Outlander’s Sam Heughan Talks Jamie and Claire’s Long-Awaited Reunion
On the cusp of superstardom, the Scottish actor opens up about the print shop reunion, his passionate fans, and getting in—and out—of Jamie Fraser’s head.
Fans have been waiting more than 20 years to watch tonight’s episode of Outlander play out onscreen, but Sam Heughan tries not to think about that. “All the way through shooting, we’re very aware that people are fans of the books,” he says with a short laugh. “You want to do a good job and don’t want to disappoint anyone… [but] you have to play the truth of it.”
Heughan doesn’t have to worry about disappointing his fans. His onscreen chemistry with co-star Caitriona Balfe is exactly what took Outlander from book club favorite to global phenomenon. As Claire and Jamie Fraser, Balfe and Heughan electrified an eight-book (and counting), 26-year-old series, turning a quiet yet passionate following into a rabid fandom complete with hundreds of fan sites and social media accounts (dubbing themselves “Heughligans,” “Caitrionation,” or “Sassenachs,” after Jamie’s nickname for Claire), thousands of pages of fan fiction, and countless hours queueing for meet-and-greets and conventions. It’s all devoted to the passionate, provocative relationship between a time-traveling World War II nurse and her 18th-century Scottish Highlander husband, as well as the actors who play them.
Heughan doesn’t seem to have fully processed the furor surrounding him, even after four years inside Jamie Fraser’s head. He’s almost bemused by the attention, swearing it has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the books’ author: “The longer we play these characters, the more I realize how lucky we are,” he tells me, settling into a chair on the set of his BAZAAR.com photo shoot. Wearing a simple white T-shirt and black jeans, his natural blonde hair cropped shorter than the red curls Outlander fans are accustomed to, Heughan looks a bit younger than 37—certainly not pushing 50, like his character this season. He’s right in the middle of promotion for Outlander Season 3, and before our interview had already appeared on Live with Kelly and Ryan, posed for a photographer, and filmed a video with Balfe. He’s probably tired, but that doesn’t stop him from indulging in some speculation about Jamie and Claire’s appeal. “Clearly something’s been created there that people are invested in, and I think it all comes down to Diana Gabaldon and her stories and her books.”
Tonight’s episode adapts one of the most important, beloved scenes in Voyager, the third book in the series on which Outlander is based. It marks a literal homecoming for the show, one of those crucial, highly-anticipated moments which defines a series while completely altering its course. After spending two decades apart—separated by two centuries, no less—Claire finally returns to Jamie and life in the 18th century. “We tried to be as honest as we could be,” Heughan says of the Frasers’ long-awaited reunion. “What’s it like for two people who have not only not seen each other for 20 years, but were deeply in love and have shared some history together, then actually moved on?”The circumstances are a bit more complicated than that. If you’re reading this, you probably already know the details: Claire Randall falls through mysterious standing stones (think Stonehenge but smaller) while honeymooning in Scotland after World War II, landing right in the midst of a skirmish between Scottish Highlanders and the British Army in 1743. As a “Sassenach” (English person) in Scotland, she’s always in danger, so, somewhat reluctantly, she marries one of the Highlanders, Jamie Fraser, for her own safety. When she finally has the chance to return to her first husband in the 1940s, she’s in love (and having great sex) with Jaime and decides to stay. The couple embark on a mission to prevent the Battle of Culloden, a devastating 1746 clash between rebelling Scotsmen and the British army which marks the beginning of the end for the Highland clans and their culture. When they ultimately fail in their endeavor, Jamie encourages Claire to return to the 20th century to protect their unborn child from the battle’s fallout.
The last time viewers saw the couple onscreen together, in the Season 2 finale, they were saying a tearful goodbye at the stones, Claire preparing to return to the 1940s and Jamie intent on dying alongside his comrades on Culloden field. They depart with the knowledge they’ll never see each other again, setting up Season 3 for an intense exploration of grief and love lost before uniting the couple once again.
Though their reunion is a crucial moment in the series, those early episodes chronicling Jamie’s despair were some of Heughan’s favorite to shoot. “I think Jamie without Claire is what’s interesting. Who is he? He’s a very young man when he first met her,” Heughan says almost wistfully. “It’s good that he goes through those experiences. He becomes a father, he loses his fellow countrymen, he loses his sense of his home. He has to really be reminded of what he has left to live for.”
While Claire’s storyline charts a strained stability as she returns to a complicated relationship with her first husband and takes on motherhood and med school in the 20th century, Jamie’s trajectory is pure chaos. After narrowly avoiding death at Culloden, the British label him a traitor and force him into hiding in a cave on his family’s property (“he’s just living on his wits, not feral, but he’s shut down to the world,” Heughan says). He turns himself in to for the ransom money for his sister and family and goes to prison for a seven-year stint (“I always imagine that he’s comfortable there,” Heughan says of the rat-infested jail, “because he’s living in the memory of [Claire]”). Later, while working as a groomsman at a grand English estate, he fathers a child after the family’s oldest daughter blackmails him into sleeping with her. Heughan threw himself—physically and mentally—into exploring these disparate storylines while simultaneously grappling with Jamie’s despair over the loss of Claire and their child. “He goes through all the stages of grief: anger and disillusionment and then hope, and ultimately acceptance of the fact that she’s gone,” he says. “It does affect you, especially Episode 2 [in the cave], which is very internal. Just the sheer physicality of him, I felt like he was really hunched over all the time. You see in those four episodes that he experiences a lot, and that’s what makes him the man he is when we visit him in the print shop.”
The “print shop” refers to the site of Claire and Jamie’s long-awaited reunion, made possible after their now-grown daughter, Brianna, discovers proof Jamie survived Culloden. At Bree’s urging, Claire decides to take the dangerous trip through the stones to return to Jamie, working as a printer in late 1760s Edinburgh under the pseudonym Alexander Malcolm. “Claire has time to come to terms with it, but Jamie doesn’t,” Heughan says. “He’s not expecting to see Claire ever again.” When he realizes he’s not imagining her, he faints. “He’s heard her a lot through the past few years, so at first, he doesn’t even trust himself, it’s like, ‘It’s just another memory,’” Heughan says. “And when she actually is here, well, we see his reaction, don’t we? Which I know is a big part of the book. You don’t expect that out of him.”
Longtime fans of the series will appreciate the detail lent to these scenes. The lines are pulled nearly word-for-word from Voyager (the book was published December 1, 1993, so readers waited longer to see this scene onscreen than the fictional couple spent apart); and one-on-one face time between Jamie and Claire comprises 58 of the episode’s 74 minutes (the show’s second-longest to date). “When it comes to the wedding or Faith [Jamie and Claire’s stillborn daughter, born in the middle of Season 2] or the print shop, we all agree those are tentpoles you really build around,” producer and writer Matthew B. Roberts tells me. He says the producers told director Norma Bailey, “we want each scene to breathe. You do not have to rush through them.” He compares the full season to a war epic. “There’s battles, battles, battles, but then you always have that moment where the soldiers are sitting around eating or talking about their families—it’s a really slowly-paced scene, and then they go back into battle. If it’s just a constant battle, the audience would get worn out.
“Claire and Jamie were at battle with being apart, with their emotions being apart, their situations,” Roberts says. “This is that slow moment where they can learn about each other again and get back to a place where we can move forward.”
Callbacks to Jamie and Claire’s courtship were key. “We wanted to show that they fall back very quickly into that initial passion for each other, that initial love and lust,” Heughan says. “But then over time they quickly realize that they’ve become different people, and it is awkward, and it is almost teenage-like, nervous and exciting. It’s fun to watch them rediscover each other.”
Such scenes have a tendency to veer dangerously close to melodrama, but Outlander manages to keep the hysteria at bay. The scenes are romantic and joyful, of course, but also awkward, painful, and a little funny. It feels honest, and part of that, Heughan says, comes from his rapport with Balfe. “In Season 1 we decided we didn’t want to impose anything on the relationship and just kind of lived it out as the fans are living it out, so we discovered more about each other,” he says. “This bond has really helped us portray these characters.” The print shop was one of the first times they worked together this season. “I hadn’t worked a scene with her for four or five episodes, and definitely, you notice it. Even the atmosphere on set is different. It’s easier when the other person’s there.”
This chemistry contributes to Outlander‘s reputation for having some of the best sex scenes on TV, which Heughan reminds me is never gratuitous: “There’s always a different feeling to each of those intimate scenes, because they’re very important for the characters,” he says. “This was a very important one—actually, the whole episode. It’s about the progression of them getting closer again, and reconnecting.” For Jamie and Claire’s first time sleeping together in 20 years, they were cognizant of drawing parallels to Claire and Jamie’s wedding night while making sure the scene stood on its own: “We wanted to make it feel familiar, but then also not, so sort of trying to fall back into that dynamic—and then the clash of the heads, or the awkwardness, or the zip as opposed to the lace…” Heughan pauses, thoughtfully. “There’s a way that Jamie and Claire are together, or the way that they kiss, or they’re intimate with each other, so we were trying to recall that. I think even Jamie with Mary and Geneva—it’s all about Claire. It’s always trying to call back to her.”
To find Jamie’s mindset at any given time, Heughan takes advantage of his access to the only other person in the world who knows the character better—Gabaldon, the author who created him. “We have the same sense of who Jamie is, in terms of his essential character,” Gabaldon tells me over email. “When Sam’s prepping for a new season, he’ll ask me ‘Where is he?’ I’ll then do a brain-dump for him—just write down everything I happen to know about Jamie’s state of mind and how he feels about what’s been happening and what’s going to happen.” Heughan says looking at Jamie’s experiences collectively help him find the character, but after four years in the role, he’s almost like a muscle. “I had to go do ADR the other day, and just being back in Scotland, I noticed my accent got stronger. I feel like I can sort of turn him on and turn him off now.”
The next time I meet with Heughan, it’s a warm, late-September day a few weeks after his photo shoot. He’s in New York for a Barbour event at Macy’s (he’s the face of the English clothing line and just designed his own collection for the brand), and he’s visibly more relaxed now that the Outlander press tour is over, even though he’s stayed just as busy: a five-day vacation in the south of France with his girlfriend, actress MacKenzie Mauzy; some prep for Season 4 of the show, and an “incredible, really, really amazing” three-day event in Glasgow for his charity, My Peak Challenge, which he can’t stop gushing about. Heughan launched MPC as a social media-based wellness guide in 2015 after watching his fan-base grow and interact with him on social media. Last year, it evolved into a membership-based program which funds the blood cancer charity, Bloodwise, for which his “Peakers” raised $299,000 in 2016. In June, his fans raised £20,000 ($26,000 USD) for the Youth Theatre Arts Scotland program in Heughan’s name, and during our interview, a group of them are lined up outside Macy’s, some since 6 a.m.
When I ask why he spends so much time meeting with and interacting with his fans, he pauses. “Do you know what? It’s so gratifying. In theater, you get a feedback straightaway. When you do TV, you really don’t know if people are enjoying your work until it’s released. The more we do these press weeks and tours, the more I realize I enjoy it. It’s energy giving… It’s very different to how my life was four years ago.” He acknowledges the attention can get overwhelming, but he’s able to put it into perspective: “Because it was later in my life, it may be easier. I think if I was younger it’d be a bit more confusing. I just wonder what it’s like for real celebrities.” He shrugs, pointing to the bar. “Matthew McConaughey was sitting there last night. I walked in, I’m like, ‘Matthew McConaughey!’ I almost couldn’t speak. I was like…” he breaks off into gibberish, pretending to be tongue-tied. Even with 384,000 Twitter followers and fans ranging from Jenna Dewan-Tatum (who hosted their Comic-Con panel in July) to Reese Witherspoon’s mom, he still doesn’t consider himself a “real” celebrity.
Heughan also manages to keep his personal life relatively private. He doesn’t divulge much about Mauzy, other than the fact he met her at an industry event, and that she’s had to deal with a bit of social media trolling from his fans. “Initially, it is upsetting but, ultimately, it doesn’t mean anything. It feels like a schoolyard thing,” he says, adding that because the show is more popular in the U.S. than the UK, his family doesn’t understand much of the hype. “My mum gets it, but doesn’t quite get it. I’ll tell her that I’m off to New York to do some press or something, and she’ll be like, ‘Are they putting you up? Are they putting you at a hotel? Why are you always having to work, and travel all the time?’”
Outlander shot the final five episodes of Season 3 in South Africa, and the week after Heughan wrapped in mid-June, he was on set in Hungary shooting his new movie, The Spy Who Dumped Me, with Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. It’s his first major role since Outlander, and Heughan was nervous about finding his comedic timing. “There you are with Kate McKinnon, who just won an Emmy for Saturday Night Live, going off on a tangent every take. You’re like, how do I do this? I know Jamie Fraser, I think, pretty well now. This new character, each day was finding out how he responds to something and how he would do something.”
After his whirlwind weekend in New York, Heughan will fly back to Scotland to start shooting Season 4 of Outlander and watch the world react to the rest of Season 3, which takes the Frasers on another unexpected journey. Even as tonight’s episode returns its lovers to each other, the show is about to lose its very foundation, as the story takes the Frasers out of Scotland, on a sea voyage which eventually lands them in the American colonies. “It’s almost like a goodbye to Scotland,” Heughan says with a tinge of sadness. “It was very sad for us to move away from that, even though we do shoot in Scotland still. I think that is something we’ll yearn for. But it’s also very exciting because we’re entering a new world—and actually the new world of America as well.”
But first, there are a few things to handle in Scotland, and Jamie and Claire’s rekindled romance will hit a few snags. “He has some secrets, and things have happened that he kind of doesn’t want to tell her because he’s terrified to lose her again,” Heughan says. “We do see Jamie Fraser of old, so to speak, but there’s still some unfinished business.”