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Interview: Sean Cameron Michael of ‘Black Sails’

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Black Sails is STARZ’s newest scripted series. A swashbuckling drama, steeped both in literature (it’s a prequel of sorts to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island) and history (many of its main characters are historical figures, the series concludes its debut season Saturday night, March 15 at 9:00 p.m. ET.

Black Sails finale airs Saturday March 15

Photo courtesy of STARZ

Set in early 18th Century Bahamas, the series depicts the lives of pirates. Far from the frilly frolicking of Jack Sparrow and Pirates of the Caribbean, Black Sails is gritty and rough. The men and women are tough and trying to eke out a living apart from the yoke of England and the Armada of Spain. Of course there are the scallawags and rapscallions amongst the pirates, but there is also Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), the series main character. There are hints and strong suggestions along the way that the pirates’ life is not so much as a life choice but a revenge play. Intelligent, and clearly of more noble birth than most of his colleagues, Flint’s desire is to make the big score, plundering the gold on board Spanish treasure galleon Urca de Lima. After that? You’ll have to tune into the finale to find out.

The island paradise New Providence, the pirates’ base camp, is run by Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), the daughter of prosperous merchant Richard Guthrie. The powerful Richard is a smuggler and the richest black marketeer in the Bahamas. Richard is played by South African actor Sean Cameron Michael. I caught up with Sean by while the cast were in the midst of filming season two of the hit series.

First, congratulations on a great, enjoyable series.
Thank you. It’s been a wonderful experience working on the show and the audience response from fans around the world has been great.  One is always cautiously optimistic that the hard work, blood, sweat and tears that’s involved in filmmaking will ultimately be appreciated and enjoyed by viewers. Thus far, we’re over-whelmed by the excitement and support Black Sails is getting.

How did you get involved in Black Sails?
Around September 2012 auditions were held around the world for the main cast of the series.  Like all actors, I got a call from my agent informing me about a new Michael Bay TV series about pirates being filmed in the upcoming months in South Africa and I was naturally very excited to go on tape for it. My initial audition wasn’t the greatest. I had just got off a ‘plane from Durban shooting a feature film there and with minimal sleep and preparation time, it took a couple of takes to get the audition scenes down. I was naturally disappointed until I got a call a few weeks later requesting me to read for the role of Richard Guthrie.  This time it was a request casting that came directly from the U.S. and I could not have been more elated.  The scrumptious role seemed like a perfect fit for me.  I love playing intense, multi-faceted and layered characters with a lot of depth and duality to them.  Fortunately the creators and producers believed that I would be the right man for the job of bringing the character to life on screen – and the rest as they say is history.

Where do you shoot the series?
The series is shot at the Cape Town Film Studios in South Africa, and on location at surrounding beaches and farms.  The extensive studios, sets and water tanks built specifically for the show are world class and certainly one of a kind on the African continent.  It’s elaborate and mind-boggling, while the intricate detail in production design is awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping to say the least.

So, who is Richard Guthrie?
At the start of the series we meet Richard Guthrie, the most powerful businessman and richest black marketeer in Nassau. He purchases stolen cargo from the pirates and resells these goods “legitimately” to his connections across the waters.  Although he lives a life of luxury at Harbor Island, where he occasionally takes business meetings with merchant shippers, his daughter, Eleanor runs the in’s and out’s of his physical operations our of New Providence Island.

What’s his agenda?
At the start of the story he is simply out to become even more wealthy and powerful, but this soon changes to mere survival and avoiding arrest.  He aligns himself with a number of characters such as Mrs. Barlow, Mr. Scott, Pastor Lambrick and others, but as always with Richard, he simply cannot be trusted.

His backstory?
We know that he is an educated man from a wealthy, highly connected and respected family in Boston.  He came to New Providence Island a number of years back with his wife, daughter and houseboy, Mr. Scott, to start a new life for themselves. And that’s about all we really know as this stage. Clearly a rather mysterious character. We’re bound to find out more in future episodes. Hint, hint, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

What has been his relationship with Flint in the past?
Captain Flint and Richard Guthrie have had minimal direct contact with one another in the past.  In Episode “i” Flint comes to Richard for advice regarding a missing page from a Spanish logbook which will help him find the Urca gold.  Flint knows that Richard is well connected with the British and Spanish and may be able to make introductions or pull some strings.  Richard obviously doesn’t want to get his hands dirty and refuses to get involved.  At the same time, the British Navy arrive and threaten to arrest them for their illegal dealings.  A fight ensues where Richard gets shot and Flint and [and Flint’s quartermaster] Billy [Bones] make their escape, taking Richard to New Providence Island to recover under the watchful eye of Mrs. Barlow.

 Guthrie clearly has family issues. Can you tell me about Guthrie’s relationship with his Boston relations?
Well in Episode iii and iv we learn that his father and brothers back in Boston don’t exactly respect him or take his chosen line of work seriously. He will do whatever it takes to prove them wrong and as he says “I’d rather die than return to Boston a failure.”

 In one episode, we see Guthrie reading a from a book on Marcus Aurelius. What does he take away from reading this great Roman leader’s writings?
Richard is currently a wanted man, on the run from the Navy. Here you’ve got a wealthy, powerful businessman who has now fallen from grace. I believe he uses these writings to introspectively reassess his life up to this point and revitalize himself to become strong again.  As the story develops we discover that he will clearly do whatever it takes to make good his name and regain control of things.  Being the rather manipulative and ruthless character that he is, people are double-crossed and lied to – All in a day’s work.

What is Guthrie’s relationship to his daughter. He’s given her some power, not usual amongst women, but is she too far out of his control?
It’s clearly a strained and tumultuous one, which certainly tells us that things progressively worsened over the past years due to a number of factors which will hopefully be revealed at a later stage. Eleanor appears to be determined in helping Flint go in search of the Spanish treasure galleon.  This is something that Richard can’t find himself approving of, especially with the British at their doorstep.  He has a plan to secure a future for themselves among the farmers and landowners of the interior.  Of course he thinks she is being reckless, stubborn and short-sighted. I genuinely believe that deep down (perhaps very deep down!) Richard does care about his daughter and her well-being and does want to protect and save her, even if it is from herself.  I can understand though that fans of the show perceive my character as this hard, cold and emotionless bastard.

How has the series’ success affected the rest of your career?
As a South African actor based in Cape Town, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to steadily build a career here over the past 30 years.  I’ve been privileged to work on a substantial amount of international productions shot on location in our country.  Black Sails is without doubt the most exciting and high-profile project that I’ve had the blessing of working on.  I have the utmost respect for Michael Bay and being hand-picked by one of the highest box office grossing director/producers in the world today, to work on his first foray into original television series, is such an honor and compliment.  This has certainly helped raise my profile in the industry and hopefully assists in opening doors to other projects in the future.

Were you among the Black Sails folk to descend upon Comic-Con last July?
I was shooting a new western called The Salvation with Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) and Jonathan Pryce for director Kristian Levring at the time, so unfortunately couldn’t attend. I’ve always heard how much fun, fascinating and over-the-top Comic-Con can be, so I’d love to attend the next one.

Has Black Sails been renewed for a second season?
Absolutely. STARZ had a screening of the pilot episode at Comic-Con (last July), which was a tremendous success, and based on audience response, was picked up for a second season of 10 episodes.

I realized the other day that I had seen you before. You were in 24: Redemption with Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Carlyle as the rather sniveling UN guy. I completely did not recognize you for having been in that (and I’ve seen it twice!). Are you planning on doing other work in the U.S. or for U.S. production companies?
Thank you. I like to think of myself as a bit of a chameleon character actor and I’m always up to the challenge of working on different accents, nationalities and looks. Playing Frenchman, Charles Solenz in 24:Redemption was such a cool experience.  Kiefer Sutherland is such a generous and talented actor. It was a career highlight acting opposite him and so rewarding working under the direction of Jon Cassar – one of the most respected director/producers in Hollywood, who also happens to be a genuine and giving human being. In Strike Back I played a Polish scientist, Dr. Vasiliev, opposite Games of Thrones’ wonderful Charles Dance, while in a local series, Thomas@, I played Vladimir Kradenkowidetski, a fluent Russian mafia boss. Presently in Black Sails I’m playing a very English and proper Richard Guthrie, usually running around in a variety of wigs and beautiful costumes, so it’s quite amusing when fans see photographs of me without all that and have difficulty recognizing me.

I’m happiest when I’m working and doing what I love. I’m truly appreciative of all the brilliant opportunities I’ve had over the past couple of years.  I’m living my dream at the moment and would love to venture over to the States at some point to pursue other projects and new challenges.

You mentioned that you were filming presently in South Africa.
Yes, we’re currently filming season two of Black Sails in Cape Town. It’s fantastic that viewers around the world currently watching the first season won’t have to wait too long for the second installment.

You can catch the season finale of Black Sails Saturday night on STARZ, and you can catch up on the entire series via your local onDemand service. Follow Sean Cameron Michael and Black Sails on Twitter

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.