‘Timeless’ exclusive: Malcolm Barrett on playing Rufus, complexities of time travel, and upcoming stories

Whether you’re watching it on NBC in the United States or Global in Canada, one thing remains the same: Monday night’s series premiere of “Timeless” is going to be must-watch TV. It’s a show that throws a lot at you, whether it be different eras, a wide array of interesting characters, some humor, adventure, or a little bit of drama. There are other time-travel shows out there, but we’re not sure any captures the scope quite like this one.

Malcolm Barrett is one of the show’s main cast members as Rufus Carlin, one of the three main characters alongside Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer) and Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter) who does the majority of the time-traveling. What we like about the character through the pilot is that he’s got a nice sort of relatability to him. He’s not accustomed to heavy social situations or being out on these sort of missions, so he approaches time travel from a different perspective than almost any other character. This is amplified even more so when you look at the treatment of black men and women across American history; he has an added reason for anxiety.

Earlier today, we spoke with Barrett about the series’ launch, Rufus’ stance on time travel, and some of the interesting places the series is going to be visiting throughout the coming weeks.

CarterMatt – How’s everybody feeling going into tonight? I’m sure you’ve already seen some reviews and reactions, but the public is finally getting a chance to react to the first episode.

Malcolm Barrett – I think everyone’s excited, nervous — maybe a little more than me. I’m low-key, I’m good (laughs). We’re all going to get together, we’re going to live-tweet, and we’re going to talk about the show. I think everyone’s excited for the world to see the production that we’ve been working on within our own bubble for the past couple of months. We’ve got feedback here and there and from the network, and that’s been all positive. But to have the actual reaction from the public and having it live, that’s going to be interesting.

When pilot season was going on, what was it about this show and the Rufus character that had you interested?

Rufus was appealing for so many reasons. One, I love playing intelligent characters. It’s fun for me, and I have a background there. So to be able to play these science geeks in a real way is very [gratifying] for me. Also, I felt like some of the words he was saying were coming out of jokes and bits I’ve written myself. Like, the whole aspect of saying ‘I don’t want to go back in time, because there’s no time in American history that’s going to be awesome for me.’ It’s rarely ever been addressed on television, and particularly when it comes to seeing people of color travel back in time. So to be a pioneer in that regard for a genre that I love was an amazing opportunity for me.

You mention that line, and I did wonder watching the premiere if every episode Rufus would have to deal with some level of racism and mistreatment every time he goes back. Are there going to be more hopeful, happier experiences for him?

That’s a two-fold thing. One, you know the history of this country and the racism that’s out there, and that’s a rough thing. Yet, it’s not like black people didn’t smile until like ’92. You know what I mean? There are positive experiences, and that is a part of the beauty of the black experience is that even though there were so many things going on, we still went on to create great art and music and writing and literature. There’s as many opportunities for progress and positive things for Rufus as there have been for own lives. If you’re black and you talk to your grandparents, they won’t be like ‘life was horrible until yesterday.’ I think there’s chances for both of that, and [executive producers Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke] are pretty adept at nodding to the harshness of things but being able to blend in that actual story, what are the things that will make this interesting aside from him dealing with [racial tensions], like him being a spy and him dealing with other individuals in the past. There is a time where we turn the table on things that will be pretty interesting. You’ll see a 1970’s episode, and there you’ll see a different flavor.

Even in the Civil War episode, you’ll see the unity the harmony that happens after the soldiers win. It’s definitely a joyous moment for Richard to see these men fighting for their country and being proud of it and success of it — at least for that moment.

You mentioned earlier the excitement of being able to do something in this particular genre, and I wonder if there has to be something especially exciting about the show-within-a-show aspect of this, where you’re almost getting to play different versions of the same character every week in a different time.

It’s one of those things — I’ve talked to Matt [Lanter], I’ve talked to [Abigail Spencer] — it’s living an acting career in one show, you know? Over the course of the show I’m going to be a soldier and then a cowboy and then [something else]. Every week the appearance changes and the costume changes. There is that thing of a show-within-a-show where we’re having to take on these personalities and characters and basically lie to people about who we actually are as an attempt to blend in.

I’ve worn different outfits in this show than I can probably say I have in my career — I’ve probably worn a lab coat more than anything in my career (laughs). It’s amazing to be in so many different things and so many different characters.

It’s obviously very different for him to be traveling through time, but how different is it for him just embracing more of this adventure aspect? Based on what we’ve seen, he’s not someone with a lot of experience in the field. Will we see some sort of evolution when it comes to his ability?

Hopefully if I’m doing good, the character will evolve in some way. I think there’s a line between understanding the new experiences that people go through and keeping who they are at the core. I think that’s kind of the interesting dichotomy and dynamic with this character. He’s the character who least wants to be there [time-traveling] and with the hardest obstacle to overcome, not only with the historical significance, but also that he’s not social at all. He’s forced to be all of these different things that he doesn’t want to be, and he never comes out of his shell. He has to do that tenfold anytime he goes on a mission.

Is there going to be a family unit that forms with Rufus, Wyatt, and Lucy? After all, they now have this shared experience really nobody else can relate to.

Yeah, I think that’s definitely at play. That’s hopefully what people will take from this. Kripke is definitely about the relationships, the characters, and the same thing [goes] for Shawn. I think having these three characters, it’s inevitable for them to have a family dynamic. That’s a good thing and a bad thing, you know? Families argue and they fight, then there’s distance and they’re back again. Sometimes things happen and they change forever. I think all of those things are going to happen as you see these guys evolve together.

How big of a role are historians playing? Do you see them on set, or are they more in the writers room?

They’re actually in the writers room, at least one in the writers room. We do have constant talks with the writers; we are able to call and email them. There have been things where we’ve gone through things with the historians and we’ve called them to say ‘does this make sense’ or ‘does that make sense.’ That’s also an interesting dynamic, and it’s interesting to play — reality and law didn’t necessarily catch up at the same time. Some things there’s not [a record] for, so we have to make approximations about certain things. Even the idea of segregation and inclusion. There may be a law here, but what are the actual practices and how did people treat each other? We want to be careful of how we over-play or under-play something based on region. Even something like racism is regional. It’s not like it was outlawed and everyone stopped being racist. Even things factually in terms of who people are and customs. Some things are hearsay. It’s very good having a historian in there to provide some middle ground in terms of where we play and create.

Without giving anything major away, there are some big twists that happen in the pilot. Is that going to be a trend in the coming episodes to go along with the whole time-travel conceit?

Yeah, I think that’s the beauty of the show. There’s definitely the time-travel layer which everyone is hooked on including myself, and then there’s this sort of almost old-school spy movie feeling to the show that continues episode-to-episode. It does a good job of answering questions in a timely manner. A lot of shows leave you with cliffhangers that you never get back to and never understand. These guys are pretty good about closing the loop, even while they are creating other ones.

In general, is there anything coming up you’re especially excited for people to see?

The Alamo episode is really interesting; I like it because I’m dressed really cool. I think the Alamo and the White House are going to be some really fun episodes. What’s fun is that we can’t repeat ourselves, so everything has to be great in a different way. What you’ll find great about [one] episode is different than what you’ll find great about this [other] episode. What you find out in the Civil War will be different than when we visit Vegas, when we see the Rat Pack.

I think right now my favorite episode might be the Watergate episode, and if not that one, the Alamo episode.


A special thanks to Malcolm for his time today, and if you weren’t planning on watching this show, we highly recommend you put some time aside for it.

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