His portrayal of the Duke of Edinburgh has been hailed as the stand-out performance of the new series - but his anti‑monarchist mother would be ashamed, he tells Ellie Austin.
Tobias Menzies has the kind of face you recognise but can't quite place — which, for an actor, usually means a career spent playing solid supporting roles rather than star turns.
Name a hit British series over the past 20 years and the likelihood is that Menzies has cropped up in it: Pulling, The Thick of It, Doctor Who, Spooks, The Honourable Woman, The Night Manager, Catastrophe — you get the idea. There have been bigger parts too, in Game of Thrones, where he played Catelyn Stark's younger brother, Edmure Tully; and Outlander, a historical time-travel series that exploded in America, earning Menzies a Golden Globe nomination and widespread recognition, though reactions and reviews on this side of the Atlantic were lukewarm.
As a result, not a single person does a double-take as Menzies, 45, arrives to meet me in a packed north London cafe, wriggling his way through tight gaps in the tables and clutching his bicycle seat (unscrewed for security reasons whenever he's in the capital) and helmet.
"I quite like being incognito," he says, wrapping his hands around a latte. "A big part of acting is watching the world, and if the world starts watching you, it can get in the way too much." Unfortunately for him, all this is about to change. Menzies is making his debut today in one of the world's biggest television dramas, The Crown, taking over from Matt Smith as Prince Philip.
The third series replaces the original cast with a new line-up of older faces to mark the passage of time: Olivia Colman taking over from Claire Foy as the Queen, Helena Bonham Carter replacing Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret. Early reviews have already hailed Menzies's as the standout turn ("superb", frothed one). It begins in 1964 with the election of Harold Wilson, set against rumbling anti-monarchy sentiment, and navigates the next 13 years, interweaving significant national and global events (the Aberfan mining disaster, economic and political unrest, the moon landings).
Menzies's Philip is 44 when we first meet him and notably different from the twinkly, roguish prince of the first two series. There is a weariness to him, a grouchiness ("What do they want us to do? Live in a semi-detached? Travel everywhere on the omnibus?" he splutters when the cost of the royal family to the British taxpayer is called into question), which gradually reveals itself as midlife discontentment and a lack of purpose. George VI's premature death in 1952 and Elizabeth's subsequent coronation forced Philip into the role of royal consort much earlier than he had anticipated, curtailing his sparkling naval career in exchange for a life of pomp, small talk and playing second fiddle to his wife.
Does Menzies see Philip as a pioneer in how he adapted — albeit with some difficulty — to the reversal of traditional gender roles? "Possibly the maths of it is that, when he first married Elizabeth, he wasn't signing up for the whole caboodle," he says. "Philip imagined — I think they both imagined —that they would have quite a long life with her father on the throne and Philip would have a long naval career. Would it have changed the maths for him if he'd known how his life would pan out? It's one of those what-if questions. He's a man of action, a doer, and you can see that he chafes with the ceremonial nature of his life."
Menzies was one of a handful of actors considered for middle-aged Philip. "Initially I think they went after Mark Strong [Our Friends in the North and the Kingsman series], then Paul Bettany [The Da Vinci Code and numerous Marvel movies] and then it came back around to me," he says. "I did one audition where I read 10 pages with Colly [Olivia Colman] and two weeks later I found out. Weirdly, for the size of the show it was relatively straightforward."
However, where Helena Bonham Carter persuaded Princess Margaret's former lover Roddy Llewellyn and her ladies-in-waiting to speak to her as research for the role, none of Philip's inner circle would break rank. "I sadly didn't have anyone on the inside," he says. "Helena is a bit more of a ninja than me. I read quite a bit and a lot of it began technically. The voice is very important — and the gestures." He narrows his eyes and stretches his arm out, index finger extended as if reaching for something in the distance. It's an instantly recognisable Philipism. "He's very pointy," he laughs. "Wanting to be like him but not have it become a caricature is quite a tough pitch. If you become too vocally mannered, then it's hard for the viewer to get into the story."
Although for the first couple of episodes I found myself longing for the return of Foy and Smith, as the series progresses Menzies's performance, with its gravelly, clipped voice, jerky mannerisms and unexpected emotional nuance, makes it difficult to imagine anyone else as Philip. While Colman shines as an aloof monarch still getting to grips with the expectations of her role, it is Menzies who quietly steals the show.
Off screen, he is similarly low-key. He speaks carefully, flipping between self-deprecation and bookish intensity, and is dressed in a grey cardigan, chinos and the kind of trendy grey-rimmed glasses beloved of hipster university professors. His childhood, he explains, was "artistic", coinciding with "that hippie flowering of London in the 1970s". His parents divorced when he was six and he and his younger brother moved to Canterbury with their mum, a teacher. Although there was never "a huge amount of money", his memories are of a happy, liberal upbringing.
"My background was pretty alternative," he says, tucking into poached eggs on toast. "I went to a Waldorf school. I'm very much not from the world The Crown is articulating in terms of being brought up without talking about emotions."
Aged 12, he was a promising tennis player and toyed with the idea of turning professional. "I wasn't quite good enough and it was a huge investment in time and money. If I had done it, I think I'd have been 450th in the world and ended up playing some terrible Challenger tournament."
Menzies enrolled at Rada in his early twenties and was in the same year as Maxine Peake and Sally Hawkins. It was his mother's influence, he says, that first led him to view a career in the arts as a viable possibility.
"I didn't have that classic pressure from parents of getting a degree. Mum took me to the theatre a lot and I watched a lot of contemporary dance. She was very accepting of whatever I was interested in."
One thing his mother didn't have time for, however, was the monarchy. "She was pretty anti the royal family. She would actively never put on the Queen's speech, so, as a result, prior to doing The Crown, they weren't on my radar. I didn't read about them or pay attention to them — they were just part of the furniture. There's definitely been a learning curve in that, with this job, I'm looking at them for the first time."
Did he feel a sense of conflict signing up to a show that glorifies an institution he has never believed in? "If you're interested in people, then — whatever one feels about them politically or in a larger context — you can't help being interested in that [royal] life. My mother would be ashamed of me," he laughs, "but there was absolutely no conflict at all."
In fact — whisper it — he's actually found himself feeling sympathy for the Queen and Prince Philip. "One of the questions of the show is: what is it like to be a person inside all this pageantry and gold-leaf trimming?"
They must feel like animals in a zoo, I suggest. "And it's kind of heartbreaking," Menzies agrees. "Again, my mother would disown me, but I feel compassion for them."
His biggest fan, he says, is his four-year-old niece, Lara. She lives in Australia and watches The Crown with her parents. "Out of everyone, she's the most pumped about me being in it," he says, lighting up. "I had some fun the other day and got some headed Buckingham Palace paper and wrote to her as Philip. She couldn't believe it."
While the prince is known for his gaffes and conversational clangers, Menzies is frustratingly diplomatic. Does he consider Philip a good husband to Elizabeth?
"I couldn't possibly say," he replies with a grin. I'll take that as a no, then. He adeptly changes the subject, explaining how Peter Morgan, the show's creator, has always been determined to treat the royal family with dignity. "You hear rumours that are much more complicated and scandalous [than what is portrayed in the series]," Menzies says. "For years there have been rumours that Philip had affairs, but the way that was shown in series one and two was basically reduced to that little photo of the ballerina [at one point Elizabeth finds a picture of the Russian dancer Galina Ulanova in Philip's briefcase]. It's a very graceful way of touching on it without getting into it. I suspect it's also a legal thing. I think [in the show] we can say anything that's in the public domain. What would happen if Peter wrote something more challenging, I don't know."
Hang on — there's an episode in the new series where Philip seems to teeter on the edge of an emotional breakdown. Is there any evidence for that? "Let's not forget this is fundamentally a work of fiction," Menzies says lightly. "Did he break down like that? Who knows. That's the mojo of the show — working out what they're like behind closed doors. Are they emotional? Particularly with the Queen and Prince Philip, we don't see their personalities in public, it's so masklike. But with the younger generations, we see more of that."
Menzies says he didn't watch the recent documentary about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's trip to Africa, where the couple admitted to struggling with media scrutiny, yet he is tentatively supportive of Meghan Markle and the ways in which she is perceived to be breaking royal protocol by voicing opinions and talking about her emotions. People's discomfort with her, he suggests, is down to our attachment to an "older idea of femininity" where royal women are seen — preferably holding a bonny baby — and not heard. "These roles really illuminate where we're at with gender politics," he says. "What's going on now with Meghan and the tabloid press seems pretty full-on."
What does he think Philip would make of it all? He melts into character for a second, growling and waving his hand in front of him as if batting someone away. "It would be fascinating to know," he says. "He likes to talk about nuts and bolts, business, how stuff works. But as soon as you ask him anything personal or emotional, he won't go there."
Philip isn't the only one. Menzies is similarly private. In 2005 it was reported that he'd struck up an affair with Kristin Scott Thomas after the pair met while starring alongside each other in a stage production of Luigi Pirandello's As You Desire Me. Menzies was 31 at the time, Scott Thomas was 45 and married.
Since then, he has never spoken about his life away from work or been photographed with a partner. "It's about learning to say no as much as you can," he says warmly but with a slight awkwardness. "Talking about this stuff is not my superpower."
What he will say is that he's currently staying with Bonham Carter and her family while his house in north London is renovated. "It's a Victorian terraced maisonette and I've got the lower ground and first floors," he says proudly. "I'm working with an architect for the first time and I want to go for very graceful, subtle architecture."
Filming for the fourth series of The Crown is already under way and on his days off he spends his time "looking at images of taps and baths and sinks and ovens and drowning in choice".
"Part of me doing this place is to make a proper home," he says in a way that suggests he has previously felt untethered. "I've got a set of stairs for the first time. I want to make a home rather than somewhere I just live. Hopefully I'll do more cooking. I can be a bit "food is fuel" in that urban life kind of way. Maybe it's time to put some roots down."
When he's not working or picking out homeware, he reads, goes to the theatre and finds himself "worrying about stuff". The messy political situation fills him with dread and when we get to the subject of Brexit — for once — his opinions tumble out, unfiltered.
"We've got what feels like unthoughtful politics at the moment," he says, leaning forward. "Lots of point scoring. It feels very reactive and triggered. Like most London actors, I think, I voted remain, but I do have sympathy for the anger that was expressed by the leave vote. The injustice is that lots of people who voted leave will be more affected by it than me. Social inequality is a really big problem in our country."
Who would he like to see win the election? "Corbyn feels very complicated. A lot of the time he says stuff and you think, 'Wow, he's actually on the right side of that argument,' yet his ability to land his message or communicate it in a way that is presentable to (that horrible phrase) 'Middle England' …he doesn't seem to help himself."
Surely as a born-and-bred leftie he's not rooting for Boris? He shakes his head. "But what's curious about Boris is that he does seem to enjoy it all. In a really perverse way, I find it hard not to be beguiled by that. His natural charisma is really appealing. He's an extraordinary operator."
As we wrap up, he asks what I think people will make of the show and I realise how nervous he is about how his performance will be judged. "I wonder what the reaction will be to the transition [between casts]," he says. "There will be some who say, 'I'm not in. I don't like it.' But Olivia is so loved and Helena is so loved. Hopefully that will melt away some of those bumps. I am absolutely confident in it as drama. The unknown quantity is this very unusual thing of completely changing everyone."
How will his life evolve over the coming months? My guess is Menzies won't be cycling anonymously around north London — or being cast in supporting roles — for much longer.
Written by: Ellie Austin
© The Times of London