Interview: Outlander’s Tobias Menzies – ‘I think Black Jack Randall is one of the great villains'
The British actor talks about his latest role in the much anticipated Outlander, and its links to Game of Thrones and Rome
Outlander is the latest TV blockbuster in waiting. It’s a time travelling historical romance set across 200 years after our heroine, Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), finds herself thrown back through time from 1945 to the Scottish Highlands in 1743. It's already a huge hit in the States but is only just coming to the UK on Amazon Prime. British actor Tobias Menzies – who plays Claire’s husband Frank Randall in the 1940s and his ancestor, the villainous ‘Black Jack Randall’ in the 18th century – tells us more.
What is Outlander all about?
It's a 16 part series based on a set of books written by Diana Gabaldon. The books start in 1945 just after the end of the Second World War and a couple who have been separated by the war go to Scotland to renew their marriage. Then one evening our heroine, Claire, goes to these standing stones and through the magic of the stones is transported 200 years through time back to Jacobite Scotland. Most of the series is her adventures in Jacobite Scotland trying to get back to her own time. That's a broad overview; it's a historical adventure, historical romance with a bit of time travel at the beginning. So in terms of genre it's a bit of a mongrel. The books have had a huge following for some 20 years and have sold a lot of copies. The response in the US has been really good and generally the fans have been very excited by what we've made.
Could you tell us more about your character? Or, more accurately, two characters?
One of the more interesting casting choices is that there are these two characters: one is the husband in 1945 who is married to Claire [Frank Randall] and then his ancestor 'Black Jack' Randall who is the villain of the piece. So I play those two pretty different characters. It was definitely one of the things that piqued my interest when approached about the project as it's an unusual proposition.
Did you prefer playing one over the other?
The real pleasure of the last year or so of filming has been switching between these two quite different, and at times quite similar, people. It's a challenge but an exciting one.
Was the casting process any different as you were playing two distinct roles?
It was pretty straightforward. I was asked to tape a scene playing each character and then a couple of weeks later I was offered the part. It was surprisingly one of the most straightforward castings I've been through given the proposition. I thought I'd be asked to jump through a lot more hoops but they obviously found what they were looking for.
Did you enjoy working with Caitriona Balfe?
Caitriona is great; she's really talented and has been wonderful to work with. It was a very long and sometimes demanding shoot so good humour was required, but when you are working with people like that it makes it pretty easy.
Outlander been described as 'fantasy' but a lot of it is based around historical events.
It's not very accurate to describe it as a 'fantasy'. It obviously has this one piece of time travel as the inciting incident, but the root is in real history. The Jacobite rebellion forms the backdrop to the majority of the story.
Did you enjoy filming in Scotland?
We were all staying in Glasgow and the studios were in Cumbernauld. We were shooting all over Scotland as a lot of the story is set in the Highlands. Scotland is a huge part of the show and we had a great time up there. I'm a big fan of Glasgow: it's a great city, great people, great crews to work with. It's been a very happy experience.
How long did it take to shoot?
The first season was 16 episodes and they were a full hour, so we started September 13th and finished November 14th, just over a year. Season two will be more like nine months because we're making slightly less, 13 episodes, for the second book. So it's a big undertaking but the storylines in the books require that level of attention.
Why do you think Outlander has such a loyal passionate following?
I think Gabaldon's books are quite unusual. In terms of genre, they are quite a mixture of themes [and] narratively, really bold. She's also very good with her characters. She's written very strong characters with a really good female heroine at the heart of it. I think Jack is one of the really great villains. There's some really strong archetypes, she's given the story a classic structure but with her own particular twist. They seem to have really sparked people's imaginations.
I hugely enjoyed diving into the third season of Game of Thrones. Very different shows but what's similar is the production values and the ambition in making the show. The funding levels and the quality of the production on both of them is second to none. The Americans are making TV on a scale that British television can't really compete with in terms of budget so it's very exciting to work on.
You also starred in Rome. Do you see a link between the three?
Rome was a very different beast, but in some ways you could argue it was a forerunner to a lot of this genre. You can see the seeds of Game of Thrones in Rome. Outlander has a slightly more classic aesthetic, there is sex and violence, but it's less graphic than either Thrones or Rome. What does bind them all is that they are all great stories. That period of history in Rome is one of the most vivid periods of history and we have all these great characters, that's also true of the George RR Martin novels and Diana's novels are similarly very strong. And of course George RR Martin and Gabaldon are close friends.
Why do you think these big productions have started coming over to the UK to film?
I think the landscapes of Northern Ireland really inform and infuse the world of Game of Thrones and I think the same is true of Outlander and Scotland. It's an extra character in the piece. We are also blessed with a strong cadre of actors over here and people appreciate that.
What does the future hold for Outlander?
We start filming [season two] in May. No word has come out of the writer's room, I think they are all locked away in LA furiously tapping away at their keyboards, so it'll be exciting to start reading scripts when they come out. There's eight books so there's a long road ahead of us.
The first eight episodes of Outlander will be available on Amazon Instant Video from Thu 26 Mar, with further episodes available each week from Sun 5 Apr.