Timeless had its premiere last week, introducing audiences to another modern day time travel adventure story, this time exclusively revolving around America’s history. The pilot offered a whirlwind ride through American history along with teammates Lucy (Abigail Spencer), Wyatt (Matt Lanter) and Rufus (Malcolm Barrett). By the end of the show’s first hour we discovered that even the slightest change to history has significant consequences, with their trip to the Hindenburg disaster resulting in the disappearance of Lucy’s sister and the reappearance of her mother, played by Arrow‘s Susanna Thompson.
The show’s second episode takes us farther into the past with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln when Flynn (Goran Visnjic) teams up with John Wilkes Booth. It also delves further into ethical and moral issues around changing history, even if the result could leave the world better for it.
We spoke with Barrett about how some of the premiere’s shocking revelations will affect the team as the show progresses and how Timeless addresses the elephant in the room when it comes to being a black time traveler and Hollywood’s tendency of whitewashing American history.
The TV Junkies: What first drew you to Timeless and to your character Rufus?
Malcolm Barrett: There’s a couple of things that drew me to the show. Definitely the pedigree of the show, Shawn [Ryan] and Eric [Kripke]. I’ve watched all of The Shield and I’ve watched a lot of Supernatural. Kind of hard to watch all of it because it’s 11 years of show. I love their sensibility and to see them combined you get the best of both worlds from them. You get the grittiness and the action from a lot of Shawn Ryan’s work and the character and fantasy you get from Eric Kripke’s stuff.
I think they combine into one of my favorite genres of sci-fi, which is time travel. I grew up on Back to the Future, Sliders, Quantum Leap and Bill and Ted–both their Excellent Adventure and their Bogus Journey–and Doctor Who. To be part of that world was great and to be black and in that world was even better. I very rarely see that within that genre, other than Martha as a companion in Doctor Who to be part of that conversation. To be trailblazing in that way is fun to me.
I knew it could go either way in terms of audience reaction, in terms of people being like, ‘How crazy is it? I’m worried about a black guy going into the past.’ I know there was a lot of interest in being able to do this for the first time. When you’re doing something for the first time it’s always going to be hard and always an uphill battle. It’s a little bit scary, and that’s exactly why I wanted to do it. I knew it would be new, I knew it would be scary, and I knew it would be fun. I knew these guys would be able to handle it in a way that we listened and had a conversation that I think would be interesting to most audiences.
TTVJ: Near the end of the pilot we discovered Rufus is being forced to record Lucy and Wyatt. Will that have an affect on his dynamic with the team?
MB: I think so. Rufus and Mason (Paterson Joseph) have a very complex, somewhat dysfunctional relationship and I think adding a layer of Rufus spying for him plays with that dynamic and makes it really interesting and juicy from an actor’s perspective. I think it is something that will continue to affect Rufus’ soul, having to spy on his team for this father figure who he respects, trusts, is afraid of. Where does his allegiance align and how does he react as a result of that?
TTVJ: We saw that big twist at the end with the appearance of Lucy’s mother and the disappearance of her sister. Will we see more changes in the lives of Wyatt and Rufus as well?
MB: I think you will. It’s interesting, a lot of times the relationships change in the future. Well, I guess not the future, the present? It’s hard because most of our time is spent in the past, I have to jog my mind to figure out what year I’m in.
I think the relationships will change in the present, and it’s not necessarily about sci-fi timeline stuff. Some of it is a result of the experiences they have and that winds up changing the relationships. I think experiences they have in the past very much affects the experiences they have in the present, whether it be along the sci-fi lines or just plain emotional things.
TTVJ: Something I’ve really enjoyed about Timeless, and it’s something you touched on earlier, is that the show isn’t coy about discussing America’s history of racial discrimination. For instance, Rufus had that great speech in the jail cell. What was your reaction to that once you read the script?
MB: I was immensely happy about it, it felt like things that had come out of my mouth. I always joked about how black people, we don’t like to go back any further than “Thriller,” you know what I mean? That’s about as far back as we wanna go. Seeing it addressed, to me, it’s absurd when it’s not addressed, and I think that’s probably why you don’t have a lot of movies or writers writing about black people time traveling, or even movies about older times. I think people get afraid of addressing those racial dynamics and aren’t necessarily as informed as others about how to do it, so they just don’t.
What was great about this is they do address it, they do address what it’s like for this character to go through that, Lucy’s character going through what she has to go through—and we’ve got a a very eclectic cast. We’ve got Sakina Jaffrey (Agent Christopher), Claudia Doumit (Jiya), Paterson Joseph, who plays our billionaire. I think they’re very smart about how they cast and they see the world for what it is and really tackle it. To me, it’s more absurd that we don’t tackle the very obvious history that we have. That’s what’s harder for minorities when they watch television. To see this sort of white-washing that happens is frustrating and to still have to be a part of it. We still watch these movies and go out and have been a part of this, so to actually be included in a way, and particularly in this genre, is very helpful and I think forward-moving and I feel very positive about the impact.
I saw something on Twitter where someone was talking about an old movie where they said, ‘I love their movies, I know they’re always made before people of color existed.’ That’s how affected this person was by television and movies. Because they had seen older movies with predominantly or exclusively white casts, they believed that black people or people of color didn’t exist until whatever time they saw, I don’t know, Eddie Murphy in something. [laughs] I don’t know what was the movie where they realized black people existed, but that’s how effective media can be. To be a part of being able to show these pasts and these time periods is very important and I think will have an important cultural impact.
TTVJ: The next episode goes back to Lincoln’s assassination, which obviously brings up issues of slavery and the civil war. Moving forward, will this series continue to bring up these important conversations?
MB: I think so. I think in different ways, and hopefully not ever heavy-handed, it will come up. I think people are hungry to see the reality of it. Sometimes networks get afraid that people are too scared of the world they’re in, you know what I mean? I think we’re not afraid to see it. It’s not just blacks or people of color that want to see people of color and want to see those issues. It can be uncomfortable, but these communities have been talking about this for years.
People are also just interested in seeing new stories and conflicts. What greater conflict is there? That’s why it’s such a hot topic for me to go back in time because they realize how much conflict there would be, and I think handling that conflict well and deftly is what makes for interesting television. It’s too easy to see the same things over and over again, and that’s what this show is trying to do is in some ways trail blaze by talking about the most obvious thing in the world, which is how hard it is to be a black man in the past.
TTVJ: What else can you preview for the upcoming episode?
MB: Once again you’re going to see the team tested in terms of fate versus free will and who’s willing to do what for whom. I think the sort of greater conversations that we’re having are had on a deeper level. They’re going to be face to face with history on a more personal level than they ever expected.
Will you be following Timeless through America’s history? Sound off in the comments below.
Timeless airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on Global and NBC.
Associate Editor Kelly Townsend always had strong opinions on TV growing up, so it was only natural to evolve from couch musings to online journalism. She can't ever choose a favorite series, so please don't ask. Her writing has also appeared on IndieWire and Tribute.ca. You can find her on Twitter at @kellybtownsend.