One reason Starz's Outlander works so very well is due to the menace of Captain Jack Randall, a.k.a. Black Jack, played with chilling delivery by actor Tobias Menzies. We had the pleasure of speaking with actor Menzies about the show — spoilers for last week's episode ahead!
Menzies actually plays two characters in Outlander: Frank, the quiet and stoic husband to main character Claire; and later his wildly violent and completely terrifying ancestor Captain Jack Randall, the redcoat who mercilessly bloodies the Scottish Highlands and takes an interest in the very odd woman Claire. After this weekend's completely terrifying interrogation scene, we asked Menzies about playing two very different men in the same series, and what's in store for both of these characters.
Your characters Frank and Jack are both men of war, but with wildly different points of view. What's it like playing with the duality of these two men?
Tobias Menzies: Yes, I would agree. One of the first things Ron Moore said to me, when I was meeting having been offered the role, he said he was almost interested in what was similar about them as what was different. One of the things he said he was interested in from the beginning was exactly that. The two men [were] both formed and influenced by their experience with war — two very different wars, 200 years apart or so. And that has been a sort of touchstone throughout it for me. It's been a really helpful guide as I work my way through.
It was so bizarre to see you interrogate Claire in last week's episode. I imagine Frank also dealt with similar situations, since he worked at MI6, but in VERY different ways. I was almost put off by how similar their war roles could have been. Is that something that strikes you while reading the script?
I think keeping them quite close, in odd ways like that. It feels very interesting to watch and interesting for the story. So again, finding those crossovers and similarities are almost reverberations down the centuries between these two ancestors. And honestly, as you rightly say, Frank would definitely be involved in some unpleasant questioning and interrogation of people. That's a really nice mirroring when we get to see Captain Jack do an interrogation of Claire. Obviously, probably with maybe a little more violence mixed in.
Speaking of that interrogation from the "Garrison Commander" episode, you have this really intense monologue where Black Jack reveals a darkness inside of himself and he's almost lamenting that the terrible things that he's done in his past cannot be undone. It's exposing, but eventually false. How much of that speech was real to Captain Jack, and how much of that was him just delivering BS to Claire to lower her guard?
I very much approached it as though it was real. That he meant what he said. But he's not adverse to using the truth as a weapon against someone else. I think it's pretty genuine — it's just that it's not intended in the way that Claire thinks. I think she has a moment where she thinks she has genuinely broken through to something. But my suspicion is he may well have said this to other people in the past. I don't think that really diminishes the fact that it is a truth. There is great sorrow and pain and hurt in the heart of Jack. And that's what's good, I think, about the episode and what I was really keen to do. Jack isn't just a sociopath, someone who just behaves incredibly unpleasantly. We get to see someone who is shaped his experience of war. That is the root of why he does what he does. But in a way, that the pathology is the reveal, is that he will use that. He's sort of shameless about using that against someone else, using that as a tool. That seems particularly amoral and pathological.
Why is Captain Jack able to see through Claire better than anyone else she comes in contact with in the past?
Because I think that's what Jack is, really. I think he's a very unusual character who is quite an accurate and insightful reader of human condition and the human creature. I would argue that because he has explored the darker recesses of his own mind, whatever you say about him, I think he's not confused about who and what he is. You could argue that he's rigorously as honest with himself as he is with anyone else. I think that lends him an sort of insightfulness about how people function, how people work, how they reveal themselves. It's of great interest to him. And I think he rather enjoys meeting Claire because she is, in some ways, a match for him. It's a great chess match between two quite savvy operators.
When we first meet Captain Jack, and what a frightfully wonderful moment that was, he's essentially a monster in the woods. But in "Garrison Commander," he's this much more calculated creature. Which side of Jack will we see more of throughout the season?
As we go on? To be honest, he really switches; it's a constant sort of dog between the two. He uses both — the threats of physical violence is always there, and has to be there, really. So that even when he's not using it, you're sort of unnervingly waiting for it and how it's going to reveal itself. So much so that his menace is actually almost implied in the show. You don't see huge amounts of him actually being violent. You have that moment in the woods, and you have that end moment in episode six where he punches Claire, and then you have a further attack in eight. But there's more talking, so this episode which is essentially about Jack and his sadism, in a way, we only see the punch of Claire. Well ,and then we see the flashbacks to the flogging. But yeah, I think he's quite precise. I don't think he's a constant violent person. Like the moment where he sort of draws her [in], it's suggestive of a more unusual complicated person. He has weird artistic standards and moral standards.
They almost embrace in that scene! The way it's shot and the way you two acted it, it felt like you were going to hug... and then you don't.
Clairie's conversation is dealing with someone who looks so much like her husband — or ex-husband or previous husband? — trying to uncover Frank inside Jack. That's all sort of in there as well. Which Jack isn't aware of. All those kind of layers give it a nice sort of complexity.
Speaking of Frank, in the book there isn't a lot to Frank, but we've seen more of the character in the TV series, which has been great. I don't think there were a lot of "Team Frank" fans from the books, but now there seem to be quite a few people that are pulling for Frank to hold out and win Claire's heart in the end.
Oh good. Both Ron and I were very keen on building Frank up in the beginning, so that relationship is an important relationship for Claire. And in eight we're going to go back to Frank again, which is a large departure from the book. We get to see what's happened to him in the few months since the disappearance of Claire.
That was my next question: Are we getting more Frank?
Yes. There's loads of it in eight. It's really good stuff, actually.
There's a lot of pretty vile things that Black Jack will do in future episodes. How faithful are you guys going to be to the book with these upcoming scenes. They're pretty terrible.
Oh, we're pretty faithful to the book. We've been shooting over the last few weeks. It might even be, psychologically, even more troubling to watch, because in the book a lot of it is recounted third person — Jamie telling Claire about what has happened. We flashback in the show so you're actually seeing it. And I think that is just one layer closer to it. Yeah.
Last question. There's a moment in the pilot where Frank almost deliberately lets Claire off the hook for future hookups. He tells her that during the war, "If you cheated, if you had an affair, I would forgive you." Do you think Frank really is that forgiving?
Yes, I do, actually. But then it's a very different sort of love between Claire and Jamie and then Frank and Claire. I think Frank is a slightly older man. I imagine Claire isn't maybe his first love; there's more forgiveness and worldliness. That doesn't make it any less romantic or less passionate, but it's also not youthful; it's not idealistic. And that's what nice about it. It has a lot of realism and a lot of trust and history to that relationship. When we were talking about it while we were doing it, we very much thought Frank probably had liaisons while Claire was away for so long. In a way, he's sort of admitting to that in that conversation as well.
Was he fishing?
Not fishing, but casting over, being truthful about something very difficult. "I would totally understand if you had." And that feels very grownup and quite modern.