Starz’s epic time-traveling historical fantasy series (say that five times fast), Outlander, has already achieved cult-like status in the short amount of time it’s been on air. That is mostly thanks to the novels on which it is based — written by Diana Gabaldon — but it’s also because of the stellar acting and storytelling happening on-screen. One such instance of that excellence is Tobias Menzies, who has the enviable (or un, depending on how you look at it) task of portraying two characters: Frank and Black Jack Randall, distantly related figures that pop into Claire Randall/Fraser’s life at different periods in time.
The second half of Outlander‘s first season premieres on Saturday, April 4th (check back for our recap after the episode airs!), so we sat down with Menzies to talk about his primary focus this second half (Black Jack), the series’ subversive ways, and why Ron Moore is just so good at what he does.
Nerdist: So, you play two wildly different characters on one show; what’s that like?
Tobias Menzies: It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot and I still haven’t quite worked out a satisfactory answer, because in a way it felt quite intuitive. I do remember — and Ron [Moore, the series’ showrunner] has talked about this — when I was being put into the clothes for the two different time periods, it sort of informed how I was standing and stuff. I didn’t know that, [but] I was keen not to ink it in too heavily, what was different about them. I wanted the difference to be in the eyes really, rather than anything more overt. I’m encouraged, though, because people seem to genuinely feel that there is a real kind of difference between the two of them. I made the slightly scary decision to sort of trust the narrative, and the costuming, and the setting to do a lot of the work for us so the difference between the two could be subtle, in a way. That’s the fun thing about having, obviously, one actor playing the two people — there’s nice sort of freestyle moments of when they’re similar and when they’re different and we get to play with that.
N: Especially because they’re distantly related.
TM: Yeah, that’s kind of fun and feels a little spooky, you know? Gives you that sort of interesting quality of time, which is one of the major themes in the piece — she literally falls through time, but obviously with Frank and Jack, it gives you that sensation of time. What is a man in 1940s? Does he differ [compared] to a 1740s man?
N: Do you ever worry that Jack gives people a reason to root against Frank, since they’re so different?
TM: No, I don’t think I’m worried about how they’re perceived, particularly. It’s interesting you say they are so different because they are different, but in the shooting of it, we’re also looking for moments when they’re similar. You could make an argument that they’re both men, and products of wars. They’ve both been through war, and maybe Frank had the good fortune of having an amazing woman in his life and he took a different turn. Compared to Jack, who didn’t have that luck and ended up in a sort of darker place by the end of his experiences. They’re cut from the same cloth, they just come to different conclusions, in a way.
N: That’s interesting — I never looked at it in that way. But it is true with the parallels with war.
TM: Yeah and I think that’s true, too, of most people’s lives. I suppose people’s lives are the sum of the decisions they’ve made.
[[Warning: the below portion has SPOILERS from the books that have yet to air — skip down to the next photo to avoid.]]
N: So what are you excited for people to see in terms of how Black Jack develops over the second half of the season?
TM: My main participation in this second half of the first season is when Jack has Jamie imprisoned and they go through this sort of dark night of the soul together. It’s some of the darker stuff Diana Gabaldon wrote, so we approach that with some trepidation. But if we get it right, it could be quite emotional and sort of revealing of both the men involved in it. On the surface of it, it’s Jack sort of breaking Jamie down and psychologically investigating who and what he is: his essence. But, as is true of all sadomasochistic relationships, the sadist also sort of reveals himself. It was hard stuff to shoot, and I really hope that we got somewhere interesting with it. I’ve not seen it cut together yet, but those things feel like important ingredients in the show overall because obviously there’s a lot of quite romantic stuff, quite sort of dashing stuff — adventures and horses and all that — and that’s also a great aspect of the show. But I think what I like about what Ron has done is he hasn’t shied away from making it gritty and making it rooted in some quite dark stuff at times, which I think is a really important ingredient.
It’s so necessary to have that duality in a show like this. If this was a show that was simply more Harlequin-esque it wouldn’t be as interesting to me. the psychological dynamics are so fascinating. It’s like that near-rape scene with Jamie’s sister. You never see it portrayed that way, and it’s so fascinating to see that dynamic and how it breaks down the characters.
TM: Yeah. The challenge with Jack is to always make it as psychological as possible. So it’s not just, as you say, only about sexual aggression and sexual violence which obviously he does a lot of, but I was always keen to make that the tool rather than the goal.
N: In that way you really do unpack Black Jack in really subtle ways. It’s like you see different pieces of the puzzle in tiny actions and reactions that he has to the situations throughout the series. He’s really great at his job because he’s a deeply upset angry frustrated guy.
TM: He wants to get inside their head. It’s not just about that because he is so inside his own head.
N: Because he knows how painful psychological torture can be.
TM: Yeah. Exactly, ‘cuz he’s probably been there himself — I think that’s right. That’s the territory that stops it from being camp or just rape-y.
N: Which, if we can now get into rape territory, the scene between Jenny and Black Jack is probably one of the more interesting ones we’ve seen on TV from a dynamics standpoint.
TM: Well, it never becomes a full rape scene because of what she sort of stumbled into — the laughter that disarms him. It’s the last thing you’d imagine.
N: It’s incredibly subversive and oddly empowering to see the tables flipped like that because you never do.
TM: Well I think that’s one of the things people like about Diana’s writing, the female characters and the strength of them. There’s been lots of stuff in the press about the female gaze; in fact, Ron talked about it at the PaleyFest panel. But the weird thing about it is, in a way, it says more about how [sometimes] TV still lags behind real life. I was talking to someone earlier this morning and they were asking me about some of the sex scenes between Claire and Frank. And how he goes down on her, which she described as being very refreshing to see portrayed, but when we were shooting it, it didn’t seem that bold a decision. This is what people’s lives are but I guess it isn’t portrayed on TV that often.
N: Well, that seems to be inherent at the heart of the show simply because Claire is a woman, whether it’s meant to be revolutionary or subversive not.
TM: And do you feel that as a young woman watching it on TV?
N: It definitely shocks me a little bit, but not in a bad way. It’s more that sometimes you don’t even realize when something is lacking until you see it.
TM: It does show you how, in certain regards, how rigid its portrayal of certain things can be. TV is so powerful now.
How excited are you for the second half of Outlander‘s first season? Let’s discuss in the comments!