Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Interview: Samba Schutte Talks ‘Our Flag Means Death’, Hitting Con O’Neill With A Sandwich, The Fandom Family, & More! [EXCLUSIVE]

Our Flag Means Death has quickly become one of the most in-demand series to release on a streaming platform since premiering March 4 on HBO Max. 

Our Flag Means Death is (on the surface) about pirates, particularly the most fearsome pirate who ever sailed, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), and who some would describe as the worst pirate who ever sailed, the Gentleman Pirate — Stede Bonnet. But pirates are not what this 10-episode series is really about: this series is about love and acceptance, both of oneself and those who are different around us.

One of our editors, Hannah, had a chance to sit down with the delightful Samba Schutte, who brings Roach to the screen in Our Flag Means Death.

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This interview has been edited for clarity.

Nerds & Beyond: Hi, Samba. How are you? 

Samba Schutte: Good. How’s it going? 

Nerds & Beyond: Fantastic, excited to have you on the line! Thanks for taking some time out of your early evening to talk to me. Jumping into the real and exciting stuff here, what got you involved in Our Flag Means Death — what was it about the project as a whole or the character specifically that made you go, “Yes, I have to be involved in this one?”

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Samba Schutte: I had heard about the project in the summer of 2020, and I saw that Rhys had been cast to play the lead. I’ve been a huge fan of Rhys’ and also Taika’s for a long time, and David Jenkins I’d heard of because of his show People of Earth, so when I saw that those three were gonna be involved in something I was like, “I need to be a part of this. I need to be part of this.” So I hounded my manager. I told him, “You’ve gotta get me an audition for this ASAP,” because I had gotten my hands on the draft of the pilot script and I knew I needed to be in this. The casting director, Alison Jones, had cast me in another show I was on called Sunnyside, so I was like, “Hey, Alison, I love this project. Let me know if they have open parts or anything.” Time went by and time went by and I didn’t hear anything. By December they said all the offers were out for all the characters, so I was pretty bummed out. I’m like, “Oh no, not gonna be part of this.” So I kind of forgot about it for a while.

Then in April 2021, I got the audition for Roach and I was super excited. It was on a Saturday and it was due the next morning on Sunday, so I had to quickly get it together and do five scenes real quick. I loved the character description because it described him as the surgeon and the cook aboard The Revenge and that he was kind of shifty, kind of slick and tough, and I was immediately in love with the name Roach. I was like, “I get this character. A, I’m a cook. I love baking. B, I played a doctor in my previous show and I know a few things about that.” So combining that with my physical comedy background I made him as wild as possible, as you know, just very chaotic and shifty like a cockroach. No one likes cockroaches, they’re terrifying, and I wanted him to have an edge about him that made him kind of unpredictable. You never know when you come into a room and there’s a cockroach in the corner. You don’t know if it’s gonna fly at you or spit acid or something, so that’s what I wanted to do with Roach. In the audition I made him very tough, but also just chaotic. I sent my tape in and I didn’t hear anything for a week, then they told me that I got the part and it just blew my mind. I was so, so, so excited to finally have the chance to be a part of this project.

Nerds & Beyond: That’s awesome. I’m glad you brought up the physical aspect of your comedy style, because I am definitely a huge fan of watching comedians use different movements and physicality in their performances, so I absolutely picked up on that. My partner even pointed out that your movements were very insect-like several times, so it’s cool to hear you say that was intended.

Samba Schutte: I wanted him to be that. They gave me free reign to design the character a little bit, so I gave him a little backstory and I made him from North Africa because that’s where I’m from, and back then they had the Barbary pirates who were known as being vicious, but Roach has probably just survived them and the Spanish and everything else in the world because he’s just the cook, and the cook always survives, just like cockroaches always survive. A ship always needs a cook, so he survived a lot. The tattoos Roach has are Barbary tattoos on the arm and wrist, and one of them signifies a cockroach and the other one signifies a fly, because flies are very aware of their environment and cockroaches are all about survival. I gave him those tattoos and the production was very happy with my choices. Then I made my beard — I twisted my beard to have six prongs, so they signify six legs, like cockroaches have six legs. I wanted him to basically look like he had six little cockroach legs sticking out of his beard. 

Nerds & Beyond: That is some incredibly clever design work on your part. 

Samba Schutte: Yeah, thanks! I really wanted to embody a cockroach, so whenever he’s in a scene, I’d make him very aware of his environment and very much either ready to fight or flee. I’m glad that you saw some of that in the physical comedy choices. 

Nerds & Beyond: It’s really neat to hear you put that into words. Very, very cool insight there. Should we get a second season renewal, what do you see as the next steps for Roach? Obviously he’s really not in the ideal situation right now.

Samba Schutte: Oh, you mean on an island about to be dining on a Swedish fella? First of all, I really hope we get a second season — it would be amazing to get to do this again. And second of all, I really think season two would show a side of the gentleman pirate that is more swashbuckle-y because when we leave him, he doesn’t have his coats anymore. He’s wearing a shirt that’s half open and he’s rowed out to sea by himself, and he’s embracing his identity for the first time. I think Stede is definitely going to be more of a swashbuckler. I’m assuming he’s coming to rescue us, and I don’t know how we’ll all fit on that dingy, but seeing him be more of a swashbuckler will make us maybe more … not vicious pirates, but wiser pirates. I think after being with Blackbeard and being betrayed like this, we’re going to be a little more determined to survive, so I think Roach would be maybe more chaotic as a result of this. 

Nerds & Beyond: Oh, fingers crossed that we get to see that. I like that you mentioned that the whole crew will have to up the ante and be a little bit more swashbuckle-y than this first season, because there’s also this whole aspect now that Stede has left behind his fortune … so he can’t pay the crew anymore. 

Samba Schutte: No, we can’t get paid. We need food. We need supplies. We probably need a ship, you know … that’s important for pirates. So we’re definitely going to have to up the ante. We’re bottom of the barrel pirates in season one. I really want to see how Stede hired us. I want a flashback moment to see what made us want to sail with him and what made him want to hire us, and how that all went down. 

Nerds & Beyond: That would be incredible. 

Samba Schutte: Showing that compared to season 2 would be a good way to show we are not the same little babies we were in season one. 

Nerds & Beyond: See, there are so many ideas for season 2, they really need to go ahead and renew. Obviously with this series being a comedy about pirates first and foremost, there are a lot of challenges to tackle — from not laughing during takes, to pirate costuming, and then you’re effectively on a swaying ship most of the time. What would you say was the biggest challenge you personally faced on this project? 

Samba Schutte: There’s a couple. First and foremost: the ship. Coming onto the stage was huge. We had this huge stage with this huge LCD screen surrounding us by 180 degrees, the rest is green screen, and we have this actual life size ship they built that’s on airbags and always sways back and forth. I get motion sickness. The first week was not pleasant, because you’re rocking on the ship while you’re trying to act, the screen is projecting actual oceanscape that I think they filmed in Puerto Rico and it’s actual oceanscape in high definition, so you actually feel you’re on the sea, and then there’s this dude with the huge wind machine blowing your face. A hundred percent you feel like you’re on the ocean. I’d get off the ship and I’d sway, and my legs would crumble, so the first week was really trying to get used to how to focus on the scene and not look at the screen, and look at the horizon, all while trying to get over my seasickness and all that. But after the first week I was fine.

It also felt intimidating to be on a set that was so huge for a comedy because these are the guys that did Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows and those are usually smaller worlds and universes and therefore comedy style. They not only have that same sense of humor, but they’ve got that humor on a set that was humongous. It was hard to remember “No, just we’re not on a Marvel movie.” We’re doing this workplace comedy, and to remember to focus on the comedy and forget about this huge intimidating set with greenscreens and everything else for visual effects. That was definitely the hardest challenge to get over.

The laughing bit was also so, so hard. We all have moments where we broke, obviously, because the cast is hilarious. The first episode was directed by Taika and the first thing we shot was the flag making scene. That’s when we really got to express ourselves and our characters. When Taika’s directing, he’s yelling suggestions for us to improv off of, and Rhys is such a great improviser, so he just goes with whatever Taika is doing and he jumps into it — he’s in that world for that moment. Then we have to react off of whatever they’ve come up with, and it was so hard to keep a straight face. For example, in that scene where Rhys asks us “And if one of us comes back mentally devastated, what do we do?”, and before we say “Talk it through as a crew”, all of us had to come up with a suggestion. So Frenchie goes, “Uh, we bottle it up” and Stede is like, “No, that’s the worst thing you can do … anyone else?” Then Taika would just point at each one of us to have a suggestion … but they didn’t use that in the final episode, unfortunately. Taika would tell the Swede to say something like, “You carry it with you and then you go home and you take it out on your loved ones”, something like that, something really stupid. Then Nat Faxon doing that accent and hearing it for the first time in character and seeing him in costume, it was just so hard to keep a straight face and not crack up and die of laughter. Then Taika’s like, “Okay, Roach, what do you think?” So I’m like, “First you skin them. And then you -” then he’s like, “No, that’s a terrible suggestion, Roach … next!” It was really fun to improvise a lot, but yeah, the biggest challenge every day is not laughing. 

Nerds & Beyond: I heard Samson laughed the most. 

Samba Schutte: Oh my God. Yes. Samson laughed the most. He broke almost every scene. Whenever Nat speaks he’s hilarious and he’d always want to get the last word in at the end of the scene. The scene would be over and then Nat would come up with some improvisation to round off the scene, and we always knew that was gonna happen — it became like a running gag that Nat is going to have the button at the end of the scene. Since we knew it was coming, Samson was always ready to laugh even before it happened. When we yelled action he was already laughing, waiting, anticipating what Nat is going to come up with next. Vico was fun to try and make break because they had the fake beard on for the first couple episodes and they could not laugh, because otherwise that beard would fall off. It was my mission to get them to break each scene, so the beard would fall off and they would have to get it together as best as they could. 

Nerds & Beyond: I interviewed Vico last week and they specifically mentioned that it was so hard to be on set for the first month because they had that beard on and they were like, “I can’t laugh because then they have to re-glue it.” They said that they were like trying to hide their expressions with that big hat too, which is such a convenient costume piece.

Samba Schutte: Absolutely. The hat, or we’d look away. I remember one moment where I broke and it was terrible because it was the sad scene where Karl, the seagull, dies.

Nerds & Beyond: Oh no.

Samba Schutte: Spoilers! Buttons hands me Karl, and it’s really sad because they actually had this taxidermy bird, so it felt really real. The moment was all very serious, but then Ewen starts cursing Calico Jack with the “I hex yee!” And he’s butt naked. He’s standing in front of Will Arnett, butt naked, doing this part where he is fully engaged and he’s yelling the hexes and his butt cheeks are clenched super tight, because he’s really intensely cursing Calico Jack. Me and Nat are standing directly behind him and all we can see are these tightly clenched butt cheeks cursing this man, and I’m holding this dead bird, and I’m doing my best not to laugh but it was just impossible. I had to break in that moment. 

Nerds & Beyond: I don’t think anyone could blame you for laughing in that moment. I think that’s one of those impossible moments where you can’t not laugh.

Samba Schutte: It was a sad moment, but I mean … he’s so intensely cursing this man and he’s naked and his butt cheeks are clenched tight and he’s just going on with the hex for five minutes. It was just so funny from behind. Normally I’m able to keep it together, but that was one of the moments I couldn’t do it anymore. 

Nerds & Beyond: So I also asked Vico this last week, but this is kind of fits into what we’re talking about right now. I asked them to choose a word that describes the general vibe on-set — what would you say that word is? 

Samba Schutte: Man, that’s a tough one. Hmm … giggle-fest. Yeah, this was a giggle-fest. Every day I’d show up, and there were a lot of intense days because we would sometimes shoot three episodes at the same time. It was a lot of work, but you never knew where the next laugh would come from because we were given so much leeway to improvise during the scenes. I really hope one day we get to see the deleted scenes or the outtakes.

Also, in-between takes we’d sit in our cast chairs while they’re setting up the cameras and we’d play games with one another or tell stories. I remember one time we were playing a game where we had to list vegetables starting with the letter A, then B, then C and going down the alphabet with everyone. So it’s me, Guz Khan, and Dave Fane who play Ivan and Fang playing this game. We get to the letter Q and it is Dave’s turn to name a vegetable starting with the letter Q, and he goes “CUCUMBER!”, fully one hundred percent convinced. I think we laughed for 15 minutes non-stop. We had to go back to film at the same time, and we tried to get it together, but I’ve never laughed so hard in my life. He was so sure that that was how you spell cucumber. He was one hundred percent convinced. No holding it back. If we’re not giggling onset, we were giggling in the cast chairs or giggling during lunch, so for me it was an absolute giggle-fest. I think I got cramps just from laughing. 

Nerds & Beyond: I know people really want to see a blooper reel for that reason. 

Samba Schutte: Oh, man, me too. I really hope they release one. It has to exist because I can’t believe so much footage would go to waste. There’s just so much gold from everybody. 

Nerds & Beyond: The fandom certainly would not complain if they decided to release just a quick little five minute blooper reel. Nothing massive.

Samba Schutte: Everyone was just brilliant, from the cast to the guest stars. I mean let’s talk about Rory — he is a dramatic actor, so you’d think he’s just doing straight up drama, when he was actually a master advisor on set, especially at the dining table scene. When he was telling stories about Stede’s past and he says, “Remember that day when you kissed the horse?”, and then he’d just go on and tell that whole story like it happened, and he was able to go on forever and ever about all the embarrassing things that happened to Stede as a kid. It was just masterful to watch everybody on set pull out things from God knows where.

Nerds & Beyond: You get into that nice improvisation game of “Yes, and?” and it becomes incredibly funny so quickly if everyone can go along with it.

Samba Schutte: So funny if you go with it. That scene where I say I sewed up my own arm once, Taika goes, “Okay, and now, uh, say how you did it.” So Rhys was like, “Ah, how did you do it?” and I’d say, “Oh, I leaned up against the post and I sewed it up.” And Taika is like, “Rhys, ask him if it’s his arm.” So Rhys does that, and Taika goes “Samba, say no, it’s not my arm.” Just bits like that, which didn’t make it obviously because they were very silly, but that was fun to find the direction. The improv was really there to find the scene and the moment. They managed to keep some things in there that were totally improvised, which I was really happy to see like the “Come back, it’s just a dream!” when I’m trying to chop off Lucius’ finger, that was the improv. I’m glad they kept that scene in there.

Nerds & Beyond: Oh yeah. That’s that’s definitely a favorite moment of mine.

Samba Schutte: I just hope a blooper reel exists that we get it.

Nerds & Beyond: I know everyone agrees with you there. Obviously this cast is filled with so many talented and hilarious people, but you’ve got some real comedy legends there that we’ve already mentioned between Taika and Rhys. I was personally very glad to hear you mention David Jenkins’ other series People of Earth earlier, because that is also one of my favorites — he is so original and creative and I think he’s capable of very unique things. Do you mind talking about working with the three of those guys? 

Samba Schutte: They’re the holy trinity of hilarity. That’s how I describe them. David Jenkins … I think he’s a genius. He’d be on set almost every day and he knew the show inside out. He knew what he wanted from the series inside out. Whenever we had a question about something we’d tried, all we had to do was walk up to him like, “Hey, what’d you think about this?” He really wanted us to be ourselves, to build these characters and really find the fun from our own voices. Even though it was his world that he created he wanted us to play in it. He was like our overlord — he was really clear on what he wanted to do with the show, but let us be ourselves at the same time.

Rhys is a master improviser. He does physical comedy too, which was why I was a huge fan of his for a long time, and he’s just really good at going with it. He plays a managerial role really well, and Stede is basically a manager of this ship or a father or mother figure to us … more a mother figure, I’d say Blackbeard is the father figure. Rhys is just so sweet and we’d always huddle together after a take and talk about how it went, and what we could try next one. There are moments where you can see we built off of something, like the part where he says we’re short on oranges and I say it’s because he made me make that cake — the 40 orange glaze. The scene would have like stopped there, but I’m like, “Hey, you want to do more improv with the cake?” and Rhys is like, “Yeah, what do you want to do?” So I said, “Why don’t you ask me how many oranges it took and then I’ll tell Wee John it was 40 oranges and another 10 for the glaze.” He’s really up to play with you and he loves discovering the character with you, and he worked so hard on this part — he was there every single day on set. He was a lot of fun to be able to bounce off certain things.

Taika is just a machine. As a director he’s a joke machine. He’s directing a scene and then he sees the comedy gold and he yells suggestions for us to embrace — it’s like being on a rollercoaster and getting cold water thrown on you at the same time. It’s just one of those thrilling, rare things where you don’t know what’s going to happen, but at the same time you’re super present and super awake and super surprised. As an actor, there’s so many scenes where you go loose improvising to find the scene and to find the characters, like that scene where I throw a sandwich at Con’s head — which is one of my favorite moments by the way, because Con is so sweet, but he played this really douche-y guy. At first the sandwich was just supposed to land in the water, but I was like, “Can I do one where it hits his head?”, and Con was all game. Then I got to do nine takes of that, so that was a lot of fun. In that scene, Taika and Con were having that back and forth and Taika would just improvise and keep improvising. He’s like, “Oh yeah, I curse you.” And Con would go with that. Taika loves finding all these things he can do with the scene, and then you end up with some golden nuggets and a lot of these moments are kept in the episodes.

That whole moment between he and Rhys when they’re talking about the restaurant “Blackbeard’s Bar and Grill”, that’s all improvised. That was all improv. Just watching the two of them work together is amazing, because they’ve known each other very well for a long time, so they know each other’s humor very well. They just go with each other. It was really inspiring as an actor, watching these legends do it. It inspired me to trust my instincts and my gut and my improv capabilities, and to make choices and stick with them and be convinced of them. It was really inspiring to watch them work because it made me realize, “Hey man, comedy is about expressing yourself and not being afraid of taking a chance and maybe something works, maybe something doesn’t, but if you don’t do it, you’ll never know.”

Nerds & Beyond: What a great opportunity to have those guys to learn off of for a while. I’m gonna get into some more fandom related questions and some more fun questions now that we’ve gotten the serious stuff out of the way. I don’t need to tell you that the social media response to this series has been insane, to say the least. Were you expecting anything close to this? 

Samba Schutte: Not at all. Never. Not at all. I thought, “Okay, this is a fun show. It’s a feel good show.” It’s in the vein of how Ted Lasso made people feel good during the pandemic. This is a positive, uplifting show, and hopefully people feel good when they see it after … everything that’s going on around us. I did not expect it to take off the way it did and to spawn all this incredible fan art, fanfiction and overall response. The creativity and inspiration has even inspired people to come out to their families and embrace their identities and embrace their queerness. It was a show that was meant to make people feel good, but none of us, even David who I’ve spoken to about this, expected it to be this amazing online at all. 

Nerds & Beyond: It’s definitely a little happy corner of the internet right now. Everyone’s always positive and supporting one another, and it’s not just the fandom, obviously everyone actually invovled in the show has been so phenomenal about being interactive and really supporting the fandom just as much as we’ve supported you.

Samba Schutte: It’s become a family. We’ve become a crew … the fandom nickname is the crew. I believe in that nickname because without them, the show wouldn’t live on, and some people would not have been aware of the show if it wasn’t for the response it generated. We’re engaging because we’re so inspired by the response. I posted a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, photos and videos. I baked the orange glaze cake for Easter and that has spawned over 120 cakes so far that have been baked and shared, which is incredible. It’s just this positive, like you said, little corner of the internet and it’s making people want to watch the show and it’s making people want to engage with the show. For us it’s just an honor to see this fan art, and to see how it’s moved and touched people. We obviously want as many people as possible to see the show, yes, but it wouldn’t be possible without the response from the fans. It’s just a phenomenon. It’s an honor and it’s just so moving to see — to see how it’s touched people’s lives on a level none of us expected it would. 

Nerds & Beyond: I know the fandom is going to be very emotional when they read this after that last answer, so let’s do some fun questions! I also love food, so I have ask some food related questions – which only seems right considering you’re an avid home baker and Roach is quite the chef. I’m going ask this for you personally and from Roach’s perspective — what is your favorite thing to bake, and are you more of a savory or sweet person? 

Samba Schutte: Oooo … my favorite thing to bake at home is the “Samba Cake,” which is my ideal flavors: coffee, coconut and chocolate. I designed the recipe and I posted it online, I think on my YouTube channel. That’s my favorite thing to bake and yes, I am a sweet over savory person. I think Roach is a savory person. He’s made some amazing spreads — the dining scene with the British, the breakfast spread with Calico Jack, and the tapas even. He’s a really good chef. The quality of food I saw that they’d have for the prop food is impressive, too — Roach would make these pickle sandwiches and puff pastries and all these amazing little berry muffins … and the tapas. He’s learned some culinary skills somewhere. Yeah, I’m sweet and Roach is savory.

Nerds & Beyond: Do you think Roach would have a favorite meal or item to cook? 

Samba Schutte: Clearly something with onions! Because why else would he be hugging that onion bag? 

Nerds & Beyond: That was his prized possession at that moment. 

Samba Schutte: He did not wanna let go of that bag. I didn’t even know about that beforehand. I show up on set, they’re like, “Samba, yeah, you’ll be lying down over here holding this bag of onions.” I’m like, “Oh really?” So I made myself as comfortable as I could, but with a bag of onions, which is, let me tell you, not very comfortable.

Nerds & Beyond: That’s hard. There are definitely better places to rest.

Samba Schutte: If you watch that shot, you’ll see my neck was at a very uncomfortable angle, because I think I’m sleeping on a cannon as I’m holding this bag of the bulgy, hard onions … and they were real onions too. So I smelled lovely after that. 

Nerds & Beyond: Nothing like smelling like a bag of onions after a hard day’s work. One last big question: we touched on the fandom and how they are so creative and make so many beautiful things every single day, but has there been anything that you’re itching to see someone make? 

Samba Schutte: They’ve covered so much, which is so amazing. From everything I’ve come by, whether it’s digital or painted or anything else, it’s just so moving — all of it. It’s so beautiful to see because it’s an expression of someone’s creativity after being in touch with the show.

Oh, the Muppets maybe. You know how we’ve been compared to Muppets because, as someone else said, Con is the only real person. So maybe the rest of us are Muppets. Maybe drawings of all of us as kids … I saw one or two photos or paintings and drawings of Stede as a child and Blackbeard as a child, and maybe seeing all of us as kids would show the sweet side of us, before we decided to become pirates.

Nerds & Beyond: You want to see everybody’s origin? 

Samba Schutte: What were we? What are we? Why, why, why was their blood on the day the Swede was born in the rain? Why did he become a pirate? Why did Roach become a pirate after learning those culinary skills from someone? Who taught Roach those culinary skills? Maybe it was some Parisian baker or whatever, I don’t know. Why was Lu a pickpocket as a child? Why is Black Pete so aggressive? I’d love to see some origin maybe. That’d be fun. But you all have already done a lot, do not feel pressure to on my behalf. 

Nerds & Beyond: Perfect. That’s all I have for you, Samba! Thank you again for taking time out of your day to talk to me. I also want to say congratulations for being a part of this amazing series, and for your performance specifically. I hope we get to talk again in the future, hopefully after season 2!

Samba Schutte: Thank you, Hannah. Thank you for always supporting and posting fun articles to keep the momentum going for the series. All of that helps to get us renewed. 

Nerds & Beyond: Everyone wants it, and we’re all manifesting for some good news on that front soon.

Samba Schutte: I appreciate every single one of you. 

Our Flag Means Death is available to stream now on HBOMax. Our interview with Vico Ortiz can be found here. Please be sure to credit Nerds & Beyond when sharing the interview, and make sure you check out Schutte’s YouTube video below on his recipe for “Samba Cake!”

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