NBC’s time travel adventure series Timeless is as much about the evolution of its characters as it is about saving history from Rittenhouse’s grand conspiracy, and beside Wyatt’s brawn and Lucy’s brains is Rufus’ heart and soul. In recent episodes like “Hollywoodland” and “The King of the Delta Blues,” Rufus has taken a more primary role, sometimes even acting as the conscience of the group when moral decisions have to be made. As Timeless season 2 enters its second half, actor Malcolm Barrett spoke with us about how Rufus grounds the series with his unique perspective.
Barrett admits that Rufus wasn’t always as invested in the mission as he is now. “In season two his main motivation is to save the world,” he says. “Before this, their goal was to stop Flynn, and now their goal is just to stop this conspiracy and stop Rittenhouse and stop these villains. They kind of have a different villain every week. I think more than the first year, [Rufus] understands how much this isn’t about him. The first year, he just kind of wanted anyone else to do whatever this is and be in his own world.”
Over time, however, Rufus has begun to form closer relationships, including talking Paterson Joseph’s character, Connor Mason, through moments of self-doubt in the most recent Timeless episode. “I’m a huge fan of Paterson and his work, and so to be able to play this father-son relationship and the ups and downs of that relationship has been a really fun role to play,” says Barrett. “The first season we had been laying the groundwork for the back story that me and him discuss and fill in — what is this love between these two men, one being the mentor? Then you see it come to fruition much more fluidly and in a lot stronger way this season. You really do see him trying to counsel him, and him trying to understand this man who’s now broken.”
Timeless fans have also really enjoyed the chemistry between Rufus and Claudia Doumit’s character, Jiya, mostly because the relationship is not as fraught as others in the show. “I think people are really happy to see this couple live their life,” Barrett asserts. “That’s where this show uses its ‘couple joy’ is with us and seeing what we go through. This show does a really good aspect of seeing what a functional relationship goes through when they have daily life to contend with.”
The relationship may not be as star-crossed as the one between Wyatt and Lucy, but with Jiya’s premonitions (including a doozy this week), a new dynamic has surfaced this season for Rufus and Jiya. “What they do with Lucy and Wyatt is they show you how you can almost reach that moment with somebody and how perfect it could be, which I think is a greater metaphor for what the show is, which is what would you do if you could turn back time? Will it go your way?” says Barrett. “With us, they play out more of what happens with secrets and what you think you can control… As the show goes on with us, you see us grapple with fate versus spirituality.”
In this week’s episode of Timeless, “The King of the Delta Blues,” the group traveled to visit blues legend Robert Johnson, one of many examples where the unsung heroes of black history have been highlighted on the show. “The Robert Johnson episode is a real opportunity to see this brilliant, vibrant black culture in Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson,” Barrett says. “We see a couple of different jazz artists there, and it’s amazing to see that environment, that love, that inclusion in community. So when it gets it right, Timeless is extremely good at that.”
Timeless is also very skilled at treating black history with subtlety and grace so that its message neither gets lost nor feels forced, such as when Rufus enters a “whites only” phone booth in the most recent episode, which takes place in 1930s Texas. Barrett recounts a similar moment from season one: “One of my favorite genuine, bittersweet moments from our show is from the Bonnie and Clyde episode where I help a little girl drink at this colored water fountain. We don’t necessarily say it out loud, but it happens right there… I think that’s where this show is at its smartest is when it’s able to show you those things and have this impact and not necessarily have to say anything about it in particular.”
Aside from episodes that deal directly with black historical figures, Rufus often has a tough time blending in in certain time periods. “Rufus always has this balance between what he can do and how far he can be involved because of the time period he’s in and the ways in which he can attack a problem,” admits Barrett, “and you see the way in which he’s able to dance with that, whether it be the ‘Party at Castle Varlar’ episode where he’s trying to stay back because there’s Nazis, or the episode where they’re in Vegas and he uses his invisibility to get a car, or you see him with the Black Panthers using that to his advantage, or talking to Katherine Johnson and relating to that.”
Overall, though, Barrett is just enjoying playing Rufus in whatever way the Timeless writers choose to portray him. “Honestly, they’ve actually satisfied a lot of what I’m looking for in this character which is dealing with the reality of being black and going through history and also being a nerd who has a real relationship with another person, and it’s great to also experience that with a person of color and be a prominent relationship,” Barrett says. “I think that’s an aspect that’s understated but powerful in this show is how multi-ethnic, how multicultural, and how international this show is.”
It doesn’t hurt that Barrett has stand-up comedy experience in his past, as Rufus almost always gets the most humorous lines of the show as well. “This season they’ve let me really be me, and I think this season has the most amount of Malcolm in the character of Rufus,” says Barrett. “I made kind of a joke on Instagram where I had a picture of Paterson, of Claudia, of Sakina, and of Goran, and said, ‘A Brit, a Croation, an Aussie, and an American walk into a bar…’ We have all sorts of people on there, and I think that’s one of the really cool qualities of the show.”
Timeless continues it’s ten-episode second season next Sunday at 10pm ET on NBC. Check out all the latest news as the season progresses, including the latest episode promo and links to reviews. The full audio of this interview with Malcolm Barrett will be available in the May edition of our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast.