Exclusive Interview: Zach McGowan on ‘Black Sails’ and Dracula Untold

I know you all think of me as clean cut Fred Topel, but I secretly wish I had badass long hair. I tried it once. It didn’t look badass. So when I met Zach McGowan to talk about his role on “Black Sails,” the first thing that impressed me was his natural long hair.
McGown plays Charles Vane, captain of another ship that opposes Captain Flint (Toby Stephens). McGowan may be deadly on the seas but he was a total gentleman when we met after Starz’s Television Critics Association presentation of “Black Sails.” “Black Sails” airs new episodes Saturday nights on Starz.
CraveOnline: I love your hair and I’m jealous because I always wanted my hair to do that. Even when I grow mine long, it gets curly.
Zach McGowan: I have some waves and some body in it. It’s funny, I grew my hair out when my wife was pregnant because I didn’t really have time to get a haircut. It ended up being one of the best moves I’ve made in my career yet.
How long has this length been growing?
Now they cut it for continuity but when I initially grew it out, the nine months that my wife was pregnant basically got me to the shoulders. My hair grows fast, I don’t know.
And you had this when you auditioned for “Black Sails?”
Yeah, because I had it on my last shows. I was on “Shameless” so I had it for that and it had grown a little bit by the end of that season and I had it for the audition. Actually, it’s funny. In the audition, I wore a Henley and my hair up like that and I was pretty close to what you end up seeing in the show.
Had the producers of “Black Sails” seen you on “Shameless?”
No, most of them were unaware of “Shameless.” Actually, they weren’t looking to cast actors doing English accents so I slated in character and stuff, kind of fudged that until people were like, “Wait a second, you’re actually on another show and you’re an American, but we like what you’re doing and we want to cast you.” So I lucked out and slipped past.
Or did pirates of the era necessarily have British accents? That’s just the go to voice for period pieces.
Exactly. I think that’s where that whole “Arrrrrr” kind of thing comes from, the idea that they had their own bit of dialect and what not. The truth is there were Irish pirates and English pirates and Scottish pirates and Spanish pirates, pirates from the West Indies and Africa. They say a good deal of them historically were actually African or what not, so it was fortuitous. I’m just happy to be working on such a great show in an English accent.
Is captaining a pirate ship something you used to play at as a kid?
Oh, of course. I think everyone’s had that fantasy of standing on a ship being captain and getting to play that. Of course I was the youngest of three brothers so I was never the captain in that. I was more like the deckhand in that fantasy generally so it’s nice to be a captain.
Now you are!
They’re still my older brothers. I love ‘em to death, but yeah, it’s a unique experience. I’m living the dream.
Is Captain Vane a rival to Captain Flint?
Yeah, yeah. It’s very much the male alpha is alive and well in this world just like it is in anyone. We very much go back and forth. He likes to think of himself as the most ruthless and more successful pirate, so does Charles Vane like to think of himself that way. Very much a rival. Very much respect for the other person’s abilities but also there’s nothing like the person knocking on your door, and I’m kind of that guy. I’m knocking on his door. 
When there are scenes on the boat, are they actually rocking the set for you?
Yeah, they have a gimbal. The way it works is one of the boats is in the water, one of the boats isn’t. So the one in the water can rock on its own, they can do that with waves and they can have people on it. The gimbal itself can rock so it’s actually amazing how realistic the gimbal is. When you’re on it for a while, you can’t really tell that you’re not on a ship when you’re inside of it. 
Can they dress the interior of each ship to be either boat?
Oh, that’s the thing. It’s not just either boat. Now they’re building a third boat. They can make these boats into anything. It’s amazing what a paint job and changing the interior around does. The production team has definitely gotten all the mileage they could. 
Did you have to learn fencing for “Black Sails?”
Yes and no. The kind of fight style for it isn’t traditional fencing. I’d say it’s much more of a brawling, gritty style than it is pure fencing. While we do have a sword system that we learn for it and I had never done any official sword work prior to this, so just a lot of fighting with my brothers when I was a kid. I learned a great deal.
We think about pirates and a lot of action, but does “Black Sails” show there’s a lot more politics than we might expect?
Yeah, I think there’s a lot of different ways. Survival of the fittest, it’s easy to think it would all be action. The truth is, in a world of survival of the fittest, there’s a lot of different ways to be fit. There are those who are physically fit. There are those who are mentally fit. There are those who are capable of doing things that other people can’t stomach. So there’s a lot of ways people survive in this and I think that’s where the politics comes out of.
The stakes are high so the necessity to survive is such that if you’re not going to be able to beat someone in a fight, you’d better have allies who would stop them from coming after you. Yes, the politics and not to mention, there’s the politics of selling stolen goods. It’s not necessarily easy to take stolen property and, if you’re wanted for piracy, sail into a legitimate port and be able to leave that port after having sold your goods.
That element brings the politics to life as well as just the idea that freedom is different for each person. Pirates are free but there’s financial freedom, there’s religious freedom, there’s social freedoms. I think there’s a lot of politic to be had in exploring the freedoms that these people who don’t have to abide by others’ laws are exploring.
Who or what is the biggest threat to Captain Vane?
I think the biggest threat to most of the people is just civilization, is just law and order because they’re all marked. Not everyone on the show but my character, when you meet him, is already known. His name is known as a pirate and he’s wanted for piracy. He is a marked man by what is the largest force in the world at that point. Both the Spanish and the English know he’s a pirate and would hang him for it, so that alone drives him.
What did you get to play in Dracula Untold with Luke Evans?
Oh, Luke’s great. I got to play a gypsy named Shkelgim. It was really cool. Again, as an American actor, it’s rare that I get to work with the people from England and Australia and South Africa and Ireland and what not, so I’ve been really blessed to get to do that.
Is Shkelgim a character from Bram Stoker?
No, that also is an origin story so you’re meeting all of these people prior to the book. I’m not a character from the book.