? He simply asked. "Our Blackbeard had to have a peculiar, commanding yet mercurial presence. He's devilish. He has an undercurrent of intellectual perversity and mischief and moments of unexpected kindness that knock you sideways," Cross says. "We had a long list of great actors who could have done that job splendidly." (House's Hugh Laurie was the first actor rumored for the role.)

Then executive producer Walter Parkes (Gladiator) asked Cross to name his dream actor to play Blackbeard. "Everybody looked at me as if I were insane: 'John Malkovich doesn't do television!'" Cross recalls. "I said, 'Well, you asked who my perfect Blackbeard was, and that's him!'" Massachusetts-based Malkovich was visiting Los Angeles at the time and read the pilot in his hotel room. Within 24 hours, he met with Cross.

"I was never uninterested in doing TV," says Malkovich, a fan of True Detective and Game of Thrones (he recently binged on the Danish version of The Killing and the Danish-Swedish version of The Bridge too). "I like the form and the format of it. I like to be with the character for a longer time. And I like seeing the same faces every day. It's like being in a theater company."

The cast and crew spent five months in Puerto Rico filming the nine-episode series on an abandoned U.S. naval station (the $40 million project created an estimated 1,500 local jobs). During that time, Malkovich, a part-time clothing designer, unveiled the new line of his menswear collection, Technobohemian, at the Puerto Rican Museum of Art, using Sands as a model. The cast also learned a bit about the North Atlantic while shooting the ocean scenes on the nearby channels. "It's less fun once you realize that between Puerto Rico and Florida is the bottom corner of the Bermuda Triangle," Coyle says. "Once you know that, you see the next swell coming and go, 'Uh-oh. Where's dry land?'"

Crossbones premieres Friday at 10/9c on NBC.

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