Crossbones isn’t your traditional pirate adventure. Based on the book The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard, the NBC drama follows the presumed-dead Blackbeard (played by John Malkovich), who’s alive and reigning over a secluded island of scoundrels and misfits. It’s here that undercover British agent Tom Lowe (Robert Coyle) plans to kill the notorious buccaneer.
Making her U.S. acting debut, Lebanon-born actress Yasmine Al Massri plays Selima El Sharad, Blackbeard’s enigmatic confidant and object of his affections. Currently living in Los Angeles, Al Massri spoke with Spinoff Online about Crossbones’ modern take on pirate lore, Selima’s relationship with Blackbeard, breaking stereotypes, and working with Malkovich.
Spinoff Online: Before Crossbones, how immersed were you with pirate pop culture?
Yasmine Al Massri: I am part of this generation with Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan. I think we all grew up in this culture of pirates. Everything is pirates these days. I have a baby that is 21 months old, and I watch Disney Junior with him. A lot of those shows are about pirates. Even the T-shirts and pajamas I buy for him have pirate themes like, “Aye-aye, argh and mate.” But, I definitely grew up watching pirates. I am especially fascinated with mermaids, and they are always coming out in pirate stories.
Crossbones hardly resembles any Johnny Depp adventure. What grabbed you about the show’s twist on the genre?
It was really the script. I was in Jordan when my manager sent me the script. The script arrived at 1 a.m. because there was a 10-hour difference between the U.S. and my part of the world. Selima came to me at night. It was just fascinating to go through the pages. I stayed awake the whole night, finished it, and wrote back to my manager saying, “I am going to be this woman.” The script was beautiful. It was very well-written. The characters were outstanding. They were human, complicated and bothered. All this happened in the 17th century, but they all have a very human and modern access to them. It was that which attracted me to the project.
From those early pages, what was your initial sense of who Selima was?
I had really beautiful scenes in the pilot. There was a scene where Blackbeard was proposing to Selima and she goes, “How many times did you already ask me?” He says, “Hundreds. Thousands.” She says, “Ask again.” There is this seduction game between them that I found delicious. Not wanting to surrender to him, but she wants all the attention and she wants him to listen to her. There was also a scene where they were talking about the island and his dream of building a nation. I found it interesting without knowing whether she was making fun of him or if she shares this dream with him.
These scenes where she shares everything with Blackbeard made me want more and more. In TV, you don’t know everything. The writers only give you scripts before you shoot the episodes. They keep you on your nerve. That was my first time working in TV. So, Selima is like a puzzle. I was never able to figure her out completely in advance. That’s also the nature of TV, but it was a delicious journey for me to discover her.
Typically, pirates don’t treat women kindly. Or, women are often presented as damsels in distress. How relieved were you that the writers crafted Selima to be this intelligent, independent character?
This question is very important to me not only because I am a woman, but I come from a different culture. I was really happy to see a positive writing about an Arab woman. I was happy that Selima is positive, intellectual and sensual. I’m not a feminist, and I don’t think Executive Producer Neil Cross is a feminist, but I think in this project, women are empowered. Not only Selima, but Claire Foy has a beautiful character. Tracy Ifeachor also. They are strong. They are not perfect. They have a dark side. They are pirates. They are equally pirate-y. They equally share the right to exist on the island and make their own decisions. That’s one of the modern twists Neil brought to the project: strong women.
Obviously, Blackbeard fancies Selima. In some way, is she the voice of reason for him?
Yes, she definitely is the voice of reason. She wouldn’t be in his castle, sharing his deepest secrets, if he didn’t trust how rational and reasonable she was. I do think she’s a very capable woman. She can be a great leader, but she can be very vulnerable and emotional. Maybe this is what makes Blackbeard not trust her completely. He knows she can be crazy, which is something that is also fascinating about being a woman. There are moments when a woman’s emotions come first, and Selima is a woman.
As the series unfolds, are we going to learn more about Selima’s backstory and how she ended up by Blackbeard’s side?
That was always my conversation with Neil. Every time I would see him on set, I would say, “Give me more Selima. Where did she come from? How did she end up on this island?” Neil would say, “You tell me. Where did Selima come from?” We would sit down and imagine. I did historical research and because she was an Oriental princess, maybe she ran away with her library of books with Blackbeard. He asked her to run away and took Selima to his island.
Now, I can’t tell you what’s going to happen with her, but I can guarantee you that in each episode, she’s unpredictable. There’s always something going on around her.
A pirate’s life consists of stealing, murdering, being on the run and hiding. Is Selima actually happy in her current situation?
There are many decisions Blackbeard makes that Selima does not agree on. If you saw the last episode, he told her at the end that he planned this whole crime and made everyone think he had been attacked, just to make people do what he wanted them to do. Selima did not like that and told him, “Don’t do it again.” There are definitely different ways of seeing things than Blackbeard’s.
But there’s the love and respect Selima has for Blackbeard. She sees his vision. He has that great vision of building the first nation. When I was researching the project, I read that pirates were actually the first people who tried to create a democratic country. It was the first concept of democracy. Yes, they were stealing because they had no choice in order to survive.
She definitely hates stealing, cheating and even torturing Lowe. I don’t think she liked that, but she has to protect Blackbeard and her world. She doesn’t mind being cruel for that.
Selima has already wielded a gun. Will you be picking up a blade for some swashbuckling fun?
I don’t know, but the gun was great fun. We had a lot of professional people on set all the time. Whenever I had the gun in my hand, all the guys were afraid of me. It was a very exciting thing. I never had a gun in my hand before. I’m actually against these things. I don’t find violence and cheap violence funny. I come from a country where I saw what violence can do to people and society. It’s against my values as a human being, but in a very particular moment, it was fun to be an action hero.
So far, it’s been mostly Selima and Blackbeard together. Will you get to interact more with other characters?
Nobody can wish for more than to have John Malkovich every day for six months. It was a great blessing, But, yes, I work with Richard Coyle’s Lowe and David Hoflin’s Charlie. Both are great actors. There will be more meetings between her, Lowe and Charlie.
Can you talk about the challenges of filming Crossbones on location in Puerto Rico’s sweltering heat?
I don’t want to be bad, but there were moments where everybody was bitching about how hot it was and there were a lot of mosquitoes. Once, I was literally attacked by mosquitoes. There’s something worse than mosquitoes called maje. They don’t tell you about those until you are bitten by one of them. You get 10 bites, one after the other. I had a lot of these, and it was surreal because you had to forget about that and stay focused in your character. Sometimes it’s great because it’s good for the scene, and sometimes it’s very hard. Since you share it with everyone on the island, it’s OK.
Lastly, Malkovich is one of Hollywood’s treasures. What was it like working with him on this series?
It was great. For the opening of the show, John sent me this message saying, “Good luck.” I told him, “I am already lucky because I worked with you.” I meant every word I said because he is a great human being to get to know. He and his wife Nicole were really great friends. He is a teacher and although he has so much more experience than me, he treated me as an equal. He was very generous sharing everything with me.
It wasn’t easy for me to be on that set. It’s very intimidating to be a woman on a pirate set. There aren’t a lot of women there. To be a character and hold on to my sensuality and being a woman in the show was not easy. Having John was one of the biggest things that helped me because he’s a friend and humble and a real actor. He loves his work. He loves his lines and he goes through them all the time. He loves to be directed. It’s just a humbling, enriching experience to work with him.
Crossbones airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.