It’s easy to recommend Ronald D. Moore’s series “Outlander,” based on Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling novels (25 million copies sold worldwide), which just wrapped up Season One on Starz, to anyone who likes a bodice-ripping historical romance.
The time-travel plot certainly sounds like femme fiction: after World War II, British nurse Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and her PTSD husband Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) go on vacation in the Scottish highlands, where one of his ancestors used to fight the 18th century Jacobite rebellion, to rekindle their marriage. It’s working, until she disappears after touching an ancient rune stone in a forest clearing. She’s whisked back in time to 1745, where she encounters the very same Captain “Black Jack” Randall (Menzies, natch) and falls in with a clan of Highlanders who are fiercely opposed to the British.
This rough band of warriors look after her as they travel the moors on horseback, but eventually she must marry –luckily, it’s the hunky Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) whose wounds she’s been tending. He’s been tortured, at great length and with great pleasure, by Randall, who has clearly gone to the dark side and nourishes a wee sexual crush on Jamie, as we find out at season’s end. He’s also willing to torture Claire, although she is saved before he does too much damage. Jamie’s wounds, however, run deeper than the lattice of lash scars across his muscled back.
What’s fascinating about this series is not only the well-matched attraction of a well-educated 1940s woman and an 18th century Scottish Laird (the newlyweds return to his highland farm), but how they navigate their clashing views and mores–in his world, men tell their women what to do and women obey, and they get spanked if they don’t–and healers tinkering with herbs and potions can easily be accused of witchcraft.
Executive producer Moore and his team bring historic authenticity and smart storytelling craft to this well-executed series, which has earned rave reviews and a passionate fanbase. (Eight Season One episodes are on available on Netflix.) “Outlander” is not just a fantasy; it’s believable. And sexy as hell. Frequent director Anna Foerster, especially, is adept at handling the rigors of outdoor filming on horseback as well as the indoor intimacies of lovemaking –and rape and torture. These intense climactic scenes and their emotional aftermath show Heughan’s strengths as an actor.
I spoke to the theatre-trained Scotsman on the phone from Scotland where they are filming Season Two, which takes the couple to France.
Anne Thompson: They cast you first and then had a tough time finding your leading lady. Describe the first time you met Caitriona Balfe.
Sam Heughan: The first time we screen tested together, I’d been on board the show for a couple of months. I had flown out to America different times to screen test different girls, also London and New York. They couldn’t find the right actress to play Claire, they couldn’t agree. Caitriona came in. We had a fantastic audition. We had a big scene to do by the river from Episode Nine, where Jamie and Claire go for each other. There’s dramatic high stakes. I remember tearing pieces out of each other, it was very physical, I had her in a bear hug, looking at her, and she was really pissed off at me, really angry, really strong. We were both willing to go for it. It’s important that Claire is Jamie’s foil and likewise, they’re equal.
You two navigate gender power dynamics in a compelling way.
It shouldn’t be news that this is strong female lead character. It’s great. He is from the past and is a forward-thinking man, willing to understand things and take onboard her ideas and her moral code. That’s the rub, that’s the conflict. She’s trying to be tolerant in order to live in his world; he’s trying to come to grips with the way she is. Ultimately they come to understand each other.
Claire clearly is someone who has a past history, has secrets in her past. She tells him in due course. He has his own built-in pride as well. At the end of the series, when this terrible thing has happened to him and he feels guilty, he is forced by Claire to tell her. That makes them stronger and bonds them together to share everything and work through this pain. They are quite kindred spirits.
What were the most difficult scenes to shoot?
Obviously the last two episodes, the finale, were very challenging. A man is being broken down, his humanity, not only physically, the torture and subsequent rape, but mentally, the psychology of Jamie is tested. It was interesting as an actor to play, you rarely get that challenge in TV or film–normally it’s in theater. I relished it, but it was difficult to do, and took a lot of prep and rehearsal time. We were shooting for two weeks of grueling days. There was a lot of prosthetic work, four hours in the morning and an hour and half at night.
Your back took extra time for makeup?
The back scars alone are a lot of prosthetic work, it’s a long process, three hours of rubber prosthetic latex, applied to the body and painted. In Episode Four when you see him being whipped, there was a rig in it so it would spray blood. In the last two episodes, my hand broke, and a nail went through it. He gets branded. It was quite difficult to do, standing up for a few hours. I had to be quite strong mentally to endure that. It was tedious, but all part of the process of getting into the character.
What did Anna Foerster bring to shooting those intimate episodes?
Anna was terrific to work with. She was extremely well-organized, prepped everything, was keen on all the details, dealt with everyone with sensitivity. She’s good with the crew and the actors. Yeah, for those scenes that have a lot of intimacy, we’d look at what we want the audience to see and feel when deciding what to show and not show. It was important that it be there for a reason. It was about their relationship and discovering each other, new love, joining two humans coming together. Certainly, we won’t see that again, as their relationship develops and gets stronger, and sex develops. Yeah, this new thing that happened at the end of the season effects their relationship.
Were the authentic outdoor locations and costumes helpful to you?
Absolutely. The locations and costumes provide authenticity. To film in Scotland was really important. I’m from this country, so are the crew, we’re bringing our identity to the show, through the craft we provide, the music, the language we speak. Yeah, it’s not just a pretty show, although it looks great, and we’ve got some good-looking actors, but authenticity is what it’s about.
Ron wanted to make something authentic and realistic. We all do. It’s always a struggle, whether something is appropriate to what they would have done at that time or period. It’s a very fine line. We’re lucky Claire is from the future, the modern period, which gives us a little bit of leeway to maybe use language in a more contemporary way.
It’s a gift go outdoors. It’s magnificent to see Scotland in all its glory, though it’s rather challenging with the winds and the rain and the horses. Jamie is a great horseman; I’ve grown up with them, so it was important to develop a relationship with my horse. We’re not in studio every day, it’s always different, with night shoots on location all over Scotland. The story is always different as it moves forward, we are never settled in.
So you’re already shooting the second season?
Yeah, almost three episodes. We’ve been doing night shoots this week. I’m pretty dead. It’s a completely different world, France, we go to the French court. We are shooting interiors in Scotland, with some time in France, Versailles, elsewhere, a little bit in England. Scotland is the majority. It’s very alien to home, we’re finding our place in a different world. It’s about overcoming what happened to Jamie, Claire is pregnant. It’s a new life and new responsibilities as their relationship changes.
You have a new movie coming up, “When the Starlight Ends”?
I shot that in my break, on hiatus. It’s a little indie project. I read the script from my friend Adam Sigal, he directed it and we managed to get funding to make a movie, very different from “Outlander.” It’s a great cast. I’m hoping we’ll go to all the film festivals. Onwards. I’m enjoying playing Jamie, it’s been more than 10 months, I’d love to do other projects when the time is right. At the moment it’s all Jamie Fraser.