The Crown's Tobias Menzies on This Way Up season 2, masculinity, and the death of Prince Philip
The Crown and Outlander star on why he loves playing the "straight man" to funny women — and how he's still not recovered from the sex scenes in This Way Up.
When Prince Philip died earlier this year, just shy of his centennial birthday, TV producers not only contacted royal experts for comment, but also an actor — one who had never met Philip, but whose on-screen portrayal of the royal had been watched by millions just months earlier.
The latter season, in which Philip becomes particularly enamoured with the idea of a young Diana Spencer joining "the firm," was released by the streamer in November of last year, four months prior to the real Duke of Edinburgh's death. As lockdown continued, Menzie's portrayal was perhaps the 'Philip' that global audiences had seen most recently.
"Of course, it's an odd cultural position to be in, to be have been the most recent person to have portrayed him at the time when he passed away," Menzies muses, speaking via Zoom from Kentish Town, London.
"But truly, you know - I never met the man. I didn't know him, you know. We were making a dramatisation of parts of his life. It was quite interesting, because I did get asked quite a bit around that time [of Prince Philip's death] to go onto shows and comment and talk about him, which really didn't feel comfortable at all, because in a very fundamental way, I don't know him."
Menzies felt disconcerted at the idea of being approached as a spokesperson in the wake of Prince Philip's death (he did not agree to the TV requests). However, I'm struck by the occasional slip when the actor (who's previously spoken about his extensive research for the role) refers to Philip in the present-tense, or offers his thoughts on how the royal might have reacted to certain situations.
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"I did my best to get close and try and understand and bring him to a screen. But that is, you know, fundamentally a very different thing than the man and his life, which was a very long and very varied and rather extraordinary life - a small bit of which we try to, you know, bring to life in our show," he says. "So, if I'm really honest, I'm wary to sort of confuse the two things really. Yes, and I feel fairly sure that he wouldn't want me to confuse the two either. He certainly wouldn't want me giving forth about his life."
Menzies still doesn't know if Prince Philip ever watched The Crown or saw his version of him, but the actor is fairly certain that the Duke would have found the whole thing "ridiculous".
"I don't know if he did [see my portrayal]. I mean, honestly, I'd rather he hadn't seen it. I mean, I don't think he would have - I think he would have just hated the whole idea of a dramatisation of his life. He would have just thought it was just a ridiculous enterprise. Yes, I'm fairly sure he's more of a documentaries man than a fiction man. He likes facts. Not conjecture."
Unlike Matt Smith's charming, ladies-man portrayal in seasons one and two of The Crown, Menzies' older Prince Philip was grouchier, more buttoned-up. The character is not too far a stretch from Richard, the taciturn love interest whom Menzies plays in This Way Up season two.
"The character of Richard is a meditation on a type of masculinity, which is apparently quite high-status and alpha on the outside when you first meet him, but actually, that covers an awful lot of brokenness underneath," he explains. "It's interesting to see that play out - emotionally and sexually."
Richard is the straight man to the quirky central character Aine (played by series creator Aisling Bea, who is also a stand-up comic). "I love the straight man to the funny woman - I'm a big fan of that combination," Menzies tells me.
In the first three episodes, Richard spends most of his scenes in bed with Aine. This Way Up season two has a time jump, meaning that when we revisit Aine and Richard, they've skipped season one's will-they-won't-they stage, hurtling past the first kiss and beginning with their first night in bed together.
However, things don't go according to plan, as the older Richard struggles with performance anxiety, something he later links to wider mental health issues.
Does Menzies think that This Way Up tackles erectile dysfunction and men's mental health in a way he hasn't seen before? "I can't think of a[nother] show that addresses it. Yeah. So, in that regard, I think it is unusual," he says.
"And that's what I really like about Aisling's writing - there's lots of really complicated interesting women in it, but that doesn't stop there. The male characters also have a life going on. And you're taking on a subject like how emotions affect men's sexuality... It's something that, as you say, is not selling, not being dramatised that much.
"So in that regard, the second season is continuing where the first left off, which is - in a really smart, funny way - addressing quite deep, emotional subjects."
Beyond the emotional moments in the show (of which there are plenty - after all, the series begins following Aine's nervous breakdown), the many sex scenes are also often laugh-out-loud funny. How did Menzies find the transition from lockdown to filming multiple sex scenes? "I think I still haven't recovered," he jokes.
I reference a meta joke that Aine cracks in bed, where she makes fun of actresses for always covering their breasts after sex scenes, before proceeding to do exactly that.
"The main issue with doing that was then not showing a lot of stuff - of her body and mine, be it actual body or strange, flesh coloured pants that were being worn," he says, laughing. "So yes, it's strange how sometimes [with] the very funny moments, the actual experience of filming them is highly - is drenched in technicalities. But yeah, I mean, filming with Aisling is - she has an incredible comedienne's kind of instinct, which is very different to mine... What I like about it is it's a different way of working, and yeah, I find it very invigorating."
When I raise the possibility of a third season, Menzies says that he would “love to do more” of This Way Up, but adds, “I do think that it costs Aisling to write it. You know, there’s something very personal about the work. She’s digging, I think quite deeply, into her own experiences and her own life to get that high level of authenticity, out of which she can spin something that’s at times very moving and very funny. And yeah, that’s just hard to do.”
"But maybe [if] she goes and lies in the darkened room for a bit. Yeah, she's got another one in her, here's hoping."
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Viewers who missed The Crown may have otherwise spotted Menzies in another, albeit more surprising, lockdown hit: The Terror, which was originally released back in 2018, but was only widely viewed on this side of the Atlantic after BBC iPlayer snapped it up.
Inspired by real-life events and based on the best-selling 2007 novel by Dan Simmons, the show fictionalises Captain Sir John Franklin's doomed Royal Navy expedition to the Arctic in 1845, when they set out to discover the Northwest Passage.
Menzies, who played Commander James Fitzjames in the drama, admits he was taken aback by the show's sudden popularity.
"I'm just so gratified that it found the proper audience here, because it's one of the pieces of work I'm most proud of," he says.
"It's obviously a British story as well... so there was something really galling about having made something which I thought was a rather remarkable telling this story, for it not to the land here [the first time it aired].
"I'm very grateful to BBC that they picked it up and, and [it] now has reached a proper audience because, yes, it's just a fascinating corner of our naval and British history. And also it touches on themes that I feel are quite relevant today... colonialism, the damage of taking over parts of the world that don't belong to us, and the damage that can do."
Following This Way Up, Menzies tells me he also has an upcoming episode on Modern Love (the Amazon series based on the New York Times column), but in the immediate future, it seems he's taking a (much-deserved) break.
"Travelling places [for work] is a bit of a nightmare. So I'm keen just to wait for material that I really want to do; that I absolutely can't say 'no' to. So at the moment, this summer has been quite garden [heavy], and way too much sports on television," he jokes.
He also was an huge fan of the recent BBC One prison drama Time, starring Sean Bean, and says he would be "very interested" with director Lewis Arnold in the future.
And as for his Jekyll and Hyde roles on hit drama series Outlander? While both his characters ("Black Jack" and Frank Randall) have been killed off, Menzies won't rule out making a reappearance in a flashback (or flash-forward, given the show's time-travelling nature).
"All of them [in the cast] are friends, and they're very dear - that show is very dear to me. [I spent] three years making it with them all. And, yeah, I'm very proud of the stuff we made," he says. "Never say never."
This Way Up will air on Wednesday 14th July at 10pm on Channel 4. The whole series will be available on box set on All4 following the first episode airing.
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