Ever dreamt of becoming a pirate? Rhys Darby certainly has. Luckily for the 48-year-old, he gets to experience being one – living vicariously through the mantle of real-life “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet.
Taika Waititi played a huge factor in Rhys Darby coming onboard for “Our Flag Means Death”. After all, the duo has developed a close friendship over the years of being in showbiz. In this interview, the New Zealand star also talks about the powerful backstory of Stede and Blackbeard. Read more here:
Q: Pirates and buccaneering must be a great genre with which to have some fun…
RD: Absolutely, especially as a fan of historic TV shows and dramas with costumes. I’m not sure if it’s a good admission but that’s what I really enjoy watching. I think it’s because it’s an escape. The wife and I love watching them. And as a kid who loved dressing up, I love the idea of putting on ridiculous outfits and pretending you’re in another world. To add that to comedy, it’s a fantastic mix. I used to watch the British TV show “Blackadder” as a kid and it kind of feels like I’m entering that world.
Q: Was Taika Waititi’s involvement in the show one of the reasons you signed up?
RD: I knew he was on board when it came out in the press that it was going to be made and I thought to myself, ‘I hope I get a call on this one.’ And eventually I did! At that point I didn’t know he was going to be involved on the acting side, so when it was announced that he was going to play Blackbeard I was shocked. I thought it would be perfect as we’d get to work against each other. Despite a long friendship we haven’t been on screen together that much, going against each other like that. It was a fun journey for both of us.
Q: Does your friendship with Taika go back further than “Flight of the Conchords”?
RD: Yes, we took shows to Edinburgh [Comedy Festival] back in 2003. He was in a duo with Jemaine [Clement] called the Humour Beasts. I did a solo stand up show that year and Bret [McKenzie] was there as well. They did Conchords as well and The Naked Samoans were there, so we had a little fraternity of New Zealanders. We helped each other out because we’d spent all our money on just getting to Scotland and we’d run out of cash. So, we did each other’s flyers and Bret did the tech on my show. We watched each other and promoted each other. We were the Kiwi crowd. So, we’ve known each for a long time. We were just out of university and were trying to make it as performers.
Q: The show follows events from Stede Bonnet’s real life so did that prompt you to research his life and career as a pirate?
RD: I definitely read up on him just because when you’re playing someone who really did exist, you should do a little homework. You don’t want to get it completely wrong. We are in the comedy world so your scope can be larger, but I wanted to get into his psyche, to see why this guy did what he did. The only answer really was a total mid-life crisis and someone who wasn’t happy in their position. He had everything but didn’t want it. He wanted to take a risk in life. I could see that; as a young performer you wanted to take risks, to leave the stability of a normal job and head off into the world, which is something that I did. I left New Zealand to come to the UK and try to be a performer. I could relate to a lot of that; I just couldn’t relate to leaving the kids behind. He had a thirst for adventure, and I did some studying for sure.
Q: Was it difficult to find the right tone for your performance? The world of pirates has a few in-built stereotypes that you need to avoid…
RD: A lot of it was about losing all those pirate tropes and stereotypes that are comical in a cheesy way and of no use to us. You want to get to a real, gritty comedy performance. And, of course, Stede Bonnet was a wealthy fancy man who spoke well. The one thing he had was confidence because of his status and the way he looks.
Once I put on the outfit I looked so above and beyond the rest of the chaps on the boat. And he built the boat and pays them a wage. Because of that, they might not mutiny, so I played the mother role, reading them stories at night. That kind of psyche helped me find the character.
Q: It also makes him likeable. He’s not just a buffoon…
RD: Absolutely. He really has got no idea what he’s doing but he’s a nice guy. He’s nice to his crew. And I think they feel sorry for him. They want him to have a crack at this. The key is that because he’s paying for them to be there, and starts to care about them, they become like a family. He’s like the eccentric uncle that you want to stick around, wondering what he’ll do next. More and more weird stuff comes out as the show goes on.
Q: Was it important for the characters to grow and change a little over the course of the series, to give it some emotional depth as well as all the laughs?
RD: Definitely. As time goes by, you start to see inside Stede, why he’s there and what has shaped him. Then he’s wrestling with himself as he starts to doubt his decision after a while. That starts to happen when a lot of death and gore happens on the pirate ship and he has to be involved in killing. It wasn’t just being hilarious, improvising, delivering funny lines and cracking everyone up; there’s a lot of drama involved and that was the challenge, trying to feed that through. It gets quite dark and dramatic and I think that’s what makes the show different from a regular ‘workplace comedy’. You can see that there’s some really powerful backstory emotion coming from Stede and Blackbeard. The exploration of those two characters as you go through the episodes is what gives it gravitas.
Q: How did the improvisation work?
RD: The writing is spot on, so the only way I would improvise is to look at what I’ve got to say and then put a unique spin on it by the way I talk and my vernacular, and then if I can add a few extra laughs by the way I say things, and can add a few bits here and there; that comes naturally to me when I do the takes. We have a cast that can improvise as well, so once we got to know each other you can have a go at that.
But it can be quite difficult because time is limited and it depends on who is directing at the time. Some of the easiest moments of improvisation came between Taika and me. One of the reasons is that it’s hard to tell us what to do when we’re in a scene together! We’ll just take over, do more and more takes, and try to have as much fun as we can. He works hard and I’d say, ‘Okay, you’re acting now; you don’t need to direct. Let’s just have some fun.’ Also, actors who have a background friendship are more able to improvise together and hold it together. It’s an important part of comedy. What you say has to sound real and sometimes good jokes can sound scripted if they’re not in the right hands. It’s really just experience that allows you to do it and holding a straight face. I’ve done it my whole life and I don’t think I’d do a show if I couldn’t make up half the words!
Q: What’s the atmosphere like when you have a lot of funny performers all working together on a comedic show?
RD: It varies from show to show. On this one it really came together with the cast. A lot of them came over from the UK. It was a big journey to get here, and we knew it was a Taika show. Some of them definitely knew David Jenkins as well but when it’s Taika on the tin, you know the show’s going to be of a certain level. So, the cast had to bring their A-game, and what really mustered us together was when we got on the ship set. It was phenomenal and we realised how much money was being spent with the level of detail on the boat and our costumes. We all looked at each other and knew that there was some pressure on us. For actors with experience, when the pressure is on then we really do turn on. It turned out that we all really got on. We’re on a unique show together – there’s nothing else like it – and we felt like we’d won the jackpot.
We really wanted to deliver.
Q: You mention the wonderful sets but you were on location as well…
RD: Yes, that was one of the other great things: we were not always in the studio on a set. A lot of it was on the ship or down below in the cabins, which is another set. But then we did location stuff out on the beach, down at the Disney Ranch and we were out in the wilderness. Then we had another complete set that was for Episode Five on the fancy French ship. That’s one of my favourite episodes with so many people in the background all dressed up in ridiculous splendour. Getting to leave the studio was always a joy as we spent many hours on that stage. It’s a bit like a casino: you go in when it’s dark and you leave when it’s dark. You don’t know how long you’ve been in there with all the studio lighting, the volume, the HD screens all around the ship and then the wind and a rocking boat. It’s a lot to behold for a comedy series. There’s so much around us. It’s certainly the biggest comedy I’ve ever been involved in and it was great to get away from the set on occasion and to breathe natural air.
Q: What are some of your favourite moments from the series?
RD: For me, being able to do the physical comedy was great. As a stand-up I do a lot of physical stuff. I’m getting on a bit now, but I am still capable of moving my legs about. So, dangling off a rope ladder from the side of the ship dressed in an ornate costume— that very much brought me back to Michael Crawford on [1970s UK sitcom] “Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em”. Being able to do my own stunts was something I always dreamed about doing, and also the sword fighting, which we eventually did.
There were physical moments I had to endure that I didn’t enjoy because there was a lot of blood! The sword fighting was like being a 12-year-old again. I’m a guy who likes dressing up, so it was so great to go into that fantasy world on the French ship with all the powdered faces and wigs and trying to teach Blackbeard how to be an aristocrat. You could see all these grotesque faces and that’s what it would have been like in the 18th Century. I have these visions in my head that I don’t think I’ll ever get out!
Q: Do you remember ever dressing up as a pirate when you were a kid?
RD: I’ve been a kid my whole life and I love any excuse to dress up. And I have kids, of course, so we’d dress up for Halloween. When I’m bored and have no work on, I’ll put on a costume and do a TikTok. I don’t remember being a pirate specially, but I do remember dressing up as Zorro for Book Week back in 1987. My nana made this beautiful black silk cape. It had a Z on the back, and I wore a black turtleneck and gumboots. I kept getting told off for having a sword! So, it’s like I’ve come full circle!
Stream “Our Flag Means Death” only on HBO GO.
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