Tobias Menzies Can Tell a Story Without a Word

The Crown star once dreamed of being a mime. Onscreen, he speaks mostly with his face.

Photo: Joseph Sinclair
Photo: Joseph Sinclair
Photo: Joseph Sinclair

When I told a friend I would be talking with Tobias Menzies, she looked at me blankly until I pulled up a picture of him on my phone. “Oh!,” she said. “That guy! I hate that guy!”

“It’s not an uncommon reaction,” says Menzies, sitting in a conference room in Netflix’s London office. He assumes (correctly) that my friend knows him as the sadistic Black Jack Randall on Outlander. It’s one of the many roles he has played that were notable characters in smaller productions (The Terror, The Honourable Woman) or ancillary characters in giant ones (Edmure Tully in Game of Thrones). Thus the familiarity of his face and the simultaneous revulsion — he is that guy, the horrible Black Jack. But Menzies’s position as “oh, that guy!” may be about to change as he steps into his most prominent role yet: Prince Philip in the third and fourth seasons of The Crown, opposite Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth.

Playing someone who is so much a part of the British national imagination is a new challenge for Menzies, and he spent a lot of time thinking about the personality underneath Philip’s public image. “There’s a heat to him,” Menzies tells me. “There’s a pent-up energy. A suppression. An alpha maleness that has had to be diverted in different directions. He’s more choleric [than the rest of the royal family]. More inclined to bite. Which I find endearing. The reality is that he spends his life going into lots of rooms where people are nervous to meet him — tongue-tied, reverential, don’t say very much — which must be very boring and then at times just infuriating.” The technical aspects of playing Philip are all specific physical elements Menzies has enjoyed learning to take on — his gait, his vocal tics, his “necky and beaky” qualities, as he puts it.

Menzies’s own face is memorable, interesting, distinctive. He is handsome in a way that suggests both ruggedness and elusiveness. The ruggedness comes largely from his cheeks; both feature noticeable, unusually deep vertical creases that frame his face. They must be smile lines — it’s hard to imagine how else they’d form. Yet in his acting roles, Menzies often deploys his face more severely. He has appeared in a few comedies (largely thanks to his “good friend Sharon Horgan,” he says), but he’s much more drawn to dramatic roles. Even in a comedy, he is almost always the straight man. His final appearance on Game of Thrones was a little like that: Menzies’s Edmure briefly offers himself as a possible choice for king, but Sansa cuts him off mid-sentence. The moment is hilarious, and Menzies plays it with complete tragic gravity. It occurs to me that the lines on his cheeks could also be the result of grimacing.

As Tully, as Black Jack, in his fantastic work as James Fitzjames on The Terror, and absolutely in The Crown, Menzies demonstrates an uncanny capacity to define his characters along an axis of charisma. Depending on the role, he and his deep-set cheek lines twist the character toward charismatic-compelling or charismatic-repulsive. His work on Outlander illustrates both sides, as he alternates between the kind, frustrated Frank Randall and his nefarious ancestor Black Jack. But it’s also visible in small roles like his work on the comedy series This Way Up, in which he plays a man who could easily come off as aggressive and cruel. Menzies instead makes the character’s sternness gruffly appealing, the charisma of a modern, funny Mr. Rochester. (“I’ll take it,” he says, amused, when I offer this theory of his performances.)

When Menzies was young, he was mostly a tennis player. But his mother took him to lots of London theater as a teenager, and eventually he realized he was strongly drawn to visual performance and dance. He tried to attend the famous Lecoq mime school in Paris but couldn’t scrape together the money to go. Instead, he got a grant to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, originally intending to join an experimental-theater company like Complicité or Shared Experience, where he would be more involved in the production of a work. But at RADA, he says, “I got the [acting] bug.”

I am slightly stunned and more than a little sad that Menzies’s mime career never materialized. It seems wrong that there’s no version of him with his face painted white, his creased cheeks pulled downward into the image of the sad clown. Especially because, as he goes on to describe the way he approaches acting, the younger image of him as someone who wanted to go to mime school suddenly makes a great deal of sense.

For example, Menzies says he would like to play a cowboy, a role, for him, that is about being taciturn to the point of wordlessness. “Especially onscreen, less words are often really helpful,” he explains. “Contrary to the cliché that actors are always wanting more to say, it’s a common theme throughout my career that you often find yourself asking for lines to be stripped out. You don’t need all of that. It clouds it. If I’m able to get rid of some of that, then I can land the punch better sometimes.”

The Crown, he’s quick to clarify, is well aware that less is often more; its scripts are not distractingly wordy. In his character’s most crucial episode of season three, Philip becomes obsessed with the moon landing, mesmerized and provoked by the image of men who’ve done something he feels represents a pinnacle of human achievement. Many scenes in this episode involve lengthy nonverbal sequences. The camera holds on long shots of Philip’s rapt face as he watches live TV footage broadcast from the moon. The amount of emotion Menzies can convey in the inherently undramatic act of sitting and watching TV, I later realize, is more than a little mimelike.

Acting, for him, is ultimately a craft, and he doesn’t worry much about whether some alchemical magic will hit for him in the moment he most needs it on set. “I feel there’s a lot of mysticism and snake oil around some of this stuff around how actors talk about their work,” he says. “It makes me a bit embarrassed. Yes, you hope that lightning will come down and invigorate the monster, as it were. But there’s no substitute for working hard.”

Outside of The Crown, the primary thing consuming his life at the moment is the process of renovating his flat, which he seems completely absorbed in. (The next day on the set of The Crown, I watch him pull a smartphone from the pocket of Prince Philip’s formalwear so he can show a crew member pictures of the project.) He likes riding around London on a motorbike, although he recently switched to a pedal bike for, he says, reasons of health and the environment. He loves to go to the theater. At 45, he is not married but says he would like to have children; he just hasn’t “found a situation yet where it seems right or possible.”

As Menzies has gotten older, he says, he has become more melancholy. “I find life hard,” he claims sincerely, with what I suspect is a fair amount of understatement. “Bruising, curious, disappointing at times, amazing at times. You have more life experience, and you get more beaten up along the way. I find it a bumpy ride. I know lots of other people find it funner than I do.” But in a way, this has been useful for his profession. The emotions a performer needs to access are all “closer to the surface.” “[The acting] side of things has gotten easier as I’ve gotten sadder,” he says with a smile.

Tobias Menzies Can Tell a Story Without a Word