When Claire Randall, the protagonist of the Starz hit Outlander, finds herself transported back in time, she’s confronted by a British military officer who eerily resembles her husband, Frank — except in personality. For one thing, the man she left behind in the 20th century is a nice guy; this 18th-century look-alike tries to rape her. The mystery baddie, she quickly determines, is none other than Black Jack Randall, a nefarious ancestor of her husband stationed in Scotland. Claire’s confusion is understandable, as both guys are played by Tobias Menzies; the actor also currently appears opposite Maggie Gyllenhaal on SundanceTV’s The Honorable Woman, but he might be most recognizable as Catelyn Stark’s brother, Edmure Tully, whom we last saw as the groom at the Red Wedding (“the bloodiest wedding in history!” jokes Menzies). Vulture chatted with Menzies about playing a hero and a villain on the same show, whether Outlander could take the Orphan Black route, and how we might see Edmure again on Game of Thrones. [Note: This interview contains spoilers for past and upcoming episodes of Outlander and Game of Thrones.]
People are either going to love you as Frank, hate you as Jack, or love to hate you ...
I hope people take a guilty pleasure in Jack as well! There's a searing honesty about Jack. He's very disarming and charming, especially when he momentarily reveals some of his underbelly, the darkness that underpins his behavior, his sadism. And in that way, you get a slight frisson of the connectivity over those hundreds of years between these two related men. We have moments where we see Frank in Jack, and vice-versa, and hopefully, it's pleasurable for the audience to feel the shiver of that.
Speaking of his sadism, author Diana Gabaldon calls Jack a "sadistic bisexual pervert."
Well, thank you, Diana! That's delightful. [Laughs.] I think the challenge of that character is to render the dimensions of him, what made him that. Both Frank and Jack are men molded by war. They're products of war, but the end products are very different. You could argue that Frank is saved by the love of a good woman, whereas Jack turns to the dark side and becomes Black Jack. I suppose that's why we watch dramas: to see the stuff that in real life you’d end up in prison for.
Both of them are actually much more developed on the show than they are in the book — Frank via flashbacks, and Jack with this extra layer of psychology.
It's more interesting for the show to build Frank up, to keep Frank alive, because that's what Claire is trying to get back to. So, in some of those flashbacks, you see Frank unburdening himself of his guilt about men he sent to war through the spy network and lost their lives, and his sense of responsibility about that. You can imagine it's there, but it's not explicit in the book. And I've been championing Frank as more interesting or layered than he is in the books. I hope he's a lot more nuanced. And with Jack, they're not inventing stuff, but they're opening up moments, so his first interrogation of Claire becomes most of an upcoming episode. I think reading about the period of history in Scotland, the Jacobite rebellion, it was a very long, very protracted, very brutal sort of guerrilla warfare. It's an insurgency, essentially. A war in all but name. What was done by the Scots and the British on both sides was terrible. So he definitely witnessed great acts of brutality and has meted it out. So, in the context of Outlander, you see him meting it out, but you don't see the British side of the story. The suppression of the clans is what you get. But there are other aspects to it. The Scots were not angels, either, but that's what war can do to people. And the world that Claire experiences in 1743 is a world that we now know is about to disappear. That gives it a great poignancy.
Due to its time-travel narrative, this show poses some difficult moral questions. For example, if Claire strays, is it actually cheating? I mean, technically, Frank’s not even born yet.
That's what's so interesting about the time-travel aspect! Claire thinks about Frank, but Frank doesn't exist yet. It's like the ultimate moral conundrum. I don't see how you would resolve it. I think Frank would probably support Claire in doing what she needs to do to survive. I think in that way, he's an un-possessive man. He has a selfless love. He would want her to survive, and if that means infidelity ...
We'll eventually meet another one of Frank’s ancestors who also bears an uncanny resemblance to him — and presumably to you. Are you going to go all Orphan Black on us?
What is this? Someone else has mentioned this [program] ...
It's a show where one actress plays multiple different characters, all clones. And they shoot and edit it in a way in which the characters can interact with each other.
I would be very up for that! I don't see why not. I'm also not sure how else [we'd do it]. I don't know what the alternative is, because similar to the moment when Claire arrives in the 1740s, where she goes, "Frank?" a similar event happens [in an upcoming episode] when she meets Jack's brother, and she thinks he's Jack. And so obviously, it has to be someone who looks enough like me that she would make that mistake. I would be up for it. And it's an insurance policy, so I don't get fired! [Laughs.] Let's just hope people don't get bored of my face!
They won't. I mean, we didn't even see you last season on Game of Thrones.
Yeah, it would be overkill! [Laughs.] I know David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] are very fond of the character, and they may drag him back at some point, so I wouldn't be surprised if he came back in some capacity. And it would be fun to go back and reprise Edmure. He was a little bit different from the other characters. A little buffoonish. He was fun. I enjoyed my time with them.
You know that Edmure gets his bride pregnant the night of the Red Wedding, right? So he'll be forced to raise his child surrounded by his new in-laws, who just murdered his sister and nephew.
Is that in the book? Okay. I think they've become more confident in making their own show and not feeling too beholden to the books. But maybe! I can't see much good coming from that pregnancy, so that's rich. It'd be nice to do something more than, "Here he is in his cell ..." Do you know Dan and David? Could you encourage them? Next time you're interviewing them, say, "Listen. Edmure Tully. Get him back." Is there a precedent in the show for people being established and then disappearing, and then coming back? And if so, could you encourage them? [Laughs.]
Sure! And of course Scotland, where you're shooting Outlander, isn't so far away from Northern Ireland, where they're shooting season five of Game of Thrones.
This is great. You can be my agent! [Laughs.] This is brilliant! Let me know how it goes, if they can squeeze me in. The more we talk about it, the more I'm convinced this could happen. [Laughs.]
Someone was telling me that you weren't into social media, but I see now you're on Twitter?
I only recently joined. But I am a bit of a technophobe. So while I enjoy it, I can feel the slightly obsessive quality to it. I could see never getting anything else done! If you've got that much going on, there's only so much headspace for all this noise and static. And it's harder to have slower, considerate, deeper thoughts with all that buzz. For me, I have to moderate how much of that is going on, otherwise I can't think straight. Maybe the fascination with historical dramas is somehow connected, because it's a time before all those aspects of modern life, and you can focus on the more profound questions of human existence, what it is to be here and to live and the choices you make. And the more epic dramas are about those more epic themes — life, death, existence, faith. I think everyone needs a bit of that. It can't all be “hashtag amazing.” God knows what someone from now would make of being transported to the 1740s without their cell phone! I remember in drama school, I had a pager, and that seems like ancient history now.