Is there a nastier character on television than "Outlander's" Black Jack Randall?
As cruel a schemer as "Game of Thrones'" Cersei Lannister, as cunningly manipulative as "Gotham's" Oswald Cobblepot, as homicidally ruthless as "Scandal's" Rowan Pope and as sexually sadistic as "GoT's" Ramsay Snow, Black Jack's may be the blackest hearted Big Bad of them all, played to malicious, all-too-believable perfection by Tobias Menzies.
With the first season of the Starz drama, adapted from novelist Diana Gabaldon's bestselling series by acclaimed writer-producer Ronald D. Moore, concluding on Saturday, Black Jack has only just begun his brutal, bloody torment of the heroic Highlander Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), who sacrificed himself to her freedom for his time-traveling love Claire (Caitriona Balfe) -- and, as readers of the books know, things get far, far uglier.
In an exclusive conversation with Moviefone, Menzies meditates on the nature and motives behind monstrous Black Jack –- as well as his lookalike ancestor Frank Randall –- with some surprising perspectives.
WARNING: There are a few spoilers ahead for those unfamiliar with the flow of the first and second novels' storylines.
Moviefone: When "Outlander" first came your way, what was your initial reaction to it?
Tobias Menzies: I did think about it. It's always a particular type of commitment to sign up for multiple years on a TV show. However, I mean, the thing that initially drew me to it was, obviously, the opportunity to play two different people is an unusual thing for a TV show -- and, obviously, interesting. And also Ron [Moore] – I had admired "Battlestar Galactica." That was a very character-driven – albeit sci-fi, but really that wasn't the point. It was about the characters and very well-written, sort of psychological, really interesting. I thought it was really great TV.
So I was struck by the fact that he was going to be creating the show. And then, in a way, much later came the awareness of the books and Diana and the sort of global phenomenon that is "Outlander." But yeah, that was really the things that struck me first.
Which Randall were you most drawn to at first? Black Jack or Frank?
For obvious reasons, I think Black Jack is obviously the flashier and more sort of attention grabbing of the two, but I have really enjoyed having the variety of the two different people. It's been a really enjoyable job to do for that reason, really. And yeah, I am now, equally as fond of them for their different reasons. And I think they both bring sort of different textures to the overall kind of show. And I think one of Diana's strengths is she writes very good characters.
One of the things I enjoy about your performance is there's no gimmick to making one or the other work. There's no limp or mustache. How did you navigate making them very different individuals?
That's interesting. I'm glad that you brought that up. I'm interested that you like that, because that was something I was very keen to do, was not to ink in the difference too heavily. But obviously that comes with a certain amount of risk. The danger is that you don't quite delineate them enough. And obviously, I get asked this quite a lot, and I can't really come up with a satisfactory answer. It's been quite sort of –- it wasn't particularly logical. It was intuitive.
I remember the fittings, putting on the clothing, being very helpful. The very different sort of weight of cloth and made me stand differently, especially the uniform for Jack. But in a way, I just to a certain degree was daring to trust that the costumes and the script and the setting would do a lot of the work for me – and then daring to be maybe at times a little bit similar. And wanting the difference to be in the eyes rather than, as you say, the mustache or a limp.
But yeah, there's an element of risk about that. And I'm, obviously very encouraged that people do feel there is a definite difference between the two people. Because, as you say, I'm not doing anything particularly radically different with my face. But that was certainly much more interesting to me to have that rather than something very overt. Because in a way, then you take away what is kind of fun and interesting about having the same actor play two different people.
Once the scope of Jack's story was revealed to you –- and the fact that he's quite vicious –- how did you work with that to make him as evil as he needs to be, but also to make him a realistic person?
I think I was keen from the beginning -– and Ron had a similar kind of sensibility in this regard -– to make him as three-dimensional as I could possibly make him. Make him very much a product of his time, of his experiences, of the Jacobite rebellion, to root him very strongly in that. To avoid him being just purely evil, just sort of a black-and-white villain. I wanted him to be as complicated as I think Diana has written it, actually.
And so Ron and the writers really helped me to do that, with, for instance, taking what in the book is only, I think, half a page, which is the interrogation of Claire by Jack, and taking that sort of small piece of the book and folding that out in an entire episode, which then gave me the opportunity for us as an audience and as a show to look into the psyche and the thinking of Jack. And I think that's gone a long way to helping us fill him out a bit and give some context, some understanding, if not empathy, for how he behaves and what he does.
In every interaction with him, he goes to a cruel or vicious place. Is there another side to him that we're going to see or delve into what got him to that place?
I'm not completely clear about this, because I have not completely crossed the second book. But my understanding is that some of the softer sides of Jack are revealed in his interactions in the second book with his brother. His brother, Alex, comes into it -– who, in my correspondence with Diana, is of the opinion that really maybe that's the only person that he truly ever loved was this younger brother.
So it will be interesting to see what the writers come up with, but I think certainly that might be an opportunity to see a softer aspect of Jack in an intimate situation. Because you're right: thus far, he never lets anyone close. And whenever he becomes one-on-one, seeks to dominate. But so far, we haven't seen him interact with family. Family is, obviously, always different.
I think that's what's good about the character is you feel there's plenty of rope for us to sort of continue to understand and unpack what drives someone who, on the face of it, is so sadistic and cruel. It's inevitable that you then raise questions about why, how does someone arrive to this place?
When the sexual element of the character came up for you, was that an exciting place to go, or did you have to wrap your head around "How am I going to navigate these scenes?"
I wasn't nervous about it. I'm not nervous about nudity or portraying sexuality. But here's the one thing that I wrestled with a little bit was, the point of the sexuality. The sexual aggression or the sexual attacks that he does, I suppose I was very keen to make that a tool that he used, rather than the goal. That he's not about -– his interest is not to rape someone. His interest is to use rape to break someone down, as a tool of war in a way. Since war began, it's been a tactic that's been used, and Jack is no different.
And also, I feel that's, in a way, not completely the objective when it comes to Jamie as well. And I know there are plenty of people who probably disagree with me in that regard about Jack. Fans have written about the fact that he's in love with Jamie, and I'm not sure I completely agree with it. I was more interested in the attraction being more psychological and more about his sadism, about meeting someone who was his equal. Beginning with this event where he flogs him a hundred times after he had already been flogged a hundred times. And he finds or encounters a young man who is able to endure more pain than he's ever administered to anyone else.
And on his journey as a sadist, in his life, that is a red letter day. And so it functions on different levels. There may well be a sexual attraction, but that's only one of a mixture of things that attracts him or interests him about Jamie.
What makes me curious is the encounter with Jamie's sister Jenny, where Jack had the intent but not the ability. What did you make of that?
Again, I wanted that to be not just about a gay man not getting it up with a woman, because I'm not sure that that's what Jack is. I'm not sure he is. And also, the idea of homosexual was not even a language, or an idea that was really fully formed in that period. Sexuality was much more... the lines were less clearly drawn. So no, what interested me about that encounter was to see a chink in his armor, really.
For whatever reason, the sister stumbles on a response that unmans him. And I suppose that you could make that argument that out of tyrannical behavior, he's unraveled by ridicule or satire. That you could probably make the Nazi regime... one of the strongest against megalomania is satire and humor, and so it feels like quite a modern moment there. I think it was less about Jack not getting it up, but about what gets under his skin. And I think it makes it quite a peculiar kind of moment.
Tell me about the aspect of the cast having to go to those dark places and everybody coming away not too traumatized by the acting exercise. Has it been pretty smooth sailing with everybody?
I think the truth is, when you do it, you can't see what you're doing, so it's really cathartic -- and often, by the nature of filming, it's strangely technical. About hitting that mark and not covering that light. And really, the true impact of it only really comes together when it's all cut together and the music, and then you see it on the screen. And you go, "Okay -- that's what we made." But in a way, you're worrying about the details at the time. And so you rarely get a chance to look up and see the bigger picture, and that's probably a helpful thing [laughs].
After a day of that on set, do you shake it off right away?
The funny thing about that -- and this may be a peculiarity of me, but I don't find it -- it's not something I have to shake off really. It feels... because it's a sort of cathartic thing, in the doing of it, in a way, you burn it. So no, I've never really had moments of going "Oh, I feel sullied or uncomfortable about what we've done." Because I think that's why we tell dark stories is because they can be the story and not in our lives, you know. And so I think that cathartic thing stops it maybe seeping into your life or feeling the need, as you say, to shake it off.
Did you and Sam use humor about these two characters' relationships amongst yourselves, so when you got to the point you had to act this out you had a comfort zone?
There wasn't that. I was always kind of wary of doing that. But it was interesting that people would sort of josh about it. In some ways, I was interested that we never really sat down and talked about it. And that's probably kind of right, that we sort of saved it for doing it in a way. Because I think you can drain something of energy, if you talk it to death. And for whatever reason, I noticed that we both avoided that conversation, I think [laughs]. Which is interesting.
For Frank Randall, what was the hook you saw in him?
I remember Ron saying something interesting when we first started working together, was he noticed that both Jack and Frank were products of war: men of war, who'd been through war. Frank had been through the Second World War. Jack had been through the Jacobite rebellion. So I think the war was certainly a touchstone for Frank. Understanding what that had been. Then, I feel like the main sort of thematic role that Frank plays in the stories and going forward is probably a study in loss, really. Obviously, in this story, it's the rather esoteric, sci-fi example of someone disappearing through time. But in a way, I think we can all relate to losing people from our lives, however they live. Whether they just leave or whether they die. And that's what's beautiful about his story, I think. And going forward into the second book, when he then has to encounter her again, she returns to him with this apparently absurd story. And the fact that his love is able to transcend those barriers and those difficulties, speaks to a lot of stoicism in him, a lot of character.
And so that portrayal of love between Claire and Frank is a very different beast than the much more maybe youthful, romantic, dashing love that is between Claire and Jamie. But I think no less interesting and sort of heartfelt for all that. And so I look forward to bringing that different sort of colors of what love is, I suppose, into the story. Because, obviously, there's a huge amount of the sort of romantic aspect of it.
But of course, I turn 41 this year, and love and what it is becomes more and more multi-faceted the older you get. I don't know whether you'd agree, but what love has to endure, what love is when it's had to encounter loss or disappointment or betrayal, it becomes maybe less idealistic, but maybe richer for it. I feel like that relationship between Frank and Claire is all about that, really.