If you’ve read the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon, you’ll realize how difficult the job of taking on the roles of Frank Randall and Black Jack Randall is for Tobias Menzies, the actor charged with handling the task. Both characters – Frank and Black Jack – play important roles in how the epic love story between Frank’s time-traveling wife Claire Randall (played by Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie Fraser (played by Sam Heughan). And while some readers of Gabaldon’s novels are sympathetic toward Claire’s husband, Frank, no one feels the slightest sympathy for the fiendish Black Jack who abuses his power and position in disgusting ways.
In support of the series’ August 9, 2014 premiere on Starz, Tobias Menzies joined his fellow Outlander cast members at the San Diego Comic Con to talk to fans and promote the show. Menzies also sat down to chat with journalists about playing Frank and Black Jack, the books, and fans.
Tobias Menzies Outlander Interview
Did you have to play both characters in your audition? How do you keep them separate?
Tobias Menzies: “Wow, was someone complimenting me?”
Tobias Menzies: “That narrows it down. I haven’t been that deliberate. It’s been quite organic and quite intuitive I think. I definitely didn’t want to ‘This is Jack’s walk and this is Frank’s walk.’ I had to be a little subtler than that. I think the clothes have helped a lot. I know Ron has a story, which I’ve heard him tell a few times, and I do remember this day when we were kind of putting on the clothes for Frank and trying some costumes for Jack. I found those very helpful in terms of posture and how you carry yourself. And then I guess it’s partly just the majesty of engagement so that you have to really think about who they are, where they’ve come from. And then also trust the story and the context that you’re given and this amazing production that’s being produced…but that’s good to hear.
There’s an element of crossing your fingers and hoping that the work you do does pay off so that hopefully there’s maybe a little bit of a different look in the two different sets of eyes, but I wanted it to be that rather than, ‘Oh yeah, you can tell by the different voice or you can tell by the different walk.’ I was almost as interested in what was similar about them as to what was different about them. I remember the first conversation with Ron [D. Moore], he was very struck by the fact that both Frank and Jack are both men formed by war, two different wars, separated by 200 years but both sort of deeply shaped by conflict, Jacobi rebellion and the 2nd World War with very different results. One maybe saved by the love of a good woman and Jack very much doesn’t survive it, goes to a very dark place and loses his moral compass.”
Were you able to find something you like and redeemable about Jack?
Tobias Menzies: “I mean, I think I would put it more like I think it’s important to try and give it a psychological rooting, to understand where someone is coming from. You don’t have to agree with what they do. I think that, coupled with just a performative relish, an enjoyment of what they do, because often the villains do all the things that one is not allowed to do in one’s own life. That’s enjoyable to do and to watch, like a vicarious thing. But I was keen with Jack not for him just to be a two dimensional villain, to give it some complexity, again coming out of what his experience of war has been, his experience of Scotland, the Jacobi rebellion. He’s a man who’s seen too many things and that has poisoned his sense of humanity, his sense of God, his sense of morality. All of that is very, very crunchy and interesting to play.”
Is the whip the thing you’d like the most to do?
Tobias Menzies: [Laughs] “No, I don’t think I would want to whip someone. No, I think the thing I appreciate most about Jack is his brutal honesty. He says it exactly as it is and that’s incredibly liberating to see and to do. Sometimes you wish you could be that honest.”
He’s less dichotomous than Frank is?
Tobias Menzies: “Yes, I would say Frank is more of a politician. He’s a spy. You get a sense with Frank that there are lots of things that he’s not telling you. Even his relationship with Claire, you don’t always know whether Claire’s getting all of him. That’s a nice texture as they try and recover who they are and what they are. That’s been the impact for Frank.”
Have you read all the books?
Tobias Menzies: “I’ve read the first book and about 200 pages of the second book, so I’m sort of working my way through. But the first season was just the first book so we’ve had plenty of work to do as the scripts come out, and I tend to be quite mouthy about scripts.”
And you haven’t finished filming?
Tobias Menzies: “No, we’ve still got the last part to come. We’ve got the big confrontation between Jamie and Jack to come. We’re doing that, running through ‘til about mid-September so yeah, we’ve still got some interesting stuff to do.”
How close were you filming when you left to come here?
Tobias Menzies: “I’ve actually just had a block off because there were a couple episodes that neither Frank nor Jack were in, so I’ve been away for about four or five weeks of the whole thing. I had to sit down and go, ‘What is this show I’ve been doing?’ So this has been back in the deep end.”
Do you feel like reading ahead will influence how you play the characters?
Tobias Menzies:: “Yes, I think it’s helpful to know where you’re headed. So yeah, absolutely. And Diana’s book is a very rich source material we’re lucky to have. She’s written a very interesting, complicated, for the characters in the world, so that’s been really rich to engage with and try to bring to life. Certainly meeting all the fans over the last day or so, if we weren’t aware beforehand of the responsibility we have, we certainly are now.”
How daunting is that responsibility?
Tobias Menzies: “You’re aware that they have such a clear idea of who these people are, how it looks, what they sound like. Certainly to my mind, I was very aware of needing to just [forget] all that, otherwise you probably wouldn’t get out of bed. ‘I can’t do it.’ So just do the best you can. I think in Ron, we’re in very good hands. He’s a very accomplished storyteller. I really hope that people get into it, are fascinated by the world of it, and also that we don’t disappoint too many of the true lovers of the stories.”
Are your family and friends aware of the huge fandom?
Tobias Menzies: “No. I sort of describe it to them and they sort of go, ‘Oh yeah, sounds good. All right.’ I can’t imagine what my mom would make of this. She’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ But I guess maybe they’ll get more of an idea once the show’s out. It’ll be interesting. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes down.”
Some fans may not understand that you’re trying to play a character. They have their own judgments.
Tobias Menzies: “Absolutely. I think you have to be, as I said, I think you do have to take ownership of the story and you do have to then adapt it. And you can’t be too enslaved because, of course, everyone has their sense of these people. That’s all great but then you have to then trust yourself as storytellers and make the best show you can, make the choices and the calls you think are best for it.”
Was the book the blueprint for you, or having Diana on hand?
Tobias Menzies: “She’s been nice to have. I was in email contact with her, occasionally having a few questions for her. I think Ron and the writing team certainly have always started with the book first of all. They’ve obviously divvied up the first book into 16 episodes but then within each episodes, this is what the book does, and only then chosen if they’re going to depart from that. But always with what the book is doing in mind. So I think as these things go, I think it’s pretty faithful. But I think hopefully there’ll also be a few moments when the readership will be surprised. I would say I think there’s definitely a bit more of Frank, and I think Frank may be the surprise package. Arguably, there’s more of him in the TV show than there is in the book and we try to build him up and the relationship between Claire and Frank so that that’s a genuine dilemma for her. I hope they like that. And if they don’t, it’s too late now.”
Have you walked the floor at Comic Con?
Tobias Menzies: “I haven’t, no. They keep on saying that they’re going to send huge bodyguards with me if I do. And I feel like the one thing that will attract people to you is two huge bodyguards. ‘Who’s that guy?’ So no, I haven’t ventured into it. Honestly, it’s been pretty wall to wall.”
If you wore a costume, what would you wear?
Tobias Menzies: “When I was young, this is probably too out of date now, but I was a big Tintin fan. Do they have Tintin here? Yeah? I don’t know, maybe the two detectives, Thompson and Thompson. Maybe go as one of the Thompsons, or Snowy. I used to love Tintin. Asterix as well. Do they have Asterix here? But yes, I’m showing my age slightly there.”