Tobias Menzies on playing Prince Philip: "I didn't feel I was ever going to get a call from him"

The British actor on "You Hurt My Feelings," his love of working with funny women and a curious Salon connection

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 11, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

Tobias Menzies (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Tobias Menzies (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Tobias Menzies knows you're used to seeing him in the past. "I seem to have got a period face," the Emmy Award-winning British actor, who's journeyed through centures of time to play his characters on "The Crown," "Outlander," "Rome" and "Game of Thrones," told me on "Salon Talks." But in Nicole Holofcener's tart new comedy "You Hurt My Feelings," Menzies plays against type — as a floundering Manhattan therapist whose marriage (to the always perfect Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is upended by a well-intentioned white lie. The role was a challenge he'd been waiting to take on for a long time. "Independent New York films are some of my favorite films," he said. "So to step into that world and make a contribution to that was really exciting."

But the movie doesn't mark Menzies's only present-day role. He played a shy dad for two seasons on Aisling Bea's "This Way Up" and a divorced Londoner rekindling his romance with his ex on Amazon's "Modern Love" — a role that was based on my own New York Times essay. (It's not often in life you get the same man who played Queen Elizabeth's spouse to play yours.)

When I told Menzies about our "Modern Love" connection, he swiftly turned the tables. "OK, I've got to be interviewing you now," he asked. "How did we do?" Fortunately, I didn't have to fib in my reply. During our conversation, he and I also talked about fandom, why he likes playing the straight man to funny women, and why when it comes to telling the people you love the truth, he says, "It's complicated." 

Watch Tobias Menzies on "Salon Talks" here or read our conversation below.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Let's get into this amazing, incredible movie. You play a man named Don. At the beginning, it seems like things are going well in his life. Who is this guy and what's really going on there?

Don's a therapist. He lives in the Upper East Side of New York with his wife Beth, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is a writer. And their life is good, happy marriage. There's a few questions starting to arise in him, maybe slightly midlife questions. Then in the middle of that, he, for understandable reasons, commits a betrayal that causes many questions to ripple out through the film about truth and how honest you can be with the people closest to you in your life.

With the people you love.

The people you love. Exactly.

This is a bit of a departure for you. First of all, you're in current day, so right away it's unusual. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a veteran of Nicole Holofcener films. This film was written with her in mind. How did you get involved? 

"I'm not an inherently funny person . . . I think I can be funny if someone very good at writing, like Nicole Holofcener, writes me funny stuff to say."

I think Nicole had seen some of my work and had gotten interested by that idea. There's also a producer, Anthony Bregman, who I'd worked with before, so he reached out to me, and that resulted in a conversation with Nicole and I. We got on the phone. I really liked the script and instantly fell in love with Nicole and her brain and how she thinks about things. She's very interesting to talk to. Just even on the phone, I got a sense that this would be my kind of film, and it would be someone I would really enjoy working with. And then the idea of getting a chance to work with Julia. I've admired her work for years, so wasn't a very hard decision to come to New York and make this film with them.

You've had such a long and storied career, yet this is your first time playing an American.

That's right, yes. I've done a lot of period [pieces]. I seem to have got a period face, and that's been a lot of British men, so this is a really nice departure, something I've wanted to do for years, in a way. Particularly, independent New York films are some of my favorite films. A lot of them I grew up watching, so to step into that world and make a contribution to that was really exciting. But that was obviously predicated on becoming an American man in this film.

You couldn't be her ex-pat husband.

Funny enough, when Nicole and I spoke about it, because she was aware I hadn't done it before, she said, "Listen, if you don't feel confident about that we can make him British, it's not a problem." But I was really keen to try and I'm really glad we did because I think it really pays off.

How did you prepare to be a New York City man?

Essentially it's the same mechanism. It's sort of crystallizing and getting really clear about what the sounds are and then practicing those sounds. It may sound odd, but it's the same muscle you're using as when I get into Prince Philip and try and get close to that voice. It's a vocal technical exercise. The same really is true for an accent, like a guy from the Upper East Side. Listening lots and just getting relaxed and getting into your muscles, really.

That's what I was wondering, because when you're playing Prince Philip, you have a person. You have a template. Playing a New Yorker, there's millions of us.

That's true. I worked with an accent coach and I got him to record a lot of my lines, so it's probably a bit of him in there.

You get to play with the incredible Julia Louis-Dreyfus. You have played with a lot of strong women in your time.

I've had good fortune to, yes.

And you have said to the RadioTimes that you really like being the straight man in these comedic parts. What is it about that that appeals to you?

"I feel benignly towards those small discretions or small white lies that we sometimes tell each other."

I think I'm not an inherently funny person. Some people have funny bones. I think I can be funny if someone very good at writing, like Nicole Holofcener, writes me funny stuff to say. But I suppose adjacent to that, I love working with funny people. I love working with funny women, for instance, the work I do in "This Way Up" alongside Aisling Bea, another very talented, funny woman. I enjoy that kind of foil role, and coming at comedy from a character actor position rather than something more comedic.

Because this is all in the writing. It's in the reactions.

The real situation, so you're already rooting it in what's actually happening. And trusting that in itself is inherently funny or illuminating.

You're not throwing yourself down flights of stairs, not in this one anyway.

Not too many pratfalls.

From the opening scene, these two people who clearly love each other deeply are lying their butts off in this very benevolent way. Has this story changed the way you hear things from people, the way you talk to people?

I don't think it's changed how I feel about it. I think it's made me maybe more aware of it. Maybe this is a male perspective, but I feel benignly towards those small discretions or small white lies that we sometimes tell each other because sometimes they can be kind. They're not always cruel. That's the way sometimes we navigate and ease our passage through our days and living alongside each other.

What I like about the film is it doesn't come up with any tidy answers about this stuff. Yes, ideally, I think relationships have to be predicated on honesty. In the same film you have the brilliant Jeannie Berlin playing Beth's mother, and she's relentlessly honest to her daughter, but it's not that helpful either. It's not just being honest all the time is the solution necessarily. It's complicated, as they say.

There's a quote that I love that honesty without compassion is just cruelty.

There you go. Right.

But at the beginning of this conversation, you did call it a betrayal.

Yes, but arguably you could say the betrayal is that he didn't trust her with being strong enough or adult enough to take the criticism. In a way, he's sort of infantilizing her by pulling his punches and not saying that he doesn't like the writing that she's doing at the moment. I guess it's a mixture of those two things. It's both the initial not telling the truth, but then also to persist with it and not trust someone to be able to take it on the chin.

There's an interesting question in it too: Can you love someone when you don't love their work? Have you had that happen in your life where you've had a friend or someone you cared about and they did something and you just thought, "Oh no"? 

"I seem to have got a period face."

Luckily no, I haven't had that. But I know that was the central question, I think, that inspired Nicole to start writing. She's very attached to her work and is very passionate about it. What does it mean? Could I love someone who didn't love my work and therefore am I my work? Or where's the separation? I really relate to that. I'm also very connected and passionate about my work. Thus far in my life I haven't had to make that split of going, they have no relationship with my work and what I do. I would find that quite hard to bridge.

It even extends further out when you think, can I love someone if their favorite movie is this movie that I really hate?

Yeah. Of course it sounds small, but it is also profound, I think.

I want to ask you about some of the other roles you've played. You have been in these projects that have gigantic fan bases. Is there one in particular that you see the fandom most expressively?

It probably would be "Outlander," particularly actually in this country, in the US, slightly more muted in the UK. It's less of a big show there. The enthusiasm, the energy, the passion for those books, and then the series that we've made off those books. They just hold that material, that writer, those characters very, very closely to their heart. And it seems thus far, they are happy with what's been done with it. It's both joyful and sometimes a lot.

It's been 10 years since you started on "Outlander," and it's been a long time since you left. It's still the impact of your characters.

That seems to be the case. It's true. He still seems to be quite alive, even though it's quite a few years since those two characters were in the story. I guess for people who care about those books, those two characters are pretty elemental to that world.

When you have a show that people fall in love with, then they're constantly rediscovering it. People discover it and then they fall in love with these characters and it's new to them.

I also get a sense that the "Outlander" fan base rewatch quite a lot as well. They really continue to go back and watch the early stuff, so maybe that's partly why it keeps alive as much as it does.

On "The Crown," you were the last person to play Prince Philip before he died. You had to play a real person in a drama, so there's a degree of wanting them to be as realistic as possible, but it's also fictionalized. You're also in between these two other men, and you have to be part of this relay. How did you all work together to create that?

It's a relay. I suppose I went 80/20, probably, original Philip, but also watched what Matt [Smith] had done in the first two seasons. I really enjoyed his portrayal, so I definitely nicked some ideas from him. Watched a lot of the real person, a lot of footage, and listened to a lot of his audio as well. 

In terms of the sort of fiction versus reality, [creator and writer] Peter [Morgan] does a lot of the heavy lifting on that front. He's taking those lives and all the different episodes of those lives and distilling it down to the set of events that he wants to use to articulate what he feels is interesting or true at that point in the story. Really I have Peter to thank a lot for that aspect of it. And then in terms of handing it on to Jonathan [Pryce], that is a really fun thing. It's almost like a theatrical device to have this privileged little group of us who have had the chance to have a go portraying this. What I came to find, he was a very complex and interesting man.

But to play someone who is living while you were playing him, it's not like playing Brutus, where anyone's going to do a deep reality check. 

I mean, I was never in danger of meeting [Philip], I don't think. And I never had a sense that he watched it. So in a way, I never felt too much pressure from it. I didn't feel like I was ever going to get a call from him saying, "What the hell are you doing?"

You have said you would prefer to think that he hadn't.

I found that a little bit easier. I also just intuit that's probably the truth. I'm not sure he would sit down and watch a drama about his own life. It just doesn't feel like that man.

You've done so many different projects, especially in the last few years. Pandemic comes, it shuts everything down. One of the first things you did post-lockdown was Amazon's "Modern Love." 

"I'm not sure he would sit down and watch a drama about his own life. It just doesn't feel like that man."

That's right. Which is how I met Anthony Bregman, which is one of the reasons I ended up in this film partly. We were quarantined in Dublin for a couple of weeks making that episode and got along really well together, and he obviously has worked with Nicole for many, many years. He's a real link to this.

How did that come about for you?

That was a conversation again with the director, with John Carney this time. It was sent to me. I liked the premise of it. It had this sort of sweetness in it. It has a hopefulness in those little half hour episodes. But our one had quite a big event at the heart of it. I had a chance to work with another brilliant woman, Sophie Okonedo. It was one of those ones that comes out from left field and turned out to be a real joy to make.

I have to tell you, I loved your performance in it. I thought it was so beautiful. And I have to tell you, you were playing my husband. That was based on my essay.

Was that yours? Was that yours?


Ah, really? How interesting.

That was mine. I don't know if you remember, but at the end you give her a moonstone.

Yes. Is this it?

This is it.

Well, there you go. Wow. I had no idea. I had no idea. So that's you.

That's me. That's my story.

OK, I've got to be interviewing you now. What was that like to sit down and watch that dramatization? How did we do? Did we do it justice?

You did very well. It was beautiful.

OK. Good.

You gave the most beautiful moment in that whole episode to me, the most real, compassionate, vulnerable side of being a caregiver.

Thank you. Obviously, the illness is only sort of sketched in a way in the show. How was it to have that represented? Because I imagine the reality must have been much more complicated.

It was interesting. It was a much more complicated thing. I would have some notes. But the performances, the love story, the parenting side of it was all so incredibly beautiful, really deeply moving. 

Thank the Lord you liked it. Suppose you said, "Well, no"?

When we found out who was playing the TV versions of us, we couldn't have been happier. Just big fans of both of you.

Oh, good. Good. Well, we really enjoyed making it, and we very much wanted to do you both justice.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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