We've got a lot of great insight on Tobias Menzies so far but this interview goes into his role as BJR and the switch to Frank Randall. How he manages to make both, different people.
TOBIAS MENZIES: A THOROUGHLY MODERN MAN – BELLO #69
MI6’s Villiers or cable’s latest villain? House of Tully hostage or Caesar’s assassin? 1940s Frank Randall or Jacobite-quashing Black Jack? Perhaps his RADA training and chameleon-like appearance help him achieve all of the above so believably. One thing’s for sure: when you’re Tobias Menzies, it certainly plays up to your strengths to have a face that’s equally as good for time travel as it is for primetime.
Featured in BELLO mag April 2015 issue #69.
Few Hollywood actors could inhabit leading characters from the Bard and then co-star in a Bond movie with such ease as Menzies, nor could they do it so convincingly. This is by no means a slam on Tinseltown’s own, it’s just simple fact. London-based Menzies has been classically trained in stage, TV and film in a way that the average American star has not. An American household name might also be somewhat reluctant to play a cad such as Frank Randall (in Starz’s Outlander), who was once described by his creator Diana Gabaldon as a “sadistic bisexual pervert.” Yes, if you want one of those realistically portrayed, you need to go to Britain. And I say this without any bias – honest! – but based solely on the recent exodus of American casting directors going across the pond to entice our seasoned thespians back to American shores, then landing them smack-dab in some of the most popular TV, film, and cable successes in recent entertainment history (even if these shows technically aren’t based in America, or even in reality, very often).
As English actors go, Tobias might be the most perfectly British man I’ve EVER spoken to, and I say this as a native. Right down to that very proper dialect, I see why they cast him as the voice of the satirical Captain English in Jackboots on Whitehall: from the moment I clicked on Skype and saw his dandelion avatar, as well as his initial uncertainty of whether he was “meant to be on camera for the call or not” and the hilarious repeated switching from “visible” to “voice only” that ensued. Mr. Menzies, a self-proclaimed technological luddite and actor who has had an enviable career spanning over ten years that include nearly 30 TV shows, 13 theater productions (of which he’s been nominated for numerous awards) and 12 motion pictures, all tucked neatly under his 20th century belt, was at his utmost obliging and charming self during our chat.
As we discussed the popularity of Outlander, I asked why he thinks it’s been looked upon as revolutionary for a narrative to be seen through the (very sexually charged) eyes of a female character. “Everyone gets quite excited by that, don’t they?” he pondered. “The suggestion behind it hasn’t been done before.” Well, not often on American TV, at least. “I wasn’t aware that was such a revolutionary idea,” he points out, perplexed of the notion of making women worldwide go weak at the knees. “Some have even referred to it as the female Game of Thrones,” which just so happens to be another critically acclaimed, literary-fantasy-turned-bodice-ripping-saga he’s starred in.
*Fun fan fact: He informs me that both George R. R. Martin and Diana Gabaldon are also close friends…but I digress.
When asked if he wondered “if the shock of Claire’s narrative is due to cultural difference between the Brits and the Yanks,” he admits, “I hadn’t really thought about the differences, or the idiom of the British soaps (and female characters) and how that might play into how it’s perceived in the UK.” After all, it’s not uncommon to have a real woman (in shape and age) with a healthy sexual appetite who beds her male counterparts as the protagonist of the piece (e.g. Bet Lynch in Coronation Street, Clara Bowden Jones in White Teeth, and Detective Superintendent Tennison in Prime Suspect).
“I suppose that’s true; I never considered the nuanced cultural differences.”
But it’s the nuanced differences that set Menzies apart. While Hugh Grant can be seen as an affable fop, Menzies is a charismatic sadist on-screen…and we all hate to admit that we actually like it. Handsome and dashing at first, but usually harboring some dark or murderous plot, it’s a role he appears to relish in. “Well, it’s going to get a LOT darker than last season,” he tells me matter-of-factly. He goes on to nonchalantly explain some upcoming scenes of torture we have to look forward to. “You see, Jamie gets held captive by Jack and tortured as his prisoner in the depths of Wentworth prison. It’s a moral and psychological investigation of Jamie, by Jack. They didn’t shy away from those scenes in the writing, and if half of what we filmed ends up on the screen, it’s going to make for some uncomfortable viewing.”
He then starts reconsidering my earlier thought. “Maybe Outlander hasn’t caused quite the same sort of stir in the UK.” No doubt English audiences – especially women – love the show and probably the villain too. I suggest that they are probably a bit more accustomed to that viewpoint, so it should be an equally big hit. That, and of course the rather attractive cast.
“Yeah, it’s a relatively good looking bunch” he agrees sheepishly.
Although very comfortable in his own skin, he doesn’t give much credence to the idea that he is just as camera-friendly as his co-stars. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if an astounded “poppycock” came up at this point in our call. Like I said, there’s a reason he lends so well to various periods, times, and spaces. Something in the tone of his voice, and even his demeanor, is both morally ambiguous and unspecific to any particular century. He fits just as easily into “now” as he does into “then.”
“I think the overall aesthetic of the show is quite muddy and grainy, though; they haven’t tidied it up too much, which I really like,” he explains ecstatically. It’s almost as if being considered “too” attractive might be an absolute curse.
His chuckles are very husky, and that’s where you really hear the devilish undertones of Black: both pleasant and a little unsettling, like good-tasting Scotch.
There is a definite bleakness to Outlander; it’s a not the cheeriest set or color palette. “[There are] a lot of moors, yes. Scotland is a big part of the show, so we shoot there a lot,” he says. “And there’s nowhere on earth that looks quite like it. In many ways the show is a hymn to the country.” Most of the shows that he’s been in are filmed in some far-off locale, the first being HBO’s Rome, then GOT, and now Outlander. “I’ve never worked on an American show, set in America, so there’s that part of me that feels I haven’t had the full American experience yet.”
He’s definitely experienced a full American budget. “Yes. Oh yeah, I’ve been very fortunate in that regard to be involved with really ambitious stories so far. It’s exciting making TV on that scale, the great part being that, creatively, I’ve never been hampered because of it, but I’m also aware that cable is a unique niche.” I would have to agree; there is a certain level of incest that can only truly be explored on HBO.
“I imagine it might be very different working on network TV in the States,” he theorizes.
You would imagine right, Mr. Menzies. At the suggestion of raunchiness, there’s that chuckle again. It’s hard to tell if Tobias is a bit shy, if he’s got a dirty sense of humor, or if he possesses a very vivid imagination. Maybe he’s just a bit tired. Or maybe, as in the beginning, it’s a bit of all of the above.
Outlander returns to Starz on April 4th, with each episode available 24 hours later on Amazon Prime in the UK. If you want to binge on the first half of the season, it will be available on Amazon Prime starting March 26.