‘Outlander’ Star Sam Heughan on Jamie’s Unlikely Journey and Tackling History in Season 2

The 2015 Lead Actor Emmy Race
Courtesy of Starz

Spoiler warning: This interview contains plot details for the entirety of “Outlander” season one.

The Emmy race for lead actor in a drama has long been the domain of tortured antiheroes and unrepentant villains, as if “good guys” can no longer be compelling enough to take home TV’s top prize. “Outlander” star Sam Heughan defies that assumption, portraying a character who is the epitome of traditional heroism — Jamie Fraser, a tall, dashing Highland swashbuckler — yet follows a trajectory rarely explored in any mainstream media: a romantic male lead who becomes the victim of brutal physical and sexual assault by a sadistic English army captain called Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), subverting the traditional TV tropes of period pieces and historical fantasy, where female characters are raped as a seemingly “inevitable” consequence of the time.

In Starz’s “Outlander,” Jamie and his wife, Claire (Caitriona Balfe) are both equally capable, resourceful characters who encounter various instances of sexualized violence, but by flipping the script on how television portrays its male and female protagonists (and the appetites of its villains), Ron Moore’s historical drama — based on Diana Gabaldon’s novel of the same name — forces audiences to confront their preconceptions about what constitutes “strength” and “weakness” while exploring the ongoing cost of a devastating ordeal that is often treated as a throwaway plot device by many TV series, designed to shock audiences or serve as a catalyst for its heroes before being swept under the rug for the sake of narrative expedience. That unlikely character arc allowed Heughan to turn in one of the bravest, most affecting performances of the TV season, deftly navigating some truly challenging subject matter with pathos and poignancy.

Variety spoke to Heughan about Jamie’s unlikely journey over the course of the first season, the emotional toll of his encounter with Randall and what’s ahead for Jamie and Claire in season two.

Fans of Diana’s books have been anticipating seeing Jamie’s journey translated to screen for years now, and we’ve been talking about his season one trajectory since you first started doing interviews to promote the show. How does it feel to finally have the whole season out in the world?

Initially, relief was probably the first [emotion] because it’s such a big event and we worked really hard towards those scenes and I was really proud of them. We’d obviously been talking about them for quite a while — I was excited to see what people thought of it and also nervous whether we got it right. Ultimately, I’m very proud of it, and the reaction has been terrific.

Much of the penultimate episode of season one, “Wentworth Prison,” took place between you and Tobias in a dimly lit cell, and the tension was palpable — you were like a pair of caged animals sizing each other up. How did you approach those scenes?

It’s pretty epic. We rehearsed the scenes for maybe the week before, we went over all the text with the writers and director. Both Tobias and I come from a theater background so it felt quite comfortable and it felt like we were there supporting each other and we were both making suggestions about the characters, about the script — we did a little bit of cutting down of it and some changes. It was just about plotting the relationship and where it goes, and I think pretty much over the two weeks we shot it, I think we barely spoke, to be honest [laughs]. It was a very dark room, very claustrophobic, pretty depressing and it kind of worked for those scenes. He’s terrific fun to work with and there were some laughs, but as the scene progressed and it got darker, we both slightly regressed into ourselves, and I tried to maintain that concentration as well.

You were also wearing a number of elaborate prosthetic makeup pieces for much of the final two episodes, which I imagine probably put you into a pretty dark mindset anyway?

That’s exactly it. At the time, you use whatever’s around you and we were [applying the prosthetics for] a good four hours in the morning from four a.m.; pickup would be even earlier, half past three or whatever, and all day there’d be people prodding me and touching me and doing all kinds of things with the prosthetics — painting them and repainting them. It honestly, in a little way, felt like some sort of mild torture, it was very easy to get into that mindset at first. And certainly there were some great times when I could get outside and take a break, but taking it off in the evening was a way of getting out of the character again, it was a time when I could enjoy them ripping this thing off my back. [Laughs.] They did such a fantastic job and I really did use the makeup team — we talked a lot about seeing the progression of Jamie’s [state], the way he’s covered in blood and mud, and by the end I wanted him to look almost feral like a wild animal, broken down.

What did director Anna Foerster bring to the table in those last two episodes?

She was terrific, she was very diligent and did a lot of prep. She really pushed me a lot, she kept challenging me and it was almost like a mind game, it was very interesting. She was very caring and thoughtful but she would definitely try to get some interesting performances out of us and I think she did that. It might have been different in another director’s hands, for sure.

In the finale, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul,” we see the emotional aftermath of Jamie’s ordeal, which is every bit as affecting as the rape itself. How did it feel to explore a previously untapped aspect of Jamie’s character?

I loved it, I really enjoyed it. [Laughs.] Because he can be quite buoyant, not many things really get him down, and with this, his whole being is called into question; his humanity; his character; who he is; and his relationship with Claire is called into question. He’s got shame and guilt and all these different emotions are hitting him and it’s a really hard thing to deal with. I really enjoyed that, and certainly it’s gonna be carried through into season two as well.

It’s so rare for a show to actually take the time to explore the physical and emotional aftermath of rape with any nuance. In reality, it’s something that a person carries with them for the rest of their lives, and you really get that sense of gravity from how the episode handles it.

The writing was terrific. To get a character that goes there and it’s not just washed over — it’s gonna change Jamie; he’s a different person now — and I think that’s the beauty of our show, that it’s always moving forward. The relationship we saw start [between Claire and Jamie] at the wedding is completely different to the one we have now, and I think that’s what a modern relationship is like, and hopefully that will keep developing.

I know you’ve been in contact with Diana throughout the process — did she give you any advice for tackling the latter part of Jamie’s journey?

Over that period I think she just let us do our thing. We’re in contact quite a lot and certainly at the moment we’ve been talking about where Jamie is now, but definitely the last two episodes she let me loose, let me do my thing and it was really nice when she did see it. She was watching the rushes, she watched pretty much daily, which can be terrifying — you see an email in your inbox from the day before and she’s like “what are you doing?” or “that’s great, I really enjoyed it.” It’s great to have that feedback because on TV or film you don’t really get that, so it’s nice to have an audience member there who knows the show inside out. It’s really rewarding to have her on board and she’s a great sounding board for expanding ideas.

What strikes you most about Jamie’s evolution over the first season?

I wanted for him to be a boy at the start, quite carefree. He does have this big-headed stubbornness, but he’s very much a young lad with no responsibility, and then we see him growing up and becoming a man and having responsibilities, and also deciding what he wants to do with his life and who he wants to be. And then in season two, it’s going to be quite different — he’s thrust into a world that he’s not wholly familiar with.

He and Claire are on their way to France, but obviously the ordeal is still quite close. Where do we find him at the start of season two?

It’s difficult, from what happened at the end of season one — he’s not quite found his roots and he’s not on even ground, but he’s a very good adapter and he’s adapting to the situation and has a natural ability [for that]. Ultimately, he does grow with that, but we’ve only shot the first three episodes, so we’re still trying to see where he fits in.

How do you think his recent experiences have changed him?

It’s all about Claire, really, because she has given him a purpose and a reason. It’s all in a state of flux now that she’s pregnant as well — he has that responsibility and that excitement and fear. But I think it just made him more rounded as a character, thinking more about the consequences of things, and he’s touched on his own mortality, which is certainly going to make him grow up and ultimately make him a stronger character and more able to deal with the situations that arise. But it’s gonna be quite a long process to get there, I think.

Claire and Jamie’s relationship has continued to shift and deepen throughout the first season — where do they stand now that they’ve both seen each other at their most vulnerable?

It’s funny — there’s wedding vows you make, “to have and to hold, for better for worse,” but they really have seen each other at their worst. Jamie was absolutely prepared to kill himself because he couldn’t be a husband, he couldn’t be loyal to her, he felt guilt that he’d betrayed her, he hadn’t come to terms with the whole idea of what had happened to him and what he’d done, so the fact that she then brings him out of it and says she would kill herself makes him realize that he has her, that he has to stay alive to save her, to look after her. So she is the center of his world and he’s there for her. As long as he’s got her, I think he’s pretty happy. It definitely made their relationship stronger and more complex, more grey. It’s the whole process of a relationship and growing up, as well.

Spoiler warning: Details about the second season and second book in Gabaldon’s series of novels follow.

The second season seems like it will be building towards the historical Battle of Culloden, which Claire and Jamie are trying to avert — how are you feeling about venturing further into history?

I’m ecstatic that we’re doing that. There are two parts of the second book — the first half is in France and the second half is in Scotland, and I think that’s what our show’s gonna be. I can’t wait to return to Scotland to that safety and comfort of that country, and Jamie’s gonna feel the same thing. France is incredible, but the build-up to Culloden is the reason they’re in France, to stop this terrible thing happening, and they know from history that it’s a terrible tragedy for the Highland culture so… It’s also not been filmed for a long time, so the fact that we’re getting to portray this historical moment is terrific. I believe there’s another film that’s going to beat us to it, which I’m quite upset about.

What are some of the challenges and more appealing aspects about drawing on actual historical events for the show?

It’s a really interesting period. We keep having parts of the script and I’ll read it and there’ll be something in the script that’ll jump out at me and I’ll think “that’s really not period, we should change that,” and I’ll have a little look online or do a little research and find that a lot of modern sayings, a lot of modern language or things that they use [in the scripts] was invented in those times. So it’s surprising; we were talking about the police, I was reading a reference to the police in one part of the episode and to me that feels like a very modern term, but actually, in Paris at the time, it had been created in the 1600s, the police force. It was a very particular thing for Paris, that they had their own police force, that actually then went to Scotland and spread to the rest of the UK, but Scotland was the next place to get their own police force in Glasgow, so that old alliance is there. There’s lots of little things like that that I find quite surprising, so history is still present. And then we’ll be getting to all the stuff in Culloden, which are stories that I grew up with.

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  1. Joyce B says:

    What a story, what a crew…I just love OUTLANDER and I thank all for the work you do

  2. Marianne says:

    This is one of the best interviews I have read/seen with Sam. Thank you Sam and Cait for showing us your awesome talent! Love the chemistry you have with each other. :D

  3. Annalisa says:

    This was a fascinating interview and I really appreciate the insight into the production of my favorite series, particularly with regard to Sam’s craft. It is clear that he has passion and dedication to his work, as does the entire cast, and that passion translates to a series the likes of which I have never seen on television. I believe that Outlander will do for Starz as Mad Men did for AMC and will raise the programming bar considerably. I, for one, can attest that I subscribe to Starz for Outlander alone at this point.

    I am so excited that this show is generating the buzz it deserves and that viewership is growing due to word of mouth. I’m sure the viewership will quadruple at least by the time season 2 premieres. I haven’t been this excited or drawn into a television series in years; Outlander is absolutely the best thing on television.

  4. barbara campbell says:

    My last name is Campbell, I cant say any thing else. Love Outlander.

  5. Maria Grazia says:

    I love Sam’s analysis of their work from the books to the TV screen. So thoroughly committed to his job to portray Jamie. My favourite book is Voyager (book 3). I want to see it on screen!

  6. Yvonne says:

    Great interview and I’m really looking forward to the next season, it’s a shame we have to wait so long.
    However, something this good is well worth the wait
    . Sam Heughan has been a revelation as an actor. He has incredible chemistry both with Cat and the rest of the cast and his acting talents are wide ranging and memorable in their perception of the subject matter.
    His facial expressions alone during many scenes, especially the Wentworth scenes; were amazing and he did not need words to convey the feelings he was experiencing. He transfers the evident love of his craft into every single performance and has tackled portraying a much loved iconic character with brilliance and great perception.
    This whole series has been a joy to watch throughout and I’ve seldom seen such quality on the small screen. From the actors, script writers, producers, wardrobe people and the insightful directors and not forgetting the wonderful leadership of Ron Moore the overall effect has been incredible and worthy of every award that can be given to them.
    I truly hope they are given the chance to continue the series to include the remaining books.

  7. Sandra Elliott. - Indiana says:

    I luv the story but the rape scence the whole porn stuff is horrible. This is a great story dont ruin it. The kids watch what are you thinking porn rape homosexual assault go back to decent 1960 TV ethics the world will live you for it remember God sees you to. Pls do this America will love you for it. Tkank you

    • “The whole porn stuff?” What are you referring to?

      • Erin Martin says:

        The “whole porn stuff” you are idiotically referring to is in the book, not that you probably read it, anyway. It has nothing to do with porn. It is portraying what people do to others in an honest way. Women are not the only ones who get raped. If you had even read the books, you would know that the whole scene is in there, so putting it in the television series is only being true to the books. you want to mention ethics in television you need to look at how other television series have women getting raped, then act like it did not even happen. In essence sweeping it under the rug and pretending that it never happened and everyone is just fine and dandy and no one was hurt. Please, grow up. Life is not like that, and it’s about time it was confronted, no matter who it make uncomfortable. And to address your comment about God seeing you, yes He does. And your pretending like nothing bad ever happens and trying to sweep things that bother you under the rug is tantamount to ignoring when someone is abused, or calling them a liar is they say they have been. If ignoring when rape happens, no matter to whom it happens to, male or female, makes “America love you for it” we should be ashamed of ourselves. You should be ashamed of yourself, for sure. Ignoring others and pretending you are better than others because of your “high moral standards” is not something God thinks is a good thing.

  8. Karen says:

    Great interview with Sam Heughan. Outlander is the most compelling TV drama at present, and the actors are beyond superb. They should win Emmys across the board. If Hueghan doesn’t win Best Actor – the powers that be CLEARY did not watch Outlander in it’s entirety. Absolutely can’t wait for Season Two.

  9. chanelgalme says:

    Very good interview. Sam is such an intelligent man and very articular. Really love to hear him.

  10. catmom1 says:

    Very insightful interview! I liked the look into where they are taking S2. Wasn’t sure if they were going to keep to the way the book starts out; sort of fun to be surprised!! So far I’m enjoying their adaptation of the books, i realize they are not going to be word for word. Things will be different, and that’s okay…… They are doing a fantastic job, and should get their just rewards and honors!

  11. Seriously great interview! I am pumped!!

  12. marglyns says:

    What a pleasure to read a commentary and interview that took a look at Outlander without the jaundiced eye of a critic with a bone to pick. The writer’s remarks were spot on regarding Ron Moore’s concept and treatment of Diana’s book and the points made illustrate recognition of the strengths of this series that put it far and above its competitors. The questions put to Sam are, for the most part, not repeats of the many interviews that Sam has done recently, which I’m sure he found refreshing. I know I did. Given Variety’s long history in this industry, I would expect no less.

  13. joanapolis says:

    Thank you for a robust Q&A with many new questions that resulted on lots of new insights from Sam. #EmmyforSamHeughan #EmmyForOutlander

  14. bonnie says:

    Sam Hueghan is a great actor. Outlander is such a great show. Perfectly cast. I hope Sam and the show get the emmys they deserve.

  15. MapleLeafMomma says:

    I fully agree with Jetric regarding the Variety interview. Intelligent questions, peeling back layers; in turn giving Sam the opportunity to answer in depth. No more questions with regards to Sam’s hair…or what he wears under his kilt !! Cute perhaps at the beginning of his 2014 publicity jaunts (which he did more of than any other cast member) but no longer…Thank goodness!!
    Watching a Sam q/a video awhile ago, the female interviewer asked him the “kilt” question, with
    a bit of an expected giggle, which Sam answered with a slight smile…”I thought you might ask me that.”…Looking her in the eye, he replied…”I’m a true Scot!!”…
    She was a touch flustered while I applauded.

  16. lisa says:

    This is such a great show. Very rare I look at any show twice but with outlander it’s different; I always enjoy watching it twice even more. The acting is great and the scenery is so beautiful. I can’t wait to visit Scotland.
    I like the whole cast…. Angus, Rupert are so funny. I love Sam. I hope to meet him one day.

  17. maeclark says:

    Read all the books and could not put them down, the series is wonderful and Jamie, Clair and Black jack are great in there parts, cant wait for the next season to start.My husband and I are going to Scotland in September and I want to go to Culloden. I was born in Scotland but have been in Canada 63 years so I’m really getting excited, hope I do not miss any of the next season. mae

  18. jetric says:

    Laura, Truly good questions that didn’t cover the exact same ground as so many other interviews of Sam and Sam, truly thoughtful answers. Both the questions and the answers were more complex than those in an average interview. I read it a couple times because reading it also required thought and reflection on my part. One of the best interviews of Sam that I’ve read/seen.

  19. Sherry says:

    I’m still haunted by those final two episodes of season 1. Sam did an amazing job with all those dark scenes. He’s certainly got my vote for an Emmy.

  20. Meryl says:

    Sam Heughan was outstanding in Outlander, a performance so deserving of an Emmy nom. Truly wonderful acting — unbelievable range, and Heughan is particularly excellent at conveying emotions tgrough his face, eyes, and in the last 2 eps, his body. Hope he is honored for this brave and beautiful work.

  21. Aleta Pahl says:

    It is hard to imagine any other actor in a series this last year having that range of performance: Sam Heughan can show so much: vulnerability or heroism, tenderness or bravery, stubbornness or diplomacy, idealism or fatalism, passion or innocence, and in the last 2 episodes there is courage, fear and psychological devastation. What an amazing actor he truly is and I hope he is recognized with an Emmy nomination.

  22. Maggie says:

    When we first meet Jamie, he has been flogged twice and nearly to death, he is a wanted man and he is 23 years old in an age when boys of 14 were expected to look after themselves….Jamie is not a lad. I cringe when anyone in the series calls him that.

    • Char says:

      Sam is correct in pointing out that Jamie, in the circumstances that had been thrust upon him, WAS a lad – when we meet him. No home, no family, no real responsibility. If he hadn’t been taken from Lallybroch, he undoubtedly would have been his father’s right-hand man (if Brian was alive; if not, he would have been laird), with all the attendant grown-up responsibilities, and probably by that time a wife as well.

  23. aig says:

    I loved Luara’s intro “…while exploring the ongoing cost of a devastating ordeal that is often treated as a throwaway plot device by many TV series, designed to shock audiences or serve as a catalyst for its heroes before being swept under the rug for the sake of narrative expedience.” Yes! Thank you!

  24. jan says:

    Sam Heughan is everywhere. It seems as if everyone wants to hand him the Emmy for his thought provoking performance. But…let’s just stop a hot minute for an important question. WHAT ABOUT CAITRIONA BALFE? Her skillfully honed performance is deserving of an Emmy nomination. That girl is the James Brown of series TV. In the beginning, she was in almost every shot! Give her some credit “in this man’s world”…please.

    • Patp says:

      Jan, this is a Sam Heughan interview. If you google Caitriona Balfe, I’m sure you will find her interviews as well as articles about Caitriona. Praising Sam’s work does not diminish Cait’s contributions: a fan should not try to bring Sam down just because they like Cait.

    • 1mars says:

      I believe the interviewer was interviewing Sam. He spoke of his character. How can he speak of her character, what she is thinking and feeling? Google it, there are plenty of interviews on her performance too.

      • joanapolis says:

        This IS an interview with Sam. I think we all are in violent agreement that he, Cait and Tobias all deserve Emmy nominations, as well as the show and about a dozen other Emmys need to be distributed for the producing, directing, writing, costumes, set design, makeup and so on. Let’s stay on track and allow Sam to enjoy the recognition he deserves here. Cait and Tobias are both in the limelight as well… each have been interviewed oodles of times. Go here and I think you’ll see the tons of press each is getting. http://outlander-online.com/master-post-season-1b/

      • katia04 says:

        All three deserve emmys in my opinion. Caitriona Balfe was just incredible, Sam Heughan was amazing in the last block, and Tobias Menzies was absolutely terrifying.

  25. anafraserlallybroch says:

    Reblogged this on Ana Fraser Lallybroch Blog.

  26. Laura that was a very interesting interview. You asked some great questions and Sam gave some very insightful answers. He certainly deserves an Emmy nomination. Here’s hoping he gets one.

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