Hundreds of fans were seated in a large auditorium, awaiting the entrance of their favorite Black Sails actors, but backstage, the performers in question hardly even noticed. The door that stood between them and the crowd was slightly ajar, letting the buzz of the audience’s voices trickle through. But instead of soaking up the adoration, the actors huddled together in a dingy, fluorescent-lit hallway, gathered around a phone. Toby Schmitz was unable to make it to New York Comic Con, and his castmates had spontaneously decided to Skype him.
After getting Schmitz on the line, his castmates entered the panel, scurrying onstage all at once instead of filing in when their names were announced. Actor Luke Arnold held up the phone displaying Toby Schmitz in miniature. “I was in my pajamas still,” Schmitz later told Inverse. “It was such a thrill; I’d been low about missing it. I just wish I’d known I was going up, I’d have worn my replica Skywalker Yavin jacket.”
For my part, if I’d known I’d end up backstage with the show’s cast, Comic Con skeptic or not, I’d have worn my own Black Sails T-shirt. I’ve long been dubious of events that blur the line between earnest fan culture and commercialism — and what is Comic Con if not a series of infomercials masqueraded as a party?
That was my frame of mind when I entered New York’s sprawling Javits Center. I planned to get in, conduct my scheduled interviews without being trampled by an overzealous Harley Quinn or waylaid behind a slow-walking Jon Snow, live-tweet the Black Sails panel, and then get out. But my unplanned detour behind the scenes threw me into the unvarnished machinery of pop culture marketing. And curiously, my glimpse of the man behind the curtain of Comic Con burned away my skepticism.
I joined the Black Sails crew at the end of an autograph signing session, when they were being hustled to another part of the con. To get there, we walked through a cavernous garage filled with large steel doors and forklifts. Gone were the dazzling banners and costumes, replaced by industrial grey. This was clearly the part of the con the public was not supposed to see. As if to underscore this, next to me someone barked, “Out of the way!”
I stepped aside, almost walking into a cinderblock pillar, as convention employees wheeled out a man whose forehead was wrapped in gauze above his Punisher T-shirt. His experience had taken a wrong turn. As I looked around at the juxtaposition of my stark surroundings and casually chatting actors, I wondered if mine had too.
Black Sails occupies a strange place in the television landscape. It’s got a passionate fan following across the globe, but it has a few factors working against its critical buzz: It airs on a relatively young network that hasnt yet become an Emmy darling, and the prominent placement of producer Michael Bay’s name in the ads obscures the fact that Black Sails is a thoughtful, progressive show that isn’t anything like Bay’s usual work. And so, it has never permeated the cultural conversation to the same extent as Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. But to the fans who have discovered it, Black Sails exceeds both in quality. As a result, its stars are not as widely recognizable as Kit Harington, but they inspire a similar amount of fan adoration.
If you’re not a Black Sails viewer, you’d pass most of its cast on the street without a second glance. But within the confines of the convention center, where their fans were congregated, their lives were briefly like what you’d imagine someone like Jennifer Lawrence’s to be: Rushed backstage so as not to cause a commotion and surrounded by a bevy of security guards, network execs, and makeup artists.
Once we took service elevators out of the garage, we reached a side room on an upper level. Couches were in one corner, craft services in another. At the coffee table, I ended up in an “after-you-no-please-after-you!” dance of politeness with Hannah New, who plays Eleanor. Behind us, at the food table, two of her co-stars were talking about Stranger Things. One hadn’t seen it yet. “You have to. It’s so good!” said the other.
Overhearing them, I almost laughed; I couldn’t shake the impression that I had entered the Upside Down of Comic Con. Black Sails plays around with its characters’ images, slyly acknowledging the performative nature of piracy, and the idea that they were the rock stars of their day. One character struts around like combination of Ziggy Stardust and Mick Jagger; another has the growl and wild hair of a metal frontman. The cast themselves have joked about this:
Saying “I hung out backstage with a bunch of actors” sounds pretty rock ‘n’ roll in theory, but the reality was nothing like what fans waiting in lines to get their autographs might imagine. It was all the better for its mundane nature, stripped of the convention’s sound and fury. Before they left for a round of red carpet interviews, one actor who has many works of fan art and fan fiction dedicated to him paused for a moment of nerves. “I’m just not sure what to say,” he said, unaware that talking was superfluous, that his mere presence was about to make fans scream like they were seeing the Beatles in the ‘60s. “Just be yourself!” an assistant suggested. She was unable to stifle a smile at the absurdity of reassuring him.
When the creators and actors trickled back in the room for a brief break before their panel, Luke Arnold — who plays one of the most prominent roles and was therefore the Jennifer Lawrence for the day — flopped onto the couch across from the director and I. Head back, feet up, his body language telegraphed a desire for peace and quiet. Were I in his shoes, I would have ignored us entirely.
But instead, when Arnold heard our conversation, he grinned, his quiet moment forgotten, and piped in with an observation about the episode we were discussing, giving the director a good-natured ribbing for being able to eat during a Season 3 sequence in which the cast had to fast.
Fame, or the curious microcosm of it that Comic Con creates, can bring out the worst in people — the inauthentic; the narcissistic — but this heightened situation seemed to do the opposite for each of the Black Sails cast members. There was a sense of ease in the air, of everyone being as content to be there as any fan, despite being shuffled and stalled in a series of holding rooms.
I entered the convention apprehensive about its artifice, but it took being an interloper — ducking beneath the official tape and walking a road that wasn’t meant for me — to realize that I myself had been distracted by the flashiness of it. The hidden parts of Comic Con were tarnished and unlovely, but they revealed an unexpected authenticity. It was all the more charming for its haphazard nature, its cinderblock hallways, its unscripted actors.
As the cast waited backstage, preparing to enter the panel room, that moment had the potential to be the most rock ‘n’ roll of all — cheering crowds beckoned them forward with mass adoration. But heedless of the outside noise, they were all crowded around a phone, delighted to share the experience with their friend.