‘Outlander’ Q. and A.: Tobias Menzies on Playing the Brutal Black Jack
“Shock and horror are legitimate feelings to experience when you’re watching a story,” said Ron Moore in a recent interview about the Season 1 finale of Starz’s “Outlander.” And it was hard not to feel both emotions while watching “To Ransom a Man’s Soul,” in which we see in flashback the brutalization of Jamie, the show’s male hero, by the villain Black Jack Randall. As I wrote in my episode recap, because of the way it addressed sexual assault, it was “an important episode of television because it takes the time to fully explore what recovery actually looks like and understands that it’s by no means simple or straightforward.”
Both Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, and Anna Foerster, who directed this season’s final two hours (as well as the now famous wedding episode from the season’s first half), spoke about the difficulty of grappling with such material. “I can’t lie,” Ms. Foerster said. “This was pretty intense for all of us. It wasn’t the usual vibe where you shoot a scene and then you joke around and then you shoot the next take. It was definitely clear for everybody that this was going to very emotionally deep places. You could see it in the crew’s faces.”
“If every episode was the same — Jamie to the rescue, or the Claire and Jamie story — that would get boring very quickly,” said Mr. Heughan, who insisted that the story ramifications would spill over into Season 2. “It’s not over. He’s never the same. I think that’s the tragedy of the piece.”
As compelling as Mr. Heughan is in the season’s final pair of episodes, Tobias Menzies, who plays Black Jack, is riveting. We spoke to Mr. Menzies about the season finale. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
In the finale, we see Randall accessing, if not his humanity, then his femininity, which is unexpected. Did you know that Randall would be capable of such delicacy?
Those last two episodes probably involved the most conversation that the writers and Sam and I had. We collaborated a lot on fine tuning what exactly Jack was trying to do to Jamie and how he did it. I really wanted to have a strong, very focused and emotional target for Jack, so that it wasn’t just an episode about a man torturing another man. I wanted to be more layered than that, a bit more existential — that he was trying to unpick who the essence of Jamie was. I liked the idea that Jack understands that Jamie is built on Claire. She is his foundation and so he intuits that if he can contaminate that relationship, if he can contaminate who Claire is for Jamie, then that would be a way to unpick this man. Out of that came the idea that he embodies Claire in a way, especially in that last sequence where he undoes his hair and gets Jamie to say Claire’s name and almost puts on this feminine voice. He is being Claire so that Claire would never be the same for Jamie again. Which is sort of the ultimate defeat.
When you’re playing this character, is Jamie just a toy to be broken or possessed? Or is there a larger feeling than possession there? Does Randall love him, in whatever capacity he can love?
Love is a very big word. I don’t know whether he loves him. As a result of the various encounters that Jack has had with Jamie, he becomes quite a lightning rod for Jack. He’s significant, this person, this boy. I think there’s something close to obsession. I always thought about it as Jack sees in Jamie everything that he isn’t. Genuine goodness, genuine moral rectitude, genuine moral fiber, and I think these are things that maybe Jack has had and has lost or he aspires to but knows that through his experiences with this war, he has lost touch with. In a way, it’s everything that Jamie is the embodiment of. He’s both drawn to it but by the same token seeks to destroy it because it’s painful. It’s a contradictory relationship.
Sexual violence, specifically, is a go-to for Jack. It’s a unilateral threat against men, against women, it doesn’t matter.
To be honest, I was always keen not to make the sexual violence the point for Jack. I wanted it to be about sadism and that torture was a tool, rather than the aim. One of the things that’s come out of Episode 15 is how much more uncomfortable viewers are watching Jamie be sexually attacked than they appear to have been watching Claire being sexually attacked. I’m not sure if that’s partially because sexual aggression against women is a more common trope on television than sexual attacks on men are, but either way, I thought there was a lot more shock and surprise, yet, given the amount of times Claire’s been attacked …
Do you feel that because it was two men, they felt more comfortable digging into the horror aspect of the scene? I don’t know that they would have committed so much time to a scene of Claire getting tortured as they did with Jamie. There’s a very interesting alchemy going on.
I think that’s right. I think it would have been seen as gratuitous if I had been doing that to Claire. So, weirdly, they’re more shocked by it, but more able to explore it at greater length. I don’t know what it all means but I get the sense of that.