Friday, April 22, 2016

Outlander Star Sam Heughan on Scottish independence, Super Fans and his Life Changing Role

By Susan Swarbrick, Herald Scotland


WHEN Sam Heughan was a young boy growing up in Dumfries and Galloway, he could often be found romping through the surrounding countryside, wooden stick in hand, imagining himself as iconic figures from Scottish history: Bonnie Prince Charlie, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace.

These days Heughan gets to play a swashbuckling hero for a living. The 35-year-old actor has a leading role in hit US television series Outlander as gallant Highlander Jamie Fraser, a man whose daring adventures take place against a backdrop of the looming 1745 Jacobite rising.

Based on the bestselling books of Diana Gabaldon, Outlander follows the story of Claire Randall who, during a second honeymoon to Scotland with her husband Frank in 1945, travels back in time to 1743 through mystical standing stones and begins a seismic love affair with Fraser.

Sony Pictures Television, which makes Outlander, films the series on location across Scotland with many of the interiors shot at Wardpark Studios in Cumbernauld, a former factory that has been converted into a production base and four state-of-the-art sound stages.

Heughan settles down in a quiet corner to chat about the forthcoming second series, giving a cheeky wink in greeting. It's his day off and he's dressed casually in civvies: a leather jacket, jeans and a button-down shirt, his usually unruly mop of hair tamed in neat bun (in recent weeks Heughan has revealed he is "proud to be a pseudo-ginger" for his role as Fraser).

The latest instalment of the show is adapted from Gabaldon's second novel Dragonfly in Amber. It sees Jamie and Claire – played by Irish actor Caitriona Balfe – travel to Paris to infiltrate the brewing Jacobite rebellion led by Charles Edward Stuart and prevent the bloodshed of the Battle of Culloden.

Heughan has clearly enjoyed immersing himself in such a pivotal historic period. "It is something I grew up with – the history of Scotland," he says. "I imagined myself as Bonnie Prince Charlie, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace.

"These are all great stories that we grow up with and it has been interesting to learn more about the actual period that I maybe romanticised – or that we have romanticised in our culture. We had the referendum [in 2014] and it has been so interesting."



Outlander made its global debut on the US channel Starz in August 2014. Sony has since sold the show to broadcasters in more than 87 territories worldwide, yet some Scots have voiced frustration that, rather than a terrestrial or satellite channel, Outlander is only available through online streaming service Amazon Prime Video here in the UK.

Hackles were further raised in April last year when it was revealed that the "importance" of Outlander to the political atmosphere of the independence referendum was highlighted by key TV executives before a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron.

In a cache of leaked memos from the Sony organisation obtained by WikiLeaks, an email written by Keith E Weaver, executive vice president at Sony Pictures Entertainment, discussed a meeting with Cameron in the summer of 2014.

The email fuelled speculation that the UK Government did not want the show broadcast before the independence vote in September that same year. It specifically referred to Outlander and "the political issues in the UK as Scotland contemplates detachment this Fall".

When the topic is raised, Heughan – unsurprisingly – chooses to tread carefully. "If you believe what they print in WikiLeaks," he says. "I don't know, I couldn't possibly say, but there is material there. Whether or not, I mean, who knows …" he trails off, giving an apologetic shrug.

Given Heughan can only speculate, does he have a personal opinion on whether Outlander could have potentially served as a rallying call to those who may have wanted a Yes vote? "I guess," he says. "We have a show that celebrates Scotland and its culture, it looks fantastic and has some very pro-Jacobite or pro-independence messages in it.

"But that's at that period of time and the politics now are very much different – or the reasons for wanting independence are different. It probably could have been used either way to be honest."

Yet, for Heughan, filming the debut series of Outlander in Scotland during the build-up to the independence referendum did stoke his own modern-day political leanings.

"I was a no and thought independence wasn't a good idea initially, but then I did a 180 and towards the end became quite vocal in the Yes campaign," he says. "I thought that ultimately it was a move towards more democracy for the people of Scotland.

"It is interesting what it has done to politics, not only in Scotland, but the whole of the UK. There is less apathy, especially in Scotland, and the turnout to vote was high. We have seen across the rest of the UK, a lot more diversity in politics."

Born in New Galloway, Heughan spent his teenage years in Edinburgh honing his craft among the youth ranks of the Royal Lyceum Theatre before going on to study at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) in Glasgow.

His part in David Greig's Outlying Islands in 2002 saw him nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award as most promising new performer. Heughan played Livingston FC footballer Andrew Murray in River City and starred as Hugh Tennent in a series of tongue-in-cheek commercials for the lager brand.

Other early roles included Midsomer Murders, Island At War and BBC soap opera Doctors, before Heughan landed his big break in Outlander in 2013. More recently he was cast in the lead for upcoming indie flick, When the Starlight Ends, opposite newcomer Arabella Oz.

Outlander author Gabaldon famously drew inspiration from the time-travelling exploits on Doctor Who. In an episode from the late 1960s, Patrick Troughton encountered a Scotsman from 1745. The young man was wearing a kilt, which Gabaldon believed was "rather fetching". The first novel was published in 1991 and the eight-book series has since sold more than 26 million copies.

Her books, coupled with the soaring popularity of the television series, have inspired many fans to travel to Scotland in the hope of finding their own Jamie.

"I had a friend who was up at Culloden last week and there is a Fraser gravestone there," says Heughan. "Apparently there was a couple of tourists in tears laying flowers at the Fraser headstone and" – he struggles to fight a bubbling laugh – "I don't believe they were Frasers …

"It has clearly hit a vein in people's imagination. It is great that there is such a wide audience. So many people, especially from America, say that there is something about Scotland; they feel they belong there. There is something very tangible and I think that must be something to do with the people or culture of Scotland. We are somehow closer to our past than maybe other countries are."

The latest series will see Claire and Jamie attempt to alter the course of history and stop Culloden – that's a pretty ambitious plan? Heughan nods in agreement. "I know – she [Claire] should have watched Back to the Future and she would have realised you just can't do that …" he quips.

Later episodes will feature the 1745 Battle of Prestonpans and build-up to Culloden making it fair to surmise that the duo weren't successful in their mission. Had they managed to convince Bonnie Prince Charlie not to embark on his campaign, what kind of Scotland does Heughan envisage we would we be living in now? "Probably one that speaks a lot more Gaelic," he muses.


Heughan acknowledges there can be a snobbery towards the historical fiction and romance genres, but insists that the plotlines featured in Gabaldon's books and the TV series are far from scurrilous fantasy. "We try to stay as authentic as possible," he says. "Obviously there is dramatisation, but Diana is a stickler for research and accuracy. I know that we are trying to stick as closely as possible to it.

"That is what excites me about season two. We are doing an authentic – as close as you can be – reproduction of the history of that period in Scotland and France. Culloden is a big, pivotal part of history and it hasn't shot for many years."

When we first meet, Heughan has newly wrapped the first half of the series set primarily amid the opulence of 18th-century France. Other than Prague – which doubled as the streets of Paris – and Wilton House in Salisbury – used as Versailles – the lion's share of scenes were shot in Cumbernauld.

While Heughan relished that experience ("a completely different world to season one"), he professes to a "slightly macabre excitement" about getting back to filming amid the rain, cold and mud of the Highlands.

As they say, be careful what you wish for. When we catch-up a few months later, Heughan relays just how ferociously the weather gods delivered on that one.

"All these storms that have been hitting Scotland, we have been out in that up in the Highlands or around Stirling," he says. "It has been pretty Biblical to be honest with some crazy weather, but really gratifying and nice to be back in Scotland doing stuff that feels very familiar."

Was the filming delayed by the weather? "We officially only lost one day which is amazing," he says. "There were days that we were flooded out. I remember driving through floods to Stirling and there was articulated lorries that had been blown over.

"It was pretty hairy, but we managed to adapt most of the days. There was a couple of days we were supposed to be outside where we re-jigged it to be shooting inside."

Heughan is sanguine when asked about his favourite parts of making the latest series. "The French stuff was terrific but, for me, the show is Scotland," he says. "Especially to be filming something so big in the Scottish history I have grown-up with as Culloden and Bonnie Prince Charlie.

"I went down to Tranent and Prestonpans and had a look around. We had fantastic extras who are battle re-enactors from Clanranald [Trust] and they were all delighted to be part of it. It felt quite momentous to be re-shooting a part of Scottish history."

Doune Castle in Stirlingshire is among the Scottish locations to have reaped the benefits of what has been dubbed the "Outlander effect", reporting that visitor numbers have almost doubled since it first appeared on the show as the fictional Castle Leoch.

Heughan reckons some other iconic landmarks could see a similar boost. "I imagine the battlegrounds will get a lot more visitors," he says. "Culloden probably will and Prestonpans might."

When we speak Heughan is about to embark on a global promotional tour to London, Sydney, Tokyo, Los Angeles and finally New York, where the Outlander season two premiere will take place tomorrow coinciding with the city's annual Scotland Week which begins this weekend.

Heughan will follow in the footsteps of Sir Sean Connery, Brian Cox, Kevin McKidd and Alan Cumming as grand marshal of the Tartan Day Parade on Saturday.

"That will be quite momentous with a bit of Scotland in New York," he says. "It is terrific. I don't know who approached who first, but they asked me to be the grand marshal and it is wonderful that Outlander is premiering that week. We have a lot of the costumes [on display] in Saks Fifth Avenue. It feels like Outlander is taking over New York for the week."

Away from work, Heughan is a man who loves the great outdoors and whenever he has a rare day off can typically be found headed for the nearest mountain. A keen Munro-bagger, he most recently attempted Beinn Ime in the Arrochar Alps, Argyll, but was thwarted by bad weather. "I got very close to the top," he says. "I had my crampons with me, but it was getting pretty hairy."

Lately, he has developed something of a budding bromance with Star Trek legend William Shatner on Twitter. "Oh, I think we might be in the troubled second part of the relationship now," he says. "I love him – he's brilliant and a real character. He is fun and has some good banter.

"That is the crazy social media world. I met Dave Mustaine of Megadeth through Twitter as well and we got to hang out at one of his gigs. That was really cool. Me and Bill [Shatner] are going to maybe hang out at some point in Los Angeles."

Shatner seems to be oddly fixated on Outlander with speculation rife about the source of his thinly veiled barbs about the show.

Outlander showrunner Ronald D Moore, formerly a writer/producer on Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, was the man famously tasked with killing off Captain Kirk. Could Shatner still have some beef with Moore? Does he want to be in Outlander? What on earth is going on?

"I would love to see him in a kilt, but I don't know if he's got the legs for it," jokes Heughan, before adding that he hopes Shatner reads that. "We will have to see …" he adds cryptically.

Being based in Glasgow during filming meant Heughan could pop through to Edinburgh where his mother and family are based. Yet, he remains a man in perpetual motion. Echoing the transient existence of his character on Outlander, Heughan has grown used to living out of a suitcase.

"It is pretty much four suitcases," he confirms, laughing. "Within the break between seasons last year I stayed in Los Angeles for six months. I will probably do the same this time, but I also love Scotland. I've got a place [in Glasgow] so that is my base at the moment while we shoot here."

Heughan is yet to make any firm plans as he awaits official confirmation that Outlander will be picked up for a third season. "Obviously, we will wait and see but we are all very hopeful and it would be terrific to do another season," he says.

"I have a few other projects in the pipeline that could possibly happen – it is all down to scheduling. I don't know, I'm undecided whether to just have a wee break or jump into something else. It would be nice to do something else."

Heughan finds himself in a curious juxtaposition. While feverishly adored by Outlander fans worldwide, he continues to fly largely under the radar in his homeland. "The show is extremely popular in the UK and the rest of the world, but it's definitely more noticeable abroad," he says.

But that would appear to suit Heughan perfectly fine. "It is great to be in Scotland and in our own little bubble – removed from everything that glitters and all the razzmatazz."

For a man who has set millions of hearts a flutter, Heughan is endearingly modest when asked to pinpoint the secret to Outlander's burgeoning international success. "I'm delighted if it is perceived that way," he says. "We are very proud of it. When we go to America and everywhere else, it seems that people are really excited about it. It is a great story and Scotland really shines in the show."

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