Interview: Outlander's Sam Heughan on season two and the show's future

A former warehouse outside Cumbernauld is the the base of global hit drama Outlander, back for season two and as lavish in scale and ambition as ever, finds Janet Christie

Actor Sam Heughan. Picture: John Devlin
Actor Sam Heughan. Picture: John Devlin

The largest cleft stone of the Craigh na Dun stone circle is a gateway. Pass through it and you will time travel to emerge in Scotland in 1743. I’m pushing against the stone, I can feel the moss under my palms, but… nothing. Apart from a souvenir photo someone takes of me straining against the huge lump of painted polystyrene.

We’re in the Outlander studios, a vast warehouse in Cumbernauld near Glasgow, where filming of interior scenes is taking place of the much anticipated second season of the international hit show, which will be aired on Amazon Prime from tomorrow. Long corridors give way to vast warehouse spaces full of props like the stone circle, fake oil paintings hang on walls, and in the canteen Redcoats and Highlanders sit companionably together reading newspapers over plates of chips.

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Outlander's Sam Heughan - from youth theatre to global stardom
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in Outlander
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Created by Starz for Sony, the series is the work of executive producer Ronald D Moore of Battlestar Galactica fame and is based on the bestselling series of books by Diana Gabaldon. A mix of sci-fi, historical fiction, fantasy and romance, Outlander is the story of a married 1940s former combat nurse Claire Randall, who travels back in time to the Highlands of 1743. There she is forced to marry Jamie Fraser, a young Highlander, and becomes caught up in the Jacobite rebellion, all the while torn between her new husband and Frank, living in the 1940s.

Filmed on location here, Scotland was very much one of the stars of the first series, and there’s a lot of tartan on show, with the Highlanders in kilts and speaking Gaelic and Scots. The new season sees a change of territory as Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) flee evil Redcoat Black Jack Randall and arrive in Paris. There they attempt to stop Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion in order to avert the disastrous battle of Culloden. But will the pressure of changing the future be too much for Claire and Jamie? With the series about to air, anticipation among its massive international fan base is at fever pitch with Heughan appearing on James Corden’s Late Late Show on American channel CBS last weekend and numerous magazine covers of the co-stars.

Outlander is the biggest single inward investment in Scotland’s film and TV industry and is said to have boosted the values of productions shot in Scotland last year to a record £45 million. It’s massive worldwide, and alongside me on the tour are journalists from Japan, Scandinavia, the US and Australia, evidence of the huge global following hooked on the time travelling romance.

Our studio visit at the former electronics factory in Cumbernauld takes us behind the scenes to see the sets and workshops where the Outlander world is created, and to meet some of the cast and crew. There are highly-detailed sets recreating sumptuous Parisian rooms, with tapestries and chandeliers, a stunning Louis XV’s Star Chamber, another containing an apothecary’s workshop filled with jars and herbs, an armoury, huge wardrobe department and hair and make-up, where Sam ‘tap aff’ Heughan, has to sit still for two and a half hours to have prosthetics applied for his lash-scarred back and Caitriona Balfe and the Parisian ladies take nearly as long to have their elaborate hair and make up done.

A banquet scene in Outlander's second season

Dressed down today, (or should that be up as there’s little flesh on show), Heughan is in jeans and leather jacket.

“It’s great to be back filming season two,” he says. “Outlander is great for the whole film industry in Scotland. This season there’s more time travel and a lot of surprises in store. There are more languages too, French as well as the Scots and Gaelic because we go to France to stop Charles Edward Stuart going to Culloden. It was a pivotal point in Scottish history, something I grew up with, stories of Bonnie Prince Charlie, William Wallace, Robert the Bruce. Outlander is a show that celebrates Scotland and its culture and it’s hit a vein in people’s imagination. It’s great that there’s such a wide audience and that there’s something about Scotland people feel they belong to. In Scotland, we’re closer to our past than other countries.”

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Heughan is also happy to reprise the role of Jamie as the character matures and develops along with the plot line.

Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser

“At the start of season one he’s a young lad with no responsibility then he grows up, falls in love, finds himself with a wife and an estate and family. What happens to him changes him as a man and he now realises how close life and death are.”

Caitriona Balfe is glad to be back too as Claire, and with a gap in filming, appears in costume, dark brown hair piled up on her head. She balances gingerly on the edge of a seat surrounded by the silk of her stunning green dress looking very composed for someone who as she puts it, “fell through time 200 years and got discombobulated”.

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In between seasons of Outlander she’s been playing a PR in Jodie Foster’s hostage drama Money Monster with George Clooney and Julia Roberts.

“I only had one costume in that and it was very modern. It was a great contrast to this, and just fitted in nicely between seasons.”

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in Outlander

When she speaks it’s not in Claire’s clipped 1940s RP, which has won her praise from voice coach Carol Ann Crawford, who gives us a fascinating introduction to working with the cast, but in her own Irish tones.

“We’re excited to be filming the French scenes,” says Balfe, “but we do miss being outside, despite the cold Scottish weather. In this season Claire has settled into a relationship with Jamie and they are about to become parents, which brings a different type of emotional landscape. And they have made this decision to change the course of history.”

Yes, they’ve a lot on in season two.

“It’s a decision of necessity. Jamie is no longer safe in Scotland but they want to go back there to raise a family and they want to try and resolve the political situation too. There’s a strong sense of home and being displaced, and that’s a theme a lot of people can relate to in a world that’s so global. Also, Claire is anxious about becoming a mother.”

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No wonder, with another husband two centuries away. This could take some explaining. So who does Balfe prefer, husband number one, Frank (Tobias Menzies), or number two, Jamie?

A banquet scene in Outlander's second season

“I’m usually a brains over brawn person but because the relationship is so mixed, I guess I’d have to choose Jamie, even though I have a soft spot for Frank,” she says.

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No doubt this is something the fans want to hear, with their massive investment in the on-screen characters and their relationship.

“They’re popular because Diana has been writing these books for two decades now. It’s an imperfect relationship but because of that it’s perfect. There’s something about them that allows the other to grow and ultimately, they’re there for each other.”

Has she had this in her own relationships at all?

“No.” She laughs and won’t elucidate.

She does go on to say there are similarities between Balfe and Claire in terms of character which have helped her find her way in the role.

“When I got the job my sister, who had been reading the books, said, ‘OMG you’re so Claire’. I can be quite opinionated. Also, I like to think I have as much lust for life. When you play a character, you absorb them so as time goes on we have become more similar.”

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With Heughan and Balfe required on set we’re off to the armoury where Jim Elliott, surrounded by guns, shields and swords, is preparing for the Battle of Prestonpans. History tells us it was a decisive Jacobite victory, and Elliott is a veteran of World War Z, but he’s nervous.

“This is my first big job with gunpowder. For 15 years I have stayed away from it because if it gets wet it won’t fire. It’s dangerous because it’s volatile but there’s no substitute for gunpowder, it’s the real deal.”

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Elliott has 600 weapons including 70 muskets, some wood and metal for those closest to the cameras, rubber ones for those in the background, and swords. For the battle there will be Redcoats with muskets and 30 French rifles among the Jacobites.

“Everything is reproduction and we age them with antique fluid, set them on fire, soak them. Everyone thinks the Scots had claymores but they didn’t, they had the targe (studded leather circular shield) and dirk (long dagger) and basket hilt (swords with a skull crusher on one end). At a distance muskets could kill a lot of men, but close up, you’d want to be a Scot with the targe and dirk,” he says before he hands them out for us to have a go. It’s clear that whether we had muskets, targe and dirks, or basket hilt swords, we wouldn’t last five minutes at the Battle of Prestonpans.

From the armoury it’s back past the standing stones and fake tapestries to the art department where Alex King, head of design, is working on frou frou plaster mouldings for the Parisian room sets, a contrast to one of his previous jobs, Guardians of the Galaxy. Then it’s out into the car park where a fleet of white caravans host the cast. The door to one opens and we’re greeted by the incongruous sight of two 18th-century Parisian dandies in wigs, silk jackets and stacked heeled shoes, leaning against a counter next to a kettle and mugs. One is Louis XV, played by Lionel Lingelser and the other is Le Comte St Germain (Stanley Weber), two of this season’s new characters.

Also in the studios today is Maril Davis, executive producer and Ronald D Moore’s producing partner who also worked with him on Battlestar Galactica. As a fan of the books, she had always hoped to work on an adaptation but swapping southern California for Scotland was something of a shock to the system.

“It’s been a big adjustment, filming with four seasons in one day, and we have to embrace that in the editing. It makes for good lighting though, and it’s been a great experience. Outlander is a love letter to Scotland, and Scotland is definitely a character in the show.

“I’ve loved these books for 10-15 years,” she says, “so I was glad when it was finally the right time to make them.”

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Then it’s on to the sets, where designers Jon Gary Steele and Gina Cromwell are in their element in the Star Chamber and the Paris apartment. These are lush sets, dripping with detail and decadence, marble paint effect, tapestries and chandeliers. Last year the team of around 100 made 50-60 sets and they are always recycling props.

“Season one was rustic, utilitarian, rural Scottish, lots of fireplaces and castle interiors but season two is 18th century France and more expensive, more detailed. It’s exquisite, compared to cabbages and mud, although we loved that too. We had things made, like the Jacobite glasses and pots for the apothecary,” says Cromwell.

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“We went to Paris, to Versailles, and looked at things like door handles, things that tourists don’t realise they look at, to get it right. It’s the most beautiful decadent period of art and culture and Paris was the hub.”

It’s dazzling, but it’s in the apothecary that you really want to roll up your sleeves and get in amongst the jars of dragon’s blood, taxidermy, unicorns, squid and skulls. This is where science, magic and medicine converge at a time when cows’ dung was applied to clear plooks and epilepsy ‘cured’ by drinking water out of the skull of a person who had committed suicide.

“We’ve got about 200 skulls in here now,” says Cromwell. “Some are real,” she points out a sabre tooth tiger and a hyena, but her favourite item is a jar of squid she plucks from a shelf. “We had to get some new ones because they’re just kept in oil. You can’t use formaldehyde because it’s flammable.”

This is the domain of Master Raymond, the apothecary, played by Dominique Pinon, and a draw for Claire, whose medical knowledge has come in handy in 1743. Pinon is a familiar face from Alien: Insurrection, Amelie and Delicatessen.

“I love the apothecary and spend most of my time in there. It’s amazing, such detail,” he says. “Master Raymond is a mysterious character who deals in herbs and strange products. He has a special bond with Claire which may be something to do with time travel, but I can’t say,” he says, enigmatically.

The costume department is our next stop, where we meet head of costume, Terry Dresbach in her world of swatches and dummies. Dresbach has a staff of 70 and can claim to have kick started the journey that led to this whole warehouse of fantasy on the edge of Glasgow, since she is the one who first introduced her husband Ronald D Moore to Diana Gabaldon’s books.

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“I was a costume designer and between movies was reading the books. I was so taken with Claire and that the hero was a woman. Ronald said ‘what is that book that looks like it’s been dragged behind a car?’ So I told him and he said, ‘it’s a TV series.’ He dragged me kicking and screaming with him because at first I didn’t want to take on something as big as this.”

And big it is. For series two they have made over 10,000 new items and dyed 5,000 shoes, and 500 costumes have just been shipped to Prague where the outdoor French scenes are being shot.

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As Dresbach points out, you can’t buy 18th century costumes so they have to be made with 20th century materials. The necessity to make them fast and affordably has meant the discovery of new skills and techniques worthy of the alchemy of Master Raymond. Tartan has been screenprinted – there are five registered Outlander tartans – and for the French season, stencilling embroidery has been used, especially by textile artist Helen Gallogly.

“It would take two months to embroider one coat the way they did it, but we had to make 1,000 of them. So muslin and calico become couture silk. And we never have enough buttons – we needed 50,000 – so we make them ourselves. And 18th century shoes, we dye and age them.”

This is done in the excellently-named Dyeing and Ageing, where costumes are attacked with cheese graters, burned with blow torches, and aged by tying them up with string and baking them. Dyes are named ‘squashed raspberry’ and ‘wet grass’, and there braid is darkened and silver jewellery turned to gold. In a sealed room ‘breakdown artist’ Kirsty Steele, is wielding a spray gun, turning a new white shirt old and grey.

“We are scrupulous about making everything authentic, constantly researching and checking,” says Dresbach. “And that’s what translates on screen. This is where it all gets real. We create that world.”

Also visiting the studio this season was Diana Gabaldon, who has been on set writing episodes and honing the script, as well as marvelling at the detailed sets.

“They did a fabulous job with the production, every detail,” she says. “The Parisian interior and apartment they designed for Jamie and Claire is so opulent, and then the rooms back in Scotland, just amazing.”

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It all started for Gabaldon with a man in a kilt, inspired by Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon in a 1966 series of Dr Who. “I had a regular Highlander in Scotland in 1743. Then I thought I must have a female character to play off the guys, so on day three I introduced Claire, a modern woman. She walked in and started making smartass comments, and that changed the whole shape of the story. Time travel. It became ‘a stranger in a strange land’, the outsider who is empathetic with the audience, discovering a strange landscape and people.”

And the rest is history. Or sci-fi, or romance. Whatever the genre-bending Gabaldon makes of it and with nine books so far, will there be a third season?

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“We hope to do all of the books eventually,” says co-producer Davis. “I hope Starz and Sony agree. As long as Diana keeps writing it, we want to keep making it, bringing the books to life.”

• Outlander season two is available on Amazon Prime from tomorrow. Outlander prequel ebook novella, Virgins by Diana Gabaldon is out now

Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser