The only piracy I’d ever been involved with previously involved the illegal downloading of a Gin Blossoms song. Now, however, here I am standing in the crow’s nest of the Walrus, the most feared ship to fly under the skull-and-crossbones in the entire Caribbean Sea. OK, so maybe the ship is a giant prop in a massive man-made water tank. And, well, perhaps I’m really in Cape Town, South Africa, on the set of the new Starz drama Black Sails. Still, I’m carrying a sword, I’ve got a sweet hat, and if you think I haven’t shouted, “Avast ye, mateys!” at least 10 times in the past hour, you’d be dead wrong.
I’m here not only to observe what goes on during the production of an insanely over-the-top TV show (let’s put it this way: Michael Bay is an executive producer), but I’ll be acting as an extra as well. Yes, I am fulfilling eight-year-old me’s biggest fantasy: being a pirate! The show is a much darker, more realistic, and bloodier portrayal of the seafaring baddies of the early 18th century than the cartoon-like depictions we normally see. “The challenge was digging past that stuff,” says executive producer Jonathan E. Steinberg. “There are no parrots, eye patches, or hooks, and nobody says ‘arrr,’ ” adds star Toby Stephens. Thank God—I won’t have to deal with any bird crap.
Unlike the Disney-fied Pirates of the Caribbean flicks, Black Sails has graphic violence, dirty words, and, yes, a fair number of boobs. It’s a prequel of sorts to Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal pirate tome, Treasure Island, and includes people from the book (Flint, the badass captain of the Walrus whom Stephens portrays), historical figures (Charles Vane, the captain of a rival ship known for his insane temper), and all-new characters (wily prostitute Max, played by the gorgeous Jessica Parker Kennedy). The show takes place in 1715, when piracy was in its golden age. The primary non-boat setting is the former British colony of New Providence Island, which has become a lawless territory where pirates, British officers, and powerful locals vie for control. Me? I’m playing a regular old nameless pirate who spends the majority of his time getting drunk in a tavern. Wait a minute, am I being typecast?
My day starts incredibly early; the sun won’t rise for at least another hour by the time I’ve been decked out in realistic pirate garb and my face has been properly dirtied up. After having some breakfast with the other no-name pirates (yes, it is quite a surreal experience to scoop up eggs behind a grizzled old dude with a gash in his face), I learn the most important lesson about being an extra: There is an extraordinary amount of sitting around waiting. I shoot two scenes that—assuming they don’t end up on the cutting room floor—will appear in the seventh episode of the season. In a tavern scene, I get my butt kicked in a background arm-wrestling match; my other performance involves carrying bags of booty back and forth through the village square of the meticulously constructed New Providence Island town of Nassau.
Things definitely get serious when filming begins; laughter and smiles instantly turn into grim pirate faces, and any unexpected noise or mistake in blocking means getting the cast and crew of more than 100 to do the whole thing over again. Channeling my experience as a high school drama nerd (yes, I was in Bye Bye Birdie), I somehow managed not to screw up either scene.
You might think there would be a great deal of competition among the extras—after all, most of the guys are aspiring actors looking for more screen time and their big break—but the reality is, these rag-tag Cape Town locals are really nice, and eager to give me insider tips. The best one they shared? Stuff your face when you can. In the middle of shooting the scene in the tavern, craft services appeared with several heaping trays of greasy grilled cheese sandwiches. I figured I’d hold off for a bit since I wasn’t very hungry, but one of my fellow pirates grabbed a sandwich and stuck it in my face. “Eat now, Maxim boy. We don’t know when they’ll be feeding us again.”
Before I leave the set and head back to my hotel for some much-needed sleep (hey, I got up at 3 a.m.!), I pay a visit to the one location that, for some reason, the crew has been keeping me out of: the brothel. It’s a nondescript two-story villa off the main strip of Nassau—seriously, the set is laid out like a real town—and the actresses who play the prostitutes are all stunning. (If I had a fetish for women squeezed into corsets, I’d pretty much be in a coma right now.) We do an impromptu photo shoot in which they throw me on a bed and get me thinking they’ll be treating this lowly extra like an honest-to-goodness pirate captain. Alas, when the photographer stops shooting, the ladies quickly disperse, leaving me all alone with my, er, peg leg.
Arrr, the pirate’s life is not easy.
Black Sails is on Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Starz.
Photos by Black Sails / Starz Entertainment | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014