411mania.com Interviews: Black Sails Star Luke Arnold
Posted by Jeffrey Harris on 01.22.2014
411mania.com sits down with one of the leads of the new Starz TV series, Black Sails, in Luke Arnold. Arnold portrays John Silver, the man who will one day the classic pirate character Long John Silver. Arnold talks about filming the series, his casting, and what's in store for previously untold origin of the classic character.
Recently, 411mania.com got the chance to speak with Australian actor Luke Arnold, a young man you will be seeing a lot more of very soon. In the new Starz original TV series, Black Sails, Arnold portrays John Silver, the man who becomes the classic fictional pirate of literature and Robert Louis Stevenson's classic book Treasure Island. Black Sails was created for TV by Jon Steinberg and Robert Levine. Famed director Michael Bay is executive producer on the project. Set 20 years before Treasure Island, Black Sails reveals the previously untold backstory of Silver and Captain J. Flint (Toby Stephens) as they fight for survival during the Golden Age of Piracy. Black Sails recently had its online premiere on Machinima Prime ahead of its regular TV premiere on Starz later this week. The show had a preview last summer at the San Diego Comic-Con, and Starz was so encouraged by the positive reaction that they already renewed the show for a second season of 10 episodes, which is currently filming. I spoke with Arnold for an exclusive interview late last week:
Jeffrey Harris: What was your casting process like for John Silver in this show?
Luke Arnold: Well, I think it was interesting because I think this new rise in historical, epic TV has been very good for my career. I generally let my hair out kind of long and a few days growth. So suddenly there was this point where quite a few shows were coming up that seemed to show some interest. I was actually in line to get a role on a different Starz show that didn't go ahead. So, I think I was on their radar when Black Sails started casting. I went in and did one audition. And from that, I met Jon Steinberg, the creator. I came in and did another audition, and it was an interesting process where they signed me to the show before they were going to tell me which character I was going to play. I pretty much got a contract going, ‘Alright. You're going to be a pirate.' We just don't know quite which one yet. So I started getting in the gym and doing the training. And a few weeks after that, just before I was flying to Cape Town, they gave me the good news that I was going to play John Silver.
Jeffrey Harris: What was your reaction when you found out you were going to be playing *THE* John Silver?
Luke Arnold: It was—I have to say, I was very excited. When you're the first person who gets to do the origin story of such a well known character onscreen, that's just such a gift as an actor to do that. When you've got the end goal—you know where you're going, but you get to paint the whole picture in between that's never been done before. I don't know, it's just great in so many ways. As the process has gone on, after really talking to Jon for the first time and meeting everyone else involved in the project, I kind of had a sense very early on that this was going to be something special.
Jeffrey Harris: In your casting process did you ever have to read or try out for executive producer Michael Bay? Did he ever have to sign off on his approval for you?
Luke Arnold: He definitely had to sign off on it. I didn't meet him during the process, but I'm sure every tape came across his desk. I've been told that he was one of the ones that was pushing me toward Silver as opposed to a different role. I definitely owe him some thanks for that. I didn't meet him through the audition process. But I have met him since. We just did our premiere in LA last week, and it was great to finally shake his hand.
Jeffrey Harris: You did mention earlier how we are not seeing a lot more large-scale, epic TV shows. This show is no exception. Everything in this series was shot on location. They built actual pirate ships for you to go on. I'm completely flabbergasted by the immense scale of this show. So, what was it like to get to go to these locations and actually see these actual ships and sets? You're out on the beach filming on real ships. They aren't CG ships. There are actual ships you get to go on.
Luke Arnold: It's another of the great gifts to be on an actor on this is that we get this full playground to go on. The thing about—yes, we've got the ships there which are incredible in their own right. I think we got the only guy left who really is an expert on building three mast sailing ships. Obviously, the demand for them is not huge around the world at the moment except for us. So, they're incredible, and you really get the reality of what it must've been like. But then in the town as well, we have a man-made beach. You can row a rowboat out of the beach, walk up the town passed the Ranger camp, the Walrus camp, all the different pirate camps. You can go into the tavern, climb up the stairs of the tavern, go across the walkway into the brothel, and you can do all that without ever having anything that breaks the reality of the world. Obviously, you could do this show with a lot of staring in front of green screens all day, but there is something so authentic about having that real pirate world surrounding you. On top of that, there were often 100 extras like pretty much every day onset that we're shooting outside. There's 100 extras filling things out, animals, bonfires going, and really, you couldn't have any more help as an actor to get immersed in the world than what we have in this show.
Jeffrey Harris: But speaking of large-scale, epic TV, since you also have a background with TV, what do you think of seeing larger scale productions on TV? Big-time feature directors and writers are now jumping into and getting involved with TV now more than ever before. And even film stars, Academy Award winners and nominees are doing more TV now as well. And a lot of it is going digital. We need a lot more digital content these days, and even this show is premiering on Machinima first. So I'm curious what you think about this large-scale shift to bigger and better TV shows?
Luke Arnold: I think it's so exciting, both on the creative end and as a member of the audience as a viewer because it never happened before onscreen that we got to take a character on such a journey. You'd maybe have it in a novel before where you get to begin a character somewhere and spend a lot of time with them. You maybe spend three hours with a character on film and that'd be it. In a TV show, it used to be that characters didn't really develop. You had to by the end of the episode be back where you started. So if audiences tuned in at a regular time—if they missed an episode it wouldn't ruin their viewing. Now because of the whole digital world, when you can catch up on anything easy enough and binge watch stuff, now we've got the ability to tell much longer stories than what used to happen in episodic television. I really think it's just opened up this world of storytelling that's so exciting. I just think as Breaking Bad being one of those shows that ended recently, I don't think I've ever spent the time with someone onscreen before and see them go through on such a drastic journey. And I think now that's what we have to do in Black Sails. We know we've got this massive origin story to tell, and it's great knowing that you can really tell a long, detailed story. And because of the digital age, people will have the chance to watch that in whatever way that suits them.
Jeffrey Harris: Speaking of backstories. I don't know if you've read Treasure Island, but John Silver at some point will become the quartermaster of Captain J. Flint, played by Toby Stephens in this show, and become the only man that Flint fears. He will also get a parrot that he names Flint in mockery of him. He's going to lose a leg. He's going to go on treasure hunting adventures. He apparently loses the leg while he's in the Royal Navy. So I guess what I'm curious about is where is John Silver at the start of this show? How old is he at this point, and what is going on with Silver when we first meet him?
Luke Arnold: When we meet him, he isn't a pirate at all. He's a sailor on a merchant vessel. He's just kind of surviving by his own wits. No alliances with anyone and kind of not tied to anything. He has a certain sense of…he's not invested in this pirate world at all. I think he's just looking for any quick payday he can make and scamper off into the next part of town. I'd say he's my age pretty much. He'd be around about his mid-20s. It's about 20 years before the book. Obviously, as you mentioned, all these things have got to happen before we get to Treasure Island. The interesting thing about some of it is that we hear some of that backstory from Silver's own mouth in Treasure Island.
Jeffrey Harris: Right.
Luke Arnold: And he isn't the most reliable source, so even though he says he lost his leg in the navy—and then later on in the book, he says he loses it on Flint's ship in the same broadside that blinds Pew's eyes. You hear two different stories in the book. So really, we've got license to do whatever we want as far as that part of the story. But yes, he definitely has to become Flint's quartermaster. And also, it is other pirates who say that he is the only man that Flint ever feared. I think in the show, Flint is kind of the smartest guy around when we start the story, until Silver arrives. There's something about the way Silver's mind works and the way he reads other people and handles himself that makes him really one of the first challenges to Flint in the area of brains in probably a long time. You see in the first two episodes that there's not a lot of interaction between Flint and Silver, but that relationship really does become central to the show.
Jeffrey Harris: I was testing you there on your knowledge of Treasure Island, Luke, and you did very well. So, kudos to you.
Luke Arnold: *Laughs* Oh no. I've—you have great knowledge there. You pulled out a lot of points there. But I have to say, I read it a couple of times before we started the first season. I read it again during. And I just recently went over and did that thing of really picking up everything that's said about Silver in the book or that he says about himself. Now that we're starting to get further into the story of Black Sails, the fun game for me is starting to join the dots between the show and the book.
Jeffrey Harris: I'm just curious, if it's depicted how Silver loses his leg in the show, does that concern how you will have to deal with the missing leg effects or maybe having to walk around on a crutch? Or does that excite you as an actor?
Luke Arnold: It definitely excites me because I know what that is psychologically going to do to Silver, [which] is really interesting for me. It's something about Silver that he's on his own, and he doesn't do anything for anyone. Him losing his leg, and whether that's given up through an act that he's doing voluntarily or whether it's taken from him and who takes it and who he blames for that, that's all going to be really interesting. So I can't wait to see how the writers handle that. That said, the physical challenges are going to be really tough. Getting round—and however they choose to do it. Obviously, if you do the visual effects version, that's going to be a big ask. Or whether I'm going to be taping my leg up my ass all day, that's going to be quite uncomfortable. I'm ready to do whatever it takes, but I know it's definitely going to be a challenge once we do it.
Jeffrey Harris: The show had a premiere at San Diego Comic-Con last July. And the reaction was so positive that Starz already went ahead and renewed the show for a second season of 10 episodes. So what was it like to know you just got this role of a lifetime in a big new show, and you already know you're going to be doing another 10 episodes?
Luke Arnold: It's just the best news ever. We had such a fun time shooting the first season and really started to open up these characters. And just knowing we had another 10 episodes to continue that journey was just really amazing. And so we've already shot two episodes of season 2 already. We'll be back to shooting on Monday getting into it again. And really, I think of it as a young actor I had a phobia of signing that long contract into television and being locked into something for a long time. But with Black Sails, I can honestly say that I'll be happy to be a part of the show as long as we continue to do it. Every time that call comes saying another season has been commissioned, I think I'll be celebrating with a beer…or a rum.
Jeffrey Harris: I'm a big fan of director Neil Marshall who directed the first episode. How did you like getting to work with him?
Luke Arnold: It was great because Neil really is such a fun guy to have onset. I've seen his films and really enjoyed his films as well. It was great him coming in too because Neil is a great guy and also a big kid, so it was great having someone on set when we were doing the battles and the action and things like that—he just came with a real relish for the action which was really fun. It was great having him there to kick things off.
Jeffrey Harris: This being a Starz show, we know they can get quite risqué. We know we can see some nudity here and there on these shows. And I saw some clips where it looks like you are in the center of some type of orgy or foursome at a brothel. How fun was that for you to get to do that or was it uncomfortable?
Luke Arnold: Uhh, a little bit of both. The reality is that like most other scenes, you block things through and you talk it out. It's a little bit awkward, but I have to say, we have a really good crew that we're very comfortable around. And there was definitely—everyone through themselves in to make that scene as fun we want it to seem to the audience. That's part of the first episode. I think what's interesting about that episode for me is that you kind of see both sides of what Black Sails is going to be. You see the romantic, fun idea of what we hope you're going to get from a pirate show. And you also see the harsh reality of what it would have really been like. And so in that scene there in the brothel, that's part of—we really want to sell the idea of that fantasy fulfillment of being a pirate. So look, I had to take the bullet and do that scene *Laughs*. I have to say, it wasn't too tough.
Jeffrey Harris: I feel very sorry for you, Luke.
Luke Arnold: *Laughs*
Jeffrey Harris: So we have the lovely Jessica Parker Kennedy as Max, the prostitute and head of the brothel. Could we see a romance with Silver and Max, or is it strictly business between these two?
Luke Arnold: I don't want to say too much for down the line, but romance is an interesting thing in this world. You'd like to think that romance comes first, but in this world, survival is kind of number one. I think Silver is probably not really looking for romance only because people are trying to kill him so often that I think that's his number one priority. Maybe later on, it'll be something that storyline might start coming into it. But while he keeps pissing people off and they want to stab him, I don't think he's got time for a girlfriend at this stage.
Jeffrey Harris: Do you think we'll meet Ben Gunn in this show?
Luke Arnold: I don't know because he would've been quite young as well at that point. But obviously, he was part of Flint's crew while Flint was still alive. So yeah because he was there on the day that Flint buried the treasure. So there's a good chance—I mean hopefully the show is on that long that we'll get to see all the characters. People like Israel Hands and Pew—I think he's Pete before—and Blind Pew come in. So hopefully they'll all get introduced to the cast as time goes on.
Jeffrey Harris: Luke, thank you so much for your time. The show looks tremendous, and I can't wait to see the journey for John Silver unfold. It looks fantastic. Thanks very much for speaking with us.
Luke Arnold: Thanks very much, Jeff. I'm sure you'll love it. Can't wait to hear what you think.
The first episode of Black Sails is now available for viewing at Machimina Prime or the YouTube player above. The show will make its debut on the Starz channel on Saturday, January 25.