Batten Down the Mizzenmast with BLACK SAILS’ Luke Arnold
By Dan Casey on January 17, 2014
Prepare to be boarded… by entertainment! Next week marks the official premiere of Starz’s long-awaited, Michael Bay-produced pirate drama Black Sails, a series packed to the gills with violence, voluptuousness, and villainry of the blackest sort. Starz is making the pilot available early tomorrow via Machinima and a variety of digital platforms, but to help celebrate the unofficial start of our voyage into troubled waters, we caught up with Australian actor Luke Arnold, who plays the infamous John Silver, a conniving, opportunistic buckler of swash and one of the show’s leads. Considering the show has already been renewed for a second season, we figured now would be a great time to catch up with the rising star.
Nerdist: So first and foremost, I’ve seen the first two episodes and I’ve got to say, I’m really digging the series. I’m excited to see where it goes. Your character is very interesting — he’s very opportunistic and I like that.
Luke Arnold: Thanks, yeah. I know, it’s definitely a lot of fun to play.
N: He’s definitely this sort of iconic character. Tell me about how you got involved with the project and what excited you about this role.
LA: Oh, well, it was definitely, for me, when the pirate show comes up, I think every actor around the world hopes you get a chance to go and be a part of it, you know. As an actor, these are the kind of things you want to do, and this is kind of when you’re young, you think this is what being an actor is. But most of the time it’s not — it’s, like, you’re in a cop show, accused of murdering your wife, or doing some little romance or something, and what you really want to do is swing swords and jump off ships and have a lot of fun.
So when this came up, I was obviously pretty keen to get involved. I was actually in the running for another show that the Starz network was doing, which didn’t end up going ahead, but it meant that when this popped up, I was kind of already on their radar, and really just kind of slid right into the couple of auditions. Met Jon Steinberg, the creator, and I was very happy to get the call, saying I was going to be a pirate.
N: Very nice! I can imagine that would be a good call to get.
LA: [laughter] Yeah.
N: So you’re going to be playing Michael Hutchence in an INXS mini-series, you’re playing John Silver in Black Sails. Rock star, pirate–are you worried about being typecast as a good-looking swashbuckler?
LA: [laughter] If that’s the roles I get to play for the rest of my life, I don’t think it’d be too bad.
LA: Um, but it’s actually funny how different they were. I think it’s very easy to put the rock stars and pirates in together, but I think that the nature of the way Black Sails is approached, and kind of how gritty and real and historically accurate it is, I have to say we’ve been going to the gym a lot more, doing a lot more physical work as pirates than I had to do playing a rock star! The gym — obviously, the physical side of Black Sails was really full-on and a real shock to the system when we started. And then it was quite nice to take a few months off and get out of the gym, drink, smoke cigarettes and jump around on stage. [chuckles] So yeah, and then have the shock on the system of going back into the pirate world afterwards.
N: Oh, yeah, that must have been a brutal return to the gym. I’m sure a lot people right now with their New Year’s resolutions can empathize.
LA: Yeah, absolutely! And one other thing, I don’t know if it was a blessing or a curse that it’s not just me telling myself I have to go back in the gym. You get flown back to Cape Town, and a very aggressive trainer down there made sure, you know — really knocked me right out of rock star mode, I think.
N: I understand you came from something of a stage combat and sword fighting background. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that, and how that informed your role on Black Sails?
LA: So it was interesting, because my sword fighting training came from being a young actor, just in — I played Romeo on stage, it was one of my first plays, and it was very exciting. I learned sword fighting for that. And then thought I was going to continue my training. I wasn’t ever planning to be a — you know, really get into fight choreography too much. It was just for my skills as an actor. But then when the guy who taught me got a job on the Peter Pan film, a number of years ago, I went in to check out the sets, and by the end of the day, I had a full-time job!
So I stopped going to school, I did all of my final assessments via e-mail, and I just really entered the film industry. That was really fantastic training, because then after that, I went to drama school, but it was great already having that on-set experience, and really understanding the business and the job of being an actor on set.
Then, it’s interesting, because as far as Black Sails goes, I’m playing John Silver — he kind of has no shame. It’s kind of known, if you’re going to go into a sword fight and fight someone to the death, there’s a 50% chance that you’re the guy who’s going to be killed. Whereas if you can talk your way out, or just turn on your heels and run, you’ve got a much better chance of survival. So really, for most of the time on Black Sails, that’s what Silver chooses to do. So as yet, I keep writing to the writers, going, “Is this the episode where Silver can finally pick up a sword and become a bit cooler?” But as yet, his wit is his greatest weapon.
N: Yeah, that definitely comes across in the series. He’s handy with the sword, but he’s much handier when he can use his brain to weasel his way out of situations.
N: So I want to talk a little bit about the tone of the series. Right off the bat, you’re treated to this sort of double-whammy of sex and violence that puts it immediately in company with shows like Spartacus and Game of Thrones. Talk a little bit about the tone of the series. Is this a project you can show your mom?
LA: [chuckles] Oh, definitely! My parents will be keen to see it. Yeah, I think parents will definitely be fine with it. It’s little cousins and things like that that probably will have to hold off a few years before exposing them to the show. And I think, really, especially in the first episode, I think they’ve done a really great job of–you do want to sell both worlds, here. In a way you want to set up the fantasy fulfillment side of being a pirate. That idea that we’d all love to leave the world behind, jump on a ship and find treasure. But then you also, what we’re really doing in this show, is trying to get more into the historical accuracy and the reality of what it must have been like to be one of these guys, and it would have been brutal, and it would have been tough. And so I think the sex and the violence really comes into painting both of those pictures there.
N: So, obviously, when people hear that someone like Michael Bay is attached to something, they expect a lot of explosions. It definitely kicks off that way. But what do you think viewers can expect from Black Sails, taken as a whole?
LA: Really, I’d say more than anything, Black Sails at heart is a character-driven drama. I think they’ve chosen a great cast of actors. I’m not saying that for myself, but for everyone I get to work with — they’re just fantastic. And the writers are really focused on the characters. And that’s what, now that I’ve seen all of the first season, and love it a lot, that’s what keeps drawing you in. It’s great then, around that, we have some of the best special effects ever seen on television; one of the most impressive sets ever made, and all of these elements which make it a lot of fun, and make it visually entertaining. But at its heart, it’s really about the characters, about their interactions, and really about them trying to survive in a very tough world. And I think that’s what’s going to keep Black Sails going amongst all the great visual side of it.
N: I know, as you mentioned, you guys have been filming on location in South Africa. What’s that experience been like? Do you have a favorite memory or moment from the filming process so far?
LA: There have been so many great moments on this. From the bonding experience at the beginning, of all coming together for our pirate boot camp and going through the hellish training and climbing Table Mountain, and all these things that we did at the beginning, to then — I can’t say too much, talking about some of the great stuff we’ve had to do throughout the season. Some of the most fun ever, there’s some big ship battles coming and a bunch of crazy action stuff, which is just really fun for me. There’s a lot of talking in this show, so then it’s really nice when I have a day where I get to shut up and just do a bunch of action! [chuckles]
LA: So that’s already been really fun. But I think one of the funnest things about this show is, because the characters are so good, and the actors are so great, and you get these really kind of dialogue-heavy, meaty scenes, it’s fun whenever your character gets to face off with another character for the first time. And that continues to be fun in this show. I know the writers on this show are actually — a lot of them are writing their own fan fiction already, because if the plot doesn’t bring two characters together, everyone is still waiting to see what it will be like. A lot of them are just writing scenes on their own, and I think that’s really fun. I know for me, I can’t — there are certain characters that I can’t wait till John Silver gets to meet them, just to see how they’re going to bounce off each other.
N: That’s great! You guys should film a bunch of those little fan-fiction scenes and psych people out when the DVD comes out.
LA: Yeah, I think that’d be great! I mean, me and my brother, actually, a couple of years ago, we had our own YouTube channel and would do our own videos. So I’m kind of quietly trying the pitch that maybe in the — maybe I can bring him over to Cape Town and on the weekends we can shoot our own little side stories.
N: Awesome, awesome. Well, I will certainly do my part to boost that signal!
LA: That’s great!
N: So you guys have already been renewed for season 2, which is awesome, but I need to know — can we expect you to have either a peg-leg or a chain of reasonably priced fast casual seafood restaurants by the time that season rolls around?
LA: [laughter] Well, look. The peg-leg won’t happen, but at some point, the leg has got to come off. We’ve got to really turn it… this is Long John Silver, the origin story, as far as I’m concerned. So yeah, that’s going to happen at some point. I don’t know how it’s happening yet. I think the writers have an idea, but they’re not letting the cat out of the bag just as yet. And I think as you — I don’t know if you’ve seen the first two episodes — definitely not having a seafood restaurant, and even though we know that John Silver is quite the cook by the time Treasure Island happens, he has a lot to learn before he’s even ready to cook even the most basic dishes!
LA: At some point he’s got to get his knife skills up as well.
N: Exactly, exactly. There’s still time. There’s plenty of time. I just have one last question for you, it’s a bit of an oddball, so please bear with me: What would be inside your ideal burrito?
LA: Ooooh. Okay!
N: It’s the question you’ve been waiting for.
LA: What would be inside my ideal burrito? Um… it’s… look, definitely — I’ve got nothing crazy to offer, but a lot of guac. I think the thing is, we’re on the pirate diet at the moment, which means cutting down on carbs, just a lot of meat — yeah, protein and fat, really, so I’d think three different kinds of meat. Let’s go, like, some pork, beef and chicken, guacamole, and then probably, at the moment, I’d get rid of the tortilla and do it, like, wrapped in lettuce. And there we go — that’s the high-protein, pirate workout burrito.
N: That sounds pretty delicious. I think a lot of aspiring pirates would be happy to chomp down on that.
LA: [chuckles] I’m going to have one right now.
N: Yeah, awesome. Well, Luke, thank you so much. It was awesome talking to you, and I can’t wait to see more of the show.
LA: All right, thank you very much. Great chatting with you. Cheers!
Black Sails debuts on Starz on Saturday, January 25th, but you can watch the pilot early on Machinima (and other digital platforms) starting Saturday, January 18th.