Based on the trailers and the fact that producer Taika Waititi co-stars as Blackbeard, we were already extremely pumped for HBO Max’s new pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death. But then we got a chance to see the first few episodes, and our enthusiasm has reached outrageous heights—a sentiment shared by the show’s own cast and crew.
It starts with the show’s utterly delightful focal point, 18th century “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), an aristocrat who impulsively becomes a swashbuckler and who could not be more out of his element on the high seas. “He’s just a great character,” Our Flag Means Death showrunner David Jenkins told io9 at a recent press day. “I think learning about Steed was like—I mean, who has a midlife crisis and becomes a pirate? Like, no one!”
Jenkins, whose previous credits include alien-abduction comedy People of Earth, admitted that he wasn’t necessarily a big fan of pirate lore prior to working on the series. Really, it was the enigma of Stede that drew him in. “I think actual pirate stuff is fine, but it’s not necessarily my cup of tea. And I think Taika [Waititi] felt similarly. But hearing about this guy and reading about him and seeing that, you know, he left his family, then he met Blackbeard, they hit it off, and we don’t know any of the details in between. So filling those blanks in, and having a very human story, and then being able to do it with the pirate genre, that was like, ‘Oh, this would be cool.’”
Filling in those blanks was also fun for Darby, who has a theory as to why his character thought he could be a pirate despite his lack of anything resembling pirate skills. “I think Stede feels capable because of his position in life; he’s a wealthy landowner, and back in those days, it was ‘You’re a golden child, so you cannot fail.’ And so he must have gone into it thinking, ‘Well, I can throw money at anything. I can live my dream, nothing’s going to happen to me.’ Of course, once he starts to get out to sea, he realizes all the killing and the horrendousness of living aboard a ship—and all of a sudden, the dream can turn into a nightmare.”
Speaking of, most of Our Flag Means Death takes place aboard Stede’s ship, the Revenge, which means we spend a lot of time with the ragtag crew he’s assembled. As you might suspect, they’re all highly skeptical of his leadership skills, though they do appreciate certain aspects about him. “He definitely starts off on a very confident foot,” Darby says. “But he figures out pretty quickly that even though he’s great at talking and can command a presence, that’s really all he has. He knows nothing. And then he soon realizes that the others, you know, without them, he’s dead. So they start to bond—and there’s some good points that he brings. He does pay a wage, and he has a nice soul. He’s not mean to them. And to top it all off, he’s reading them stories at night. I mean, he’s like a mother! So they’re really torn, these pirates, because they think this guy is going to lead them to death, definitely. But at the same time, they’re getting paid and they’re having a nice time. So it’s a real challenge for them.”
Samson Kayo (Truth Seekers, Timewasters) plays the laid-back Oluwande, a character who’s willing to follow Stede for mostly pragmatic reasons. “Olly is quite logical and tactical—I feel like that’s why he survived for so long, and he realizes that it could work with Stede running the ship because [they’re] getting wages,” Kayo told us. “That doesn’t happen often. So the fact that they’re getting paid to be doing what they’re doing helps. And Stede is the person with the money; you can’t kill the person with the money, because what else are we going to do?”
Samba Schutte, who plays Roach, the cook aboard the Revenge, explained how the crew’s feelings about their captain shift as the series progresses. “At the beginning, you know, we’re all itching for action, and we all feel like we are not in the right hands. Being a pirate, you want to survive as long as possible and with this man in charge, it’s like we have no chance of survival. But eventually we start to notice that maybe this is the right captain for us because we are surviving. And the fact that historically Stede Bonnet ran into Blackbeard and was taken under his wing, you know, only gave him that much more respect and credit. So I think the crew starts slowly realizing, ‘OK, maybe this is a good idea. Maybe we should give him a chance to see where this goes.’”
Speaking of Blackbeard, Darby had a blast playing opposite Waititi, who’s a close friend in real life. “[We were] able to sort of play to our strengths—he’s always been a brooding bad boy and I’ve always been a fancy numpty. I think the strength that we have together is that way we like making comedy, and we like trying to crack each other up. We love trying to take things to the ridiculous, but keep them believable. The other thing that was challenging for us is that there’s a lot of emotion involved, so we’re not just being a couple of buffoons. There’s some real heart and honesty behind our characters, and pain. And so one of the most fun things was was actually the challenging part of doing drama; there’s some dramatic pieces in there that the two characters come through together.”
Echoing Darby, Vico Ortiz, who plays Jim, sees that heart as one of the things that sets Our Flag Means Death apart from other pirate-themed shows and movies. “This show has so much heart and it challenges so many social constructs and standards and expectations. Normally we think pirates and it’s like gore, gruesome, and brutal. And yes, it doesn’t shy away from that, but it also doesn’t shy away from, like, a lot of the trauma that happened to get to that point. Or to see these people having a chance of redemption of who they are. Because at the end of the day, pirates are outlaws and they are outlaws for a reason, whether it’s for money or because who they are is not accepted in other places. So they get a chance to actually have this agency and be like, ‘This is who I am, and I get to be accepted and make my own rules and and everyone is on board with it.’ So yes, it’s a very funny and silly and goofy show, but it challenges a lot of social constructs and I am here for it.”
Kayo agreed with Ortiz, but added, “The one thing that I really loved is that even though it has that heart and warmth and all that good stuff, it never loses its funny and it’s still hilarious. I think that’s what the audience will will take from it is it doesn’t lose that humor.”
Showrunner Jenkins sees Our Flag Means Death as having “joy. A lot of joy. I like Stede because Stede is, to me, the outsider artist of pirates. And I think in designing the show, I was conscious [of the fact that it’s] a hard genre to do anything to. It’s a very stubborn genre because it’s been done so well and so often. So I kind of tried to look at, like New York, like Alphabet City in the ‘80s via a pirate genre via Mad Max and try to throw all these different things at it. So I think you’ll get a different feel than you’d get on a normal pirate thing. I think we achieved that with our amazing crew.”
The first three episodes of Our Flag Means Death will arrive March 3 on HBO Max, followed by three more on March 10, then two each on March 17 and 24.
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