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.”