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.