Outlander star Tobias Menzies, 44, segues from his dual fictional parts as “Black Jack” and Frank Randall on the hit Starz series to the role of real-life British naval officer James Fitzjames in The Terror (March 26 on AMC). The new 10-episode series is about a mid-1800s expedition that sailed into uncharted waters in search of the treacherous Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean, as ships become frozen in the ice and the crew is menaced by a monstrous predator.
How much of The Terror is based on fact?
A huge amount. The script is woven together from Dan Simmons’ fictionalized novel about the expedition and the real naval mystery from 1845. The Franklin Expedition was the most highly equipped, expensive expedition of the day. Everyone was lost and the boats disappeared. It was one of the great, early Victorian naval failures.
Just recently, the ships were found.
They found the Erebus, the flagship, in 2014; in summer 2016, they found the Terror. Now we’ll start to get a lot more information as they salvage the two wrecks.
Who was James Fitzjames?
He was a naval hero, an example of the hubris of Victorian colonialism. While on the expedition, he has all that stripped away and finds out who he really is.
What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve done in your life?
I’m not a massive thrill-seeker. I [do] ride a motorcycle. That’s not a very good idea. I should knock on wood.
Is there a bigger theme to The Terror, or is it an example of how one bad decision can trigger a catastrophe?
I think it works on various different levels. It’s definitely both an investigation of what happens to men in such an unforgiving place when such extraordinary psychological and physical pressures are brought to bear, and all the different ways that people react, and how they find out about themselves.
I think it’s also a meditation on this hubris of empire. It’s about what it is to invade somewhere you don’t understand. I think that’s a large, maybe more thematic part of the show. I think what [executive producers] David [Kajganich] and Soo [Hugh] were interested in bringing was how going there both changes the place and destroys us and them. That’s also wrapped up in the idea of this creature, the Tuunbaq, which is an idea of almost a curse—what happens when things are done without sensitivity to other cultures and other places.
Jared Harris plays Fitzjames’ nemesis, Francis Crozier. How do the two characters compare?
They’re both career naval men. They come from very different classes. It was a real disadvantage at the time to be Irish. Crozier was Irish, so it’d be quite easy to say that his career had been negatively impacted, but he was definitely the most experienced, certainly in terms of the ice. Crozier had been to the Antarctic. Fitzjames had never been to the ice. Crozier probably sees more of the picture than maybe anyone else in the drama, but he’s cursed with not being listened to.
What about the trip made it worth risking their lives?
I would say probably everyone on those boats went for a variety of different reasons. I think Crozier, as an example, was trying to escape his life, his heartbreak. He hadn’t managed to find a life that suited him on land, so he went for that reason. I would say Fitzjames was definitely there for glory and for the kudos of discovering the Northwest Passage, which would have had huge financial and industrial benefits. They were very famous, these ships. The expeditions were very well thought of. For them to all disappear was a huge shock for both the navy and for the Victorian society of England at the time.
Would you return to Outlander if they were to include some flashbacks so one of your characters is still alive?
With a story that has time travel, the opportunity to bring back the characters who have died is there. At the moment, they’re trying to be pretty faithful to the books, so to bring those characters back would be a departure from that. But, of course, they’re family. That was a big part of my life for four years.
Is it true that you initially wanted to be a tennis player rather than an actor?
Yeah, I spent a lot of time playing tennis as a kid. I used to play in public tournaments. That was my great passion when I was little. I didn’t do a lot of acting when I was young.
How did you make the transition?
It crept up on me. My mom used to take me to the theater a lot. I guess something must have been happening in those dark rooms. I finished school, wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do. Went off and did an arts course for a year, and we did some acting in that course. I was interested in people who were making their own work, theater work. I found my way into it and then went to drama school and got the bug there.
What gets you excited about a role?
It’s usually the writing. We stand or fall on what’s on the page. We can’t really do our best work without that being in the right place. David and Soo’s scripts for The Terror were some of the best I had read. It was a bit of a no-brainer to jump in.
Is there something other than acting you’re passionate about?
I’m a big reader. I’m very much still into books; I don’t use a tablet. Also, I still play tennis. That’s still a big love of mine. What else? Art galleries, good food, friends.
What’s something you can tell us that people might not know about you?
I have a younger brother, a lawyer, who’s just moved to Australia. He’s an important person in my life.
Did your parents have expectations of you becoming a lawyer?
No. I think in a way, funnily enough, it was almost the opposite way around in my family. I think my mom was more excited about me being an actor and worried about my brother being a lawyer.
This interview was originally published by Parade. It has been reposted here for posterity.