*New York native Malcolm Barrett has appeared on several television series and features films including “Law & Order,” “The Sopranos,” “Better Off Ted,” “Swimfan,” and was a supporting character in the Academy Award-winning “The Hurt Locker.” He currently stars in the new NBC sci-fi drama “Timeless” as Rufus, a scientist who, along with his colleagues: a soldier and a history professor, must use a time machine to travel back in history to critical events. The trio must make every effort not to affect the past as they also stay one step ahead of a dangerous fugitive.
From Eric Kripke (“Revolution,” “Supernatural”), Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”) and the producers of “The Blacklist,” “Timeless” stars Abigail Spencer, Matt Lanter, Goran Visnjic, Paterson Joseph, Sakina Jaffrey and Claudia Doumit. NBC’s tagline for the series is, “They’re time-traveling to the past, to save America’s future…”.
EUR/Electronic Urban Report sat down with Malcolm ahead of the series premiere (Monday, Oct. 3 at 10/9c.) to talk about time travel and what he would change about history if he had a time machine.. We also explore the obvious reasons why his character really isn’t cool with traveling back in time.
Check out our Q&A with the actor below.
Tell me about your character and why he’s being sent back to a time when it wasn’t socially acceptable to be black in America?
MALCOLM: Rufus doesn’t want to go back in time because there’s no time in history that’s awesome for black people. There’s not a time where we aren’t facing adversity simply because of our color. As far as history goes, things don’t make it better for blacks as things progress forward. That’s why we’re suspect when we hear things like, ‘Make America Great Again.’ Cause we’re like, ‘What time period is that?’. Or when we hear things like, ‘The good ol days.’ Once again, what year are you talking about? That’s one aspect. The other aspect, he’s socially awkward. He can’t even talk to a girl that’s been his co-worker for years that he has a crush on. So combining this sort of homeboy office worker guy who also has to travel back in time as African-American, is reaping itself with certain conflicts for him. So that’s why he doesn’t want to go.
Why he is sent back in time is [because] he’s one of only two pilots that can operate this machine. There’s Anthony Bruhl, who’s his mentor, and him. Anthony’s been kidnapped and he’s in the past, and then there’s me, who’s here. On top of that, you have Connor Mason who plays my boss and is also an authority figure who has his own machinations and reasoning for doing everything he does which we don’t quite know when things start.
What sort of themes are explored on this series, and do these themes build to an overall message?
Malcolm: This series deals with fate versus free will, and the morality of consequences. Wyatt (Matt Lanter) has his wife who dies and suddenly he has the possibility of traveling back in time. Lucy (Abigail Spencer) is the historian who wants to maintain time and its integrity. And me, I don’t want to be there. So how do we deal with those and the consequences of that. And I think that winds up being the story of like, what would you do in this situation? Because it’s very different, what you would say you would do versus what would happen, and how does that change you as a person. Let’s say I kill Hitler as a baby, not just me doing it but me deciding to do that. What is that like? And then on top of that, who do I become once I’ve actively killed a child? Who am I, and was it worth everything that we’re going through? I think that’s what the story is always going to deal with. Fate versus free will. Who we are based on our morality, and once we make those decisions, who have we become.
I often throw this question to artists who explore science fiction. Do you believe that because humans are pretty much dissatisfied beings, and always seeking the truth about that which is seemingly unattainable, is the reason why the theme of time travel remains so fascinating to audiences?
Malcolm: I think time travel remains fascinating with audiences because we all have regret. I think we all go, ‘What if I change this?’ And then we all wonder what is the difference between the reality that we heard about and past that we heard about, verses what it would actually be like. And then on top of that we all go, ‘What’s the future gonna bring? Did I make the right decision? How will that affect the outcome in life?’ And I think those are the questions that time travel always deals with, whether you’re dealing with “Doctor Who”,” Terminator,” “Back to the Future,” “Sliders,” “Quantum Leap,” or “Timeless.”
If you could travel back in time, what period would you visit and what would you change about history?
Malcolm: I don’t know. There’s the big things like, I would like to stop all genocides. I would like to stop the Native Americans from being killed. I’d like to stop the Holocaust. I’d like to stop slavery. And then there’s the real world applications of, what is the alternate future of that? When and where do you stop? So I don’t know. Look, as a black man, I never think about going back in the past. I think… what’s happening in 20 years?
I think another reason we relate to time travel is regret. There’s few and far between that I’ve had regret, but I have one or two, and there’s part of me that would like to change those things. But then there’s a part of me that goes, if it wasn’t for the adversity that I faced, who would I be? Look at where I am today. 2003 I was selling toner over the phone, and that was after having had a TV show or two. I would like to go back and stop that from happening — from me having to sell toner — to me having to bike to work — bike back. Having a boss who was a crackhead. A white crackhead, just to defy your expectations. All these sort of things I’d like to take back, but at the same, would I be as grateful as I am now? Would I be as successful as I am now? Would I have chosen jobs I chose to have now?
It is because of the poverty that I had as a child that I am respectful of those who aren’t as fortunate. It is because of the neighborhood that I grew up in that I care about politics as a black individual. It is because of that, I have formed two non-profit theater companies. It is because of all these pieces of adversity that I am where I am. It’s that cliché of, to be who they are now you had to be who they were before. And so to be where I am, I had to go through everything else. So I don’t know what I should and shouldn’t change because maybe not going through that adversity would’ve just made me tailspin later in life.
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How much do you want to know as an actor about what happens next?
Malcolm: It’s interesting because we’re on a conspiracy show, and that’s the thing that people don’t talk too much about. I’m spying on my friends. Connor Mason, who’s my boss, has stuff going. Wyatt is dealing with having a mission to kill. Lucy suddenly loses parts of her family, so what is she going to do afterwards? It’s a mystery and I think we’re all trying to figure out what we’re going to do with it. When I first started I kinda didn’t want to know any aspect of anybody, cause there’s part of me that kinda wants to know stuff. But at the end of the day, you have to play with what’s there and not with what you think is there or know is there.
What’s your theory on time manipulation?
Malcolm: So here’s my theory on time travel, if it’s possible then it’s already happening.
Did you learn anything surprising about the science of time travel while getting into Rufus’ headspace?
Malcolm: You don’t need to create formulas to play a scientist. You just have to know what you’re talking about. Historically, I just wanted to maintain integrity and not embarrass black people.