'Outlander' Postmortem: Tobias 'Black Jack' Menzies Is Back and Creepier Than Ever
You can’t say they didn’t warn you.
For months, Outlander’s actors and producers have teased that the series takes a very dark turn. Of course, after seeing the penultimate episode of Season 1, “Wentworth Prison,” it is hard to imagine that even folks who have read the Diana Gabaldon books were fully prepared for the brutality, vulnerability, bloodshed, and perversely sexual back-licking. (And having seen the May 30 finale, we can only say it gets even harder to watch.)
It wasn’t easy for the actors to go there either. But it was a “fulfilling challenge,” according to Tobias Menzies, who sat down with Yahoo TV in Los Angeles a few weeks ago to discuss the sure-to-be controversial return of Black Jack, the new round of mental and physical torture he inflicts on the great Scot (Sam Heughan), and the Season 2 return of his lighter side, Frank.
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You guys kept saying that it was going to some very intense places, and you weren’t lying.
The stuff in Wentworth is more evil and darker than anything we have seen to date. But hopefully we also achieved something more emotional and psychological as their relationship and journey together deepen. I’m always very keen for Jack to be as complicated as possible so that he’s not just a sequence of really unpleasant behaviors. I hope that it will give more insight into why these two characters do what they do. I feel like the stuff we shot was a fittingly complicated ending to that arc. Jack has an obsession, a fascination with this boy, this man. I think if we got it right, there will be emotion in there, some sorrow. It costs Jack to do these things. He is driven by some force that he probably couldn’t even articulate himself. I feel like in some perverse way it is a desire for engagement, for contact.
Is it a desire to get with him?
I’m not sure I totally agree that it is about getting with him. How I rationalized it for myself was obviously taking the event of the flogging as the beginning. In that event, he encountered someone who was able to match him unlike anyone else had before. Jamie was able to endure the physical pain in a way that no one else had before, so obviously for someone who is interested in administering pain to people, it intrigues him. If we are to believe that sadomasochism is his kink, then Jamie represents someone who cannot be mastered and that is a challenge. He wants to break and dominate him to prove he can. I also think at some level he is struck by Jamie as a human being. Jack is not without his small moments of humanity. He has admiration for people. The weird thing is then his admiration is manifested and communicated by wanting to take it apart and find out how it works. That’s where the brutality comes in.
But then why couldn’t he get aroused with Jenny?
I think the event with Jenny is a sort of curious byline, really. She stumbles on something that unnerves him, and probably that has never happened to him before. Her intuiting that by laughing at him, it would unman him. It saved her from any further torture.
What was the process for you for nailing (sometimes literally) the darkest moments?
It was handled like a twisted, curious love story. We did really want to find moments of genuine tenderness between them. In terms of filming, we didn’t talk about it hugely in between. Those things you have to negotiate with the different personalities you are working with. For whatever reason, Sam and I didn’t feel the need for that. One of the dangers is talking about a scene so much that nothing occurs for the first time in the scene, and he was supposed to be enduring this horrible experience for the first time. We decided to show it here and talk elsewhere. If you haven’t pinned everything down in advance, you are forced to discover it in front of the camera and something more live can happen. Having moments where one or the other is genuinely surprised by what has happened is not un-useful as long as it is done within a safe and trusting framework.
Is it done in one take?
There were some longish, wide-ish shots where we worked out a sequence. Nothing where I would ever do anything particularly overt or physical that we had not discussed at least a little. We wouldn’t go through the choreography. It was not, “I’ll put my hand here and you grab here. Wince on three.” The minutiae would ruin it. There would be a little bit of space to improvise, and I think that helped the end product. But they are sort of curious things to enact.
You had not read the books before taking the role.
The TV show and the books are different beasts. I don’t think people should be chastised for not reading the books before enjoying the shows.
Were you aware what all he did to Jamie?
Not until after I had started on the project. I read the first book as we were filming. A little bit of distance from the source material is important as TV makers, because you want to honor it and it is good to have an awareness as the fans keep us honest, but you have to take ownership of the story and characters and make decisions that take it away slightly from the book. That’s a necessary process of adaptation to the screen.
Any trepidation at tackling such brutal scenes, nudity, licking another man’s back prosthetic on international TV?
No. I don’t have those issues, especially because I was given an opportunity to play two great meaty roles. But they can be sort of curious things to enact.
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You also don’t get to play the hero. In fact, you are taking Jamie, this beloved object of most fans’ affection, and ruining him.
I have no problem with that. In general, I am more interested in the darker characters when I watch or read stories. I think Jack is a rather brilliant creation on Diana’s part. Certainly why I got into acting is to do that darker, meatier material, and Wentworth certainly falls into that area. I feel excited by the proposition of going there and mining the range of emotions humans are capable of, both good and bad.
We don’t get to know as much about Jack as we do Claire and Jamie. Is it part of your process to develop a backstory?
I did some when we first started, but not exhaustively. A lot of it I have sort of forgotten as we’ve gone along, which is also part of my process. I did nominally write out a biography of what his life would be like, what an average day would be like in the military at that time. I tried to sketch out why he might be like this. But you also have to part from that because you don’t want to act in a way that indicates what homework you’ve done. One of the bonuses to this is that we have these extensive and fully realized books to fall back on. That’s a real plus.
Obviously there are fans into Jamie and Claire. Pretty sure there are a few Frank-ophiles out there. Do you think anyone would admit to being part of the Black Jack fan club?
Most definitely. It is the same sort of thing that draws people to Fifty Shades Of Grey. I think people are interested in the dark sides of themselves and other people. What is thrilling about Jack as a character is that he is searingly honest at all times and that trait is energizing. We may not agree with him, but that’s why we watch. We want those things to be articulated even though most of the time in our own lives we cannot do it. He will say the last thing you’re allowed to say in polite company.
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Is he evil?
He is a sociopath, but I don’t think pure evil exists. I believe people are products of their lives and was very keen to root Jack in his experiences during that time in Scotland and in the midst of war. All of his stuff comes out of real stuff, not out of being evil incarnate.
Maybe he just has a branding issue.
I need a tagline. I think he has admirers, but the thing about them is they want to lurk in the shade. They don’t want to be outed. They’re like, “We are very happy here in the shadows. Please don’t make us stand up and show ourselves.” That’s my theory anyway.
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Are you excited to return to Frank in Season 2?
I don’t think Frank is uniformly good either. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to play quite different people. That kept me on my toes. I do think the relationship between Frank and Claire is a really good one. I’ve enjoyed building that with Caitriona [Balfe]. I think the dramatic potential for when she goes back and has to explain things is rich territory and obviously makes full use of the weird plot trope that she has fallen through time. He has to just accept this narrative as fact. Even though it seems insane. There is a lot of rich stuff to play there.
Plus, you have that sweet ride.
I do have that very sweet car, so it will be nice to drive around in that again a bit. I also have that cool fedora. The costumes are fantastic. Terry Dresbach, who has been a fan of the books for years, has spared very little to realize her dream. She has done an amazing job. The aesthetic of the show is gorgeous. She has gone into such great detail, sourced authentic materials, and made things from scratch.
The women complain a little about the clothing of 1743. How was yours?
Mine is pretty great. It’s heavy and detailed, but not itchy. The wig is fine too. They have made them really well. It is the projects with cheap wigs you have to look out for. Those are sweaty and itchy, but they sprung for the good stuff at Outlander.
Outlander airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Starz. The Season 1 finale will not air until May 30.