7:00pm PT by Philiana Ng
'Outlander': Tobias Menzies on Black Jack's Sadism, "Twisted" Affair With Violence
[WARNING: Spoilers ahead from Saturday's episode of Outlander, "The Garrison Commander," and future books in the series.]
The lines have been drawn.
Outlander's latest episode, "The Garrison Commander," established the sadistic Black Jack Randall as a formidable foe of Dougal, Claire and the rest of the Mackenzie clan. There were hints that he was ready to turn over a new leaf, a man aware of all the physical and emotional harm he had done. But, with the flip of a switch, Black Jack — already aware of Dougal and the Mackenzie clan's plans to rebel against the crown — showed, in violent fashion (see: flashback to Jamie's flogging), that it was all just a twisted game, threatening Claire to come forward with the truth of her presence in 1743. With Black Jack hot on Claire's trail, Dougal did the one thing he could to protect her from further anguish: She must marry a Scotsman, Jamie.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Tobias Menzies talks about the biggest moments from Saturday's episode, dissects Black Jack's intense chess match with Claire, discusses the brutal flogging flashback and previews Frank's internal struggle during Claire's trip to the 18th century.
What struck you about the two characters you play on Outlander, Frank Randall and Black Jack Randall?
What’s interesting about them is they are family, and Frank is a descendant of Jack’s. And so that’s instantly an interesting sort of thing to play with — a family of generations spread over several hundred years. I think part of the job is to find things that are similar as well as the differences. One of the things that stands out obviously is they are both men who have been through war. Frank through the second World War and Jack fighting an insurgency war. For both men they are very similar experiences. It’s an unusual proposition to be asked to play two different characters onscreen. When it was presented to me, my interest was piqued.
Was there a trait for each that helped differentiate one from the other?
I didn’t want to make it too underlined. I wanted to have confidence in the story and the costuming and the setting. I wanted to try and have a different look entirely, rather than just different facial hair and voice — for it to be uncanny. It’s sort of the same face, but there is a different spirit in there. It has a lot to do with Jack being a soldier who has seen action and Frank as someone who hasn’t been on the front line. It has to do with period — 1700s versus 1900s. Piece those little things together to give us a different texture.
Frank seems more well-adjusted though, while Jack is more … complicated. Why is that?
Frank may be a healthier person. He has the love of a rather remarkable woman [in Claire]. Who knows the tiny things in people’s lives that help them make the decisions that they do. Jack is not an inherently evil person, but he has been deformed by his experiences in Scotland, and that insurgency war was a very nasty and brutal encounter. He has witnessed terrible things done to his men and he has administered harsh punishments. All that had a huge impact — extreme violence and brutality. That is pretty universal.
Are there elements of Black Jack in Frank? Is there a darker side to Frank we haven't seen yet?
[It’s] something we play with in episode eight ["Both Sides Now"]. We go back [to 1945] to see what is happening to Frank, which is not in the book. There is a moment where there’s a flash of Jack in Frank as his hope and despair overcome him. Frank momentarily becomes violent. The writers were interested in drawing that out.
Because Outlander is primarily Claire's story, we don't get to see Frank's internal monologue while she's in 1743 Scotland. Have you filled in the blanks in terms of Frank's state of mind and what he's dealing with back in England?
We see Frank still struggling to come to terms with what happened, and be at loggerheads with the authorities and the police. Basically, they tell him to go home and that his wife has eloped with someone else. He won’t believe it. Through the episodes, we see him coming to accept the version of events that people are saying to him. I suppose he does know Claire better than the others, and in a way, he’s right. She isn’t a woman who would run off with someone else, and he’s forced to give up. I think it’s a good episode.
At the end of the episode, Dougal proposes that Claire marry Jamie. How do you think Frank would react to that?
I think he would be pretty understanding. My understanding is that Claire, later on in the novels, reappears and is taken back by Frank, even though she’s pregnant and she tells this story of time travel. And for whatever reason, he chooses to accept it and raise a child together, which I think is a pretty big gesture on his part. What’s interesting about Frank is that he’s thoughtful. It’s not the great, most ostentatious of loves. In that respect, he’s overshadowed by Jamie and Claire. But I think [Frank and Claire’s relationship is] deep and meaningful and speaks volumes.
This was a big episode for Black Jack and Claire. Let's talk about the interrogation scene.
It’s only a page and half in the book. It was a great decision on the part of the writers to explode that moment. In the book, there’s a lot of Jack being referred to and not a lot of him being there. You need him onscreen. I’m really happy with where it ended up. It gave us the time to go back and understand where the backstory with Jamie and Jack began and also to understand the emotions that are driving Jack, so he isn’t just a two-dimensional thug. Compared to the rest of the season, it’s a change of gear. It’d be interesting to see how people find it.
Black Jack has good reason to be suspicious of Claire, and it's clear he's not buying what she's selling.
It’s a nicely complicated chess match between the two. There’s a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s ability to maneuver and manipulate each other but I think you feel, right until the very end, Claire is getting through. You feel like it’s a sucker punch when he reveals that even that has been a play. Even his revelation [of his flogging with Jamie] and emotions has been a play, and that makes it even darker.
He did seem to be trying to redeem himself, but when he punched Claire in the stomach, everything was off the table.
In those moments [when he's telling Claire his life story], he does desire to be a better person. In the moment, he believes it. Then, the next moment, he betrays that.
How does someone switch off like that in a split second?
You’d need to talk to a psychologist more qualified than I. I think it’s about narcissism to a certain extent. As I understand, narcissists say what they think the person in front of them wants to hear. They have an uncertain relationship with the truth. It’s a sociopathology of some sort, and I think it’s those sort of territories.
What did Black Jack want to accomplish in that violent moment with Claire? How prepared was he to kill her?
He didn’t intend to kill her. He simply knows she’s holding something back and he’s not being told the whole story. He’s going about his business. In an environment like Scotland was, you had to be wary of what people were doing. She was turning up in peculiar places, raising a lot of suspicion and wasn’t telling him what she was about. There had to be a mixture of tactics and flashes of violence in order to break someone down to get them to say what was happening. It’s more remarkable of Claire in that moment because she knows the context. For him, he just sees her as an Englishwoman and needs to get to the bottom of it.
Is it a hard line to cross since you're playing characters who are on opposite ends of the spectrum?
Part of the game within this episode is Claire seeing Frank in this man in front of her who looks so like him, which is why she persists as long as she does. She can’t believe he isn’t in there somewhere. She knows this is Frank’s family. In terms of what I’m doing, I’m unaware of that dynamic.
Another big moment was the flogging flashback between Black Jack and Jamie, which was intense to watch. Was that a particularly difficult scene to do?
These things are often quite technical. There was a lot of me whipping him with a wooden handle without the actual straps on it because I couldn’t hit Sam. Then they would wrap plastic around it and I couldn’t hit that. It is a visceral, physical and quite enjoyable thing. That may sound odd but it is, hopefully, exciting and shocking to watch. It’s high drama. It’s the heart of the matter. It’s a moment of high emotion, great extremism.
When he says that he "could see the truth," "the beauty" in that moment — even calling it a "masterpiece" — it's quite a dark statement to make.
I was certainly very keen [on that] and worked with the writers to make his sadism, the peculiarity and twisted nature of his relationship with violence as strong as possible. It had to be something that was suitably perverse. While everyone else is seeing grotesque-ness and horror, he is seeing beauty, and that’s a very elegant way of communicating someone’s pathology and sadism. He’s not thinking of it in the same way.
Is there a sense of respect and awe with how Jamie handles the situation?
It was deranged. Black Jack, in that scene, comes up against someone who is his match. He doesn’t manage to break Jamie. He doesn’t cry out. It’s an inception of their entire story. There’s something that intrigues and interests Jack, which is why he continues to pursue Jamie. There’s a huge admiration for this young man who is able to endure more physical pain than Jack has ever administered to any other person. As a sadist who is interested in human pain and the limits of human endurance, that’s fascinating to him.
Is there more to the tension between Dougal and Jack?
I don’t think there is that much interaction between the two of them. Dougal is out-of-bounds, a political figure — not someone Jack can mess with. As my memory serves, I don’t think there are any big run-ins between the two, but I may be wrong.
He's aware of the pending Jacobite rising. What's his plan with that? Is he plotting a preemptive strike?
Dougal is on his radar because of that. Jack says in the episode that he knows Dougal is raising money for this cause and using that as proof to bring him in. In that respect, he is circling Dougal, but until he has any proof or Dougal makes a mistake, there is nothing he can do about it. They are enemies in that respect, that Dougal is fueling a rebellion that Jack is seeking to suppress. And they both know that.
At one point, Claire believes Black Jack can be rehabilitated to be a decent person. Is he redeemable?
I think he is. He could make different choices, but he doesn’t. I don’t think it’s that interesting [if he is redeemed]. I think most of the time people can; it’s whether they do or not.
Outlander airs 9 p.m. Saturdays on Starz.