Mark Ryan Talks "Black Sails," Critics, and Mr. Gates

 Jo Wylie ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Mark Ryan in Black Sails. Photo Courtesy of Starz.
Mark Ryan in Black Sails. Photo Courtesy of Starz.

The new Starz series Black Sails has just aired the third episode of the first season, and already fans are falling in love with the action packed, gritty pirate show.

Mark Ryan, who plays Captain Flint’s second-in-command and quartermaster, got on the phone with Emertainment Monthly and talked piracy, technology, critics, and the role of Gates.

Emertainment Monthly: You’ve had two episodes of Black Sails out now; already it’s become a popular show. With the plethora of pirate media out there, what do you think it is that makes Black Sails different?

Mark Ryan: I think it’s to do with the historical research, with stripping out some of the more lightweight, cartoony aspects that have come out in the last few years and going back to the reality, historically and politically, of what was going on at that time. I mean, I grew up with Captain Pugwash, (Ryan, Yorkshire born and bred, is talking about a popular British children’s Cartoon that features a pudgy, cowardly and somewhat dopey pirate crew). I grew up with Captain Pugwash, and of course I grew up with Captain Hook from Peter Pan, and that became what got written into the mythology of piracy, and that left out the most interesting bits; the transition from the history of privateering, which the royal navy set up, to Pirates.  How they did, historically, rebel against English rule, and decide to set out a new kind of democracy. A democracy that was unknown, in Europe.

Black Sails has some pretty stellar production values. It’s got the look of a real big movie. What was it that made it possible for Starz to take this endeavor?

The technology has moved on so quickly, even I the last 7 or 8 years. When I first started doing transformers, Michael showed me the animatics and the computer graphics for the Autobots in the first film, and then in the third one, we went to 3D, and those cameras were huge mechanical dinosaurs, running around the place. And now we’ve gotten to a point that the technology is so good, the CGI is so good, its difficult to tell what is real and what isn’t, and what’s there and what isn’t. And on these movies, I’m on the set, actually being the robots, doing the dialogue, with the actors, as we’re filming. It’s not added afterwards, I’m actually on the set, physically being the robot voices when we’re doing the scenes. So I witnessed this transition from ILM poles with lights on top and people talking to, basically, they could stick me in front of a green scene and then paint me out of the scene. Especially thanks to the CGI geniuses at ILM, watching those guys work is a real treat, real pleasure. The technology has come on leaps and bounds.

So on Black Sails, don’t forget when you’re looking at those boats, they’re standing in these tanks, specially created for them, so basically they’re surrounded by the African savannah, the African bush, spreading off in miles. In one direction there’s an airport, in another direction there’s the township of Khayelitcha, and then there’s a freeway. So we are literally looking out over the green, African bush. And when you look at the finished show, even when I saw it projected, I went, ‘wow, its difficult to believe that that water isn’t there.’ So that’s how its changed, the technology has come on, which has made this kind of show now doable, which it probably wasn’t 6 or 7 years ago.

Black Sails was renewed for a second season after Comicon last year, before the first episode even aired on TV. Then you went on to have some really amazing ratings so far – What do you think it is that attracts the fans?

I think it locks into a part of the human psyche that’s about rebellion, and about a different age where we lived in a different context to nature and the way that politics was carried out.  I mean we’re all so deadened because we’ve got our cellphones and TVs and cars and life is relatively safe, and we don’t have to hunt for our food anymore; you can just pop on down to Ralph’s and buy a loaf of bread and a bag of apples, and life wasn’t like that then. It was more desperate; every day was ruled by what the weather was doing. We don’t have those issues anymore– okay, well maybe they do in NY right now  (laughs). But for the most part, back then, the rolling of the seasons, the success of failure of the crops, could mean disaster for a tribe or for a village, or town or region. We’re no longer in that life and death immediacy, and I think that somehow locks into a primal part of the human psyche, when life was, yes, hard, tougher, more violent, more edgy, but more immediate and simpler. All the values that relate to the classics – Arthurian stories, Robin Hood, and pirates, somehow those values of rebellion and living life on the edge with a sense of honor, it resonates with people.

Luke Arnold, Mark Ryan and Toby Stephens in Black Sails. Photo Credit: Keith Bernstein/Starz Entertainment.
Luke Arnold, Mark Ryan and Toby Stephens in Black Sails. Photo Credit: Keith Bernstein/Starz Entertainment.

And it is violent, there’s a lot of action in the show. You’ve worked as a fight choreographer and sword master for a couple of big-name productions over the years. Have you had to refrain from that side of thing or did you dive in with the choreographers and help out?

(Laughs) I wanted to! I was desperate to get in, but no, they had a very skilled and well-organized stunt team down there. I think the stunt team would have been happy for me to get into the fights as well, but I think what happens is, you know, when you get into your mature years, people are worried about you keeling over and having a heart attack or something, maybe hitting a person across the head, and so I was actually quite happy to leave all of that to the young bucks. The six packed pirates, I named them! And they said, “We’re the six pack pirates but you brought the keg!” so, I was very proud of that.  Mr. Gates bought the Keg and everybody else brought the six pack. So yeah, it was great fun.

I just want to make a quick notes on the crits, because I don’t want to avoid that. Throughout my career, I’ve been involved in projects that have been sometimes savaged by the crits, and sometimes, it’s like the very first film I did, a film called Who Dares Wins, in the UK, was savaged by the crits, it’s now an American/British Film and TV classic. Same on First Knight, which I worked on, was savaged by the crits, and American film classic. King Arthur, by Jerry Bruckheimer, Savaged by the crits!! And now regarded as one of the best films ever made about Arthurian legend. So I sometimes wonder, not about all of the crits, because some of them have been very kind and intelligent and patient, and see the show for what it is, but I often wonder if those guys that write the reviews that say such vitriolic things, weather they’ve actually had to work on a show themselves, in any capacity, whether they would be quite so bitter and vitriolic in their attacks. They’ve no idea how hard it is to get a show made. To get a show made. To get it financed, to get it acted, propped, get the sets built, all of that work that goes into that stuff, I sometimes wonder if they actually had done any of these jobs themselves, they would be so openly vindictive about these shows. But you know, the show has proven, respect of what some of the critics have said, to be a massive success to the public, and that’s what counts.

So how did you hear about this project? How did it come to you?

Yeah, I had just done my fourth film working on Transformers, and I enjoy it tremendously. I find it an amazing challenge, technically and creatively, and we’ve now got that down to pretty much a fine art. As I said, I’m standing there talking to Mark Wahlberg, or Kelsey Grammar, or any of the actors, I’m actually doing the scenes with them, and my job is to help them react to the robot dialogue, because obviously the robots aren’t there. And I know some people think they actually do exist; I’ve talked to kids over the years saying, ‘you know your dad’s car turns into a giant alien robot at night?’

My job is to help the other actors get the best out of their dialogue, and imagine these robots are actually there, and it’s a tremendously fulfilling technical task, and we’ve got it down now to a fine art, where I’m literally watching Michael’s monitor, watching the DP’s monitor, listening to the actor, and also I’m wired up so I can react not just to what the actors do, how the actors read their lines, but also I can see how it is they’re moving so I can time things. And it’s become quite an art in it’s own way, and I’m proud of that.

So when it was announced that Michael was going to be involved with this project my manager said to me, “Michael’s doing a pirate show and there’s a part in here that you’re absolutely right for, would you like to make a call?”  So I actually called Ian Bryce, and he’s not just Paramount’s top man but he’s Michael’s top man, and Ian is probably one of the finest producers I’ve ever met on set anyway, he really is the calm in the middle of a $200 million storm. He’s the anchor that things revolve around, and how he manages to balance all of that stuff I don’t know.

Anyway, I called Ian, and I asked him, do you have any news about this show, I know you might not be involved, but do you know what the deal is, and he said, “Actually, the guys are next door, Brad and Drew, I’ll just knock, I’ll call you back in 15 minutes.” And sure enough, he called me back and said, “Yep, they’re waiting for you call.” And so, I called Drew, and Drew said, “Michael speaks very highly of you, you’re absolutely right for this part, we will open this door.” And he did, and I had a meeting with John, (Presumably John Brytus, co-producer of Black Sails) here in Los Angeles, which went very well. He asked me a lot about what I thought about this character, and the levels of Gates, and the job of the quartermaster, which I understood, because I had been a non-commissioned officer in the reserves of the UK military. So I understood what that job was, and we talked about that a lot, in depth, and that was how it came about. But, you know, I’ll say this again for Michael and Ian as well, in this town loyalty is an strong thing, and I can say that Michael and his entire team, they’re loyal guys, and I respect them tremendously, they’re great people to work for.

Toby Stephens, Tom Hopper and Mark Ryan in Black Sails. Photo Credit: Keith Bernstein/Starz Entertainment.
Toby Stephens, Tom Hopper and Mark Ryan in Black Sails. Photo Credit: Keith Bernstein/Starz Entertainment.

And Gates is a great character, and a pretty solid voice of reason amongst a lot of very passionate, impulsive characters. What do you think really drives him?

I think one of the interesting aspects of his character, and why he interested me in the first place, and why I think they may have struggled with casting him in the beginning, is that he’s got so many different aspects to him. He has to understand his role politically on the boat, which is to be that nexus point, between the will of the crew and the captain. And there were very strict and well organized rules, and yet he’s also Flint’s closest friend and advisor. He has to balance his loyalty and his relationship and his respect for Flint, while trying to juggle the different wills and drives of the members of the crew, as well as the relationship between Eleanor Guthrie, who is played by Hannah (That’s Hannah New), who is the power broker on the island, and Toby Schmitz, who plays Rackam, another quartermaster. Their relationship is quartermaster to quartermaster. So as you will see in coming episodes, their conversations, and their interchanges were basically two equals who were both managing two volcanic situations. You know, Rackham is managing as the quartermaster to Vane’s crew, and is trying to keep them loyal and focused on what they want to do, and Gates is trying to keep his crew managed and supporting Flint.

So Gates interacts on very many levels with a lot of different characters, and I think he’s probably the audiences eye view into a lot of the relationships and situations that you would otherwise have to build a different vehicle if you like, into those situations. And its through his eyes and ears that you see the personalities of many different characters in the show, and how they interact with each other.

What did you personally bring to the role of Gates?

I wanted to bring to him my sense of the ocean. What these people did was quite an astounding achievement; to sail across the Atlantic or Pacific in those little wooden boats, and survive. And the reason that I can say that is that I’ve been on the heaving deck of a British warship – a big warship – in the north sea, where the waves are tearing out Chaff launchers, each one is about 20 foot long and weighs a ton, literally tearing these things out of the decks of big warships. And so, when you see an angry sea, at night particularly, and you see what it can do, you have total respect for these guys that sailed across the world, with rudimentary navigation devices, sometimes into oblivion. Not knowing what was going to be on the other side of the ocean, not knowing if they can find water, find food, not knowing whether they’re going to be attacked by the natives, or what was going to happen to them. To go beyond what was known to them, and my respect for that; I wanted to bring that out in the character. That this man carries with him this awesome, world-weary soul and ancient mariner type spirit.

In a later episode, I have a speech about the nature of pirates, and their relationship to the ocean, which is one of the most beautifully written things I think I’ve ever read. And it was my pleasure to do it. Toby and I, in later episodes, do quite long scenes together. I think one is almost a record 8 or 9 minutes long, just he and I doing a dialogue scene about the situation we’re in, which is virtually unheard of in TV. I give a two-minute monologue in the middle of one of those scenes where I’m just talking about our spiritual relationship to the ocean. So that kind of thing, I wanted to bring that depth of understanding of the emotional relationship, not just between the men serving on a warship but between them and nature.

Black Sails airs on STARZ on Saturdays at 9pm.


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One Comment

  1. Mark has always been a craftsman in his work, whether it is writing, choreographing fights or acting. A consummate professional. I first saw him in Evita and followed him through his career. It is no surprise that he leaves his mark on the productions he’s appeared in be it Nasir in Robin of Sherwood or Bumblebee in Transformers. Black Sails gives him the opportunity to flex his character acting, and he excels in it. Long may the show sail.

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