Batten down the hatches… Toby Stephens plays Captain Flint in gritty Treasure Island prequel

(Image credit: © 2014 Starz Entertainment, LLC)

If the idea of piracy conjures up visions of eye patches and parrots or Johnny Depp's mockney accent as Captain Jack Sparrow, History's epic drama Black Sails (Tuesday, History, 10pm) could come as rather a surprise.

The Treasure Island prequel, set in the West Indies in 1715, is a far darker, more adult affair, full of political machinations, violent battles and some saucy scenes. Here, Toby Stephens, whose previous credits include Die Another Day and Jane Eyre, tells us more…

What was the appeal of Black Sails for you?

"When I read the first-episode script, it seemed unlike any other pirate film or show that I had seen. It was'’t couched in some bogus romanticised pirate mythology, it was much more gritty and historical. If you come to it wanting Pirates of the Caribbean, you are going to be very disappointed. It's not about swashbuckling, it is more like a western, with these guys really having to trouble-shoot."

What is your take on Captain Flint?

“It's a fantastic part for me because he is such a complex character. He's not a baddie, he's not a goodie – the audience has to decide. He is enigmatic and charismatic but he has to work hard to maintain his captaincy. It's a neurotic way of life, but he's always 10 steps ahead."

Have you read Treasure Island?

"I read it as a child and then I went back to it. In that, Flint is dead and he's an apocryphal figure that you hear terrible things about, so it is a blank canvas for me to create the character. John Silver and Billy Bones from Treasure Island are in Black Sails too and it's cool that you see how a fresh-faced Billy will become a haunted alcoholic and how Silver will go from a young punk with two legs to a one-legged guy who people are scared of."

Were you into pirates as a child?

"I used to watch Captain Pugwash, which dates me, but I didn't fantasise about being a pirate. So luckily I wasn't wedded to having a parrot or a hook for a hand or an eye patch, because the creators were adamant that they didn't want any of that – or people having funny voices."

Did you enjoy the action scenes?

"Yes, you get great moments of action that are visceral, though we don’t have people swinging around on ropes with daggers in their teeth. It's brutal and gnarly. We did about a month of training of hand-to-hand combat and I do most of my own stunts."

What was it like filming in South Africa?

"It was tricky because I was there for seven months and I've never spent that amount of time away from home. But my family then came out for a while. I love Cape Town – it's beautiful and the people are great."

What do you think of the set?

"It's incredible. They have taken over the back lot of film studios in Cape Town and built three ships – a schooner, a generic ship and a half ship that is floating in a big tank – and they put in the sea via green screen. They've also built a massive lagoon, a beach and an encampment for the pirates. You feel spoilt because the production values are extraordinary."