If you've watched a pirate movie, you've seen the stunt where the captain balances precariously atop a ship's mast, pierces its sail with his cutlass, grabs the hilt with both hands and slides fearlessly down to the deck. Daredevil Douglas Fairbanks Sr. originated the move in 1926's The Black Pirate. It's as ubiquitous on screen as an adventurer swinging from the rigs. But the dusty sea dogs of the new Starz period drama Black Sails would call it bloody foolish — unless cracked ankles and a saber wound improved one's pillaging.
Derring-do doesn't fly among Sails' hard-bitten fortune hunters living and dying by their muskets during piracy's halcyon days. This prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 children's novel, Treasure Island, is very adult. And not just because of the grit: "I'm completely naked in my very first scene," says Jessica Parker Kennedy, who plays hooker-with-a-heart-of-tarnished-gold Max. The show airs on pay cable, after all.
On the Bahamian island of New Providence in 1715, peg legs are dead men and parrots are dinner. Troublemakers don't walk the plank — they're hacked to death. "There's been a lot of mythologizing pirates over the years," says star Toby Stephens, who plays chief buccaneer Captain Flint. "Black Sails is gnarly, bringing things back nearer to the truth."
Three real-life historical blackguards serve as Flint's biggest competition: barracuda Capt. Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), Vane's foppish quartermaster, Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz), and Rackham's cross-dressing Irish lover, Anne Bonny (Clara Paget).
"I love how Black Sails marries fact with fiction," says action-movie director Michael Bay, who chose this as his first foray into producing for TV. "Being a pirate was grueling, but it was also a business, and the show gives an unvarnished account of how rogue entrepreneurs clawed their way to prosperity."
Flint is tracking the Urca de Lima, a Spanish galleon hauling millions in cargo. In the premiere episode, his opportunistic new cook, future Treasure Island villain John Silver (Luke Arnold), steals the Lima's schedule. "Silver is Flint's challenge," Arnold says. "He, too, uses brain more than brawn, is educated and can read. Silver tries not to have anyone killed but never feels guilty over someone else's hard time." This leads him to run afoul of Flint's honest and stand-up third in command, Billy Bones (Tom Hopper). "Billy is the least poisoned soul," Hopper reckons. "He knows the pirate world is full of treachery, cheating and lying, but he's the small minority who's compelled to tell the truth." Adds Jonathan E. Steinberg (who cocreated the series with Robert Levine), "Billy's the high school quarterback — a little straighter than everyone else."
Flint's motives are ostensibly noble: He needs the Lima's plunder to help New Providence's business matron and Max's lover, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), fortify the island against the attacking English and Spanish royal navies. But his methods aren't always aboveboard. He drubs to death an unruly crew member barehanded just to keep his plan on track. "That's all public relations," Stephens says. "Captains have to create terrifying personas or they're fresh meat."
Stephens's costar Mark Ryan (Flint's loyal-to-a-fault quartermaster, Gates), who has also worked as stunt coordinator, has a different reading. "I've choreographed sword fights where there are arms and legs flying off, but the savagery in that scene? Watching Toby do that was genuinely disturbing."
"Pulverizing someone's head isn't exactly something I enjoy," Stephens says. "But now as an actor I don't have to go around for the rest of the series posturing as some kind of strong macho man. My work there has already been done."
Black Sails premieres Saturday, Jan. 25 at 9/8c on Starz.