LOS ANGELES – Long before he was cast as a dastardly pirate in the new Starz network series "Black Sails," Zach McGowan was looking for a wayward adventure.
Though the actor grew up in Upper Manhattan and spent considerable time in Los Angeles as a child, he was always fascinated with the mysteries of the Midwest. So when it came time to pick a school, he made an unlikely choice: Carleton College in Northfield.
"I had always flown over the Midwest and wondered, 'What's that all about?' " said McGowan, whose black leather jacket, flowing hair and stubbly beard suggested that he arrived for the interview on a motorcycle. "I had gotten into schools on the East Coast, but I wanted to get a better sense of the country. It turned out to be a defining experience."
McGowan had plenty of options, in large part because he attended Fieldston School, one of New York's top prep schools. (Its alumni include New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, Sofia Coppola, Sean Ono Lennon and Stephen Sondheim.) Then there was the fact that he was a hot athletic prospect as captain of his high school's football and hockey teams, sports in which he continued to shine when he attended Carleton from 1998 to 2002.
While immersing himself in athletics, he also found time for theater work, believing he could succeed in either area.
That self-assuredness is one reason he got the job on "Sails" as Capt. Charles Vane, the series' chief antagonist, who tries to thwart Capt. Flint and Long John Silver's quest for gold in what's been set up as a "Treasure Island" prequel. In Saturday's premiere, Vane supervises a murder and clocks an ex-lover in the face — coming across as the most menacing character in a den packed with thieves.
"Usually when you get an actor's [video]tape, they say their name and what role they're auditioning for," said co-creator Robert Levine. "For Zach's tape, he said his name and that he was Charles Vane. We thought, 'OK, that's kind of cocky,' but he turned out to be the right guy for the role. He really commands a room."
McGowan's athletic background was helpful in the series' preparation, which included a month of boot camp. Unlike the pirate films of Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp, there's nothing swashbuckling about "Sails," which is shot in South Africa. Sword fights resemble modern martial arts.
"The process was very much about stripping it back," said Luke Arnold, who plays Silver. "Obviously, it's a playground for costume designers and everyone putting this together, but between all the producers and even the actors, it had to feel functional and practical. Yeah, it would have been nice to have a lot more fun with it, but that's not really this show."
What this show could be is a steppingstone for McGowan, best known to date as gullible sex addict Jody Silverman on Showtime's "Shameless." He also has a bloody rich part in the Universal film "Dracula Untold," set to be released in August. "Sails" has already been cleared for a second season.
But no matter how much success McGowan has in the business, he's not about to forget his years at Carleton.
"It's a really inclusive environment," said McGowan, who met his wife at the school and is quick to share a photo of her and their young kids. "I had a defining time in the Midwest, fishing in the Boundary Waters, hanging out in Minneapolis. It was fantastic. I hope my kids get that same kind of experience when it's time for them to go to college."