IF he’s honest, Tobias Menzies will admit to being prone to some “classic midlife thoughts and feelings” now that he’s 46 years old. It hasn’t quite got to the buying-a-motorbike-and-travelling-the-world stage yet. Still, arriving on the downslope of his fifth decade has given him pause for thought.

“I’m starting to hit an age where you are really very conscious that, at best, you have the same again. Maybe less,” he tells me one November afternoon in the middle of Lockdown No 2 in London. “So, I think it does make you very aware of what you’ve done with your life.”

Given that he has carved out a career in acting that has seen him take part in three hugely ambitious and hugely successful TV series, Outlander, Game of Thrones and now The Crown (the fourth series of which is currently streaming), what he’s done with his life isn’t exactly difficult to measure, you might think. But let that lie.

“I’ve a naturally kind of contemplative, nay neurotic, mindset,” he adds. “So, yeah, that stuff can be hard to deal with.

“But maybe there are upsides to it. I guess as you get older you get more willing to accept yourself as you are and just go from there. So, maybe there are fewer expectations on you.”

Hmm, possibly. That said, when you are playing a central role in what is reputedly one of the most expensive TV series ever made, I’m not sure that you can totally escape expectations, to be fair.

The Herald:

Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip and Emma Corrin as Princess Diana in The Crown

And it’s not as if it has done him too much harm. His take on Prince Philip to Olivia Goldman’s Queen in series three of The Crown has already earned him a Golden Globe nomination (to add to the nomination he picked up for Outlander).

Menzies is the kind of actor who has sneaked into stardom. Since the start of the century he has parleyed early roles in all the typical TV serials (Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and most notably Casualty) into leading roles, via appearances in James Bond movies (Casino Royale) and the blood and guts and brutality of the TV series Rome, in which he played Brutus.

But The Crown has seen him ascend to leading role status. He succeeded Matt Smith who played Prince Philip in the first two series. Menzies plays the character more as we might expect, perhaps. Certainly, more like the man we know, or think we know. Tight-lipped, hand in pocket, clipped speech. It’s a technically impressive feat of impersonation. But it is also a performance that ensures we know that this is a man who is torn between duty and desire.

It is, as so many of Menzies’ performances are, internal, thoughtful, almost closed in. You wonder if that’s a reflection of Menzies’ own personality. When he talks, he takes his time, and is careful about what he says. Partly that’s to do, you imagine, with being burned in his early days as an actor when he found himself at the heart of a media scrum when he reportedly had an affair with his theatrical co-star Kirstin Scott Thomas.

But also, it may just be he is simply not one for over-sharing. I don’t want to read too much into the view he gives me of his home in London via Zoom – a blank wall and an empty doorway – but the temptation is there.

Perhaps none of this should be a surprise. As an actor so much of what he does is in the close-up, the flicker of a look, the tightening of the eyes fighting with the blankness of the face (something that perversely makes him great in comedy, as can be seen in Aisling Bea’s Channel 4’s sitcom This Way Up).

In short, he is never showy. In work and maybe in life.

The Crown is a phenomenon, of course. Series four has been streaming for the last week so you may have already binged it all. If not, it takes the story into the 1980s and the arrival of Princess Di and a certain Tory Prime Minister called Thatcher.

“I think the benefit of the show is that it gives a serious-minded consideration of an institution that is either deified and hero-worshipped or is ridiculed and satirised,” suggests Menzies when asked about its success.

“And what I think is good about the show is that it sits in the middle of all that and doesn’t try to do either. It tries to look at the institution as it fits into the whole and looks at these people in it and give them due consideration. And so that, I think, is a really interesting contribution to the conversation.”

Where do we find Prince Philip in this series? “He’s still the same person,” Menzies suggests. “I think the story we tell in this season is of a man having to negotiate complications and challenges from within his family; Charles’s issues around his relationship with Camilla, and then meeting Diana and the complications of that marriage. Philip firstly tries to encourage Charles to marry Diana – he’s very taken with Diana – and then the aftermath and the fallout as the marriage starts to fall apart. Anne also has some issues with her marriage.

“So, yeah, the kids are starting to grow up and have their own lives, and again the personal is bumping up against the structural, the institution, which is obviously a regular theme of this show. How do you live? How do you be a dad? How do you have a marriage inside the crown.”

How indeed? Menzies has always admitted he didn’t think much about the royal family before he got the job and was if anything a bit of a republican. But playing the role has given him some sympathy for Prince Philip. After all, he says, “your job is to emphasise with the person that you’re playing. You have to try to get inside their experience and bat for that, really.”

You can see how playing a prince might change your mind of course. It’s probably quite attractive, the royal life. Admit it, Tobias, you want your own servants to hold your toothbrush.

“No,” he says, horrified. “I would be crushed with anxiety and self-awareness. It’s hugely fun to dive into those lives and spend time in those very gilded rooms and play at having servants. But I’m always very glad to go home at the end of the day. It’s not a life that I envy very much.

“Hugely privileged, yes, but strangely constrained in other ways, particularly in personal space. There’s just a lot of people around all the time. I think that would drive me a little nuts.”

Now that series four has arrived in the 1980s it’s touching on Menzies’ own lived memory. Diana and Thatcher were huge figures in the landscape as he was growing up.

“Yes, in that regard the story has come into my life in a way. Thatcher hugely so. Such a dominant and divisive political figure of the 1980s and one that was very unloved in my household growing up. It will be interesting to see how she is received by viewers this time because arguably she is the most divisive figure the show has tried to bring to the screen.”

Well, indeed. There have already been Tory-minded commentators huffy about the presentation of their blessed Margaret. I reckon it’s not tough enough on her, frankly.

It’s fair to say that Menzies’ own political outlook has remained to the left of Grantham’s most famous daughter.

He is an advocate for the charities WaterAid and Medical Aid for Palestinians. During the first lockdown he volunteered to help the NHS, “hoping to be useful in some way,” he says

He’s not thrilled by lockdown in general. It means he can’t go to the pub or the theatre, two of his favourite pastimes. He is not, he says, very “high-speed,” in general. “I’m a big reader. I love a bit of DIY. Drink a bit too much wine.”

When he gets a chance, he also plays tennis. “That’s a big passion of mine.”

It always has been. He grew up in rural Kent with his mum and younger brother. “Quite early on my mum got rid of the TV. She was sick of me being glued to it.”

As a result, his childhood became an outdoors one. “It was climbing trees and riding bikes. I was also pretty sporty as a young kid. I was passionate about tennis and I spent a lot of time playing competitive tennis aged nine, 10, 11, 12. I was good at it. Way too young, I was reading the history of the Davis Cup. Not your average reading.”

He can even remember Bjorn Borg’s final victory at Wimbledon in 1980, when he beat John McEnroe. Menzies would have been six at the time. “That’s really seared in my memory. It was unbelievably important that day that Borg beat McEnroe. Funnily, now I think I would be more McEnroe.”

Why so? “I guess now I look back and see that McEnroe was a wonderful punk. He brought an energy and a turning of the times into what was quite a fusty sport. Now I revel in his lack of reverence for the whole thing.”

Behind that slightly forbidding face – a description he himself has admitted to – there’s a rebel.

Menzies was rather a late bloomer when it came to acting. But his mum loved theatre and when he was a teenager and living in Surrey, she would take him into London to see plays. He was never a member of the school drama club, “but something was obviously seeded.”

In fact, at school he was more interested in comedy. In sixth form he performed humorous skits with friends, Monty Python cover versions. “Terribly, I imagine,” he says.

On leaving school Menzies did an arts performance course at a further education college in Stratford-upon-Avon and considered going to a mime school in Paris, but he couldn’t afford it. Instead, he went to Rada.

The upward arc of his career in subsequent years took a huge forward leap when he got the role in Outlander, playing Frank and Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall alongside Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan back in 2014. Made by the cable and satellite TV network Starz and filmed in Scotland, it’s an experience he remembers with huge fondness.

“It was an important stepping stone in my acting career. We all arrived there in Cumbernauld. Sam and Cait were relatively unknown. I was still finding my way too. And Starz was a relatively new company as well. A lot of money had been invested, but no one was waiting for this show to come out.

The Herald:

Tobias Menzies and Sam Heughan in Outlander

“We headed off to Scotland and what was exciting was to be at the ground level of a show like that. There is a real artistic conversation between the showrunners, the writers and the core cast as we tried to work out what the show is. So, it was a really creative and engaged period. We were all setting off together.

“I made some really lifelong friends, made some really good work, I think, had a blast doing it. I loved spending the time in Scotland. Glasgow is a really warm, vibrant city. I loved spending time there, so I only have good things to say about it.”

In your time off were you bagging Munros with Sam or hanging out with Cait?

“I was a bit more drinking wine in restaurants with Cait. I could never get up early enough to go with Sam. But I wish I had.”

The series has a huge and vocal fanbase. It’s a welcome thing, he reckons.

“In a way I have the good fortune to be slightly insulated because the show is less known here than in America. However, if I’m honest, the visibility side is not something I find entirely comfortable.

“But the fanbase that that show has is inherently a positive thing. They have great love for the show and great support for us. Any charities we become engaged in they raise extraordinary amounts of money for. So, there’s a lot of positive aspects, and by and large they’re very respectable and understanding that we have different levels of our ability to engage in it. But when I do, I really enjoy it.”

It’s almost time for his next Zoom call. We talk once more about The Crown. He wonders if some of its success might be down to a yearning for consistency in a turbulent time politically in the wake of the Brexit vote.

“I think in these moments you can see the benefit of something hereditary like this, something that has this consistent unchanging nature. The benefits of that in moments of political turbulence are clear for all to see.”

Does that suggest his own attitude to the monarchy has changed?

“I would say there are two answers to that. If you ask me, ‘Have my politics changed?’ Probably not. I would still describe myself as a small “R” republican. Given a choice, I think it would be a bit more grown up to choose our own head of state.

“However, do I have a high level of regard for the job the Queen does? The job Philip does? Absolutely.

“It wasn’t something I had thought about very much. But whatever you think of the micropolitics of it, I think there’s no doubt they work hard, they take it seriously and show no inconsiderable skills in doing that. It’s not a job I would be able to do or find very easy. So, for all the privileges, they do it properly and for that they deserve respect.”

The fourth series of The Crown is streaming now on Netflix