Ray Stevenson has established himself as the most effortlessly forceful guy in Hollywood: He played Titus Pullo in Rome, Arthur’s swaggering pal Dagonet in King Arthur, a member of Thor’s posse in Thor, and a gangster who gave a serial killer a run for his money in Dexter. He even manages to be intimidating in comedies. Nobody has a naturally powerful screen presence quite like his — or a talent for conveying hidden depth in otherwise hardcore characters. So of course, the gloves-off pirate drama Black Sails cast him as their Blackbeard. There really was no other choice.
Stevenson spoke to Inverse about stepping into the shoes (and beard) of such an iconic character, the third season of Black Sails, the secret to being intimidating, and more.
You are very, very good at playing intimidating characters. What’s your secret?
The key to playing an intimidating character is not to play him intimidating, because that weakens you. It’s that sort of thing about dick-swinging. The guy who steps up and goes, “You better not, or else!” — he’s the weakest guy in the room. It’s such a collaborative effort; status has to be given to you by other actors around you. You don’t go out there and lambast your way through. If the other actors don’t give you status, you haven’t got it.
The reason you’re intimidating is because these other characters are intimidated by you. How you use that is the device of the dramatist. These characters are intimidating, but I don’t go out to play an intimidating character, if that makes sense.
How do you prepare for such an iconic role? Did you read a lot about Blackbeard?
Blackbeard is one of those double-edged swords, excuse the pun. He’s one of the most historically documented pirates of that heightened pirate saga. You can read many accounts, but history, as we know, is written by victors and sensationalists. The U.S. had those pamphlets about the Wild West and the exploits of bandits and cowboys — but how much of that is really historically accurate? You have enough material to go on to make a piece, but ultimately you’re not playing those written interpretations. You’re playing this script.
So with all that history stuff around you, you’ve got to leave it alone and then get into the script and work with the character you’re playing with.
When you’ve got a series such as this — a fertilization, a cross-pollination of historical facts and dramatized storytelling — you can’t be too precious about these sort of things. You’re not out there to make a documentary. If you want a documentary, they’re essentially one or two people’s interpretation of history. This is a fully blown dramatization of pirates in that brief and bright time. It is what it is, and I think it’s absolutely fantastic.
What was the most challenging part of joining an established show in its third season?
It’s a much more practical challenge filming in South Africa — in Cape Town — in what’s essentially the height of their summer. The temperatures are excruciating and I’ve got a huge beard and layers and layers of a very heavy costume. It’s exhausting. On a practical level, it’s being able to get your way through that and do the fight sequences; working in that extremity and thinking, “Surely they would have invented shorts!”
But apparently not, because all the pictures have them fully dressed in big coats. So it’s just getting through the hours of the days, especially around midday and early afternoon when it’s most torturous.
And what was the most enjoyable part?
Taking the costume off, I must admit! Getting the beard off, getting the glue off my face, and sitting in a bar with my fellow actors and having that first cold one. All joking aside, getting to play that character and be around people like Flint and Vane and Rackham and Bonny is just brilliant.
And the sets are these huge, colossal, fully built and rigged galleons, so the ship is rolling around. It doesn’t get better than this. It gets different, but it doesn’t get better. This is an immense production, and it’s been such a joy to be included in it.
Blackbeard is a formidable figure and you’ve made him very much your own, but at the same time, he incorporates elements of both Vane’s and Flint’s characters: He has Vane’s fierceness mixed with Flint’s more sophisticated veneer. Was that on purpose? Did you watch the show beforehand and try to draw from them?
It’s the old principle that birds of a feather flock together. Of course these guys have a similar vein. They are members of the same tribe, albeit a brutal one.
I find it almost impossible to watch any form of TV, because I’m bouncing around like the gods are playing tennis with me. I try to catch things here and there, but thankfully they made it all available to me so I was able to watch the full Seasons 1 and 2 before I donned a tri-corner hat.
Just from watching critical screeners of the first two episodes, even though he’s a new character, Blackbeard fits into the show seamlessly. It feels like he’s been in this world the whole time. How were you able to achieve that lived-in feel?
It is his world. He finds problems with what they’ve done with it; there’s an element where he comes back and says, “What the hell have you done with this?” But this is one of the things about getting in there and joining a series as dense and elaborate as this — you can’t impose yourself. You’ve got to be a part of it.
And yet, he is a standout, standalone, larger-than-life character, but within that framework. Within that world. That’s why you have to leave the history behind and go into playing the piece at hand and playing the scripts.
Blackbeard is the kind of character where it would be easy to play up his dark side and make him one-dimensional, but the way you balance the darkness and light in him makes him feel nuanced and real. How do you balance the thin line between menace and sophistication?
I don’t believe there is one, because I don’t think anybody makes a qualified judgement of who they’re going to be sophisticated to or menacing to. “I’m going to be sophisticated to you and menacing to you,” or there’s a sophistication to my menace and there’s a menace to my sophistication. It all depends on the interpretation and the character with which you’re engaged.
Are there any scenes you filmed that are particular favorites?
There are so many. I got to see Season 3 before we started filming Season 4. To be honest, the scenes I’m not in, there’s some amazing work that’s been done on huge set pieces. Storm scenes — it is just breathtaking. I don’t like watching myself anyway, but coming away having watched that stuff, some of my favorite scenes are stuff that I wasn’t around when they were filming, involving other people. It enhances the joy of being a part of this tremendous production.