Tobias Menzies played Prince Philip on Season 3 of Netflix’s “The Crown,” taking over for Matt Smith. The “Outlander” alum won a SAG Award for Best Drama Ensemble alongside his “Crown” cast earlier this year.
Menzies recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria about finding his way into Prince Philip, the “Moondust” episode of Season 3 and his memories of a particular “Outlander” scene. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Tobias, the royal family are very much a part of our consciousness. There’s so much to absorb about Prince Philip as a public persona. So how did you decide to approach getting to know his private or personal side?
Tobias Menzies: There’s obviously a lot written about him and a fair amount of interviews and footage of him. So there’s plenty to look at. But yes, I think the challenge with him is that he doesn’t really express his personal side a huge amount. He’s a quite armored person and so he will rarely be drawn into emotional statements or discussions of his personal life in any way. So yeah, the job of the show and what Peter [Morgan] writes is imagining our way into how are they behind closed doors? What is this marriage like? What are they like as parents? This strange juxtaposition of a family, which is a pretty universal kind of thing inside this very unique situation of this royal family, this structure, this institution that we have in England. So yeah, I mean, I started with a bunch of reading, watching and listening to him as much as I could. And then obviously it’s a version of this story which is Peter’s writing, his provocation, his kind of proposal of who these people are. It’s harder to tell what they’re actually like at breakfast. But that’s the fun bit, trying to imagine that, trying to get an audience close to what that might be like.
GD: Yeah. Is it particularly challenging to strike the right balance between authentically portraying a real person and falling into the trap of perhaps mimicking him?
TM: I certainly thought so, yeah. I felt instinctively that if it was too much a work of, as you say, mimicry, that that would be probably quite irritating to watch for 10 hours. So it was about getting a balance of getting close to them so that you feel like you are having breakfast with Philip and the queen, which is definitely a kind of magic element of the show, but really, once you got that and you got the audience’s confidence in a way, just let them go through that into the story. And so, yeah, that was a tonal balance to strike. When I was watching Seasons 1 and 2, the moments when the actors get really close to them and they really sound like them and move like them, that’s also really thrilling. So I was also keen to fulfill that. And just don’t be irritating, I guess (laughs).
GD: When I watch you and Olivia [Colman] and the other cast, I imagine immediately this has gotta be difficult, these are real people. We think we know them very well. They’re all over our TVs. And then not only that, you had the challenge of taking over the role from another actor, and that doesn’t happen every day. And when we spoke to Matt Smith last year, he said he was super excited to be handing over the baton to you. He thought it was great casting and he was really excited. But what’s it like to take it over from him and then make him your own?
TM: Yeah, I mean, Matt and I did a play when Matt was starting out. We did “The History Boys” at the National Theatre and he was one of the boys and I was the teacher. So we worked together. I’ve seen him over the years and he’s a fantastic guy. I mean, at some level, it was also easy. I really admired what he did in the show. I really liked the show anyway. And in some strange way, it’s kind of an amazing resource to have these 20 hours of beautifully made television created as your backstory which you can go back to. And I certainly went back to watch what he had done physically, vocally, and also just to get myself into the version of Philip that we’re constructing and telling. But, yes, I mean, I would be lying if I didn’t say there were trepidations at times. Obviously it was a very successful two seasons. They won a lot of awards. So there’s a bit of you that doesn’t want to drop the ball on that front and people really not enjoy what we’ve made for the third season. But it seems like, and I think a lot of credit has to go to the team, the creative team, which has obviously been consistent in the very bold act of recasting everyone. That could have definitely backfired. But I think they’ve chosen the right people but they’ve also kept enough. And I guess Peter’s writing is a big part of this. Also, you’ve spoken to Adriano [Goldman]. The look of it, all those elements were contiguous with what happened before. And so, yeah, thankfully, it feels like we got the right balance between old and new, which again, allows the audience to just to continue this story with us.
GD: Yeah, you’re right. This could have been a complete nightmare. It could have really backfired. But it doesn’t. There is enough continuity in the cast that really does link to the moment. Josh [O’Connor] was saying this about playing Prince Charles. I think you’d be in the same boat that they get short shrift in the media often. For some reason, people don’t like them or they have a certain perception of them. And I’m wondering if after you’ve gone through a season, you’ve done Season 4 as well. Has that changed your perceptions fundamentally of this man?
TM: I would have to admit that sort of fundamentally politically, I’m more on the sort of republican end. That’s small-R republican rather than the American sense. But I think what is really great about the show is that it takes that institution and without too much bias… I mean, obviously I don’t think it looks to trip them up, but it does take a serious consideration of the institution of these people. And I’m okay with that. I think they are. They are worthy of that.
I think I hadn’t really, if I’m honest, considered him or the family a huge amount before I came to work on it. And I think that’s quite common in England. They are just there. They’re part of the furniture that is Britain. Now, of course, some people take a great deal of interest, but I think even if I might not agree with them on a political level, I suspect if I was pushed, I do come to have a great regard for their sense of duty. They work hard. They take the role seriously. It’s not a job that I would enjoy doing at all. It’s very ceremonial. You turn up and you kind of have to make small talk and open things. I imagine for someone like Philip, clearly an intelligent person, intellectually curious, an alpha male, a man of action, was in the Navy, served in the war, that can’t be an easy thing to do. So, just as a character study and how has that person made sense of their life and what they’ve done with it, fascinating. So for that reason, I think I have come to have a great deal of regard for them. Yes, they’re hugely privileged but there are undoubtedly challenges to their lives.
GD: Yeah, that is the beauty of the show. I think we all come to that conclusion if you are a fan of the show and that brings me to this. You’ve really touched on this but let’s go into a bit deeper, because Episode 7, “Moondust,” for me was such a highlight. It’s such a beautifully nuanced episode demonstrating this monumental historical event and how it triggers this discontent in how he saw himself and his own accomplishments. No one would have ever thought that about him. It’s a beautiful construct that Peter Morgan put together. What were your thoughts when you first read the script? Were you excited to kind of tackle that?
TM: Yeah, straight away it felt like a fascinating juxtaposition to take the moon landings and an exploration of Philip into his character, and those are not two things that you would naturally put together, really. It’s obviously a work of imagination. I don’t know specifically what Philip felt about the moon landings or whether he did become obsessed with it. But yeah, I mean, I think it’s Peter at his best, the combination of the epic and the personal. Quite a significant part of his life has been faith and looking to draw together different faiths as an engine to social change and to sort of finding solutions to problems in the world. So yes, the episode is also digging into that and that relationship with Dean [Robin] Woods.
GD: In fact, the moon landing is obviously the key part of the episode but for me, it resonated more, his existential angst and dissatisfaction and his inability to find calm and fulfillment, they’re the words that Peter Morgan wrote and begging for help from these guys that he initially mocked and brushed off as nonsense. That’s stunning writing from Peter Morgan. I wasn’t expecting that. And your performance in that particular moment, it was pretty reserved. But there was a lot going on under the surface. Talk us through that particular scene because it was probably the highlight of the whole episode.
TM: Yeah, I mean, one of the challenges of Philip is that he is reserved emotionally, so he’s not expressive, and yet actually he does strike me as someone that does have a lot of emotion in him. Now, it comes out in frustration or sometimes these off-color remarks and jokes, but there’s a sort of fixing energy that does come off him. But he also does feel like he’s someone who has a lot of stuff suppressed and armored, so that’s at the heart of the performative challenge is that in an episode like that, where you are looking to delve into what is underneath all that kind of armor but you have a character who doesn’t really want you to see it. That’s an enjoyable and fruitful constriction because in his relationship with those men at the church, who he has huge resistance to, naturally, and is going through a period in his life where he doesn’t think that religion has answers and ridicules and belittles this new dean and what he is attempting to do, which is gentler, more compassionate than Philip can really be at that point in his life. And yet to see that journey through the episode of going from the answer is rockets and exploration and going to the moon, that’s how you realize who you are and that’s how you find yourself, to come to a place where he has to go inside himself to realize who he is and where he’s at and what help he might need. That feels Greek and deeply existential.
I love it when you have that kind of scale to work with. I definitely would like to mention Tim McMullan, who played Dean Woods. It was such an important part of that episode, that relationship and how it changed and his kind of deep compassion and patience. Beautifully pitched and a great foil to this kind of roiling inarticulacy of Philip. It’s overwhelming him and he can’t find the words until he kind of has to. And yeah, to hear a character like Philip speak at length in that very candid and at times emotional way, I think that’s when the show really kind of wins is, despite all the stuff that you think you know about him, you’re sat watching him really reveal himself. Which is beautiful, and also, you don’t have any kind of film footage to show you how Philip does that stuff, how he is when he might say something very self-revealing. And so, yeah, that’s where Peter’s imagination, my imagination and Jess Hobbs, who was directing that episode and was also a big part of realizing that stuff, our imaginations have to come together and sort of go, “How would he say this? How would the scene go?”
GD: And then what I love as well is there’s that moment where he acknowledges his mother who has passed. And it brings us back to Episode 4 immediately, the scene where he has a newspaper and Princess Alice is on the ground praying. It’s one of the highlights of the episode and it’s beautiful that it links those two up. So, well done. I thought it was really good.
TM: That’s really great to hear. It sounds like you read it on many levels.
GD: I did, it meant a lot to me and I don’t even really care about the royal family, but I love the show.
TM: It’s also very interesting about masculinity in that episode, about also midlife, arriving at a place where you find yourself thinking about the decisions you’ve made in your life and where you’ve ended up and how comfortable or not you are with those divisions and that can be uncomfortable. I think the other really interesting part of that episode is when he’s speaking to the astronauts and says about the decisions I’ve made and the person I married. And that was a line, actually, that I really wondered about struggled about, wondered whether that was a thing that he would really be able to say. It was so close to the bone that he would even touch on that fundamental, life-changing decision to marry this woman who then became queen and in a way, his life has never been the same since. And yes, I remember having quite a few conversations, both with Peter and with Jess about what was in there and how to earn that. I think any guy anywhere near that midlife is going to relate to those thoughts, those questions.
GD: Absolutely. Anyone who’s in their midlife or who has a father, there’s a lot of paternal stuff going on there. That’s a whole other conversation. But yes, it resonates tremendously. It’s very intimate that he would say that to those guys that he looked up to and then realized, “Hang on a sec. What they care about is a water cooler.” So yeah, there’s a lot going on in that episode. We could literally spend hours. Unfortunately, we’ve run out of time. But I will not let you go until I ask you about “Outlander.” Otherwise, I will be in big trouble. In 30 seconds, people are still talking about the finale of Season 1 because you played Frank. A lot of us love Frank, but you also played the most monstrous character, Black Jack, and when Black Jack tortures and rapes Jamie, it was very confronting and it’s something that we don’t see on TV very often. I’m wondering at the time, did that resonate with you personally that it was a really difficult thing to do?
TM: Yeah, absolutely. And it was tricky to shoot. I mean, we’d been working for over a year together, Sam [Heughan] and I, and it’s a hard thing to realize. But I also really believed in the necessity for that story, which has huge sweetness and romanticism and love and beauty in it, that it also needed an equally kind of opposite underbelly, which really was provided by the character of Black Jack, who, let’s not beat around the bush, is a study in sadism. And in a way, I was surprised that both the showrunners and Starz let us make it as dark as they did. But I’m actually proud of having the courage to make it that. I think the thing that partly makes it uncomfortable is it isn’t just about torture and rape. Those are just the instruments that this person is using to unpick another person. So I think the thing that actually gets to people is the sort of psychological element of it, that it’s considered and so tailored or he’s understanding this man and then using that against him to unravel him. That’s the really unsettling aspect of it.
GD: It was a pretty amazing moment in the show. Anyway, unfortunately we’ve run out of time. Next conversation we’ll do plenty more. Congratulations on your SAG Ensemble win, by the way. I know you weren’t there, but it was a pretty exciting thing for the whole cast to win earlier this year.
TM: Yes, I’m sorry I wasn’t there. Really such a great thing for this new cast to receive. We were all very, very, very excited.