Sam Heughan talks 'Outlander' (and what's under his kilt)

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Image Credit: MJ Kim/Getty Images; Frank Ockenfels/Starz

Meet your new Scottish delight (sorry, Walkers Shortbread): 34-year-old Sam Heughan stars as hunky warrior Jamie Fraser in the upcoming Starz drama Outlander, debuting Aug. 9 at 9 p.m. Based on the bestselling book series by Diana Gabaldon, the adaptation follows English former army nurse Claire Randall as she mysteriously travels back in time from 1945 to 18th-century Scotland. Her only real ally in this unfamiliar land is the strapping young Jamie, who goes to great pains (literally!) to keep her safe…and satisfied.

EW spoke with Heughan—just days before his first Comic-Con—about the pressures of portraying such a beloved character, Outlander boot camp, and whether he wears his kilt the “traditional” Scottish way.

EW: Were you familiar with the Outlander series before you auditioned for the role of Jamie?
SAM HEUGHAN: I hadn’t heard of it. Obviously, when I found out that it was a book, I went out and bought the book. I had to audition over a weekend, and they sent me quite a few pages to learn. But I went and read the specific scenes and got a rough idea of who this guy was. And obviously when I got recalled and went in for screen tests, I managed to actually read the book. Having all that source material there is really helpful. It’s been great to dip into the book whenever we need to.

Obviously you and Jamie are both Scottish, but I don’t know where the similarities begin and end. Did you feel like this role could be perfect for you?
Yeah, I have to say it does kind of feel a bit like that. It just felt right. I’d just gotten back from Los Angeles. I’d been over there for pilot season, and this was an opportunity to go back to my home country and to be where I went to drama school in Glasgow. It just felt right. I was born and brought up in the countryside. I used to live in a sort of converted stables on the grounds of a castle, and I spent a lot of my childhood running around with a pretend sword pretending to Robert the Bruce. So yeah, it’s sort of definitely a childhood dream.

You were training for the role even before you knew!
[Laughs] Exactly, yeah.

You have a pretty eclectic resume. You’ve done soaps, you’ve done theater…and you were Batman in a touring production?
Yeah, I was. I did that maybe two years ago now. It was a wonderful job. It was with DC Comics and Warner Bros., and it was an arena show. We went to the Staples Center in L.A. We did Vegas. We went all over the world. We did South America, Europe, and it was basically like a big play on stage. There was also pyrotechnics, and I did a lot of flying and fighting, and it really was like a great comic book on stage.

You’re no stranger to the physical stuff, then, but I imagine you had to do at least a bit of training to get into the physicality and headspace of Jamie.
First of all, they got me a trainer, and he came down to London and we were training two or three times a day for six weeks. Just trying to pack on a bit of weight and a bit of muscle because we decided that he needed to look like he could look after himself. He’s a farmer, he’s out in the fields, he works a lot. But we didn’t want him to look overly muscular or like he’d been in a gym or anything. So it was just about getting more physical because we knew this would be a very physical part.

And then we came up to Scotland, and we had a two week Outlander boot camp where we did a lot of horse riding. We started learning Gaelic for the show, as well. There’s a lot of sword fighting—sort of working on Jamie’s style, how he fights. And that’s kind of, I think, where you start to get an understanding of the character is when you start to see the costumes and work out how he’s going to hold himself, the way he walks, and then also where he fits in the clan with the other clan members. So it was a really important couple of weeks where we got to meet the rest of the cast and just sort of see where your character fits in with them.

Do you use a bit of a different accent for Jamie?
Yeah, absolutely. My accent is…sort of an Edinburgh sort of soft southwest Scottish accent. It could almost be English. So we try to do a bit of a Highland lilt to it. Again, in that time period, people were traveling around a lot. Jamie’s also been abroad. He’s been in France, he’s learned Greek, he’s learned German, he’s learned all these different languages, so he’s quite cultured. And we find out in the series, as well, that he’s not just a farm boy or an outlaw. You actually find out that he’s got a bit of history. He comes from a quite wealthy family, so there’s many sides to him.

Obviously an important aspect of all of this for fans is your character’s relationship with Claire. Tell me about your first meeting with Caitriona Balfe and how you guys worked on your chemistry.
There’d been a big search for her, and they tested quite a few girls, and there were obviously some wonderful actresses there, but they didn’t really feel like they’d found her yet. When Caitriona came in, it was pretty much, “That was it.” We just knew straightaway that she was the right one. We just started chatting in the test before we started the audition, and we just seemed to get on. Her humor is fantastic. She’s great fun to work with. She’s very hardworking, a wonderful actress, very natural. It’s been really fun to see where the relationship goes between us. We didn’t make any overly complex decisions on our characters’ relationship. We just wanted to see where the story has taken us. So far, it’s been a real journey.

Jamie is such a beloved character. Do you feel like there’s a bit of extra pressure to live up to fan expectations?
I guess if you approach any character, like a comic book hero or anyone in a novel or anything, [fans] always have their own ideas of what a character will be. And I guess you can’t please everyone. But ultimately, I think we’re all fans of the [Outlander] books, and we’re as close to them as we possibly can be, while still telling a great story. I know we’ve got the right people involved. Ron Moore is terrific. He’s got great credentials from doing Star Trek and Battlestar. And his wife is the costume designer, who’s also a huge fan of the books. All the way down the line, I think we’ve got the right team for the job.

What advice have you gotten from author Diana Gabaldon?
Pretty early on, actually, myself and Diana were sort of talking via Twitter and via email, and she sent me a lot of material to look at. A lot of the companion books and some short stories as well that were related to Outlander and also other stuff. We’re in contact pretty much every day. She’s always consulted on the scripts, I know that. She watches the dailies as well, which is a bit terrifying, and she let’s me know what she thinks of them. It’s great to have her there. It was a real joy to finally meet her at the start of the year. We’re so lucky that she’s come on board and supported us all the way.

How far along are you in the filming process?
When we come back from Comic-Con, we finish on the last two episodes. We’re on episodes 15 and 16. It’s incredible. I can’t believe we’re actually here. We’ve been on this for a year now, and no one’s seen it yet, which is incredible. I’m so excited for people to actually see that, and also for us to get to the end of the story because it’s been a wonderful journey. It’s been really interesting, and hopefully we’ll see what happens.

Those 16 episodes, they encapsulate the entire first book then?
They do, yeah.

Jamie has some just heartbreaking moments near the end of book 1. Without getting spoilery for those who haven’t read the series, how much of that do we see?
Without giving away too much, basically, if it’s in the book, it’s probably going to be in the show. We don’t shy away from anything. The show is very dark, and I think that’s the absolute joy of it, and that’s why I love Ron Moore’s work. Each episode is just so different. You think it’s going one way, and it just turns it all on its head…. There’s some pretty gruesome stuff that happens, and I think that’s what’s going to be really interesting for people to see and for the Jamie character: how he deals with that, how he addresses that, and what that does to his relationship with Claire. Yeah, exciting stuff.

On a lighter note: What’s been your favorite scene to film so far?
[Laughs] I probably shouldn’t say that one then, should I?

I mean, if it genuinely is…
…pretty dark. Uh, what has been the favorite scene? Well, to be honest, there are so many great moments in the books and in the show, but I think it’s generally the ones when everyone is involved. One of the first things was … in one of the first episodes, and it’s the great hall and Column calls the Gathering, and every character is there and you just get a feeling of what a sort of a huge show this is. And the set was looking fantastic. There’s pipe music playing and people dancing, and it just really throws you into 18th century Scotland, and I think viewers are just going to get sucked in by this world.

I’m curious about acting in all of that period garb. Have you had any kilt mishaps?
[Laughs] Well, actually no we haven’t, really. You do have to learn how to wear a kilt, and it’s certainly very liberating and very freeing, but surprisingly very comfortable to wear, to ride a horse in a kilt. I was surprised by that. Without giving away too much, Jamie does wear trousers at some point in the show, or at a couple points. In fact, I think there’ve been pictures released, so you’ll have seen that. But I much prefer wearing the kilt. It’s just become part of the character. Each character in the show, they have their own particular way of wearing the kilt. It’s not just worn around like a sort of sarong. It has many different uses and many different ways you can wear it. I like that. It’s part of the character.

Do you wear the kilt the way traditional Scottish men wear it?
I mean, absolutely. It’d be rude not to, wouldn’t it?

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