Vico Ortiz on playing non-binary pirate Jim in Our Flag Means Death: I'm 'proud to be part of it'
Ahoy, mate! Ye be warned — spoilers lay ahead!
The first time I met Vico Ortiz was just before the pandemic hit and they were about to take their drag king experience to the small screen on the Starz series VIDA. For that role, Ortiz was performing in drag as Danny Trejo in a full Machete costume. "You know, the same mustache that I wore for Danny Trejo is the mustache that I used to audition for this role," they tell EW when speaking about their latest role as Jim, the gender-bending pirate on HBOMax's Our Flag Means Death (the finale dropped on Thursday).
Jim is a fierce pirate who journeys the seas seeking revenge on the people that killed their family. In the process, Jim not only finds an accepting crew, but love with their shipmate Oluwande (Samson Kayo). Ortiz, who uses the pronouns they/them/theirs and identifies as Latiné, talks to EW about how it feels to be part of the series, why diverse representation should be in period-specific stories, and where they hope Jim's journey goes next.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I have to geek out a little. I love Jim and it doesn't matter who I've talked to, the reaction has been, "Oh my God, Jim's the best character." One of the biggest things about how this show has treated your character is how Jim was just accepted, not as a man or a woman, but as Jim. It was not a huge explanation. It was, "Hey, I am just who I am. This is how you know me. Nothing's changed." And the characters in this time period were just like, "Okay, sure." As a non-binary actor, how did that feel, to actually play that?
VICO ORTIZ: Well, when I first read the script, I cried. I was like, "I can't believe that I'm not even asking for this to be a thing." In part, it's because we had three non-binary writers in the writers' room. So there's already this space in which this character is being nurtured and taken care of. It's not just like, "Oh, we're going to hire a non-binary actor to do this. And then they'll fend for themselves." There was already this space that's created that people already are vouching for this character and their storyline. It felt incredible.
I was pretty touched when Jim reunited with Nana (Selenis Levya), and Nana did not care that they were Jim now, she just accepted them, no questions asked.
It was amazing. And seeing everyone's response on social media, all of the Latiné, non-binary kids are just crying and I am crying with them because it's such a huge moment. And I love that. I love it because there are so many modern shows about modern day-to-day who are having such an issue talking about this. And then you have Our Flag, who's a period pirate show, who's like, "Oh yeah, it's Jim. They use they, them now. And we're not even going to have this debate ... It's just, it's done." It's amazing what they're doing this with this story. So it's huge, and I'm very, very proud to be part of it.
Reflecting on that a little, Jim also has joy — they have love. And it didn't have to be defined in any way other than, this is love.
I think what was really beautiful is that before even starting to film, obviously we all started get to know each other and all of that good stuff, I was wondering, who was going to play Oluwande? And when I met Samson, I immediately felt at ease and I felt safe. We felt immediately so connected to each other and we allowed our relationship as Vico and as Samson to bleed into our dynamic with Oluwande and Jim. Where it's like, our love transcends everything. What we feel for each other is this sense of safety, which it's very rare to find, even today. It's rare to find someone that you can have this kinship and this safety and this like, "Oh, I'm here for you no matter what." I love that this care that Oluwande has for Jim exists whether Jim has a beard or not. Whether Jim is a man or woman, it doesn't really matter. Oluwande just loves Jim for who they are. It's really, really sweet.
The series itself is not fact-based, but inspired by the story of Stede Bonnet, the gentleman pirate. But as you're watching, the show takes on a brilliant theme of questioning masculinity and gender roles and it does so without being traumatic or preachy. It's showing you this journey of these hyper-masculine types performing masculinity and why that tears them up inside. Can you talk a little bit about how much input you had, specifically when it comes to the process of questioning what defines masculinity, femininity as a non-binary person?
Absolutely. I loved having this opportunity to present this. Because I have been questioning, before even the show started, "What does masculinity mean to me? What does femininity mean to me?" I did that within the context of the drag world. I never truly questioned my gender so deeply up until I began performing as a drag king. In that masculine persona, I began to tap into the power of my femininity within this masculine persona. That's when I was like, "Wait, why am I really loving this? Why is this accessing a part of me that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to access?" Once I started questioning that and it started to bleed into my day-to-day, I realized either the toxic traits that I was carrying from masculinity and the toxic traits of femininity, and how I was performing these two things based on what society expected of me. And what would happen when I took that away and then just existed?
I gave Jim that experience of Jim is Jim — whether the beard is on or not. Right? The beard doesn't make them more masculine. The not having the beard doesn't make them more feminine, they just are the same person. They're not acting like a man when they have the beard or acting like a woman when they don't have it. The only thing that changes is the perception that people have of them outside. And in terms of the show, I love that there are all these different types of incredibly valid masculine experiences that include tenderness, include being vulnerable, include being sensible, include being sweet. There are so many things that it shows that it's like, "Yeah, you can..." Masculinity is not bad. What's bad is what society is trying to pressure us to do and it happens with femininity too. When you take those things away, who are you? What makes you a man? What makes you a woman? What makes you a person?
What I loved about that specifically is that, when you're normally one of the few people that is trans or non-binary in a set, a lot of the questions that come to you come with like, "Oh, I want to know about ..." Or, "Tell me this," just trying to dissect you. But the way that the questions were being done, it was like, I want to get to know you with that same intention of getting to know me and open that up.
Another great aspect of the show is that there is diversity, and period shows have often excluded that ... even though we have always been here. As a Latiné person specifically, what did that feel like to not just be part of the storytelling aspect, but you actually got to use your language?
Yes, yes. I know! Of course there's Latiné pirates, of course there's Caribbean pirates. It was so, so, so dope because I mean, as someone who's non-binary, a lot of the narrative is that like, "Oh gender queer, trans folks, gender fluid, non-binary people came with colonization, right? Came with the white people." And it's like, actually, no. It's the reverse. People normally think non-binary and they think white, skinny androgynous. And that is not the case. We actually existed forever ago. So having someone who's Latiné, who's going through this and totally able to use their language... It was so beautiful to see that.
And having Nana, a Latiné nun just be totally fine with their grandchild being non-binary, and her only issue with Jim is the fact that they didn't kill the people on their revenge list [Laughs]... Like, that was an issue, not who they were. It was like, "Yeah, you're Jim now? Totally fine. But you didn't kill all the seven guys I told you to kill. I have a problem now, the line is drawn." Which is so, so, so great. I mean, it's huge. I mean, I'm seeing so many people being like, "Wow, I'm Puerto Rican, or I'm Mexican, or I'm Salvadorian and seeing a Latiné enby on screen is huge."
Jim was left in a bit of a predicament. Not only are they taken away from Olo, but now they are on Blackbeard's ship — and Blackbeard is back to angry, toxic Blackbeard without Stede. Where do you hope Jim's journey goes?
I love this. So obviously everything is somewhat and loosely based on historical facts and stuff. Mary Read is the basis of my character, but then there's also Anne Bonny. I don't know if you knew this, but both Mary Read and Anne Bonny met dressed as men. And they both had a crush on each other. And then when they realized that they were not quote-unquote, "men," they were still kind of like, "Yeah. I still want to be with you." I want to maybe explore a little bit of those random historical factors with that.
I am also curious to explore my relationship with Izzy Hands [Con O'Neill] because we never really get to interact as much in the first season. Because Izzy Hands is quote-unquote, "The most competent person on Blackbeard's ship." And Jim is quote-unquote, "The most competent person, unlike Stede, in terms of fighting." It's like, "I wonder what would happen if Izzy and Jim have a thing, sort of." Or Jim has daddy issues because they lost their father early on. So it's like, "Is Izzy... Can something happen in Izzy?" Right? The same way that Olu opened up Jim, Jim to open up Izzy... Kind of challenge that dynamic. But this is all just me speculating what could happen there. And then what about an army of assassin nuns? I don't know ... I'd want to see some more of that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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