'Outlander' actor Tobias Menzies of his character double duty: 'I like to watch characters who don't show their hand straightaway'
Menzies received a Golden Globe nomination for his work on the Starz drama, on which the actor portrays both an eighteenth-century villain and a World War II veteran. 'Outlander' airs its season finale on July 9.
Neil Davidson/Starz Entertainment/AP
"Outlander," Starz's genre- and time-spanning serial, boasts two of television's most fascinating characters.
They're both played by Tobias Menzies.
The series, adapted from Diana Gabaldon's wildly popular novels and now about to conclude its second season, focuses on Claire, a lovely British Army nurse mysteriously swept from 1945 back to the mid-1700s. She's plopped into a strange and alien existence, including marriage to Jamie, a dashing Scottish warrior, even as she struggles to return to "modern" times and the husband she left behind.
Menzies plays Frank Randall, a starchy historian in the 20th century who dearly loves his wife and is suffering her loss in more ways than one.
Menzies also plays Frank's 18th-century ancestor, Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall, a cruel British Redcoat officer who means to break Jamie, the man he sees as his archrival in love and war.
These polar-opposite characters are both seen sparingly in "Outlander," but, thanks to Menzies' vivid portrayals, they are central to the saga and dramatic highlights.
"That's been one of the exciting things about this project," says Menzies in a recent interview. "There are two characters, but between each of them is a genuine range of psychologies and emotions."
In the season opener, Claire (played by Caitriona Balfe) has found her way back to the 20th century. She is welcomed by Frank with understanding and forgiveness ("All that matters is, you're back") after her two-year disappearance. Forgiveness, that is, until Frank learns in a painful scene that the child Claire is carrying was fathered two centuries before by her Scottish soul mate, Jamie (Sam Heughan).
"Frank is paying the price for the love affair between Claire and Jamie," says Menzies. "In that scene was, 'Here's the bill.'"
Menzies made it heartrending and unforgettable.
In the most recent episode, he made waves in his other role as the devilish Black Jack.
"The job playing him is not to become too extreme, too camp, too mustache-twirling," says Menzies. "And never to let the audience off the hook and discount him as JUST a monster. There are moments where you see some heart and genuine humanity. To show that range pays dividends, I think."
In that episode, Black Jack pays dividends aplenty with previously unseen flashes of humanity. Then he fiercely contradicts them.
Frank is a lovesick victim. Black Jack is a seething wretch. Both are played graphically yet quietly by Menzies, who makes a practice of subverting expectations.
"That's what I like to watch," he says. "I like to watch characters who don't show their hand straightaway. Someone who doesn't make you feel comfortable is an essential part of most stories.
"There are definitely elements of 'Outlander' – the more romantic side of it – that would not be my natural taste in TV," he adds, "which is another reason I like the Jack character. It's important to have that darkness. It's why I liked how Ron and the writers were as bold as they were at the end of last season."
He's referring to executive producer Ronald D. Moore, who masterminded a sequence of horror where Black Jack raped and tortured Jamie in the dungeon cell where he was holding Jamie prisoner.
"I just want this to be a pleasant experience for us both," he told Jamie with chilling courtliness.
The London-born Menzies was drawn to acting after frequent theater-going with his mom as a teen.
"The world seemed bigger, richer, watching things unfold in those rooms," he recalls. "In drama, you see other versions of life: 'Oh, THAT'S what it would be like to be that!' Something obviously was stirring in me."
Besides "Outlander," this season he rejoined the cast of HBO's "Game of Thrones" and recently costarred in the acclaimed AMC limited series "The Night Manager." Past projects include "The Honorable Woman," ''Casino Royale," and "Rome," where he played Marcus Junius Brutus.
Ahead: Look for him to resume his double duty next season on "Outlander."
"When I started acting," he says, "I found a place and a release which I didn't find in my own life. I was able to be more than I was able to be day-to-day, and that was the pull.
"And I suppose it still is."