In Part 3 of our exclusive interview with Mark Ryan, who plays the quartermaster Mr.Gates on Starz’s new pirate drama BLACK SAILS, he discusses the show’s blend of invention and history, his upcoming autobiography and the new golden age of television.
AX: In terms of the violence in BLACK SAILS, did you guys have a sword master? As someone who has been a sword master – on KING ARTHUR and Bob Anderson’s assistant on FIRST KNIGHT – did you get to do any swordfighting?
MARK RYAN: There was a stunt team that did most of the swordfights. I would have loved to have got into more of that – that was one of the things I was almost begging on a daily basis to be allowed to get into. I did get into some of the action, which was nice, it was fun, but it’s for the young guys now. I’ve spent thirty years of my life either on the stage or in film or in television throwing myself around sets with swords, guns or other fights or whatever, so I understand that there’s a time to step aside and let the young guys do that. And so I’m quite happy to let them do that. When you get to my age, you become like this elder statesman, so you get to stand back and watch other people do it, until finally they throw you a bone and say, “Okay, do this.” So there were a couple of moments where you get into it, but it’s for the young chaps now.
AX: Did you have a stunt double as Mr. Gates?
RYAN: No, I was perfectly capable of throwing a couple of punches, waving a sword about, pulling out a pistol. I am physically capable of that now, still [laughs].
AX: Do you have any other projects going on?
RYAN: At the moment, I have a couple things in development. My biography, HOLD FAST, by Mark Ryan with John Matthews, comes out in March from Mythwood Books
We decided to collaborate on it, because it came out of a bunch of discussions that I was doing with John about life and about the way the spirit affects the way one applies oneself to practical decisions about what you do with your life and how I’d ended up here on this widening, strange path, and why I’d done so many odd things when I wasn’t acting, which we’ll discuss in the book. I’ve had this whole other life, aside to my writing and acting career, which was a gift from my service in the military. And some of it has been humanitarian, in the sense that I did some things because it was the right thing to do, and other things because I didn’t know whether it could be achieved. So one of the things I’ve always felt is that I don’t know sometimes whether it can be achieved, and and therefore I want to achieve it, so I’ll try to achieve it, and I got that as a gift from my father.
And so we’re writing a biography about that, basically as a spiritual journey. It’s a sojourn into the unknown about why, stepping into the unknown, you kind of create this whole other reality. There’s a very interesting song on Sting’s new album talking about this concept of creating – the decisions that you make, which path you go down, you create a whole reality when you do that. And I thought it was amazing for Sting to write a song about the complexity of that. But I do believe that we make these decisions every conscious moment that we have, and sometimes unconscious, and that changes everything, and the way to move forward is by approaching life in a creative, positive way and asking questions of the universe and going, “Why not?” And I’ve thought about, when I’ve done that, a door has opened, or the right connection, or something else has happened, which has kept me going in these directions. So rather than write a book about running around the world and getting into some of the trouble that I’ve got or a kiss and tell book about show business – I wasn’t interested in doing that – we wanted to write it as a spiritual journey. We were talking about that philosophy, particularly after working on WILDWOOD TAROT [the tarot deck that Ryan and Matthews co-created], and about my belief that tarot cards tell the future, because you decide what the future is, you make those decisions. Every time you read the cards, you change the whole framework within the question that you’ve asked. And so the best way to explain that was, I guess, through talking about my life. So we’re working on that.
AX: You also worked on TRANSFORMERS 4 in the capacity you’ve worked on the first three TRANSFORMERS films, where you’re on set to play the Transformers for the other live actors, so they have someone to perform opposite, instead of just imagining a giant talking robot …
RYAN: We were on the set one day, and I was doing some dialogue with Stanley Tucci and Michael [Bay, producer/director of TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION and executive producer of BLACK SAILS] waved me over and he said, “Stanley’s asking about the BLACK SAILS show – tell him!” [laughs] Stanley Tucci said, “I hear this show is phenomenal The vibe about this show is out there, it’s fantastic.” And I was talking about the scale of the show and I said, “Michael’s involved – it is of epic proportions.” And he said, “What about the drama of the show?” From an acting point of view, he was very interested. I said, “Look, we did one scene that was almost nine minutes long, a dialogue scene.” He knew all about Toby Stephens [who plays Captain Flint]. And I said, “It was just great to be able to play that dialogue. You don’t get a chance like that very often. To be able to play out a dialogue scene like that, as intense as we did for that amount of time, it was very gratifying as an actor to be able to do that.” And he asked, “Who else have you got? Have you got Blackbeard? Who have you got?” And what I discovered about Stanley Tucci is, he’s a bit of a pirates fan. He knew about the history of the pirates, about the Carolina coast, he was very knowledgeable about it and was obviously very into the whole pirate genre. So one of the things I learned was that, again, pirates have an international iconography of their own. They bring a spirit that resonates with people and it was great fun talking to Stanley about that. I was surprised he was as knowledgeable and as into it as he was. But I think that’s important, because this is a development where you have world-class film actors now doing drama shows on cable, and it’s a quantum shift.
Some years ago, I was doing a show [in England] called THE BILL with an actor who did a lot of live black-and-white television, and we were doing these scenes together, and I said, “I know you from somewhere.” He said, “Oh, I did X amount of shows. We did live shows, like FRIDAY NIGHT THEATRE.” These were live plays done on black-and-white live television. And we got talking about that, and I said, “That really was the golden age of television.” He said, “Yeah, it’s different now. We really were making it up as we went along, flying by our pants. That was a real challenge.” And as I was stood waiting to go onto the set, there was a young actor there who was dressed as a policeman. He stopped and he said to me, “Can I ask you a question? You’re Mark Ryan, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “You were in ROBIN OF SHERWOOD, weren’t you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “That was the golden age of television.” So there have been many golden ages of television. I think we’re moving into and morphing and evolving into a new golden age of television, but this time, production and the story arc, production values and the class and the talent that’s being attracted for actors is very satisfying, because you get to build a character over a longer arc, bring more to the character, bring more facets, drag more of your own psyche into it and make the character your own. And that’s very satisfying to play. That’s attracting a lot of people from the film world – it’s no longer looked down on to do show like this. It’s very satisfying to play a character over an arc. So I think we’re heading into a new golden age of drama on television.
AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about BLACK SAILS?
RYAN: I think it’s going to change a lot of things. I think it’s going to be a groundbreaking show for Starz in the sense that pirates are so iconic, so international. I think what [series creators] John Steinberg and Robert Levine did by taking a legend like TREASURE ISLAND and taking iconic figures like Flint, Billy Bones, John Silver, by taking those characters and planting them in historical reality where you have characters that existed, like Calico Jack Rackham and Charles Vane and Anne Bonny, you get the best of both worlds, very similar to ROBIN OF SHERWOOD, where you have an iconic character like Robin Hood next to Richard the Lionheart, all the other characters that were thrown in, which Richard “Kip” Carpenter, the genius, morphed those into one reality. That was very, very clever. You get the best of both worlds that way, because you have an accessibility for the audience, it automatically leaves an open door for the audience to step in, because it sounds familiar, but you’re able to then expand the relationships, the dialogue, the interplay, the politics, the dynamics of those characters with historical characters. So it widens out – it broadens your base of what you can play with in a TV show, with the dialogue and the drama. And so that I think was a very, very smart thing to do.
And the other thing was to bring Michael Bayin at the beginning in terms of production values and everything else that Michael brings to a production of this size. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I’ve just worked on TRANSFORMERS 4. Michael is a creative genius. I’ve been privileged to stand at the side of the monitor when he’s giving direction and interacting with the actors – Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Mark Wahlberg, fantastic – I mean, this is an ace cast. So to be able to interact with them and to watch the way he frames and he sets up the shots and how he moves through the shots, it’s a real education, it’s fantastic to watch and be a part of. Michael’s production values are high and they are visually stunning. And so that was a brilliant thing to bring Michael’s eye into it from that point of view, to make [BLACK SAILS] epic. It’s an epic show, epic scale. It’s quite a unique meeting of minds, styles, of artistic endeavor and cast talent.
Toby and I were shooting a scene, we sat waiting to go on, and one of the producers came over to me, and she said, “You look like you’re enjoying yourself.” And I said, “Yeah, of course I am.” She said, “No, you really do.” I said, “Look, I’ve been a Merry Man, an honorary Knight of the Round Table, Sky Masterson, Che Guevara, a giant alien robot and now I’m a pirate. You’re paying me to be a pirate.” And she looked at me and laughed. And I went, “How mad is that? I’m being paid, at my age, to be a pirate.” So it was great fun and very rewarding. I like talking to the fans and I enjoy the convention thing and like hearing people’s concept about pirates. And this is not PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. That’s the other thing. We’re very clear – John [Steinberg] was very clear – “There will be no peg-legs, there will be no ‘Arrr.’” This is a historical look at the way these people functioned, the spirit of the age, if you like, how that spirit of rebellion echoed through that period and how these people lived and what they would do to live that life.
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Related: Exclusive Interview with BLACK SAILS star Mark Ryan – Part 1
Related: Exclusive Interview with BLACK SAILS star Mark Ryan – Part 2
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Article: Exclusive Interview: BLACK SAILS star Mark Ryan chats about stunts and violence – Part 3