Mark Ryan (Gates), Toby Stephens (Captain Flint), Tom Hopper (Billy Bones) in BLACK SAILS - Season 1 | ©2014 Starz

Mark Ryan (Gates), Toby Stephens (Captain Flint), Tom Hopper (Billy Bones) in BLACK SAILS - Season 1 | ©2014 Starz

In Starz’s eighteenth-century pirate drama BLACK SAILS, Saturdays at 9 PM, Mark Ryan plays Mr. Gates, quartermaster of The Walrus and right-hand man to Captain Flint (Toby Stephens). In Part 2 of our interview with Ryan, whose credits include the Merry Man Nasir in ROBIN OF SHERWOOD, he talks about laughing between takes, nudity and the All-Seeing Eye.

ASSIGNMENT X: Had you worked with any of the other BLACK SAILS actors before?

MARK RYAN: No, I hadn’t worked with anybody before. It’s kind of interesting, because many years ago, I was visiting Bob Anderson on the set of a James Bond film [DIE ANOTHER DAY, which costarred] Toby Stephens, but I never got to meet Toby. We were probably in the same lunch tent at the time, but I was busy chatting away with Bob, so we never met. But I knew a lot of people – we have a lot of friends in common in the business, and all I’d heard about him was lovely things, so I was very excited to work with Toby. He’s a wonderful actor, absolutely one of the most charismatic characters I’ve ever worked with. And the rest of the cast I was quite interested to see. And I have to say, there’s no weak element. Everybody brings their A game, and it shows.

AX: You’ve said you and Toby Stephens wound up laughing a lot …

RYAN: We did laugh a lot, from the first thing in the morning – look, if you’re going to be getting dirtied up, tattooed up, and I’m going to go back to ROBIN OF SHERWOOD, because there is something about this which reminded me of ROBIN, simply because of the process of coming in in the morning clean and then being muddied up and this process of being aged in the morning and having the tattoos put on. While you’re sitting and this is all going on, we discovered that the best way to deal with that was just to take the rise out of each other from the moment we arrived to the moment we left. And we did. It was a constant stream of abuse [laughs] between us, even to the point where I think people were going, “Do they mean it?” So we had this very mad sense, an eccentric British sense of humor, which carried us through a lot of long nights and otherwise grueling days of filming. But yes, we laughed a lot. We had permission to laugh, because [executive producer] Brad Fuller – we were at three o’clock in the morning, it was raining, we couldn’t shoot and it was a particularly intense scene they were shooting, very emotionally charged, and we were waiting to come into the scene. We went off into a hut and I can’t even remember what we were talking about, but we were laughing like idiots. And Brad came over. And so I’m walking over to him and I gave Toby [a look], “Uh-oh, shh, we’re in trouble,” because I thought maybe we were making too much noise or something. Brad said, “I have been watching you two for an hour. You have done nothing but giggle like idiots for an hour. What are you laughing at?” And I just said, “I’m not being funny, I don’t think you’d understand this. It’s just British CARRY ON humor. It’s just stupid schoolboy humor.” And he said, “It’s three o’clock in the morning, it’s raining, we can’t shoot and we’re in the middle of this [depressing] scene. What we need is humor, so you have permission to laugh.” So we took that as, we were given permission by the producer to laugh. So we did, for five months.

AX: Is there a BLACK SAILS outtake reel?

RYAN: I don’t know how much or how many outtakes – I mean, Zach McGowan, who plays Captain Vane, actually fell off a boat at one point in the proceedings. I think he managed to recover, but it was funny, I have to say. He is a magnificent physical specimen, Zach McGowan, and he is a physical genius. Not only is he in great shape, but he’s a good actor. He managed to – as we all do – almost fall off the boat, wrapping himself in a rope. I fell over – I threw a punch at somebody on the set, went A over T, slipped on the [fake] blood on the deck. So we’ve all done it. So I don’t know whether there will be a gag reel. To be honest with you, the difference is nowadays, there’s so much pressure to get stuff shot – in the old days of ROBIN OF SHERWOOD, we set up gags, we pulled gags on each other all the time. [On BLACK SAILS], I don’t know if [outtakes] will ever surface. We’ll see.

Toby Stephens, Tom Hopper and Mark Ryan in BLACK SAILS - Season 1 | ©2014 Starz

Toby Stephens, Tom Hopper and Mark Ryan in BLACK SAILS - Season 1 | ©2014 Starz

AX: Did the ROBIN OF SHERWOOD experience, which was a group of people fighting against the law and fighting against other outlaws and being a sort of band in a natural setting, albeit a much more cooperative natural setting than the ocean, give you any preparation at all for what you were doing on BLACK SAILS?

RYAN: Yeah, absolutely. It was very much back in my mind in two senses. I’m going to put it this way. Thirty years ago with ROBIN, my very good friend who has since passed on, passed away, Jay Larkin, who was involved [with ROBIN’s American exhibitor/financier Showtime] from the p.r. point of view and later on went on to be a producer for Showtime and was very influential in British sport, particularly TV boxing, Jay said to me then that one day, cable television would be the source of the best-produced quality drama, not only in America, but also around the world, because at some point they would have the budgets and the technical know-how and the audiences to be able to do what networks seem to be struggling to do, which is to find audiences for niche shows. ROBIN OF SHERWOOD was a cult, groundbreaking show in its day in the Eighties. There were apparently controversial issues then, about ROBIN – there was a level of violence, those were the guidelines and you couldn’t cross that boundary. But we had in it a pagan god of the forest being a good guy and the Church being the bad guys, the organized criminal bad guys. And so that was a flip of that. You couldn’t really do that on television per se until a film company, Goldcrest, HTV and Showtime [came together] to make that show, to make it viable to capture the audience that it did and become a landmark, as it did. And I’ve often said, they couldn’t remake that show. And even if they could, I don’t know if anybody could have the money or the foresight to see what effect that show could have on the industry.

And just as a sidebar to that, [BLACK SAILS pilot director] Neil Marshall is a ROBIN OF SHERWOOD fan. And Lucas Ettlin, who was our d.p. down there [on BLACK SAILS], he came up to me – “You’re Nasir!” [laughs] And when we were shooting later on, he brought his brother around to come and say hello and he said, “You’ve no idea – we used to run around in our back garden with rulers stuffed down the back of our shirts [to simulate Nasir’s two swords, carried in a sheath on his back] having swordfights in the garden.” So the show has resonance still today. And so yes, there was a lot of understanding of where you place a part, where you fit into this group, this ensemble, where you fit in an ensemble and how you compliment each other and feed off each other and feed other people. And that was something I experienced and I enjoyed a lot with ROBIN, and I was able to apply that to BLACK SAILS.

AX: In BLACK SAILS, who are the people that Gates associates with?

RYAN: Obviously, his most pivotal relationship is with Flint. Flint is the captain of the ship, is his oldest ally and friend, and Gates respects Flint for his seamanship. He’s one of the best sea captains he’s ever worked with and he was actually head-hunted, if you like, away from another character called Captain Hornigold [Patrick Lyster] to run the Walrus for Flint, so Flint must have seen in Gates something that was of value to him as a quartermaster. So that’s one of the pivotal relationships within the show, in the sense that a lot of things revolve around that relationship, in terms of keeping Flint in the position of power as the captain. Because of my relationship with the crew, I have to go to different groups, different cultures and basically cajole them into honoring me – “If I’m following Flint, you’ve got to follow me” sort of thing. And those machinations are very important in the show. And also he’s got relationships with Eleanor Guthrie [Hannah New], because he knows that Eleanor has a friendship with Flint, and she respects him, again, because he’s the most successful pirate captain in Nassau. And there’s an interesting relationship between myself and Toby Schmitz, who plays Rackham, because he’s the quartermaster of Charles Vane’s ship, The Ranger, so we’re equals. He’s running The Ranger for Vane. So he and I have to negotiate amongst ourselves sometimes to cajole and get each of our captains to do things that they don’t want to do. So it’s complex, political, it’s cunning – there are a lot of different aspects to these relationships. In some of the other scenes, I got to work with the South African actors, like Jannes Eiselen, who’s a wonderful actor who plays Dufresne.

AX: Since this is Starz and they require it of a lot of their actors, do you have nude scenes?

RYAN: I offered, several times, to get my kit off and get into the scene. And Marta Fernandez, the producer, was very gentle but very firm. I said, “Look, if you need me, I don’t mind.” She went, “No, no, Mark, you can keep your clothes on. There was a day when maybe it would have been sensible for you …” They have the six-pack pirates. The guys work very hard to get into amazing shape for the show. And so I would say, “Well, you’ve got your six-pack pirates. I’m bringing the keg.” And Marta was like, “No, we want the show to be a success, you can keep your clothes on.” So I did offer and it was very kindly refused.

[being serious now] It’s a funny thing, the whole body image thing. I mean, the character is supposed to be in his sixties and he’s supposed to be old and he’s aware of that, so I decided that I would just go with the flow. And they aged up my eyes to give me more wrinkles in my face and they decided that a diet of pasta and oysters and game would probably help my physical presence to look slightly more aged than I actually am. And so I decided that that would be a way to go with the character, heavier and stouter than I actually am, so that’s why he looks the way he does.

AX: What is the eye symbol that Gates has on the back of his head?

RYAN: I discussed that with [series co-creator] John Steinberg in some depth when we got there, because we had lots of interesting concepts about the esoteric history of piracy. And one of the things I wanted to bring in, because obviously it was something that was very powerful within ROBIN OF SHERWOOD – I know that resonates with a certain part of the audience, also because of my history of writing books about tarot cards and various bits of esoteric history – [Ryan’s friend, Arthurian scholar] John Matthews and I discussed many times about the history between the Knights Templar and modern-day pirates. There’s a big discussion – nobody knows if that really is true, but throughout the world, where wherever you find Templars’ graves, you find the skull and crossbones. It was fairly common to have them on graves all over the world. And so one of the things I’ve always speculated about and we discussed amongst ourselves is that the Knights Templar fleets that disappeared after they were excommunicated by Pope Clement the Fifth, I think, those ships disappeared, but they were masters of sea trade and seamanship in general, and they traded with the Assassins and various other Middle Eastern [groups] – things like the Astrolabe and tools for navigating the oceans.

So those secret societies that later became the Masons not only were the masters of building, but they were the masters of ocean-going trade. So it seemed natural that whenElizabeththe First wanted to bring in the concept of privateering that she would have gone to the secret societies. [John] Dee, who was involved with all of that, would have known these people, so they went to the secret societies of people, members of Masonic groups, who understood seafaring and trading routes. [Queen Elizabeth] would have gone to those people. So there’s always been speculation, and I’ve always felt there was a connection, though it’s not been proven, there’s a link between Masonic groups and privateering, which then morphed into pirating once peace pacts were made with the French and the Spanish and the Dutch and whoever else they were waging war against. And that is why pirates became rebellious against the British Crown, because they felt they’d been betrayed. At one point, they worked for the British Crown, attacking willy-nilly any boat that they fancied that they wanted to take, and then the next thing, it was illegal, because peace had broken out and the British Navy was sent to round them up or blow them out of the water. And so you can see there’s a natural progression between various esoteric secret societies and privateers and pirates. So I wanted to have a little nod to that lineage, so on the back of my head, I have the All-Seeing Eye, and it’s just a little nod to that lineage about the relationship between pirates and the Knights Templar.

Related: Exclusive Interview with BLACK SAILS star Mark Ryan – Part 1

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: Exclusive Interview with BLACK SAILS star Mark Ryan – Part 2

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Comments:

  1. Another great article from Abbie Bernstein. She sakes the best questions. I was wondering about that eye symbol. And who knew pirates had such an esoteric history?

    MaureeN

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