Fans of Starz’s time-travel drama “Outlander” may be surprised that no one asked Sam Heughan to take his shirt off during the audition process.
That may sound reasonable, but as viewers know, Heughan spends much of his onscreen time flashing some serious skin—and as it turns out, the series lucked out with the Scot when it comes to physiques.
“I’ve been in many auditions thinking, God, do I have to take my shirt off? It’s quite a physical role…,” Heughan says while his co-star—and onscreen nemesis—Tobias Menzies chuckles across the table. “It’s quite exposing, actually. But no, they didn’t [ask]. And at the time, I was keeping quite fit. So it was all right!”
For the legions of fans who have turned Heughan and Menzies into the thinking woman’s sex symbols, it turned out to be a bit more than all right. Fiercely protective fans of Diana Gabaldon’s series of novels detailing the time-traveling adventures of World War II–era nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), her 1940s husband, Frank (Menzies), the dashing 18th-century Highlander hunk she ends up marrying, Jamie (Heughan), and Frank’s sadistic ancestor Capt. Jack Randall (Menzies again), almost immediately relaxed when the series premiered in the summer of 2014. Here were Jamie and Black Jack and Claire brought to life in ways that very few adaptations manage. And though the show quickly made a name for itself for its vivid sex scenes—the website Vulture recently heralded the show as “the best sex on television”—what is less frequently discussed is the high-wire act its actors must perform to ground the material.
“It’s some of the hardest stuff to sell, I think, in acting,” Menzies says. “The time traveler element of the story is the most esoteric aspect. And if you wink, you’re kind of done. The air will deflate out of it.”
Both Menzies and Heughan are serious about their performances on “Outlander,” down to questioning dialogue or storylines.
“There were some quite overt direct speeches in the novel, which can be quite bumpy,” Menzies says. “An example is Claire’s ‘Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.’ Which obviously all the fans are obsessed with. But I know Cat spent a lot of time going, ‘I don’t know how to make this work for me.’ She really wrestled with it. And that’s part of the adaptation process.”
Heughan agrees, saying that an open-door policy on the part of the writers has been “really fruitful, I think. You are the one person who is looking only at that journey, that one character. The writers are looking at the structure and different characters and how they all kind of interact. So it’s always an interesting thing to stand up for.”
And Heughan and Balfe were both concerned about Jamie and Claire’s relationship at the beginning of Season 2. The last episodes of Season 1 found them struggling to reconnect after Jamie’s rape at the hands of Capt. Jack, and the finale saw the pair sailing to Paris. But when Heughan and Balfe read the first scripts for the new season, they went to the writers.
“It felt like [Jamie and Claire] got over what happened in Season 1 and there wasn’t enough of a hangover,” Heughan recalls. “And we went back to them and actually, they completely reworked it. It was great to see [showrunner] Ron [Moore] going, ‘OK, we can delay that and move this forward here.’ It’s great fun to be able to have that influence on the script!”
The first few episodes of Season 2 were difficult for both men: Menzies returns for the first time as Frank after spending most of the previous season in Capt. Jack’s shoes, and Jamie moves from the outdoors to the lavish world of Paris and all the foppery and frills that entails.