The Canadian actress known for teen dramas shows she’s all grown up in Starz’ sexy and violent new pirate series Black Sails.
This feature appears in Complex’s February/March 2014 issue.
Forget gold and pearls. The most priceless treasure on Black Sails, the new Michael Bay-produced pirate series on Starz, is Jessica Parker Kennedy. The 29-year-old actress from Calgary, Canada, is best known for her roles on the teen dramas 90210 and The Secret Circle but she’s shed the adolescent angst—and some clothing—to play Max, a Machiavellian prostitute on the Caribbean island of Nassau. A stunner who’s not afraid to swim with sharks in real life, JPK would give any man a reason to live through months at sea with smelly dudes and scurvy.
What attracted you to Black Sails and the role of Max?
The first thing was that it’s a period piece set in the 1700s. I’m mixed race and it’s often hard for me to fit into period pieces. On top of that, I knew they were shooting it in Capetown, South Africa and it would be a fun adventure. I’m also a fan of Michael Bay’s movies, and having his name on it obviously brought a lot clout to the idea. I was excited to be part of something he was doing. And the great thing about Max is that she’s seductive, smart, and manipulative as well, so I tried to play her that way while hopefully not doing the worst French accent ever.
How does your personality compare to hers?
I relate to Max wanting to find love and be loved but obviously we have very different jobs. And the people who live on Nassau are quite selfish because it’s survival of the fittest. Everything they do is for money and to survive. I would never manipulate somebody and put somebody in peril so that I could get rich off of it. She doesn’t do that because she’s a malicious person, she does that because she needs to survive. So there’s not a lot that we have in common other than we’re both women looking for love and a better life.
After the teen dramas, were you hesitant to play such a sexual role?
I’d been naked on stage before—it wasn’t the nudity that was scary as much as what you do when you’re naked. When you’re laying out the contracts, it’s like, “OK, you can show nipple, but you can’t show….” That part got a little intimidating. You start to work with a company that you don’t have a previous relationship with and you wonder, “Is this going to be gratuitous? Am I going to be taken advantage of?” Starz has been nothing but amazing to me. There’s sex and violence on Black Sails but it’s not gratuitous. It’s part of the story line. You can’t be on a Starz show playing a prostitute and say, “I’m not going to show my boobs.” For this particular project I agreed to full-frontal nudity.
Did you wear a merkin (pubic wig)?
Oh my god, that’s such a funny question! I say “merkin” and people are like, “What’s a merkin?” I don’t know about my cast mates but I certainly wear one.
What was the process of choosing one?
Getting fitted for your merkin is a very personal, bizarre experience. You want to stay true to the times. When it’s the 1700s, you gotta do what you gotta do, right?
How involved was Michael Bay in the production?
Mark Ryan, who plays Gates on the show is friends, with Michael Bay, so they have a solid one-on-one relationship. The rest of us only spoke to him on the phone, but he played a big part in casting us. He watched all of our tapes and had the final say on casting. I know he was very involved in the trailers and the tone of the show, but he allowed the creators of the show, Jon Steinberg and Robert Levine, to do what they want. They had to go to Michael and ask, “Do you like what we’re doing?” but he’s rarely said, “ugh” to anything. He was very positive and said yes to almost everything. He gave us an enormous amount of space to do whatever we want creatively. He didn’t make it to South Africa for the first season but I’ve heard rumors that he’ll be around for season two, which we start shooting in a couple of weeks. It’ll be very exciting meeting him.
What was your most memorable experience filming in Cape Town?
I got to go shark cage diving. Every time you see a picture of a great white shark jumping out of the water and eating a seal on National Geographic it’s shot right outside Cape Town. There’s a plethora of great whites in the ocean there. I can’t believe the surfers are out at 6 o’clock every morning in their wetsuits surfing in this water that’s littered with sharks—there are attacks every year! It looks scary but as soon as I get afraid of something, I really want to do it. My mom came to town and wanted to go, too, and I was like, “OK, if my mom wants to go, I can’t be a chicken and not go.” It was something we did together that turned out to be a really wonderful adventure. It was amazing to be in the ocean and meet great white sharks, something so majestic and beautiful.
Cage diving with sharks sounds way scarier than doing full-frontal nudity. Did you ever go swimming without a cage?
I wouldn’t swim in the water off of the beaches in Cape Town but there’s this amazing place called Seal Island where you swim with seals. I thought, “Oh, my god, I’m in a shark smorgasbord,” but the water is too shallow for the sharks to come in. These baby seals swim up between your legs. They have really big smiles full of jagged sharp teeth, so I thought I was gonna get bit but I realized that they just wanted to play and show off. They float on their backs and wash their faces. It’s the cutest thing in the world.
Does your appetite for danger extend to men?
When I was younger, the idea of the bad boy was appealing, but then I grew up and realized that stable people are more fulfilling. Bad boys need more time to themselves. I want to be in a relationship with someone who knows how to take care of himself and is therefore able to take care of me. That way we can put each other first.
With us, you’d always come first.