When he auditioned for Outlander, Scottish actor Sam Heughan, 42, wasn’t familiar with Diana Gabaldon’s popular books, which have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. So, Heughan hurried off to buy the first novel and read it. At the time, he was an unknown actor who had been working mostly in theater. But his Scottish bearing and roots helped win him the role of Jamie Fraser, a young, 18th-century Scottish warrior who crosses paths with a time-traveling nurse from the 20th century. “I remember on my first day of shooting the driver asked me how long I thought it would last. I said, about one year. Now, it’s eight years, seven seasons. But it’s been an incredible journey, and it’s gone so fast. It’s just so exciting,” Heughan said in a recent interview ahead of a new season of the show.
The actor had traveled to Madrid to take advantage of a few days off from filming Outlander’s 16-episode seventh season, which will premiere in 2023 on Starz. During his time in Spain, Heughan continued to work, meeting fans on a walkabout. He also conducted interviews and received Esquire magazine’s International Man of the Year award. The actor is handling his newfound fame – and the hoopla that surrounds him wherever he goes – well. “I wouldn’t consider myself famous. But then again, I suppose last night it was surprising to see all of the enthusiasm and excitement. But I don’t know. I wouldn’t consider myself famous, but I think the show is still very popular. It’s always so rewarding to see people’s excitement and to meet fans.”
He can reveal little about the new season’s plot, although Gabaldon’s books already tell the story of Jamie and Claire (played by Caitriona Balfe). The couple, now no longer young (they even have a grandchild), has settled in pre-Revolutionary War America (1775–1781) and have the advantage that Jamie’s wife, as well as their daughter and son-in-law, come from the future and know what will happen, at least according to the history books.
Outlander has an extremely devoted following, a phenomenon that the stars themselves have a hard time explaining. “I wish I knew [why the show is such a global phenomenon]. I mean, I think it’s all down to the fans, their anticipation of what’s going to happen and their interest. But I guess we have to thank Diana Gabaldon for her book series. She captured this amazing relationship. [It’s] set in Scotland, of course, but also in the US,” says the actor. He believes that the tight-knit cast and crew might be another factor. “We are a big family and we have been working together now for eight years. And it’s just made us so close. And I don’t think you would be able to shoot this kind of show without having a very close relationship.”
Although the action is now set in colonial America, Outlander is being filmed in Scotland, at Cumbernauld Studios, a 20-minute drive from Glasgow. There, the crew builds new sets between seasons and works on props, costumes, hairdressing, makeup and everything else they need to recreate 18th-century America, as well as 20th-century Boston or 18th-century French high society, when the need arises. Filming the show in Scotland allows for shooting in a unique landscape, although there is one downside. “The worst thing is probably night shoots in Scotland during the winter,” says Heughan. “Some of our crew and cast are shooting right now, [doing] night shifts in Scotland and it’s very cold; it’s -12 degrees.”
Outlander combines adventure, fantasy, history and romance. The show now employs an intimacy coordinator for shooting erotic scenes, although that wasn’t always the case. Heughan has said that during the show’s first season, he wasn’t comfortable with what he felt was gratuitous nudity that was unnecessary to the storyline. “I’d say that we were very inexperienced. So as a young actor, quite green, I didn’t know where the boundaries were. And we were all exploring it, not just the actors, but also the directors and producers. You know, we were trying to find what the boundaries are and a safe place for everyone to be in,” the actor explains. “It’s been fantastic to bring on board an intimacy coordinator, not only as she helped make it easier for us because it is difficult to shoot this kind of scene. But, actually, she’s given us more time, more tools, more ideas to explore those scenes, maybe make them even more intimate or more passionate. So, it’s been really helpful to have someone on set to help us facilitate the scenes. And not just for the actors, but for the crew as well, and also the studio.”
Portraying Jamie Fraser has completely altered Heughan’s life. “I was a jobbing actor. You know, had some success and a lot of failure. But it really has changed my whole world; [it’s] giving me a lot of opportunity to work on other projects, to create my own projects, from writing to producing.” It has even allowed him to reconnect with his Scottish roots and make his homeland a constant presence in his professional life. In addition to playing Jamie, Heughan co-stars with Outlander castmate Graham McTavish in the documentary series Men in Kilts (also on Starz), in which the two use fiction as a point of departure for traveling around Scotland and showing its customs and culture (there is also a companion book, Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other). Heughan has also written a memoir, Waypoints: My Scottish Journey. He even has his own line of Scotch whisky called Sassenach, a Gaelic word that refers to non-Gaelic speakers and the term with which Jamie refers to Claire on the show.
“All of the projects that I do [are] all celebrating Scotland. I guess I’m very proud of Scotland. I think we have a lot to offer [for] a very, very small country, but we have a great identity, and I like to share with the rest of the world. And it’s easy. I mean, Scotland is such an incredible country that has great history as well. So, I feel like an ambassador,” he laughs. “I think it’s a combination of things and obviously an amazing landscape. But I think it’s the history, it’s very tangible. You know, it has [a] great history of being the underdog, of being a small country trying to fight against a larger one. And the history is so tangible, you can walk around Scotland and see a castle or a ruin. And I guess also for such a small country, it has had a great influence in the rest of the world, especially immigration, you know, from America to New Zealand to Australia. It’s such a small country, it’s such a big reach,” Heughan says.
Judging by the Outlander books – the show reflects one volume or so per season and author Gabaldon has just published the ninth and penultimate book in the series – Heughan could be playing Jamie Fraser for several more years. And after that? He thinks for a few seconds: “I mean, there’s so many [characters I’d like to play]. But also, I guess maybe there are [some that are as yet] unwritten. But I did want to go back to the theater. I love Shakespeare and that’s where I started the theater a long time ago now. So, yeah, I would love to go back and do some Shakespeare, maybe, I guess Macbeth, [which is a] Scottish play. Or maybe Hamlet.”
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