Is there room on the high seas for two elaborate pirate shows? We’ll find out this spring, when NBC premieres the swashbuckling series Crossbones — months after Starz brings its own salty tale, Black Sails to the small screen. There are, however, plenty of differences between the two programs… and not just because one’s on pay cable (read: nudity!) and the other isn’t.
To wit: While both shows are set in the same year (1715) and place (the pirate paradise of New Providence, an island in the Bahamas), Black Sails is a gritty prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Crossbones, by contrast, is a fact-based drama that focuses on one of the world’s most notorious real-life pirates: Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard (played by John Malkovich. Yes, that John Malkovich). The action begins when the British government has assassin Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle of Covert Affairs) go undercover to bring Blackbeard down. But like many a clandestine agent, Lowe soon finds himself being drawn deeper and deeper into Teach’s world — and even becoming sympathetic to the scoundrel’s political ideals.
Want to know even more? Check out our Q&A with Oscar-nominated producer Walter F. Parkes, who’s executive producing Crossbones alongside Laurie MacDonald, his wife and business partner, and series creator Neil Cross, whom you may know as the mastermind behind the BBC’s Luther.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell us about the genesis of the series.
WALTER F. PARKES: It was not really based on but inspired by The Republic of Pirates, which is a nonfiction book about the golden age of piracy. And in it, there’s a chapter about when Edward Teach, Blackbeard the Pirate, actually occupied the colony of New Providence and declared it as a pirate democracy. Pirate life was strangely democratic in a lot of ways. One of the reasons why piracy worked was that in some way, the pirates were treated with more respect than the English sailors that were often their targets. And if you think about the early 1700s, everything that was interesting in the world — whether it was economically or artistically or culturally — was on a boat one time or the other, because that’s how things moved around the globe. We thought, “A different sort of pirate would use this as an opportunity not just to collect gold doubloons, but rather to collect the most interesting ideas and aspects that the world had to offer.” Upon hearing that, Neil [Cross] posited, “Well, maybe then this is sort of a cold war thriller” – the idea of this free land that’s run by criminals and enemies of the crown [that] just can’t be allowed to survive. So that’s where we took it from.
Do you feel like you’re trying to clear up misconceptions people have about pirates?
Oh, not so much. It’s meant to be entertainment through and through. I think another big part of it is just this idea of someone who carries with him this extraordinary legend, as Blackbeard did, trying to create a utopia, and at the end of the day being a victim of his own legend. [It] seemed juicy in a big, Godfather-y kind of way.
Would you consider Blackbeard a hero or an anti-hero?
Yes. [laughs] Yeah, I think that’s what’s compelling about him. I think that there’s an extraordinary intellect and there’s a complex character and there’s a true visionary, but there’s a man who can’t change the fact that he became Blackbeard because of his penchant toward violence. And all of this kind of added up to a character that required an extraordinary and complex actor, which is why we’re so lucky that John saw the potential that we saw.
Tell me about the layers that John brings to his character.
Well, that combination of intelligence and lethality, and yet a kind of emotional accessibility, which I think is sort of what his whole career’s been about. Those are qualities that you can’t pretend to have; they have to be part of the DNA of the actor himself. And so it was a very, very easy and good fit. For someone who has such a mysterious, iconic identity as an actor, John is really professional, and has been quite a joy to work with.
You and Laurie, like John, have done more film work than TV work — would you say the series has a cinematic feel?
Yes. This is a story about a man who wants to create a new world, which required us as filmmakers to at least approximate the new world. We basically built a town down in Puerto Rico. There’s no sort of standing location where you can just go shoot things, like you could for a police show. This is an invented world, and it has to be historically accurate – [though] ultimately it’s not about that, it’s sort of an invented history. We’re also very lucky that our pilot was directed by a guy named David Slade, who is for the most part a feature director. He did one of the Twilights [Eclipse]. So I think people will feel that it has the feel of a feature. I mean, nowadays, so much great work is being done in television right now, that’s no longer a benchmark of quality.
The series begins in 1715, right?
I was doing some research and noticed that Blackbeard died in 1718.
Mmhmm. [laughs] Well, I can’t give away — there is an irony involved in this first ten episodes having to do with kind of telling the real story behind his supposed death. I’ll leave it at that.