The real Blackbeard was a notorious English-born pirate who was chased down and beheaded by a Colonial naval force off the coast of North Carolina in 1718, when he was believed to be in his 30s.
In “Crossbones,” the nine-episode historical epic from NBC that premieres May 30, Blackbeard is played by screen and stage star John Malkovich, who recently turned 60. Under normal circumstances, this age disparity might pose a problem, but not in the magical world of television, where even the hardest historical facts can bend to the whims of fantasy and entertainment.
As Malkovich sees it, Blackbeard has always been a mythic figure anyway.
“There are books, and there is some knowledge of him,” the actor, best known for character parts in films such as “In the Line of Fire” and “Being John Malkovich,” said by phone from Mexico, where he was vacationing after wrapping up filming on the NBC show. “But I don’t think there is all that much that’s so definitive, and a lot of it is just legend. Apparently, he was quite gifted at making his own legends about himself.”
NBC is hoping the legend looms large this summer. “Crossbones” is part of the network’s efforts to pump excitement into its schedule with big programming events featuring A-list writers as well as stars normally not seen on TV (Malkovich’s most recognizable TV work pre-"Crossbones” was probably an ad a couple of years back for Apple’s Siri smartphone assistant). Such auspices will, executives believe, give cable rivals a run for their money.
As NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke put it: “We’re looking for big events with real vision behind them and producers who connect with you at the highest level.”
The Blackbeard story seems to invite imaginative tinkering. As a historical figure — real name: Edward Teach — the pirate has inspired glamorous accounts of maritime misadventure since the mid-1700s, serving as a lodestone for enduring fictional pirates ranging from Long John Silver to Captain Hook to Jack Sparrow.
But the series’ executive producer — the aptly named Neil Cross — takes issue with anyone who sees “Crossbones” as simply more of the same old pirate stuff of yore, with the eye-patch, tricorn hat and cries of “arrgh!”
“It’s not a pirate show,” said Cross, a novelist and screenwriter best known for his work on the BBC’s crime thriller “Luther.” “Most people’s first thought would be ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ as a television project … [which is] something I had no interest in doing.”
Instead, “Crossbones” — loosely based on a 2007 book called “Republic of Pirates” by Colin Woodard — is more like “Heart of Darkness” with pirates. In this retelling, an aging Blackbeard has installed himself as the godlike figure ruling over his own banana republic. Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle) is the English ship’s surgeon and spy sent to kill him.
“It’s a show which undeniably has pirates in it, and it’s set during the time of the golden age of piracy,” Cross added. But “it’s got elements of speculative fiction in there, little hints of steampunk and it’s kind of a spy show, really, more than a big, swashbuckling pirate show.”
For Malkovich, Blackbeard is the latest in a long line of memorable villains.
“He’s quite clever,” he said. “He is an autodidact, self-taught. He has a lot of intellectual curiosities, and he can be entertaining and can be maybe touching. But not for long, and [he’s] obviously very determined to build this country, this republic. And fairly cunning and ruthless how he goes about it.”
Determination, if not ruthlessness, was required to get the project on film. Producing partners Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald controlled the rights to the book, which Cross found less than thrilling. “It’s what I refer to as ‘brown rice,’” he said. “Very educational but doesn’t have within its pages a vivid figure and excitement.”
After developing the story of a Blackbeard-who-would-be-king, Cross knew whom he wanted as his lead. But not everyone else was on board right away. “At first, some eyebrows were raised because John Malkovich is not known for having long, flowing black hair and big, long, flowing black beard,” Cross said with a chuckle.
But Malkovich liked the way Cross developed the character and was intrigued by the possibility of playing such a role over many hours. “In 10 hours, I think you can show various sides and facets to a character that you really can’t do in an hour and a half,” he said. “You just about never get to do that in a movie because mostly you have to blow something up every couple of minutes.”
For shooting, the producers took over Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, a base in eastern Puerto Rico abandoned by the U.S. Navy in 2003. Locals who had suffered through a sluggish economy since the base closed greeted them with open arms. But the challenges of a costume epic, plus the numerous scenes taking place on board ship, made for a tough process, Cross said.
“‘Difficult’ is a nice underestimate of the horrors involved in shooting on the water,” Cross said.
It’s possible the cast and crew might have to do it again, however, if “Crossbones” steals viewers’ attention the way NBC hopes it will.
Malkovich is cagey about whether he would come back in that event — which might spike fans’ curiosity about just what twists of fate the writers have in store for this Blackbeard.
A second season “was never really spoken about much,” the star said.
“No idea if I would be …" he stopped short, then finished: “If my presence would be required for that.”